Thursday 30 November 2017

'All our times and tenses'

My father ( d. 1991) has been in my dreams rather a lot lately.  Just being there, not packing any particular charge or significance. Often my mother too (d.2013), both of them usually in some stage of middle age, never old. It seems quite unremarkable. We meet without surprise, as in Richard Wilbur's poem (the title poem of his last collection)...


Out of the snowdrift
Which covered it, this pillared
Sundial starts to lift,
Able now at last

To let its frozen hours
Melt into the past
In bright, ticking drops.
Time so often hastens by,

Time so often stops—
Still, it strains belief
How an instant can dilate,
Or long years be brief.

Dreams, which interweave
All our times and tenses, are
What we can believe:

Dark they are, yet plain,
Coming to us now as if
Through a cobwebbed pane

Where, before our eyes,
All the living and the dead
Meet without surprise.

Wednesday 29 November 2017

Yet More Retroprogressive News

Good to hear that the government has plans to reopen several railway lines axed in the notorious 'Beeching cuts'. And this is being done largely to ease the overcrowding on existing routes. The railways, those archaic survivals from the Victorian era, were supposed to wither away in a the whizzy go-ahead age of the motor car – but no, they are busier than ever (at least since the demobilisation after the last war). As that BBC favourite Jimmy Savile (whatever became of him?) used to say, 'This is the age of the train.'
 Time for a replay of Flanders and Swann's classic elegy to the old branch lines lost to the Beeching axe...

Monday 27 November 2017

In a Nutshell

The other day a couple of pleasingly small books on a charity shop shelf caught my eye (I'm always drawn to small books). They were Nutshell Books, from a series of compact factual volumes published by Collins in and around the Sixties. I bought An Outline of English Architecture, took off the murky photographic dust jacket to reveal the pleasing volume shown in the picture, and began to dip into its pages.
  It's a book that exactly fits its title, and the outlining is done con brio by one Edmund Vale,  a writer with a lively style and a nice turn of phrase. Here he is on the fall of the hard-line antiquarian Camden Society following their restoration of St Sepulchre's in Cambridge:

'They began by pulling down the clerestory, a 15th-century restoration of the Norman original but in contemporary Perpendicular. The little windows were replaced in 19th-century Norman. When it came to putting the clock back in the chancel, they could not resist replacing the Communion table with a supposed near replica of what must have served the pious founders – a fixed stone altar. But parishioners returning to their revived place of worship mistook this touch of architectural virtu for a doctrinal outrage. The Society was sued at law for Popery, convicted, and ordered to remove the rock of offence.
 The Camden Society never recovered from this blow to their prestige. But they had succeeded in lifting a vogue which had begun as a genteel folly  – a sort of whimsical counterblast to the awful solemnity of neo-classicism – into an even more flourishing solemnity which, in turn, infused its stylistic influence into buildings of every description.'

 The running titles are pretty good too – Surprising Discovery (of Ancient Greek architecture), New Post-Roman Speedways, Vogue of the Queen Anne-ites, Dissolution of the Servant Class, But the Romans Got There First... Reading this little volume is rather like reading Osbert Lancaster or John Betjeman. But who was Edmund Vale?
 He was, I discover, a prolific author of books on the English countryside and English buildings, among other things – the kind of writer who had a ready market between the wars and in the immediate postwar years. There's a Facebook page devoted to him, curated by his grandson – here's the link. I'll be looking out for more of his books.
 An Outline of English Architecture is illustrated with a few photographs and small line drawings. Nowadays a book like this would consist mostly of photographic illustrations, with the words limited to little more than captions. It might, I suppose, be more practically useful, but it wouldn't be a tenth as enjoyable as Edmund Vale's little Nutshell Book.

