Monday 31 December 2018

Wild Bells

It's more a case of fireworks than full-circle bell ringing these days, but the bells of imagination and memory still ring out every New Year's Eve. It's widely believed that Tennyson was inspired by the bells of the abbey church at Waltham Abbey when he wrote these lines, but I like to think he was remembering earlier New Years in the Lincolnshire Wolds, with the bells of Somersby and all the churches around – Bag Enderby, Harrington, Salmonby, Tetford, Ashby Puerorum – ringing out. Either way, as a New Year poem this surely can't be bettered... 

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
   The flying cloud, the frosty light:
   The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
   Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
   The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind
   For those that here we see no more;
   Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
   And ancient forms of party strife;
   Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
   The faithless coldness of the times;
   Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
   The civic slander and the spite;
   Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
   Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
   Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
   The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
   Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

The Turn of the Year

The last day of the old year, and the anniversary of the birth (in 1869) of Henri Matisse. A reproduction of this painting of goldfish, from 1912, hung on the main corridor of my old grammar school and it is almost certainly the first Matisse I noticed. I've loved his work ever since, and my opinion of him as an artist has only risen (whereas my opinion of Picasso has fallen steeply – the great Matisse Picasso exhibition of 2003 for me only confirmed the former's superior greatness).

From the sublime to the ridiculous – this morning Radio 4's Woman's Hour was devoted to an impeccably 'diverse' panel of right-on ultraliberal feminists talking among themselves on the theme of 'Books that Changed Your Mind'. The title could hardly have been more ludicrously inappropriate, as they talked only about books that endorsed and amplified their view of the world in handy book form – books, moreover, that had almost all been published in the past few decades. It was only when the discussion was opened up to listeners that a more interesting and diverse range of titles started to emerge (though 'interesting' is pushing it). I listened aghast and numbly appalled, as I so often do at this time of year, what with Today's 'guest editors' and the endless ignorant reworking of classic material to conform to the BBC's all-conquering world view. Thanks heavens Radio 3 endures.

But enough of all this – it's the end of another year that has been, for me, full of blessings and pleasures. There have been many changes of scene – New Zealand, the Mani, Normandy, Brittany, Edinburgh, Venice, and countless richly rewarding journeys into deepest England in pursuit of my researches (the book is on schedule for completion next year). The summer was one long heatwave, resulting in the most amazing butterfly season in years. I discovered more fine books (of which more later perhaps), poems and music, and enjoyed many great paintings and much great architecture. And the year ended in abundant joy with the birth of a new grandson and the arrival of our daughter and family from the Antipodes. So much to be thankful for – and thankful I am.
Happy new year, everybody!

Friday 28 December 2018


On this day in 1953, Philip Larkin signed off on an intriguing 'unfinished' poem, Negative Indicative. It is well named, as everything indicative (or descriptive) in it is framed as negative, as something that is never going to happen, to be experienced, or has never happened – though from the vividness of the notation, it clearly has, all of it. Perhaps it is another of Larkin's appalled confrontations with death, the ultimate 'never again'. None of this will ever happen again. At least it ends with a beautiful moment, something that might almost seem affirmative. Where would Larkin have gone, I wonder, with that 'emblematic sound of water'?

Never to walk from the station's lamps and laurels
Carrying my father's lean old leather case
Crumbling like the register at the hotel;
Never to be shown upstairs

To a plain room smelling of soap, a towel
Neatly hung on the back of a rush chair,
The floor uneven, the grate choked with a frill,
Muslin curtains hiding the market square;

Never to visit the lame girl who lives three doors
Down Meeting-House Lane — 'This pile is ready; these
I shall finish tonight, with luck' — to watch, as she pours
Tea from a gold-lined jubilee pot, her eyes,

Her intelligent face; never, walking away
As light fails, to notice the first star
Pulsing alone in a long shell-coloured sky,
And remember the year has turned, and feel the air

Alive with the emblematic sound of water —

Thursday 27 December 2018

In the Anglican Sunset

Among my Christmas presents was an excellent anthology, Building Jerusalem: Elegies on Parish Churches, a selection of church poems written in the long shadows cast over England by the Anglican sunset. In it I found today's Christmastide poem, by the one and only Geoffrey Hill...

Epiphany at Saint Mary and All Saints

The wise men, vulnerable in ageing plaster,
are borne as gifts
to be set down among the other treasures
in their familial strangeness, mystery's toys.

Below the church the Stour slovens
through its narrow cut.
On service roads the lights cast amber salt
slatted with a thin rain doubling as snow.

Showings are not unknown: a six-winged seraph
somewhere impends – it is the geste of invention,
not the creative but the creator spirit.
The night air sings a colder spell to come.

[This St Mary and All Saints is the grand parish church of Kidderminster, the largest in Worcestershire.]

Tuesday 25 December 2018

Christmas Day

Wishing a merry Christmas to all who graze in these pastures.
There's already been much jollity here, what with our beloved daughter's fortieth birthday (incredible, isn't it?) yesterday. And more to come today...
God bless us, every one.

Monday 24 December 2018

Christmas Eve

Here's a poem for the day – a sonnet of sorts, offering a distinctive take on the Magnum Mysterium – by the great R.S. Thomas.


Christmas Eve! Five
hundred poets waited, pen
poised above paper,
for the poem to arrive,
bells ringing. It was because
the chimney was too small,
because they had ceased
to believe, the poem passed them
by on its way out
into oblivion, leaving
the doorstep bare
of all but the sky-rhyming
child to whom later
on they would teach prose.

Friday 21 December 2018

Blogging Note

The good news is that our lovely daughter and son-in-law and our adorable grandsons arrived in the UK today and will be here for Christmas and much of January. The bad news (well, maybe not that bad) is that I'll probably be doing rather less blogging for a while. But never fear (?hope), I shall not be falling silent.

