Wednesday 28 February 2018

Wilbur's Snowman

Richard Wilbur, who sadly died last October, would have been 97 today.
Here's a poem of his that suits a snowy day. In other hands, this one would easily slip into sentimentality, but Wilbur's control of form and tone, his precise weighting of every word, ensures that never happens – and, as so often with Wilbur's poems, the last line delivers a sharp transforming sting...

Boy at the Window

Seeing the snowman standing all alone
In dusk and cold is more than he can bear.
The small boy weeps to hear the wind prepare
A night of gnashings and enormous moan.
His tearful sight can hardly reach to where
The pale-faced figure with bitumen eyes
Returns him such a God-forsaken stare
As outcast Adam gave to paradise.

The man of snow is, nonetheless, content,
Having no wish to go inside and die.
Still, he is moved to see the youngster cry.
Though frozen water is his element,
He melts enough to drop from one soft eye
A trickle of the purest rain, a tear
For the child at the bright pane surrounded by
Such warmth, such light, such love, and so much fear. 

Tuesday 27 February 2018

Uncle Logan Again, Eliot in his dressing gown, £10 worth of sardines and a bicycle

Some thirty years on from the last passage I quoted from Julia: A Portrait of Julia Strachey by Herself and Frances Partridge, Logan Pearsall Smith reappears, once again in a surprising, somewhat lurid light. Julia appends a postscript to a letter to Frances:

'PS Whatever do you think, Uncle Logan summoned me round the other morning and informed me that he has just left me £500 in his Will, isn't it lovely? He has done it, as he confessed to me with glee, "to annoy the rest of them. I don't like Christopher, and I don't like Barbara, and I don't like Karin and I never liked Ray [all members of his complicated family], but I do like you," says he, and adds, "Aunty Loo [Alys Russell, his sister and long-time companion] will be FURIOUS!" However perhaps his doctor will up and say that he was of unsound mind when the Will was drawn up (and certainly no voice will be raised to deny it). Anyway, the arrangement is that Logan is turning Loo out of the house on May 1st, as he can't stick her any longer. She has begged me with tears in her eyes to have her as tenant downstairs – I had to agree. So she comes on May 1st. Logan has gone mad in all literalness; it is very trying for us all.'
 Later Julia notes that 'there has been a certain tohu-bohu and brouhaha over the Will question'. ('Tohu-bohu' derives from the Biblical Hebrew phrase for the condition of chaos before God said 'Let there be light.')
 A few months earlier, Julia describes a visit to her uncle, in which he inveighs against his sister and her cosseting of their long-time cook, Mary, which he claims has thrown the household and his social life into chaos. He then moves on to 'picture dealers and what sharks they are, and connoisseurs too. "Rattlesnakes! Take Kenneth Clark, now."'
 Alas, we never learn what exactly Logan had against the future Lord Clark of Civilisation.

Another figure appears in a rather surprising light around this time too – T.S. ('Tom') Eliot, whom Julia seems to have liked, though not as much as his fellow resident of Carlyle Mansions, John Hayward (critic and editor).
 'When I was visiting him [Hayward] one night at Carlyle Mansions Eliot came in to see me. He was in his dressing-gown, having just had a bath, and seemed utterly distracted and Strindbergian, with his at-all-times remarkable manner accentuated into something quite ghostly and weird. I wondered for a moment if he were dead drunk; but I fancy not.'
 Julia is full of these vivid, tantalising glimpses. If only Strachey had been organised enough to keep a regular diary, it would have been quite a document – but she was all her life disorganised to a quite extraordinary degree, and with a crippling reluctance to bring any of her work to a finished state, still less publish it.
 Here's one more glimpse, of Raymond Mortimer (writer, critic, editor) preparing for war in March 1938, and correcting Julia's never very serious politics:
'I dined with Raymond and went to a play the other night. I enjoyed it very much, but I infuriated him by quoting Communist opinions culled from Philip [Toynbee], and he kept looking at me in horror and disgust over the creamy salmis and glowing purées on the marble dinner-table, saying, "Do pull yourself together, Julia! I thought you were quite a sensible woman!" Really I must make a resolution to keep my fingers out of politics. Raymond had just bought £10 worth of sardines and a bicycle to bicycle down the Great West Road on, in the event of war being declared, as he says all those with motor-cars will get stuck in a queue and never succeed in getting away.'