Sunday 26 November 2017

A Matter of Manners

In today's Sunday Times, Niall Ferguson refers to the current pushback against sexual harassment as a 'revolution in manners' (he has well-founded reservations about its potential to 'overshoot', as revolutions do).  Ferguson is surely right to identify the whole business as a matter of manners – manners in need of reform – and he's the third person I've noticed so far making this identification (the others were an unlikely pair – Jacob Rees Mogg and Petronella Wyatt).
 These days the word 'manners' tends to be narrowly defined in terms of such things as table manners and the fatuous rules of etiquette, but it represents something far bigger and more important than any of that. Manners are the basic lubricant of society, the conventions of behaviour that enable us to live together with minimal friction. The aim of manners, properly understood, is to avoid causing discomfort to other people – discomfort ranging all the way from awkwardness and embarrassment to real pain and distress. It is indeed a matter of convention, and therefore liable to evolve over time, but that doesn't mean it is any less real, important or 'authentic'.
 Instead of taking a forensic view of the whole sexual harassment brouhaha as a matter of infringed rights and criminal (or proto-criminal) offences, it might be more illuminating to consider it as being, at least in part, the product of an evolution of manners, of the ways men and women interact with each other. There is clearly criminality in cases where underaged children are involved (though this doesn't seem to apply to the rock stars who thrived in the Seventies) and in the activities of the more thuggish sexual predators (one of whom once occupied the White House). But much of the rest is down to a movement in the barriers of offence. It is no doubt regrettable, but it is a fact that, back in the Seventies, women and girls took a degree of what we would now call sexual harassment as an everyday nuisance, one that most of them were perfectly capable of dealing with. Now we tend to find such behaviour unacceptable – quite right too – but then it was, just, within the boundaries of the acceptable. It was, however, outside the bounds of mannerly behaviour. Such behaviour was, among other things, bad manners – inconsiderate, crude and likely to cause distress.
 The English were once famed for their manners – not elaborate displays of fake courtesy but a basic decent concern not to discomfit or pain the other person, to rub along (rubbing along being one of the great English talents, along with muddling through). These manners were closely related to English self-effacement and respect for fair play. Of course they were by no means universal, but they were enough in evidence for the stereotype to gain traction and persist. It is in decline now, in an age of coarsening manners and strident self-assertion, but it does survive (especially away from the urban scrum). We should cherish and encourage it; manners, in this broad humane sense, really matter. They make us what we are. As William of Wykeham put it centuries ago, 'Manners makyth man'.

Friday 24 November 2017

'A splendid person and a most arrogant spirit...'

Pietro Torrigiani, great sculptor and violent thug, was born on this day in 1472. He it was who created the astonishing tomb of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York in Westminster Abbey, described by John Pope-Hennessy as 'the finest Renaissance tomb North of the Alps'. England would not see anything remotely comparable in quality or originality until the end of the century, when refugee sculptors from the Low Countries again showed us how much we had to learn from our Continental cousins.
 As a young man, Torrigiani, while copying Masaccio's frescoes in the Carmine church with various other learners, got into a row with Michelangelo and punched him so hard that he broke his nose. After this he seems to have fled Florence, turned up again in Rome, then spent some years as a hired soldier – the perfect job for him – before catching the eye of Henry VIII, who wanted a suitably splendid tomb for his parents . He certainly got it, along with various other pieces of work by Torrigiano, most of which were later destroyed by the Puritans.
 Cellini, according to himself, refused to come to England from Florence to work with Torrigiano.
'This man,' he recalls, 'had a splendid person and a most arrogant spirit, with the air of a great soldier more than a sculptor, especially in regard to his vehement gestures and his resonant voice, together with a habit he had of knitting his brows, enough to frighten any man of courage. He kept talking every day about his gallant feats among those beasts of Englishmen.' 
 Beasts, indeed! Still, he left us with one of our greatest works of funerary art.

Thursday 23 November 2017

'Thou shouldst be living at this hour'

'And what doe they tell us vainly of new opinions, when this very opinion of theirs, that none must be heard but whom they like, is the worst and newest opinion of all others, and is the chief cause why sects and schisms doe so much abound and true knowledge is kept at distance from us...'

Wise and prophetic words from Milton's pamphlet on press freedom, Areopagitica, published on this day in 1644. They could hardly be more pertinent in these ever more censorious times when, for so many, 'none must be heard but whom they like'.

 (At school I was given a copy of Areopagitica by the head of the French department. I think this was  a shot fired in the fierce trench warfare between him and the head of the English department. I remained loyal to English Literature.)

Wednesday 22 November 2017

The Doctor Gives a Heavy Stroke

'I myself am of opinion,' declares Samuel Johnson to the assembled company, 'that more influence has been ascribed to "The Beggar's Opera" than it in reality ever had; for I do not believe that any man was ever made a rogue by being present at its representation. At the same time I do not deny that it may have some influence, by making the character of a rogue familiar, and in some degree pleasing.' Then collecting himself, as it were, to give a heavy stroke: 'There is in it such a labefectation of all principles, as may be injurious to morality.'
 While he pronounced this response, we sat in a comical sort of restraint, smothering a laugh, which we were afraid might burst out...'
 A heavy stroke indeed, 'labefactation'. Johnson seems to have coined it for the occasion, taking the already obscure word 'labefaction' and making of it something still more crushingly impressive. The meaning is straightforward enough: a weakening or loosening, tending to downfall (from labare, to fall or totter, with facere, to make). There's a verb, equally obscure – to 'labefy'.
  Boswell himself believed there was real moral danger in The Beggar's Opera, with its highly attractive picture of the gaiety and heroism of an amoral rogue – but the young Scotsman was no doubt rather more prone to moral labefaction than the good Doctor.