Thursday 20 December 2018


I was pleasantly surprised today to learn that this local landmark – the Cock sign in the centre of Sutton – has been listed by English Heritage, along with various other charming vernacular structures, including a bus shelter and a cattle trough.
  The inn sign (cum lamp post and finger post) only dates to 1907, but the Cock Hotel had a longer history than that, and was at one time owned by the champion pugilist Gentleman John Jackson. Jackson managed his career unusually well, fighting only three professional bouts, the third of which made him Champion of All England when he disposed of the title holder Daniel Mendoza in a mere ten minutes – this at a time when fights might last five hours. After this he retired from the ring and, as well as becoming proprietor of the Cock, set up a very successful boxing academy for gentlemen on Bond Street, London. Among his pupils was Lord Byron, who called Jackson 'the Emperor of Pugilism', while Pierce Egan described him as the 'fixed star of the Pugilistic Hemisphere'.
 The original Cock Hotel was replaced by a heavily Victorian stone-build edifice, which was still standing and in use in my boyhood, but was demolished in 1961. Now all that remains is the sign – the listed sign.

Wednesday 19 December 2018

The Book that Made a Reader of Me

Published on this day 175 years ago was Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, a book that has always held a special place in my affections – not because it's a favourite regular read of mine, but because it was the first Dickens I read, almost the first 'proper book' I read, and the book that first revealed to me what literature could do, and how deep, intense and life-enriching the experience of reading could be. It was the book that started me on the course to becoming a reader.
  I was nine years old, rising ten, and at a state primary school when I somehow came across A Christmas Carol. Instantly I was swept away by its heady mix of chilling ghost story, affecting account of poverty and suffering, and uplifting, heart-cheering tale of redemption, all with the happiest of happy endings. I read it and reread it, and looked around for more Dickens, alighting next on Oliver Twist, which, in its early chapters, had the same electrifying effect on me – as did the childhood chapters of David Copperfield (how could they not?). Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities followed in my early secondary-school years, along with Nicholas Nickleby and parts of Pickwick Papers (which I came to enjoy much more in later years). A decade or so after my discovery of A Christmas Carol, I was reading the Big Ones – Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend, Little Dorritt, Dombey and Son – what reading stamina I had in those days! But I might never have become a serious reader at all had it not been for that boyhood encounter with A Christmas Carol.

Tuesday 18 December 2018

Thomas's Migrants

The migrant redwings are here again, in large numbers, busily stripping the holly bushes of berries.
In this sonnet, from the late collection Mass for Hard Times, R.S. Thomas likens us humans to migrant birds, flying into 'that great void', drawn magnetically towards the 'bleak north' of the ever withdrawing God, even if we are never to arrive 'in the climate of our conception'...


He is that great void
we must enter, calling
to one another on our way
in the direction from which
he blows. What matter
if we should never arrive
to breed or to winter
in the climate of our conception?

Enough we have been given wings
and a needle in the mind
to respond to his bleak north.
There are times even at the Pole
where he, too, pauses in his withdrawal,
so that it is light there all night long.

Monday 17 December 2018


Another day, another new word. This one is 'overtakelessness', and it occurs in a poem by – who else – Emily Dickinson. This poem...

The Overtakelessness of Those
Who have accomplished Death —
Majestic is to me beyond
The Majesties of Earth —
The Soul her "Not at Home"
Inscribes upon the Flesh,
And takes a fine aerial gait
Beyond the Writ of Touch. 

'Overtakelessness' is a pure Dickinson word, one that couldn't be used in any ordinary discourse, or even beyond the bounds of this particular poem. I guess the closest paraphrase would be something like 'irretrievability'. Dickinson is saluting the awful finality of death, the fact that those who have 'accomplished Death' have indeed 'gone before', and cannot be caught up with or brought back; they are 'beyond the Writ of Touch' (the word 'touch' standing out all the more because we're expecting at least a half-rhyme to close the poem). It takes a special sensibility to find such majesty in this finality, and to admire the elegance, the 'fine aerial gait', of the Soul airily taking its leave of the Flesh that has been its Home – but Emily Dickinson's sensibility was nothing if not special.

Sunday 16 December 2018

Paradiso and Fairies in Space

In the beautiful surroundings of St Mary's, Wirksworth, yesterday (yes, I was in Derbyshire again), a wind ensemble was playing Paradiso by the Elizabethan composer Anthony Holborne. It was a joy to see as well as hear – those curious wooden period instruments being played with discipline and quiet enjoyment by players old and young. Here is another ensemble playing this beautiful piece – with, in this arrangement, the addition of a triangle...

Holborne also has the honour of being represented on the Golden Record that NASA sent into space to show those extraterrestrial vinyl junkies what we're made of. His The Fairie Round, performed by the great early music pioneer David Munrow, is one of the tracks...

Thursday 13 December 2018

Hawking's Answers

Dead he may be, but Stephen Hawking still has a new book out in time for the Christmas rush. It's called, enticingly, Brief Answers to the Big Questions. Note that definite article – the Big Questions. These turn out to be such questions as 'the God question' (which one?), the colonisation of space question, the survival of mankind question and the Artificial Intelligence question. It puts me in mind of something Wittgenstein said: 'We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all.' The only honest answers to the really big questions, I suspect, are 'don't know' and 'can't know'.