Sunday 25 February 2018

The Fifty Year Rule

On the Essex walk, one of our number declared that he was now following a Fifty Year Rule in his novel reading – i.e. nothing more recent than the 1960s. He has recently reread two 'angry young man' novels – John Braine's Room at the Top and John Wain's Hurrry On Down – and found that they have worn well, whereas Hemingway (whom he had, like many in their youth, once rated very highly) he now found all but unreadable. Well, at our time of life, the fifty year rule is liable to send us back to the reading of our teenage years, and that often delivers a salutary shock of disappointment.
 My friend's self-imposed time limit is a more rigorous version of the undoubtedly useful Twenty Year Rule – wait at least twenty years to see if a successful novel was really worth reading (of course it can apply beyond the world of books too, most usefully in art). I realise that I semi-consciously follow that rule myself, rarely reading new or even recent fiction, and much of the time reading from beyond even the fifty-year limit, e.g. Willa Cather, Ivy Compton-Burnett. Maybe I'm missing some good stuff by largely ignoring novels published in the past couple of decades – any suggestions? – and it's equally true that much good stuff from farther back has gone out of print, so could be said not to have stood the test of time. But by and large the twenty-plus year rule holds good. Although really the first rule of Book Club is that there are no rules.

Saturday 24 February 2018

An Essex Walk and a Gray Talk

An eleven-mile walk in rural Essex on a cold February day might not be everyone's idea of fun – to be honest, it's not mine. Especially when a biting East wind, claggy ploughland and vast, hedgeless fields must also be factored in. However, there I was yesterday, striding along with my walking friends through just such country in just such a Siberian wind, and I'm sure it did me good. Certainly it was long overdue, being my first proper walk of the year.
 The churches on the walk were small-scale, unassuming buildings, all on the same pattern – West tower, nave, chancel, sometimes a small porch – and few notable monuments. However, in the church of All Saints, High Laver, is the tomb of the philosopher John Locke, who spent his last years living nearby in the household of Sir John Masham. Standing against the South wall, it's plain and simple – stone slab above brick tomb – but the tablet bearing Locke's self-composed Latin epitaph now hangs, protected from the weather, on the inner South wall. It's rather good. Here it is in English:

'Stop, traveller. Near this place lieth John Locke. If you ask what kind of a man he was, he answers that he lived content with his own small fortune. Bred a scholar, he made his learning subservient only to the cause of truth. This thou will learn from his writings, which will show thee everything else concerning him, with greater truth, than the suspected praises of an epitaph. His virtues, indeed, if he had any, were too little for him to propose as matter of praise to himself, or as an example to thee. Let his vices be buried together. As to an example of manners, if you seek that, you have it in the Gospels; of vices, to wish you have one nowhere; if mortality, certainly, (and may it profit thee), thou hast one here and everywhere.'

Back home and thawing out, I caught a new Point of View talk on Radio 4 by John Gray, making a welcome return after a run of A.L. Kennedy (groan) and Howard Jacobson. Gray's subject was The Dangers of a Higher Education. He explored 'the ignorance of the learned' – the sad fact that the highly educated are especially prone to Grand Theories and 'dangerously absurd' ideas – to which, happily, the less educated are largely immune, having a greater share both of common sense and of experience of the realities of daily life. Quite rightly, Gray takes a dim view of the postmodern neo-Marxist 'mishmash' that is being force-fed to so many students of the humanities and social sciences. Does this in any way give them a better understanding of life, or in any way equip them for the world outside Academe? Here is the link...

 John Locke had his own perspective on all this: 'There is frequently more to be learned from the unexpected questions of a child than the discourses of men'. Very true.