Tuesday 21 November 2017

Birthday Boy

Malcolm John Rebennack, better known as Dr John, achieves his 77th birthday today. In his time he's done the lot (including serving time in jail and managing to kick a heroin habit) and has been one of the big musical talents of his generation, as singer, songwriter, pianist, guitarist, producer, session man and New Orleans icon. As Dr John the Night Tripper, his flamboyant mix of New Orleans rhythm and blues with psychedelic rock was part of the soundtrack of my misspent youth – but rather than revisit the music of that phase, I'd sooner recall the Doc's triumphant appearance in The Last Waltz. What a voice – like Randy Newman crossed with Leon Russell and spiced with New Orleans magic. A handy pianist too...

Monday 20 November 2017

'The one shall be taken...'

This unusual memorial tablet is in the church of St Andrew, Cubley, in Derbyshire. It lists not only those who died in the Great War ('The one shall be taken') but also those who survived ('and the other left'). By my calculation, the dead amount to nearly a quarter of those who fought.
 Cubley was the birthplace of Samuel Johnson's father, Michael. He was, according to Mrs Piozzi, 'a man of still larger size and greater strength than his son' – which is saying something. Samuel 'was reckoned very like him, but did not delight in talking much of his family – "One has (says he) so little pleasure in reciting the anecdotes of beggary!"' Here Johnson is presumably referring to the latter years of his father, when he was indeed poor, but for much of his life Michael Johnson had been a prosperous citizen of Lichfield, serving as Sheriff in the year of Samuel's birth, and later as chief magistrate, and earning widespread renown for his learning. His decline into poverty seems to have been caused by the growing expenses of a family and a falling-off of trade in his bookselling business – and exacerbated by his failure to keep any kind of accounts. 'My father had much vanity,' Johnson recalled, 'which his adversity hindered from being fully exerted.' Oh dear.
 Michael Johnson is memorialised in St Michael, Lichfield, with an epitaph in Latin composed by his illustrious son.

Thursday 16 November 2017

Monochrome and Lake

Yesterday I gravitated again to the National Gallery, this time to have a look at the Monochrome exhibition, which consists largely of pictures painted in black and white, shades of grey, or shades of another single colour. It's a fascinating study, illuminating just how effective monochrome can be in exploring the subtle play of light on complex forms – as in the striking Ingres odalisque above.
 There's some fine work on show – all the way from Van Eyck and other Flemish and Netherlandish painters to Gerhard Richter's haunting Gelda Matura and Her Fiance and some rather dreary abstract work. A tiny black and white Tempest by Peder Balke and a large fragment of a Giandomenico Tiepolo wall painting also caught my eye, as did a wonderful Durer study of a Woman in Netherlandish Dress Seen from Behind [below]. There was some remarkable trompe l'oeil work too – including a Chardin copy framed behind trompe l'oeil broken glass (it had me fooled) – but it's not the kind of exhibition that delivers deep aesthetic pleasures. At least it didn't for me.

 It ends with a mighty flourish, though – an entirely different form of monochrome, created by Olafur Eliasson: an interior lit entirely by intense monofrequency sodium lighting. The effect of this blaze of flat yellow-orange light after all that subdued black and white is dramatic. The sodium light wipes out whole swathes of colours, replacing them with new unearthly tints, a kind of after-image of colour where none was before. To walk back into the monochrome exhibition after an immersion in this sodium light is to experience, temporarily, a strange new world of colour in what is ostensibly black and white. And to exit from the sodium into the body of the gallery is to wander for a while dazed and blinking and in need of the familiar polychrome world.
 As it happened, I had some time to kill before the gallery closed, so I went up the grand staircase to see what was in Room One. It turned out to be a lovely little exhibition built around one of the National Gallery's most popular paintings – Lake Keitele by the Finnish painter Akseli Gallen-Kalliela. The much-loved painting appears here in four subtly different versions, along with a range of other equally attractive lakescapes, one of them a brilliantly executed large pastel. There's also an interesting stained-glass work (one of Gallen-Kaleila's other lines) with the title 'Rouse Thyself, Finland!' Well, quite.
 Those fresh plein air blues of Lake Keitele were the perfect antidote to sodium and monochrome.