Wednesday 12 December 2018

God on the Rocks

Jane Gardam is a writer I've been aware of for years, and vaguely regarded as a Good Thing, without (as far as I recall) ever actually reading any of her novels. Now I've read one – God on the Rocks (1978), passed on to me by my cousin, who had just read it and wanted to know what I made of it. She had found parts of it brilliant and wholly convincing, but had reservations about the novel as a whole. Having read it, I find I share her admiration, but with fewer reservations. Once I'd got into it, I found it an exhilarating read, a real bravura performance by a very fine storyteller.
  Set in a rather dismal northern seaside town between the wars,  and playing out over the course of a heatwave summer, the action revolves around an unhappy eight-year-old girl whose home life is dominated by her father's devotion to a Brethren-like cult of Bible-bashers, the Primal Saints. Through her eyes, we discover a parallel world not far from her home – a country house that is now a genteel kind of lunatic asylum. These two worlds, both of them vividly drawn, become increasingly interwoven as an expanding cast of characters is introduced and we are taken into the heads of some of them, and into the past that has made them what they are.
  Having set up a complex of tensions, buried history and repressed emotions among these characters, all of whom are quite opaque to each other, Gardam sends the plot spinning towards a climax that blends high drama, tragedy and farce. God on the Rocks is one of those rare novels in which almost nothing that happens is predictable. I guess you could say there's something artificial about it, a kind of heightened reality – these characters do not feel like people you might meet on the street and recognise – but artificiality has its place, and I've always been rather partial to it. I think that even the flashforward ending – something that's generally best avoided – works in this case, with its fresh revelations and tying of loose ends, but then I was completely won over by the time that came along. This felt like a book I'll remember for a good while. Oh, and I forgot to mention something else that commends it – all this action, all these characters are accommodated in a mere 150 pages.

Monday 10 December 2018

Twenty-First Century Browne

As I've lately been reading (or rather dipping into) a book called The Adventures of Thomas Browne in the 21st Century, I was delighted to hear the great polymath's name on Radio 4's Start the Week this morning. Ruth Pavey, author of A Wood of One's Own, was talking about her book and her experiences of creating a new-planted wood from a scrubby overgrown plot of land. When planting her saplings, who did she consult but Sir Thomas Browne – specifically his The Garden of Cyrus or, the Quincuncial, Lozenge or Network Plantation of the Ancients, Artificially, Naturally, Mystically Considered.
  The 'quincuncial' pattern is simple enough: one tree with four others disposed around it as they would appear on a playing card, thus creating offset rows, allowing good circulation of air and lines of sight. All very practical – but not for long, of course, as Browne goes chasing back into antiquity in search of a model gardener, finally alighting on Cyrus (the Second), whose methods Browne commends, before setting off again to pursue the quincuncial pattern through all of organic nature, observing 'how Nature geometrizeth, and observeth order in all things'. Having reread The Garden of Cyrus, Ruth Pavey closes the book without having gleaned much useful practical knowledge, but 'with the feeling of having been led home after an erratic, fantastical adventure'. She quotes the wonderful sentence near the end of The Garden of Cyrus, 'But the Quincunx of Heaven runs low, and 'tis time to close the five ports of knowledge'.
 Good to know that Sir Thomas Browne is still alive – and still read, even The Garden of Cyrus – in this twenty-first century.

Sunday 9 December 2018

Nurdle, Nurdles, Nurdling

I was vaguely aware that the word 'nurdle' was being used to describe the tiny pellets of plastic that are causing such a pollution problem in these plastic-crazy times. However, until today, I had never heard anyone seriously using the word. In the course of a rather dreary Point of View on Radio 4 (a sharp contrast to Roger Scruton's brilliant talk on freedom of speech last week – still on the iPlayer), Will Self spoke quite matter-of-factly about 'nurdles'. And it sounded ridiculous; 'nurdle' is an intrinsically ludicrous word, quite unfitted for any serious use.
 Consider its pedigree. The word was much used, as both verb and noun, by Rambling Syd Rumpo (Kenneth Williams) on Round the Horne, invariably with lewd intent. 'Nurdle' is sometimes used in cricket for a feeble stroke that nudges the ball into a vacant spot in the outfield. It can be used too as a variant of 'noodling', for a kind of ineffectual waffling or fiddling about. And then there is the alleged ancient pub sport of nurdling, which even has its own website. Follow this link to enjoy the riveting sight of a man with a beard nurdling in a Rutland pub. Hmm.
 Will it ever be possible to take the word seriously? I fear not.

Saturday 8 December 2018


Yesterday my birthday, today James Thurber's, born on this day in 1894 in Columbus, Ohio (and seven years later unfortunately blinded in one eye in an ill-advised game of 'William Tell' with his brother). Much of his writing has not really stood the test of time, though My Life and Hard Times is a bit of a classic and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has proved strangely enduring. Many of Thurber's drawings, however, retain their charm. The line above is a good one to trot out in company, adjusting the name of the drink to suit – you'll be lucky if it's Burgundy these days.

Friday 7 December 2018

My Life in Three Leaps

My 69th birthday today offer the opportunity to divide the years behind me neatly into three 'ages'. Leaping back across the first 23 years, I find myself a middle-aged father of teenagers, expending what now seems impossible quantities of energy all over the place, and not long launched on what would become a 22-year stint in the job from which I recently and joyously retired. The next 23-year leap finds me almost unrecognisable in the form of the human wreck recently emerged from Cambridge with no idea what to do next, nor any particular desire to do anything – I might have been in Edinburgh at this time, or somewhere in London, certainly with no sign of useful energy or purpose. Leap back another 23 years and there I am, new born and blinking uncomprehendingly at this strange but wonderful world. Much of the time, I guess I'm still doing that.

Thursday 6 December 2018

News? No, Thanks.