Wednesday 21 February 2018

Dead Parrot, Dread Czerny

No, this is not a picture of the daily parakeet feeding frenzy in my garden, but of a quite different species, the Carolina Parakeet, which became extinct on this day 100 years ago (worth a Google Doodle, I'd have thought?). One of only two indigenous parrot species in the United States (and the only one across its range), the Carolina Parakeet suffered a catastrophic decline in the 19th century, the result of loss of habitat (watery old-growth forest) and, probably, some kind of epidemic disease. Extinction happened remarkably fast, and the last known live bird, Incas, died at the Cincinnati zoo on this day in 1918. It met its end in the same cage in which Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon, had died four years earlier.

A slightly cheerier anniversary (though many piano students might not agree) is of the birth of Carl Czerny in 1791. Czerny was a prodigiously talented pianist and a prolific composer. As a child he was taught by Beethoven, and later had all the great man's works by heart, able to play any of them at the drop of an opus number. Czerny in turn taught and mentored Liszt, and wrote much music across many genres. But his name lives on for his didactic piano exercises and studies – 'the dread Czerny' as in Donald Justice's evocative sonnet...

The Pupil

Picture me, the shy pupil at the door,

One small, tight fist clutching the dread Czerny.
Back then time was still harmony, not money,
And I could spend a whole week practising for
That moment on the threshold. Then to take courage,
And enter, and pass among mysterious scents,
And sit quite straight, and with a frail confidence
Assault the keyboard with a childish flourish!

Only to lose my place, or forget the key,
And almost doubt the very metronome
(Outside, the traffic, the laborers going home),
And still to bear on across Chopin or Brahms,
Stupid and wild with love equally for the storms
Of C# minor and the calms of C.

Tuesday 20 February 2018

A Most Unlikely Tour

Last night on Radio 4 I heard a repeat of an engaging programme about Yorkshire County Cricket Club's unlikely tour of North America in 1964, when Beatlemania was at its height. There's an article about the tour, written by Dan Waddell (son of 'Voice of Darts' Sid, fact fans),  here  – a more complete account of events, getting increasingly bizarre, and funny, as it goes along. Stick with it – it's a great read for anyone who remembers the Yorkshire team in their mid-Sixties pomp.
 Many of those Yorkshire greats are dead now – but not, of course, the one and only Geoffrey Boycott, who contributed a few memories to the radio documentary. Young Boycs suffered an abreaction to a smallpox vaccination on the flight to New York, so was not in the best shape when the tour began. Another (non-Yorkshire) contributor remembers him sitting in silence as a party, drinking beer after beer – which seems uncharacteristic of him, though not of the rest of the team, whose drinking often left them groggy and hungover when play began, a factor that no doubt contributed to a couple of shaky performances. Boycott recalls Fred Trueman striding into the opposition's dressing room, cigar in hand, to remind them what rubbish they were – and, on one occasion, coming to the crease wearing a stetson. Of the Beatles, Boycott concedes that 'They were a little bit bigger than us'.
 Also sharing his memories was John Hampshire ('Me name's John – call me Jack and th'interview's over'). He ruefully recalled the extent of the touring Yorkshire team's sponsorship – 'a collapsible chair and a raincoat'. Different times...