Wednesday 15 November 2017

Adventures in Stereo

So, what was the UK's first million-selling stereo LP? The obvious answer is The Beatles' Sergeant Pepper album, or perhaps one of their earlier LPs. Obvious but wrong: the first million-selling LP in the UK was (drumroll) The World of Mantovani by Mantovani and His Orchestra, and it achieved that milestone in 1968, the year of Astral Weeks, the White Album, Electric Ladyland, White Light/White Heat, Music from Big Pink, etc, etc.
 Younger readers might not remember Mantovani (who was born on this day in 1905 – what, no Google Doodle?). Annunzio Paolo Mantovani was a Venetian, born into a musical family (his father was concert master at La Scala under Toscanini). He studied at Trinity College of Music and soon became a popular bandleader, but he really hit the big time when he began to concentrate on recording – specifically stereo recording – and developed the highly distinctive 'Mantovani sound'. This sound was created in collaboration with the gloriously named arranger and composer Ronald (Ronnie) Binge. Binge realised that a forty-piece orchestra could produce an echo-delay if each violin's note overlapped the other, and the resulting reverberations would create an almost cathedral-like acoustic. These 'Niagara Falls of fiddles' sounded even more impressive in stereo – hence the huge sales among early adopters more interested in the quality of sound than the musical content. And it is still an amazing sound (qua sound), of which there's plenty to be sampled on You Tube. Try Charmaine for starters (and perhaps finishers)...
 As for Ronnie Binge, he went on to write the much-loved soporific that now precedes the late-night Shipping Forecast on Radio 4 – Sailing By.

Tuesday 14 November 2017

It Punches Holes

Today's Google doodle, I notice, celebrates the 131st anniversary of the invention of the hole punch. Now, I'm  pretty keen on all things stationery-related, but this seems to me to be pushing it  a bit – and I speak as the man who recently celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Norwegian who very nearly invented the paperclip (a grateful Norway still provides more Nigeness readers than any other nation).
 There were a few other anniversaries Google could have marked today – Moby-Dick, Fanny Mendelssohn, Claude Monet, Astrid Lindgren, Aaron Copland  – but no, the hole punch it had to be. No contest.

Monday 13 November 2017

A 21st-Century Howards End

The BBC's new dramatisation of E.M. Forster's Howards End began last night. At least, unlike some recent BBC efforts, it wasn't filmed in semi-darkness, and the dialogue was mostly audible (except once or twice when the music got the better of it). However, my heart sank from the moment the opening voice-over began, for the diction was unmistakably 21st-century, glottal stops and all. This was a far cry from the voice of Edwardian England – and diction matters; it reflects the mental processes behind what is uttered. Edwardians spoke in a particular way because they thought and felt in a particular way – and also because they were acutely conscious of diction as an indicator of social class, a matter of far more pressing importance then than it is now.
 Happily, not all the actors were speaking in full 21st-century style, and the dialogue avoided (I think) obvious anachronisms, presumably because the writers had Forster's words to work with. When things settled down (there was an awful lot of dashing about), there were some quite effective scenes, especially one between Margaret Schlegel (Hayley Atwell) and the bedridden Mrs Wilcox (Julia Ormond). One of the basic problems of TV (or film) dramatisation – the lack of interiority – was starkly apparent in the concert hall scene when Helena Schlegel (Philippa Coulthard), listening to Beethoven's Fifth, is overcome by a disturbing vision of the ultimate futility of life and has to dash away. We can only guess at what is going on in her head, having only her facial expressions to go on. There's some odd playing and casting too: the unfortunate Leonard Bast is so far coming across as merely gormless, and Matthew Macfadyen is too young (and essentially insubstantial) to play Henry Wilcox, despite the impressive beard.
 However, the main problem with this Howards End is one massive and all-pervasive anachronism, which is presumably there to make some kind of political point. However much we might regret or deplore the fact, Edwardian England was simply not the multiracial society that is presented here. The non-white population was negligibly small and, unless they were visiting the docks, the likes of the Schlegels and Wilcoxes would be unlikely to see more than the very occasional black face. And yet, in this dramatisation, they are surrounded by them: the Schlegels have a black housemaid and non-white guests at a tea party, there are black faces in very street scene, and Leonard Bast's problematic wife is also black. All of this passes without comment, exactly as if these Edwardians were living in the kind of multiracial society we're living in today. We of the 21st century have become to a large extent colour-blind – which is an excellent thing – but it is stupid and jarringly anachronistic to pretend that the Edwardian English were like us. They were not. 
 It's a shame that period dramas pay so much attention to ensuring that every little detail of dress and decor is authentic, while giving a free pass to whopping anachronisms born of wishful thinking.