No doubt it was the result of having worked on a newspaper for too many years, but I have long been a bit of a news junkie. But no longer. Like, I suspect, many other people, I am finding 'the news', especially as presented by the BBC, insufferable just now, and am actively avoiding it (last night offered an easy choice – News at Ten or Vic and Bob on BBC4 – no contest). I'm not quite as far gone as Mrs N, who now reacts to the sight and sound of our esteemed Prime Minister like a vampire to a garlic-wreathed crucifix – but the Maybot and her disastrous handling of 'Brexit' is, alas, at the root of my news aversion. It is just so depressing...
 A while back I thought, or hoped, that perhaps I was being a tad cynical in my suspicion that the whole Brexit 'process' was designed to achieve one outcome only – staying in the EU. But it looks as if that is just what is coming to pass: the 'choice' being presented is between the 'deal' – taking us from full membership of the EU to indefinite vassal status – or 'no deal', an option for which no serious preparation has been made. Or just staying in the EU, which is the option most MPs would vote for, if it came to it. Sadly 'handing power back to Parliament'  – the very Parliament who handed the Brexit decision to the people – will likely end in the referendum result being scrapped. I guess it was predictable enough, given that the PM and the vast majority of MPs, civil servants and other arms of the establishment are Remainers – but it's still depressing. So I'll write no more about it.  Ravel's Tombeau de Couperin suite is on Radio 3 as I write this – who needs The World at One?

Tuesday 4 December 2018

A Hollywood Mystery

There are many mysteries in the annals of the biz we call show, and among the most baffling of them is surely the extraordinary success with the ladies of that endlessly tiresome half-man, half-goblin, Mickey Rooney. The first of Rooney's many wives was Ava Gardner, for heaven's sake – Ava Gardner, one of the most beautiful and sexually alluring women ever to grace the silver screen. The marriage didn't last long, but how, in the name of all that's sacred, did it come about at all?
  In my tireless quest for truth, I've been looking into the matter, and have come up with a few sort-of answers. The key factor was that Ava was an innocent young country girl who had never set foot on the MGM lot before the fatal day when she caught the ever vigilant eye of Mickey Rooney. As he fondly recalled when Ava asked him what his first impressions had been: 'I figured you were a new piece of pussy for one of the executives. The prettiest ones were usually spoken for before they even stepped off the train. I didn't give a damn. I wanted to [expletive deleted] you the moment I saw you.' Charming.
  Little Mickey laid siege to the new would-be starlet in town, who somehow managed to retain her virginity until he had married her. The marriage was not popular with the studio, who didn't want their unaccountably popular 'Andy Hardy' denting his teen appeal by getting married, so Eddie Manix (remember him from Hail, Caesar!?) arranged for a quiet out-of-town ceremony. According to Ava, little Mickey turned out to be quite the sexual athlete, but it soon became apparent that he was also constitutionally incapable of fidelity.
 'The little sod,' Ava recalled, 'wasn't above admiring himself in the mirror. All five feet two of him! ... He went through the ladies like a hot knife through fudge. He was incorrigible.' Most of his Andy Hardy co-stars seem to have been unable to resist – among them Lana Turner, who called him 'Andy Hard-On'.
 Dear me, this is sordid stuff. Suffice to say that Ava had soon had enough and booted the 'little sod' out – at which point, Eddie Manix intervened again to prevent a scandal, getting Ava her first (minor) film role on condition she'd take Mickey back. Rooney, for his part, gave her a huge diamond ring – but unfortunately had to reclaim it the following week to pay off his bookies. The inevitable divorce was staved off for some while longer, but in the end it had to happen. Thanks to Eddie Manix's backstage machinations and Ava's basic good nature, it went through smoothly, with no damage to either of the parties' careers or reputations.
 In later years, Ava would describe Mickey as 'the smallest husband I ever had, and the biggest mistake'. Sounds like a fair summing up.

Monday 3 December 2018

Octavia Hill: Redoubtable

Born 180 years ago today was Octavia Hill, one of those redoubtable Victorian ladies who, despite labouring under the iron heel of the patriarchy, somehow managed to achieve great things in their lives and leave a precious legacy behind.
  Born into a well-off and well connected family, Octavia nevertheless had a taste of something very like poverty after her father suffered a mental breakdown and went bankrupt. At the age of 14, Octavia was at work, supervising a group of Ragged School children making toys for a co-operative guild. A talented painter, she was soon copying pictures in the Dulwich and National galleries for the great John Ruskin. This connection was later to prove very useful when, having seen for herself the terrible living conditions of the toy-making girls, Octavia became determined to do something to provide decent housing for the poor. When Ruskin came into his inheritance from his father, he bought the leases of three cottages in Marylebone for Miss Hill, and these became her first experiment in what we would today call 'social housing' (though it owed nothing to state or municipality, both of which she mistrusted as encouraging irresponsible dependency). The Octavia Hill model involved oversight of every aspect of tenants' lives and zero tolerance of any dereliction, but it was very successful, Miss Hill's 'little kingdom' grew rapidly, and she became famous as a housing pioneer.
 However, she did not stop there. Her other passionate interest was in ensuring that there was ample open space for the urban poor to benefit from 'pure earth, clean air and blue sky'. Miss Hill vigorously opposed building developments on remaining open land in London, and helped to ensure that Hampstead Heath and Parliament Hill Fields, among other areas, were saved. (She was actually the first person to use the phrase 'green belt'.) Her activities in this field expanded, culminating in 1893 in the forming of the National Trust, of which she was co-founder, along with Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley and Sir Robert Hunter.
  This earnest, tireless, unstoppably determined little woman left a legacy of which we're still feeling the benefits today – though she surely never envisaged the National Trust as a provider of nice country houses, with tea shop and gift shop, for Mr and Mrs Middle England to visit of a weekend. Her vision was a little more radical than that.

Sunday 2 December 2018

Punim, Ping, etc.