Monday 19 February 2018

Herons Letting Themselves Down

Remember those far-off days when herons were mysterious and elusive birds, dwellers in remote watery places, rarely encountered and, when spotted, quick to take off and fly away? Seeing one at all was an event, and there was a magic in their angular primeval appearance, their improbable expanse of wing ('the heron shakes out his pac-a-mac of wings'), heavy flight and length of leg and beak. There was no other bird like it in this country – and that is still the case, though the broadly similar egrets are making inroads.
 Now, however, herons are so numerous that seeing one – for anyone who keeps even half an eye open for bird life – is very far from being an event. And, what's worse, the herons have lost all their shyness around humans and joined the ever swelling ranks of loud, aggressive suburban scavengers. In my local park (the one with the most water), there was great excitement yesterday afternoon as a dozen and more herons gathered on a lawn where someone was scattering bread around in considerable quantities. I've seen plenty of herons in the park before, stalking in the shallows, perching in the trees and  hanging around on the edges of the regular crow-gull-pigeon-duck-squirrel-goose feeding frenzies. But this lot were something else. These herons were mobbing their benefactor, fighting with each other, shrieking and flapping their huge wings, and seeing off all smaller birds in their eagerness to stuff themselves with all the food available.
 This display of ruffianly behaviour was an ugly and depressing sight – and no doubt a sign of things to come. The herons are taking over. I just hope the infinitely cleverer crows are busy planning a sustained counter-offensive.

Sunday 18 February 2018

Uncle Logan

'During the meal Uncle Logan was almost silent. He ate, and addressed a few practical remarks to his sister about the coming weekend arrangements, but all was done without once raising his eyes from his plate, or changing his expression or the dead tone of his voice between coming into the dining room and going out of it again. His eyelids, drawn permanently down so that he could see nothing but the food upon his plate, hooded him as the lowered curtain in a theatre hoods the empty stage between performances. At such times Uncle Logan seemed engulfed in a lack of interest in the living world so absolute that I was shocked. Deeply shaken. I suppose it was the first time I had seen someone I knew and admired and talked with every day who was yet afflicted with this particular sickness. Many years later I was told the name of Logan's illness: the doctor pronounced him to be Manic-Depressive. But at the time of which I'm speaking I had no knowledge that my uncle was the victim of any illness at all, nor do I believe that anyone else was aware of his particular trouble.
  As soon as the last spoonful of apple charlotte and the last crumb of biscuit and cheese were finished, Logan rose up stiffly from his chair, and unheedingly letting his crumpled napkin fall to the floor, he would start to shuffle doorward again as one stunned...
  I would watch his bowed shoulders in his navy serge suit, his handsomely carved ruddy face with the weariness lying over it like a grey powdered dust. Watch him disappear through the fine panelled Georgian door that the parlourmaid Katie would be holding open for him. I felt deep dismay at the spectacle of this fallen God...'

 So writes the novelist Julia Strachey, in a fragmentary memoir of her early life, recalling lunch times as Ford Place, where as a child she lived in the care of her 'Aunty Loo' (Alys, deserted wife of Bertrand Russell) and Alys's brother Logan – none other than Logan Pearsall Smith, author of the once very highly regarded (and still worth reading) Trivia volumes. I've written about him several times here, as a quick search will show, and had always imagined him much as he presented himself – an elegant idler, spending his time musing at ease and honing his little prose vignettes and aphorisms to a gem-like perfection. It comes as a shock to learn of the dark side of this brilliant creature, whose performances at the dinner table were in marked contrast to his lunchtime gloom.
 Julia Strachey recalls listening in on the conversation at the grown-ups' dinner parties:
'I could tell it was the very ne plus ultra of sophisticated gossip and dashing intellectual badinage. And the whole performance was led by Uncle Logan! There was wicked laughter and daring jests – how I adored those mischievous sessions! When Uncle Logan was in his glory he appeared to me the wittiest, handsomest and most stimulating man on earth.'

 Of course I should have known that the easiest-seeming art is often the product of the most intense effort, and the lightest, most sparkling effects are often born out of a struggle with darkness.

 The passages above are from Julia: A Portrait of Julia Strachey by Herself and Frances Partridge, assembled by FP, a lifelong friend, from an inchoate mass of writings left behind at Julia's death. In her lifetime Julia published almost nothing but two novellas, Cheerful Weather for the Wedding and An Integrated Man, both of which are all but perfect. I might well be rereading and writing about them later in the year.