Sunday 12 November 2017

Rather Bad News on Gradable Adverbs

As if there weren't enough evidence that our society is going to hell in a handcart, yet more comes today, in the form of  'a major piece of research' into trends in the way we English use our language. There has been, I was sad to learn, a steep decline in the use of 'gradable adverbs', those eminently useful words that soften the impact of a phrase or, conversely, add a little polite emphasis. Examples of the first, softening kind are 'quite', 'rather' and 'fairly'; of the second, emphasising kind are the likes of 'awfully', 'frightfully' and 'terribly'.
 All of these fine words that modify what might otherwise be excessively blunt statements are at once an enrichment of our language and an expression of something amiable in our national character. It is sad to learn that they are in decline, as people move towards cruder, less nuanced modes of expression. The academic who carried out this research thinks that one reason for the decline of gradable adverbs is that many now associate them with the middle and upper classes – which is also sad, if true.
 For myself, I shall certainly carry on making liberal use of gradable adverbs. They are still alive and well on this blog, and they're not going to fade away. They really are, I think, rather important.

Friday 10 November 2017

Still Green

Over the years I've quite often found myself arguing against the notion that the country is being concreted over and there'll soon be no green space left. It's a widely held belief, and I can only conclude that the people who hold it spend their whole lives in town, have never taken a proper walk – or got lost – in real deep countryside, and never looked out of the plane window when flying over Britain. Leaving aside the conurbations, I insist, this country is still overwhelmingly green and unbuilt-on.
 I had no figures to support my case, but now the facts are available – and it turns out that Britain, even England, is vastly greener and less built-up than even I thought. Percentage of land covered by
'continuous urban fabric'? It's 0.1 percent, around a hundredth of the area covered by peat bogs. How about 'discontinuous urban fabric'? Well, all the buildings in the UK, however disposed, cover 1.4 percent of the land surface, less that the area of land that appears when the tide goes out. Furthermore, data suggests that only a fifth of the land in our towns and cities is actually built on (much of London itself, especially to the South and West, is remarkably green). Across the UK, farmland still takes up 57 percent of the total area, with 'natural' land (woodland, moors, grassland, lakes, etc) occupying another 35 percent (total 92 percent), and the rest – built-on and 'green urban' (parks, gardens, golf courses etc) – adding up to, at most, eight percent.
 You can read more about it all on this link...

Thursday 9 November 2017

Schuyler's Elegy

Born on this day in 1923 was the poet James Schuyler. I've posted a couple of his poems before (here and here), and today I'm posting another one that I think shows him at his best (too much of his work, like his friend Frank O'Hara's, doesn't quite rise above the level of clever in-crowd chit-chat).
 Buried at Springs, Schuyler's elegy for O'Hara, demonstrates, among other things, his remarkable sensitivity to nature; it's almost a nature poem – a strange way to elegise the most urban of New Yorkers; but this is a very oblique elegy, its emotion tightly contained. It's probably the best of the poems written for O'Hara after his sudden, incongruous death (run over by a jeep on Fire Island).
 At the funeral, John Ashbery read O'Hara's own To the Harbormaster – or tried to: he was overcome by emotion, as were many on that extraordinary day, when the whole of artistic New York descended on the cemetery at Springs, Long Island (the picture above shows a distraught Allan Ginsberg and Kenneth Koch leaving the funeral). There were outpourings of raw grief galore – the most extreme a grisly tirade by the painter Larry Rivers – but Schuyler's elegy, written after the event, at Fairfield Porter's home on Great Spruce Island (where O'Hara had visited some years before), is a work of art...