There used to be (maybe there still are?) a couple of regular features in the Reader's Digest called 'Towards More Picturesque Speech' and 'It Pays to Increase Your Word Power'. I don't know in quite what sense it 'pays' to widen your vocabulary (is there money in it?), but it's always a good idea, as it extends the number of things you can say and understand. And it's often good fun, as is 'picturesque speech', in moderation (somewhere well short of, say, Under Milk Wood).
  Joseph Epstein's essays (yes, it's that man again) demonstrate plenty of word power and of picturesque speech, and have added usefully to my vocabulary. For example, the other night (this is bedtime reading) I came across this sentence, a propos Robert Lowell's poetry and its close relation to the New Criticism of the mid-twentieth century:
'In his early poems, written as if for New Critical analysis, Lowell supplied enough ambiguity to plaster Mona Lisa's smile permanently on the punim of William Empson.'
 Punim? Goy that I am, I had no idea that this is a Yiddish (or Yinglish) word for the face, as in 'Look at that punim, as my grandma would say', or indeed 'shayna punim', a pretty face, a 'cutie patootie'. Good to know.
  Epstein has great fun with Lowell – as he does with Edmund Wilson, Mary McCarthy and Elizabeth Bishop, the four of them forming a rather unattractive literary daisy chain, decidedly wilted now (though the best of Elizabeth Bishop will surely live). Here's a little Epstein gag on the usefulness to a poet of being a Boston Brahmin:
'Would Lowell's poem "My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow" give off quite the same ping if the poem were titled "My Last Afternoon with Uncle Manny Klein"? Think, maybe, not.'
 'Ping' is good too.

Friday 30 November 2018

Elizabeth Jenkins (one last time?)

Here's the text of my piece on Elizabeth Jenkins in the current issue of 'the real reader's quarterly', Slightly Foxed. Of course it looks better in the pages of that beautifully produced magazine – the perfect stocking filler for the book lover(s) in your life, or indeed yourself.
Bits of this might ring a bell with Nigeness readers with good memories...

Whatever Happened to Elizabeth Jenkins?