Friday 16 February 2018

Aristotle's Masterpiece Again

Radio 4's New Quiz is a programme I don't often bother with these days – too much of it is drearily predictable, smug and long-winded – but I caught an item this evening based on a news story I hadn't heard: an early copy of the 'banned Georgian sex manual' known as Aristotle's Masterpiece has come up for auction. I once had a copy myself, of a later (probably mid-19th century) edition, which I bought in Sheffield out of curiosity and subsequently lost or threw out. I blogged about it here back in 2009, a propos another book (Maurice Gorham's Londoners), so if you want to find out more, follow this link...

Thursday 15 February 2018

The Year of Publishing Women?

Apparently in some quarters it's being suggested that 2018 should be the 'year of publishing women', the aim being to redress the 'gender imbalance' in the publishing industry, in literary award shortlists (quick question: how many women's literary awards are there, and how many for men only?), in space afforded to male rather than female reviewers on books pages, even in the sex of protagonists in prize-winning novels (more of them are men, apparently). Leading the campaign is the novelist Kamila Shamsie.
 The research cited 'reveals' that only 40 per cent of books submitted for the Booker Prize are by women – hardly surprising, I'd have thought, as it's perhaps the most masculine of the big prizes and publishers know it (though that hasn't stopped Eleanor Catton, Bernice Rubens, Anne Enright and Hilary Mantel (twice) winning it in recent years). The more female (and reader)-friendly Costa Book of the Year award has been won by the same number of women as men over the past decade (and it's 60:40 in favour of women across all the Costa awards).
 This whole campaign might seem somewhat mystifying to anyone who takes even the slightest notice of what's on the fiction shelves and in the windows of bookshops, or who occasionally glances at the bestseller lists. The fact is that fiction written by women is massively dominant in terms of sales, publicity and all-round success, to the point where nine out of the ten best-selling 'literary' authors in 2017 were women. Perhaps it's the male novelists who could do with a leg up (not a serious suggestion).
 One publisher has seriously taken up the challenge of the 'year of publishing women': Stefan Tobler of the excellent Sheffield-based small press And Other Stories will be publishing only women this year. I find this rather sad, but as he publishes barely a dozen titles a year it's hardly going to rock the industry.
 Meanwhile, this country somehow continues to do what it has, in my opinion, been doing for the best part of a century – producing rather more seriously good women novelists than men. Ivy Compton-Burnett, Muriel Spark, Penelope Fitzgerald, Elizabeth Bowen, Shirley Hazzard, Jean Rhys, Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Pym, Virginia Woolf if you must, Doris Lessing ditto... That's a gender imbalance that's absolutely fine by me.

Tuesday 13 February 2018


Today is the birthday of one of my favourite Venetian painters, Giambattista Piazzetta (born 1682). His name is not as well known as it should be, and that was the case in his lifetime too, when he was overshadowed by the massively successful Sebastiano Ricci and G.B. Tiepolo. Ricci's overblown work, painted by the acre in the grand manner, is now of interest chiefly to art historians, while Tiepolo's reputation, after declining in the 20th century, is back where it should be, i.e. in the Venetian premier league. Piazzetta, on the other hand, remains in the shadows, a fascinating figure whose works, once you get to know them, cast a powerful spell.
  Piazzetta is what might be called a poetic painter (like his fellow Venetian Giorgione), his best pictures seeming to be charged with something mysterious and elusive. His generally dark-toned palette and distinctive use of light and shade – a particular fall of warm light against intense, modulated darkness – deepens the mystery of pictures full of enigmatic poses, looks and gestures, and his subjects are often obscure. What exactly is going on in the picture above, An Idyll at the Coast? Or in the one below, The Soothsayer (which is in the Accademia)? The longer you look at works like these, the more compelling – and impressive – they become.
 Outside Venice, where there are a good many of his masterpieces in the churches, Piazzetta's works (which include many brilliant drawings, mostly portraits) are widely, and rather thinly, scattered. It would be wonderful if enough could be gathered together for a full-scale exhibition. It would open many eyes, and perhaps raise Piazzetta's reputation to the heights where it belongs.