There is a hornet in the room   
and one of us will have to go   
out the window into the late   
August midafternoon sun. I
won. There is a certain challenge   
in being humane to hornets   
but not much. A launch draws   
two lines of wake behind it   
on the bay like a delta
with a melted base. Sandy   
billows, or so they look,
of feathery ripe heads of grass,   
an acid-yellow kind of
goldenrod glowing or glowering   
in shade. Rocks with rags   
of shadow, washed dust clouts   
that will never bleach.
It is not like this at all.   
The rapid running of the   
lapping water a hollow knock
of someone shipping oars:   
it’s eleven years since   
Frank sat at this desk and   
saw and heard it all   
the incessant water the   
immutable crickets only   
not the same: new needles   
on the spruce, new seaweed   
on the low-tide rocks   
other grass and other water   
even the great gold lichen   
on a granite boulder   
even the boulder quite   
literally is not the same

A day subtle and suppressed   
in mounds of juniper enfolding   
scratchy pockets of shadow
while bigness—rocks, trees, a stump—
stands shadowless in an overcast   
of ripe grass. There is nothing   
but shade, like the boggy depths   
of a stand of spruce, its resonance   
just the thin scream
of mosquitoes ascending.
Boats are light lumps on the bay   
stretching past erased islands   
to ocean and the terrible tumble   
and London (“rain persisting”)   
and Paris (“changing to rain”).   
Delicate day, setting the bright
of a young spruce against the cold
of an old one hung with unripe cones   
each exuding at its tip
gum, pungent, clear as a tear,   
a day tarnished and fractured   
as the quartz in the rocks
of a dulled and distant point,   
a day like a gull passing
with a slow flapping of wings   
in a kind of lope, without
breeze enough to shake loose   
the last of the fireweed flowers,
a faintly clammy day, like wet silk   
stained by one dead branch   
the harsh russet of dried blood. 

Wednesday 8 November 2017

The Loss of Purgatory

In the course of my researches, I'm reading a short book by one Nigel Llewellyn called The Art of Death (an illustrated V&A publication). It's somewhat marred by academic jargon but full of interest and food for thought – including a particular insight that struck me as valid, even obvious, but which had never occurred to me, perhaps because of my Protestant cast of mind.
 Llewellyn points up the dramatic impact that the loss of the idea of Purgatory, in the wake of the Reformation, must have had on people's feelings about death. Without the consoling notion of Purgatory, the dead were abruptly and totally cut off from the living, and with no post-mortem chance for their souls to be saved before the Day of Judgment came. The loss of loved ones must now have seemed total and potentially devastating, in a way it was not before. The ending of Purgatory, writes Llewellyn, 'caused grievous psychological damage: from that point forward the living were, in effect, distanced from the dead'.
 One result, Llewellyn argues, was the development of 'the theory of memoria, which stressed the didactic potential of the lives and deaths of the virtuous'. But also, on a broader view, the loss of Purgatory must surely have played a part in a remarkable historical phenomenon: the development, in the course of the 17th century, of  enhanced 'affective relations' between family members – feelings, especially in relation to children, that seem recognisably close to our own and were not apparent before. For evidence of this shift, you have only to compare the treatment of children on typical funeral monuments of the Tudor period - purely generic figures ranked by age, sex and status (alive or dead) - with the highly expressive, naturalistic rendering of children, mourning or mourned, on the best monuments of the early 17th century. The adult dead too move from being stock figures to something more like individualised portraits, and a sense of genuine personal grief imbues these memorials. Clearly something happened around the turn of the 17th century – a complex something that is hard to disentangle, but it now seems to me obvious that the loss of the consolations of Purgatory must have played a significant part in it.

Tuesday 7 November 2017

Mozart's Starling

Here's my (delayed) review of Mozart's Starling and A Sweet Wild Note (Gilbert White's description of the song of the Blackcap), from this month's Literary Review...

On a May day in 1784, Mozart was passing a Viennese bird shop when he heard a melody he recognised – the allegretto theme of his new piano concerto (number 17 in G major). A starling was singing it, note perfect but for two sharpened Gs. We know this because Mozart immediately jotted down the bird’s version. Enchanted, the composer bought the starling, took it home, possibly named it Star and kept it as a pet for three years. So fond was he of the bird that, when Star died, Mozart staged a dignified funeral and wrote an elegy in his memory.

In her engaging new book, American naturalist Lyanda Lynn Haupt examines this story from every angle, and presents a convincing solution to its central mystery: how could the starling have picked up the theme of a work that had not yet had its premiere? But much of Mozart’s Starling is about another starling, Carmen by name, a bird Haupt rescued as a fledgling, hand-reared and has kept as a household pet.