When she died in 2010, at the astonishing age of 104, the novelist and biographer Elizabeth Jenkins was all but forgotten, her name known only to a few aficionados, her books mostly long out of print. And yet, in her day, her reputation had been up there with the other distinguished Elizabeths of mid-twentieth-century fiction, Bowen and Taylor. What happened?
  I had never heard of Elizabeth Jenkins myself until a chance conversation with a bookseller friend. He told me he had just sold one of her books and was pleasantly surprised to find that she was still being read. Elizabeth who? I asked, and he gave me the basics. Since then I have found out – and read – much more, and discovered for myself what a very fine novelist she was.
  A literary career that spanned eight decades began soon after she left Cambridge. While still an unpublished author working on her first novel, she was invited to dinner by Virginia and Leonard Woolf, and duly received the usual Bloomsbury treatment – taken up and made much of, then frozen out and humiliated. Though Virginia did praise that first novel, in somewhat patronising terms (‘a sweet white grape of a book’), Elizabeth was so embarrassed by it that she sought out and bought up all the copies she could find. (It was called Virginia Water and it does indeed seem to have disappeared without trace.) However, Victor Gollancz was sufficiently impressed to offer her a three-novel contract. Elizabeth Jenkins was on her way.
  Over the coming decades, a stream of well received novels and equally well received biographies poured forth. Several of the biographies – of Jane Austen (Jenkins was a founder of the Jane Austen Society), of Elizabeth I, Lady Caroline Lamb and others – remain quite easily available to this day, but the novels, though they often went into several printings, are mostly much harder to find. In part, no doubt, this was a matter of changing fashions – Jenkins’s novels generally inhabit an upper-middle-class milieu, and she strongly disapproved of the social changes that came about in the Fifties and Sixties. Things might have been different if she had been more of a self-publicist – or any kind of a self-publicist – but she was not. Held back by her diffident nature, she did little to further her career, shunning all publicity and self-promotion (in today’s literary world she would have sunk like a stone). Happily, however, those novels were not entirely forgotten. One of them – The Tortoise and the Hare – was rediscovered by Carmen Callil and republished as a Virago Modern Classic, and another, Harriet, was later reissued by the excellent Persephone Books.
  The Tortoise and the Hare, originally published in 1954, was the first Elizabeth Jenkins novel I got my hands on, and I was not disappointed. It chronicles the break-up of a marriage – a familiar enough subject, but handled with rare imaginative flair and originality. Imogen is the beautiful, sensitive young wife of Evelyn Gresham, a handsome, brilliant and successful barrister with a very high opinion of himself and a strong sense of entitlement, neither of which his compliant wife has done anything to dent. The Greshams have plenty of money, a big house in Berkshire and a place in town, and a standard of living that might make today's readers blink in disbelief. But are they happy? Of course not.
  As the story unfolds, Imogen begins to realise just what is going on between her dazzling husband and the wildly improbable, therefore easily dismissed, 'other woman', a tweedy, frumpy pillar of village society, spinster, wearer of ludicrous hats, but wealthy, capable, knowledgeable in practical affairs and strong-minded. It is in those last attributes – all of which Imogen lacks – that Blanche's fatal attraction lies. Imogen looks on in helpless agony – and, worse, in full awareness that she is collaborating in her own suffering.
  There is an element of autobiography in The Tortoise and the Hare. Elizabeth Jenkins, a beautiful, sensitive woman herself, wrote it after being dumped by the love of her life, a married man every bit as distinguished as Evelyn Gresham. She was fatally attracted to such men, and they recur in her novels – as do sympathetic but frail victim figures. And victims don’t come any frailer than the helpless title character of Harriet, Jenkins’s second novel, which in 1935 beat Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust to win the Prix Femina Vie Heureuse.
  Harriet is a chilling read – indeed one of the most harrowing novels I’ve ever come across. Based on a real-life Victorian murder case, it tells of a young woman being starved to death by members of her own family eager to get their hands on her inheritance. The worst of it is that the young woman, Harriet, is a ‘natural’ (we would now say she had ‘learning difficulties’). Her mother has raised her with care and affection, and all is well until a handsome and entirely ruthless fortune hunter sets his sights on her, woos and marries her, and takes her away from her protective home.
  What follows is almost too painful to read – painful not only in the details of Harriet’s ordeal but in Jenkins’s horribly convincing depiction of the growth, in those supposed to be looking after her, of an ability to regard her as something less than human, something whose suffering and fate are a matter of complete indifference. A contemporary review described this novel as ‘like a cold hand clutching at the heart’ – and that is no overstatement.
  There is nothing of the cold hand in the novel that Elizabeth Jenkins always named as her own favourite of her works – Dr Gully’s Story (1972). This, too, takes its inspiration from a real-life Victorian murder case – the sensational and still unsolved Charles Bravo murder. However, there is no mention of Bravo until more than three-quarters of the way through, and the murder itself and the ensuing inquests don’t happen until the closing chapters. The focus is firmly on the fashionably society physician James Gully (who finds himself a suspect in the Bravo murder), on his feelings and experiences. Jenkins builds up a rich and compelling portrait of a fascinating, successful man – yes, the Evelyn Gresham type again, but additionally blessed with a peculiarly mesmeric presence.
  The real subject of the book is less the murder than the passionate love affair that develops between Gully and his beautiful, rich and very much younger patient, Florence Ricardo (later to be Florence Bravo). The course of this superficially unlikely romance is traced with such imaginative insight that it becomes entirely believable and involving. Jenkins creates around Gully and Florence a world rich in intricate and abundant detail, a densely Victorian, over-furnished, hyperabundant world of stuff – and of servants, ever present, ever vigilant, ever gossiping ­– in which the principals are obliged to live their lives, while trying to keep their love affair secret. It is, of course, a doomed romance, and when it ends much of the heat goes out of the novel, though the subsequent account of the murder and the inquests is fascinating enough in itself.
  One of the most striking features of Elizabeth Jenkins’s novels is their strong sense of place: the riverside locations of The Tortoise and the Hare, Victorian Cheltenham and suburban London in Dr Gully, the grim rural setting of Harriet’s ordeal, all are potently evoked by a writer who really does set her scenes. In Brightness (1963), the setting is the tight-knit Home Counties community of New Broadlands, a pleasant town set on a high ridge, its earliest houses ‘built in the Edwardian era by a community of high-minded cranks’ (we all know places like that).
  Brightness is a curious novel, the first three quarters seeming to be a fictional study of parenting, good and bad, of youthful rebellion and delinquency and the ‘generation gap’. The author’s loathing of ‘progressive’ thought – apparent in the background of The Tortoise and the Hare – comes to the fore here, in the portrayal of a frightful old humbug with the splendid name of Mortimer Upjohn, and, more especially, in the withering depiction of the nouveau riche Sugden family. The Sugdens are bringing up their late-teenage son with a toxic combination of unrestrained indulgence and non-existent discipline – with predictably loathsome results.  
  By way of contrast, we are given Una Lambert, a widow with a beloved son who is a credit to her firm but loving upbringing. As the novel goes on, a strain of theological speculation enters the picture, and the reader begins to wonder what kind of book this is ­– anti-progressive satire, study of parent-child relations, reflection on the nature of faith? – and where it is going. Then, suddenly, we find out exactly where it has all been going – towards a shocking and tragic event that changes everything, and puts all that came before in a wholly new perspective. This is a very bold way to shape a novel – as bold as the long delay of the murder in Dr Gully – but Jenkins, I think, pulls it off.
  Her last novel was A Silent Joy. Though published in 1992 – her 87th year – it is set in 1957, among a still prosperous and servant-attended upper middle class. Once again, a strong-minded and distinguished man – an elderly retired judge – is at the centre of things. The novel is a rather schematic study of three kinds of love: the deep, disinterested affection of the judge for the young daughter of a dead friend; the naked lust of said friend’s widow for a dodgy wheeler-dealer; and the sweetly conventional love of a young couple (older daughter of said friend and cousin of another friend). It is also a portrayal of the terrible effects of easy divorce – in 1957!  The plot is a little lumpy and the chracterisation uneven, but there’s always something there that keeps you reading, some scenes and moments when things come fully alive and remind you just how good Elizabeth Jenkins could be.
  There are more of her novels out there waiting to be rediscovered and read. I like to think they are the kind of books that might turn up in jumble sales, or even elude the hawk-eyed valuers who monitor charity-shop donations these days. I’m certainly keeping my eyes peeled.
  Elizabeth Jenkins continued writing almost to the last, publishing a memoir, The View from Downshire Hill, in her hundredth year. Downshire Hill in Hampstead was where she lived, in a Regency house that her father bought for her in 1939. She furnished it with good Regency furniture, picked up for next to nothing after the war, but could barely afford to heat a few rooms. Because of the furniture, she recalled, ‘people assumed I was comfortably off, instead of being very hard up’.
  Her small, hunched figure was a familiar sight on the streets of Hampstead for many years, but the distinguished and gifted author that was Elizabeth Jenkins had all but disappeared. When, in 1983, Virago issued a promotional booklet with pictures of all the Modern Classics authors, she was the only one of whom no portrait could be found. Instead, she appears in the leaflet as an outline head filled with a blank space.   


Thursday 29 November 2018

It Was Fifty Years Ago Today...