Monday 12 February 2018

The Blackberry Storm

Who could resist a news story headlined 'Peter Rabbit film producers apologise over allergy scene'? Truly, the world gets stranger by the day. As if these computer-animated versions of the Peter Rabbit stories weren't offensive enough to the eye, the ear, the intelligence and the memory of Beatrix Potter (what was the estate thinking of in allowing these travesties?), they go and include a scene in which the invented character Tom McGregor, a young man with a blackberry allergy, is pelted with the allergenic fruit by Peter and friends, causing an abreaction that forces him to reach for his EpiPen. If they didn't see that this scene would inevitably spark an outcry, the producers must be fantastically naive. Beatrix Potter is surely revolving at ever higher speed in her grave.

Meanwhile, up in Derbyshire, where I've been for the weekend, I've encountered my first celandines of the year, and my first fully open daffodils, and a spectacular flowering cherry with the most blossom I've seen this year. Odd that this should have happened so far North. And now there is snow on the ground...

Thursday 8 February 2018

The Sad Story of the Internet

The death of John Perry Barlow – cyberlibertarian, founder member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Freedom of the Press Foundation, sometime Grateful Dead lyricist, and much more (check out his Wikipedia entry) – got me thinking about two things, aside from mortality. One was of course the Grateful Dead; the other was how much the online world has changed since those heady days when Barlow and his fellow techno-utopians could envision the internet as 'a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity'. If only.
 I came relatively late to the online world, with little idea of what I was doing, but in retrospect I realise I took the plunge at the best possible moment, when blogs, in all their magnificent, sometimes mad individuality, were riding high. Before, that is, the rise of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the rest. Not only did (and do) blogs offer superior content, they are also, by their very nature, resistant to centralised control – of the kind exerted by Facebook, Twitter and YouTube – and happily incapable of doing the damage wrought unceasingly by fatuous Twitterstorms, online harassment and shaming. Blogs generate only small, loose networks, whereas, by sharing and retweeting, newer social media can create networks of almost unlimited size, sending cascading waves of hysteria spreading across the echo chamber of cyberspace in less time than it takes to think.
 Blogs, it seems, are now decidedly vieux jeu, an oldsters' playground, too close to the essay form for today's frantic, pixellated world, and this seems to me very sad. The golden age of the blog was the golden age of the internet, and it was all too brief. (My own steadily declining stats tell the story all too clearly, not that it bothers me much – I care more about who my readers are than how many.)
 But never mind all that – here's a fine Grateful Dead song for which the late John Perry Barlow wrote the lyrics...

Tuesday 6 February 2018


Sad to hear of the death of that fine actor John Mahoney, who achieved well deserved fame as Marty Crane, unlikely father of Frasier and Niles, in that great sitcom Frasier. Born in Manchester, Mahoney followed his sister to Illinois, and joined the army to get his US citizenship as fast as possible. He dropped his English accent because it attracted too much attention to him and 'I just wanted to blend in'. Coming to acting late – at the age of 37 – he got his start with John Malkovich's Steppenwolf company and was soon landing film roles. A cameo appearance in Cheers led to Kelsey Grammer recommending him for the role of Dad in the spin-off Frasier – and the rest is television history.  Maloney delivered a perfectly judged, delicately nuanced performance, skilfully adapting his expressive face to the small screen and creating one of the great sitcom characters, at once blunt and cantankerous, charming and sensitive – and a whole lot wiser than his pretentious sons.
 It was not his only memorable performance, as anyone who has seen the Coen brothers' Barton Fink will testify. Here he is as W.P. Mayhew – clearly based on William Faulkner – making himself known to the hapless Barton (John Turturro)...