Experiencing life with this lively, playful and inquisitive bird has given Haupt, who wrote much of this book with Carmen perched on her shoulder or exploring her computer keyboard, a special insight into starling behaviour. To rear a starling was a bold thing for an American birder to do, for in the USA starlings are loathed with a passion, even in the birding community. An ill-advised introduction from England, they have become hugely abundant and hugely unpopular. ‘I wish them eradicated from the country as much as anyone,’ Haupt writes, ‘as long as Carmen stays here with me.’ She is every bit as enchanted with her starling as Mozart evidently was with his.

Haupt’s biographical passages about Mozart lay on the ‘colour’ with an overgenerous hand, but she avoids the familiar Mozartian myths. Searching for traces of Mozart’s starling in his music, she finds them in the man-bird Papageno in The Magic Flute and in the curious piece called A Musical Joke. She describes (at rather too much length) her visit to the Mozarthaus museum in Vienna and gives an amusing account of her pilgrimage to the remote graveyard where the composer was buried. Standing at the nearby site of the house, now part of an industrial estate, where Star died, she hopes starlings will appear, providing a neat ending to her book. None does. Meanwhile, back at home, Carmen lives on happily, but Haupt’s efforts to teach her bird that Mozart melody come to nothing. Not all starlings are Stars.

Mozart’s bird makes a brief appearance in Richard Smyth’s A Sweet, Wild Note, which also features English literature’s most memorable starling, the caged bird in Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey, with its cry of ‘I can’t get out – I can’t get out.’ Smyth’s breezy and enjoyable book is an exploration of the place of birdsong in our culture, written by a birdwatcher who for years could barely tell the song of one bird from that of another.

Now he is fascinated by the subject, by our complicated relationship with birdsong and how it permeates our literature and music, an essential element in our experience of landscape and townscape, of time and place. ‘The sounds of birds’, he writes, ‘tell us back our own tales.’ We find in birdsong what we are looking for, following the example of the poets of the Romantic era, who in effect took birdsong away from real living birds: ‘Bird thou never wert,’ writes Shelley of the skylark (observed at Livorno, not over an English field). Real skylarks, says Smyth, ‘live in a fast muddle of fear and rage and lust’, but also, perhaps, pleasure, at least while they are singing.

Although this is a short book, it seems odd that Edward Thomas’s ‘Adlestrop’, the perfect example of birdsong fixing a moment and a place, is not mentioned. The brisk survey of birdsong in music ranges beyond the familiar classics and there are interesting passages on the 18th-century craze for singing bird automata, on attempts to train birds in human music and on the cruel business of competitive birdsong – known as ‘finching’ – popular among the Victorian working classes. Smyth ends with a look at the threat posed to birdsong by the sheer noise of modern life and urges us strongly to pay attention, to listen. Birdsong may be ‘more babble than beauty’, he concludes, but it is still wonderful.

Sunday 5 November 2017

Those Young Elizabethans

I wonder if anyone reading this remembers The Elizabethan (originally The Young Elizabethan), a 'magazine for teenagers' that flourished from the mid-Fifties to the mid-Sixties and finally expired in 1972? I was only aware of it because I knew that some of Nigel Molesworth's musings on life at St Custard's and beyond appeared in its august pages (mediated by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle). My parents would never have shelled out two shillings a month for a magazine, and neither was I inclined to when there were so many other calls on my pocket money (mostly sweets and Airfix kits I couldn't build). The future Mrs Nige, however, being of a more serious turn of mind, was a regular subscriber to The Elizabethan.
 So, when I saw a pile of Elizabethans, mostly from the late Fifties, in a local charity shop the other day, I was curious enough to buy a few. And what a long-lost world this high-toned 'magazine for teenagers' opens up – a world of intelligent and highly literate youngsters (it was aimed at grammar school pupils) with interests that ranged from books (above all books) to world affairs, astronomy, model-making, nature, history, cycling, photography and ponies: one of the issues I bought advertised a Heinz 'Cowboy's Breakfast' colouring competition with three ponies on offer as prizes. If you didn't want the pony, you could opt for 200 guineas (yes, guineas) in Premium Bonds.
  There is not a whiff of celebrity (in the modern sense) or fashion or gossip in these pages, and the only concession to pop music is a monthly record round-up by Sandy (The Boy Friend) Wilson. The excellent book page is written by Noel Streatfeild, famous as the author of Ballet Shoes – and talking of ballet, one of my issues has a photo spread of up-and-coming ballerinas, all very elegant and ladylike, a far cry from today's stringier, more gymnastic dancers. The same issue contains an interview with the eminent Nigel Calder on the future of space travel (which 'may unite the world as nothing has done before'); a piece on art auctions by the Daily Mail's Art Critic – they had one then; Nigel Molesworth on a shopping trip with his imperious grandmother; part three of Mist over Athelney by Geoffrey Trease, a historical novel set in the time of King Alfred; a piece by Tom Pocock on the life of a foreign correspondent; and an account of the sinking of the Birkenhead.
 Another of my issues has a fine piece on Venice by James (now Jan) Morris. This, like everything in The Elizabethan, is writing at a high level, with no condescension to the young audience, who clearly needed no talking down to. The writing competitions are pitched at a level not far below the New Statesman or Spectator, but with less humour, and there are picture and (decidedly challenging) crossword competitions every month. The letters page is pitched as 'Your Questions Answered' – often questions about pursuing interests and career possibilities, finding pen friends, getting book recommendations and information. One letter asks for Dame Margot Fonteyn's address, another – from Elizabeth de Vere Stacpoole of Harrow-on-the-Hill (presumably a relative of the author of The Blue Lagoon) – asks how to get information about fencing classes. Yes, this is decidedly a middle-class, educated, self-improving and polite world.
 The adverts – always the best guide to a magazine's readership – tell their own story: book announcements galore, ads for artists' materials, model aircraft, bicycles, ski wear and riding kit, adverts for other magazines such as Pony, The Tail Wagger Magazine and Opera (!,), Kangol berets, classical LPs, Bovril, a home weaving loom (weave your own stole!). Yes, another world, and one long gone. What would a 21st-century equivalent of The Elizabethan look like? Just to ask the question is to realise how impossible it would be. Those days – when teenagers were still, to a large extent, a combination of miniature adults and oversize children – are gone for good. I'm glad to have caught the tail end of it – even if I never subscribed to The Elizabethan.