There aren't many landmarks from the Age of Rock/Folk/Pop Etc that are worth marking, but today's is surely one: the golden anniversary of the release of Van Morrison's Astral Weeks, a true one-off album, the like of which was never heard before and has never been heard since. Nothing in Morrison's earlier career – except perhaps the flash of genius that is Gloria – suggested he was capable of such things, and the Astral Weeks sound, a sinuously expressive blend of folk, blues, jazz and even classical, seemed to have come out of nowhere. (Like so many good things, it was actually the product of a contract dispute that had led Morrison to start experimenting with new, pared-down, jazz-inflected sounds.) The words too – nothing quite like this rambling, sometimes incoherent stream of consciousness had been heard on an album, or rather nothing so rambling and yet so firmly rooted in the experiences and images of a time and place, Morrison's early years in Belfast. On Astral Weeks, words and music form one continuous whole, so perfectly does the sound fit the (elusive) sense.
  When it came out, with minimal publicity, the album was barely noticed, and what attention it got was often hostile. In the NME, Nick Logan – in words that must have haunted him for years – denounced it as a pale imitation of Jose Feliciano's Feliciano! album, but he was not alone in his disappointment. As for me, I didn't even notice it until a couple of years later, maybe more. Even Morrison himself claims not to have regarded Astral Weeks as anything very special, and says he hasn't listened to it for many years. Well, each to his own – but for me, after years of listening to it (once I'd discovered it), Astral Weeks remains a glorious piece of work, one of the handful of truly great albums. And the best way to celebrate its anniversary is simply to play it again – preferably on vinyl, but a CD will do, and of course it's all over YouTube. Enjoy...

Wednesday 28 November 2018

Gunn Over California

With a double tip of the hat to Books Inq and the Literary Hub, here's a poem by Thom Gunn from the newly published New Selected Poems – Flying Above California...

Spread beneath me it lies—lean upland
sinewed and tawny in the sun, and
valley cool with mustard, or sweet with
loquat. I repeat under my breath
names of places I have not been to:
Crescent City, San Bernardino
—Mediterranean and Northern names.
Such richness can make you drunk. Sometimes
on fogless days by the Pacific,
there is a cold hard light without break
that reveals merely what is—no more
and no less. That limiting candour,
that accuracy of the beaches,
is part of the ultimate richness.

This is a sonnet, but not as we know it – seven half-rhymed couplets, with enjambment galore and the turn at the end of line seven, dividing the poem into two equal, but very different, halves. A formalist to his fingertips, Gunn pulls off tricks like this as if he hadn't even noticed. 'That limiting candour, that accuracy of the beaches' – oh yes.

Monday 26 November 2018


I seem to be in a phase of noting down sentences and short passages that catch my eye in the books I'm reading. It's something I used to do a lot more of, in pre-blogging days, turning several small notebooks into 'commonplace-books'. When I lost the bag containing all but one of these (stolen, I think), I more or less gave up the practice, especially as I was often using my blog as a kind of extended commonplace-book. But recently I've been at it again.
  Rereading Shirley Hazzard's wonderful The Bay of Noon (which I remember noting sentences from last time), I noticed a couple of brilliant nutshell characterisations. Writing about her tiresome sister-in-law, a woman who can barely say or write anything without an all too transparent (and hostile) subtext, the narrator says, 'With Nora, the unconscious was always uppermost. You had to dig deep to find the conscious.' We all know people like that, don't we?
 And like the English Colonel the narrator is working for (in postwar Naples): 'As a child he must have been impressed with the merit of looking people in the eye, and had in consequence developed a fixed glare that so revealed him that, out of common decency, one could only look away.' I love that 'out of common decency'.
 I've also been reading some essays by Joseph Epstein, a man who knows how to turn a phrase. In the course of an exhilarating critique of Edmund Wilson (an all but extinguished literary light, I think?) – and in particular his volume of memoirs, The Sixties – Epstein has lots of fun. He quotes a diary entry in which the great man finds himself 'on the can', where 'I read the folders of old reviews of my books, in order to support my morale – though this only makes me realise again how slipshod most reviewing is'. Epstein adds sardonically, 'Nothing quite takes the joy out of life like having standards.'
  Wilson insists on going into minute and deadening detail about his compulsive, joyless sex life: 'In the sack with his dentist's wife, "I invited her to do fellatio."' 'Let us hope,' adds Epstein, 'this was not the best invitation the poor woman had had that week.' Summing up, he adds that, 'sounding in his no-nonsense approach to sex like no one so much as Frank Harris, Wilson's writing on sex would give an alley cat the droops on a warm Saturday night'. The 'warm Saturday night' is a great touch.
  Epstein also has an essay on La Rochefoucauld – 'maximum maximist', as he calls him. And who would argue?
 'We all have strength enough to endure the misfortunes of others.'
 'We are easily consoled for the misfortunes of our friends if they afford us the opportunity of displaying our affections.'
  'However much good we hear of ourselves, we never learn anything new.'
I probably had those in one of my lost notebooks...

Sunday 25 November 2018

Gosse Postscript

I just came across this fine Beerbohm caricature, titled 'Riverside Scene. Algernon Swinburne Takes his Great New Friend Gosse to See Dante Rossetti.' I wonder why they're wearing those silly hats...
  Gosse had assiduously cultivated and championed Swinburne from very early on, and was not pleased when Theodore Watts-Dunton made himself even more indispensable to the poet and became his chosen companion in the curious menage established at 2 The Pines, Putney – about which the splendidly named Mollie Panter-Downes wrote an excellent book (At The Pines, currently available on Amazon for 1p). There is also a very amusing account of a visit to The Pines written by Max Beerbohm and included in the collection And Even Now.

Friday 23 November 2018


Yesterday I went to see the exhibition of Lorenzo Lotto portraits at the National Gallery. I've long been a Lotto fan, so I was delighted that this major exhibition, co-created with the Prado, had come to London. Amazingly the National isn't making much of it, with all its publicity focused on Mantegna-Bellini and The Courtauld Impressionists (basically the same pictures that you can see down the road at Somerset House any time). Still more amazingly, the Lotto exhibition is free! It surely represents the best free exhibition in town.
  Lotto portraits have been assembled from all over Italy, from Berlin and Vienna, from as far afield as Washington and Ottawa, creating the finest assembly of his portraits that we're ever likely to see, but still coming out at manageably sub-blockbuster size (four quite small rooms). Unfortunately the exhibition is in the ground-floor galleries, with no natural light and a certain amount of glare on the larger canvases. Some objects resembling those in the pictures have also been assembled, to no very good purpose, but happily there are also a few Lotto drawings, which are well worth studying.