Larkin on the Other Side: 'Tramping, not stopping'

Finding myself awake and unable to sleep early this morning, I turned on the radio, and happened upon a programme about EVP. Electronic voice phenomena are supposed 'voices' found on electronic recordings. Those inclined towards spiritualism take them for voices of the dead communicating with us from the Other Side.
 Before I knew it, on came a woman who, with her husband, had regularly serviced Philip Larkin's hearing aids. The couple were also keen spiritualists, and the husband liked to tune in to the spirit world by means of an old wireless set. Naturally, when his illustrious client passed over, the hearing-aid man was keen to get in touch with him and glean his impressions of life beyond the veil. His sessions yielded fruit, of a kind...
 Larkin, the hearing-aid man's wife explained by way of preface, was always 'tramping around graveyards'. Then came the recording of her husband asking Larkin to make himself known – and the sudden answer from the Other Side, a burst of static through which something like a Larkinesque voice can be faintly heard. What it is saying is not immediately clear, but the hearing-aid woman obligingly translates: 'Tramping, not stopping.' I couldn't make it out on first hearing, but listening again online (here – it's just after 7:30), it did sound very like those words.
 This was not the hearing-aid man's only success. He sent Larkin's biographer Andrew Motion three cassettes of material (of which, presumably, 'Tramping, not stopping' was the highlight, which isn't saying a lot). Later, after the biography was published, Motion received another cassette in a jiffy bag. In this recording, Larkin is asked what he thinks of Motion's book. 'Very satisfactory,' he replies, obligingly.

Monday 5 February 2018

Late Call

On the journey back from Wellington I finished reading the battered old Penguin I'd excavated from a notably chaotic bookshop in a suburb of that fine city – Late Call by Angus Wilson (first published in 1964). It's a strange book that took a bit of getting used to, and felt at times like little more than a period piece (which it isn't). Set in one of those 'new towns' that were flourishing in the early Sixties, it seemed for a long while to be a kind of gentle social comedy that wasn't really going anywhere – except all over said new town and its environs, which are described at length (the ambience is strikingly similar to that of Elizabeth Jenkins' Brightness, though Wilson's anti-progressivism is not as fierce as hers). For me this was evocative stuff, as I remember such places at such a time, and I recall the feel of the period, with its often forced community spirit and optimistic looking forward, its ten-pin bowling alleys, 'ton-up boys' and 'expresso bars'. Above all, I recall the excruciating horrors of family and social life at the time, and these Wilson portrays with a pin-sharp eye.
 Late Call begins, though, with a brilliant prelude set in the hot summer of 1911 – a prelude that could easily stand alone as a short story, and for some while appears to have no connection at all with the novel that follows. But there is a connection, as gradually becomes apparent – the connection being Sylvia Calvert, the woman at the centre of the novel, through whose eyes we see almost all the action. When we meet her, she is just retiring from her job as a hotel manageress – a job that has been made no easier by her wastrel husband's long-standing habits of running up debts and molesting women. With health problems and little money, Sylvia is obliged to move in with her son, a fiercely progressive, community-minded headmaster in the aforementioned new town. Recently widowed and father to three teenagers, he is a pompous, verbose prig who feels compelled to share his views on everything, at length, with a grateful world. A master of passive aggression, he has his family tightly organised as an exemplar of familial perfection, but, not surprisingly, there are deep tensions seething just below the surface...
 Sylvia observes all this in anxious bewilderment, and feels entirely out of place in her son's up-to-the-minute modern home, and in the unfamiliar new town in which it is set. The arguments going on around her, and the attitudes being struck, also leave her bewildered and uneasy, and she retreats increasingly into a world of favourite TV programmes and trashy fiction borrowed from the public library. Meanwhile, her husband it out and about, sowing the usual havoc. Sylvia seeks escape by taking ever bolder excursions into the countryside – or rather, trying to find some. Wilson's description of the strange edgelands, dismal public paths, fenced-off land and blank non-countryside around an English town are all too recognisable.
 Sylvia Calvert's inner world seems strange, even alien territory for Wilson: she is fat, not very bright, wholly uncultured and barely lower-middle-class (she was played in the TV version by the redoubtable Dandy Nichols). There is sometimes a condescending – even anthropological – note in Wilson's recounting of the contents of her mind, and of the TV programmes and novels that she reads. Adopting her voice, Wilson irritatingly over-uses the phrase 'and that' (for 'and so on'). What is going on here? I found myself asking as I languished in the apparent stasis of the middle sections of the novel. Is this story going anywhere?
 Well, yes, it is indeed. Having laid his groundwork at perhaps excessive length, Wilson has everything in place to turn the course of events in a series of powerful climactic scenes that finally make sense of the whole thing by shaking up all the apparently settled realities of the life portrayed in the earlier sections of the novel. Late Call reveals itself in the end as a well made, thoroughly satisfying novel with a deeply sympathetic central character – and, for those of us old enough to remember the time in which it is set – a fascinating window on the past.
 Having read this and Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, I remain mystified by the total eclipse of Angus Wilson's once glittering reputation. He was a fine novelist who still deserves to be widely read (and his books are to be found, dirt cheap, in the most unlikely places).