Friday 3 November 2017


Food for thought from Henry Hobhouse's Seeds of Wealth...
 If rubber had never been developed from a product harvested in the wild in South America to an industrialised plantation staple in the Far East, the whole history of the 20th century would have been completely different. There would have been 'very little motorisation, a few (probably only military) aircraft, and no electrified appliances in the home. The horse would still be king of the road, holidays would be taken at home, land travel would be by steam train, and most women would still be tied to a non-electric house and to daily shopping in an unrefrigerated, non-air-conditioned store, supplied in turn by horse-drawn transport.' Hobhouse continues, 'Historians are rightly contemptuous of  the might-have-been syndrome, but it is a reasonable device to use to point up the essential nature of a commodity.'
 Indeed. And the fact that rubber made it from South American jungle to Far Eastern plantation we owe to the vision of a civil servant called Clement Markham – the same man who had already succeeded in bringing the cinchona tree, the source of quinine, from the Andes to India as a plantation crop. But Markham's plan would likely not have succeeded but for the sheer luck of a Brazil-based chancer called Henry Wickham, who collected a large number of rubber-plant seeds that happened to be of a pest-free, disease-resistant strain, and managed to ship them out of the country under the noses of the authorities. By yet more luck, they stayed dry (water would have ruined them) and survived the journey to Kew (where the development work, so far unsuccessful, was being done) – and the rest is history.
 And here's a mind-boggling fact from Hobhouse's chapter on wine. A count of the yeasts and moulds present in a kilogram of grapes in a Californian vineyard discovered about 100,000 moulds, more than 100,000 'wine yeasts', and over 10,000,000 'other' yeasts. And each yeast would contain some 5,000 enzymes... There's nothing simple about wine – or history. 

Thursday 2 November 2017

And a Poem for All Souls Day

Richard Wilbur, in the opening poem of his final collection, Anterooms, remembers his late, much loved wife...

The House
Sometimes, on waking, she would close her eyes
For a last look at that white house she knew
In sleep alone, and held no title to,
And had not entered yet, for all her sighs.

What did she tell me of that house of hers?
White gatepost; terrace; fanlight of the door;
A widow’s walk above the bouldered shore;
Salt winds that ruffle the surrounding firs.

Is she now there, wherever there may be?
Only a foolish man would hope to find
That haven fashioned by her dreaming mind.
Night after night, my love, I put to sea.

For All Souls

All Souls Day – and what better way to mark it than with Schubert's Litanei, surely one of his most beautiful songs? Fischer-Dieskau's classic rendering can hardly be beaten – and I love Bryn Terfel's low-pitched version with its suggestion of pent-up power – but here is the great Schubert specialist Ian Bostridge, singing it sweet, high and slow, with wonderful effect...