  It was a good idea to include some of Lotto's religious paintings too. They might not have been his strong suit, but they include some dazzlingly fine painting, and indeed portraiture. The St Catherine in the right foreground of the stunning Sacra Conversazione (from the Palazzo Barberini) is rendered with exquisite delicacy, almost in a Mannerist style  – and look at that Madonna, clearly a portrait from life.
But the portraits are the point, and they are, from the first, astonishing in their power and intensity. Even in his early days, around 1500, Lotto was painting portraits of startling directness and equally striking naturalism. His subjects look out at us – at Lotto? – in various states from calm contemplation to deep unease, by way of almost aggressive confrontation and smug self-advertisement.

As the years pass, the portraits become more complex, pictorially and symbolically, and the range of Lotto's skill becomes ever more evident – his highly distinctive use of colour, his superb rendering of textures, his original, often slightly awkward, compositions, his beautifully controlled brushwork.

At the same time, the mood of melancholy becomes ever more insistent. Few of Lotto's subjects seem entirely happy or at ease, and some appear all but suicidal.

Is Lotto penetrating these unhappy souls and laying them bare, or are his sitters reflecting back at him his own melancholy?

Lotto was clearly an unhappy man, and became more so as he got older. He had achieved huge respect as a painter, but seems never to have been financially secure, and he became disillusioned with the whole business, returning to his birthplace, Venice, to lodge with the monks at Ss Givoanni e Paolo, painting little and gradually abandoning portraiture. (The great altarpiece of The Alms of St Antoninus of Florence from that church is in the exhibition – the first time it has left Venice. That's a detail of it at the bottom.)
 His last portraits seem more tender and compassionate, and are certainly quieter and plainer than those of his heyday, but with no loss of depth.

Lotto died almost forgotten, and it wasn't until Bernard Berenson rediscovered him in the 1890s, hailing him as the first 'psychological' portraitist, that his reputation began to rise again, and the more so as many paintings previously attributed to others were reassigned to Lotto. This exhibition should do much to make this extraordinary painter better known and his works more appreciated. It's on until February 10th, and it's not to be missed.


Tuesday 20 November 2018

Gosse's Protest – and After

Towards the end of Father and Son – a book I've greatly enjoyed (re)reading – Edmund Gosse finally throws off his heroic restraint, born of filial loyalty and love, and issues a blistering denunciation of the kind of harsh, narrow evangelicalism that blighted his early years. It's a brilliant passage...

'Let me speak plainly. After my long experience, after my patience and forbearance, I have surely the right to protest against the untruth (would that I could apply to it any other word!) that evangelical religion, or any religion in a violent form, is a wholesome or valuable or desirable adjunct to human life. It divides heart from heart. It sets up a vain, chimerical ideal, in the barren pursuit of which all the tender, indulgent affections, all the genial play of life, all the exquisite pleasures and soft resignations of the body, all that enlarges and calms the soul are exchanged for what is harsh and void and negative. It encourages a stern and ignorant spirit of condemnation; it throws altogether out of gear the healthy movement of the conscience; it invents virtues that are sterile and cruel; it invents sins which are no sins at all, but darken the heaven of innocent joy with futile clouds of remorse. There is something horrible, if we will bring ourselves to face it, in the fanaticism that can do nothing with this pathetic and fugitive existence of ours but treat it as if it were the uncomfortable antechamber to a palace which no one has explored and of the plan of which we know absolutely nothing.'
[Though his father, as Gosse goes on to point out, believed himself  'intimately acquainted with the form and furniture of this habitation, and he wished me to think of nothing else but the advantages of an eternal residence in it'.]

  There was an extraordinary strength in Gosse that enabled him not only to survive the torments of his childhood and make the painful but necessary break with his father, but to go on to achieve, from a standing start, great eminence in the literary – and social – world. His essays are little read now, his poems even less, but Father and Son undoubtedly survives, and so does the image – more of an after-image now – of Gosse, the great man of letters of his time, 'the snobbish, prickly, disingenuous literary politician', as John Gross describes him in The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters
  The young Gosse's ascent of the literary and social ladder began when he started work as a librarian at the British Museum – at the time, in Gross's phrase, 'a hive of rondeliers' – and it continued smoothly by means of Gosse's assiduous cultivation of literary connections. Despite his lack of any academic background, he was elected Clark Lecturer at Cambridge in 1880, but when the lectures were published in book form, he suffered a major setback in the form of a vicious review in the Quarterly by John Churton Collins ('a louse in the locks of literature,' as Tennyson called him). Unfortunately Collins was right about the lectures, which were riddled with inexcusable errors, but once again Gosse's resilience proved itself, as he was soon back in business, writing, politicking and cultivating yet more connections among the literary great and good. He even achieved his dream job – Librarian of the House of Lords, a position that gave full rein to his snobbishness, his careerism, his fussiness and his extreme touchiness. As Gross writes, 'His touchiness was even stronger than his snobbery, and his governessy instincts were stronger than either.'
  After his reluctant retirement from the House of Lords, he spent his last years as chief book reviewer on the Sunday Times. Evelyn Waugh, a kinsman who had known Gosse all his life, recalled him in those years:
'Unlike Desmond MacCarthy, who succeeded to his position, he had little natural amiability or generosity ... I saw Gosse as a Mr Tulkinghorn, the soft-footed, inconspicuous, ill-natured

habitué of the great world, and I longed for a demented lady's-maid to make an end of him.'
 And yet, Gosse sustained a large number of seemingly genuine, affectionate and good-natured friendships with a very wide range of people. There must have been amiability and generosity there – and besides, Gosse can surely be forgiven a great deal.