Friday 2 February 2018

A Monumental Binge

For all its many charms, Wellington has no buildings that a visiting Brit would count as old – nothing, indeed, built before the mid-19th century, and therefore no old churches. The church known as 'Old St Paul's' is an interesting wooden building of the 1860s in a rather confused Gothic style – by English standards neither old nor beautiful. Wellington Cathedral (also dedicated to St Paul) is a much larger building of reinforced concrete which blends streamlined Gothic with more modernist elements. Begun in the 1950s and completed late in the 1990s, its spacious interior works quite well, but there's nothing to lift the soul – and, of course, nothing old. As for church monuments, New Zealand is too young a country to have any.
 So, after a month of ecclesiological drought, today I decided to treat myself to a monumental binge – a visit to Westminster Abbey. I hadn't been for some years, and thought it would be a good idea to wallow in all those monuments – and so it was, if only to confirm me in my view that English funerary sculpture was, by and large, sorry stuff until foreign influences (and refugees) brought about a brilliant golden age in the early decades of the 17th century, after which the Baroque style got out of hand, with often ludicrous results,  neo-classicism made matters worse, and then came the long decline through the Victorian period, until finally it was all over bar the lettering.
 Too many of the monuments in Westminster Abbey (and there are too many monuments in this abbey - they're everywhere) are monstrously overblown products of the period from the late 17th to the early 19th centuries – decidedly public monuments to public men (and a few women), displaying 'the boast of heraldry, the pomp of power' and over-asserting the all-round magnificence of their (often forgotten) subjects. This is entirely fitting for a grand church at the very centre of national power, but it makes for a far from numinous space, especially when thronged with tourists, garishly over-lit and loud with the noise of building work, chair stacking and general Abbey busyness. Still, it's always worth a visit – even, perhaps, worth the £22 entrance fee (£17 to oldsters like me) – if only to marvel at the tombs of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York (Torrigiano), Elizabeth I (Maximilian Colt, Flemish) and Mary, Queen of Scots (Cornelius and William Cure, of Dutch origin) and the monuments by Nicholas Stone and others of the all too brief golden age. 

Thursday 1 February 2018


Today is the centenary of Muriel Spark's birth (what, no Google doodle?). More than a decade on from her death, her stars seems still to burn pretty bright – partly thanks to continuing interest in her unusual, enigmatic life and personality, but also because her books are still read. Several of them will surely endure long after most novelists of her vintage are forgotten. Novels so crisp and sharp – steely indeed – will always come up fresh.
 As a 2018 centenarian, Miss Spark is in mixed company: fellow novelist Penelope Mortimer, biographer Richard Ellmann, hard-boiled thriller writer Mickey Spillane, Alexander Solzhenitsyn – and Jacqueline Susann, author of such megasellers as Valley of the Dolls. Though she was no literary pioneer, Miss Susann was perhaps the first novelist to market herself as, effectively, a brand name, an author whose books would sell by the truckload on the back of her name alone. This was achieved by brilliant self-promotion, helped by her glamorous looks and showbiz background. With her press agent husband, she pioneered what is now a gruelling feature of every successful author's post-publication schedule – the book tour. That is a legacy, of a kind.