Friday 30 March 2018

A Good Friday thought

Odd, isn't it, how much of the most beautiful music being written in our time is overtly religious. This wasn't supposed to happen; nothing was going to reverse the onward march of secularism, and the arts would surely secularise along with everything else. Arguably some of the arts have indeed done so, as demonstrated over the past fifty years or so by the poor quality of most religious art and the near-absence of religion from the literary mainstream. Music, however, is different. This most immediate and least didactic of art forms, the one that can bring us closest to God, has found new life by returning to its spiritual wellsprings. Nowhere has the effect been more dramatic than in countries that formerly laboured under the secular imperium of Communism and where now great religious music is being written by the likes of Arvo Part, Peteris Vasks and Valentin Sylvestrov. But the resurgence (or persistence) has spread far wider than that...
  The other day on Radio 3 I heard a beautiful psalm setting by Anna Thorvaldsdottir, a young Icelandic composer whose name was new to me. I haven't been able to find that particular piece, but here is Thorvaldsdottir's simple but perfect setting of an Icelandic psalm – something to lift the spirits on this dark, wet Good Friday.

Thursday 29 March 2018

'A slow singer'

R.S. Thomas, curmudgeon extraordinaire and one of our finest poets, would have been 105 today. His birthday is one that's always worth marking with a poem, and here's a seasonal one, at this time of year when the blackbirds are greeting the dawn and dusk more melodiously each day –

A Blackbird Singing

It seems wrong that out of this bird,
Black, bold, a suggestion of dark 
Places about it, there yet should come
Such rich music, as though the notes'
Ore were changed to a rare metal
At one touch of that bright bill.

You have heard it often, alone at your desk
In a green April, your mind drawn
Away from its work by sweet disturbance
Of the mild evening outside your room.

A slow singer, but loading each phrase
With history's overtones, love, joy
And grief learned by his dark tribe
In other orchards and passed on
Instinctively as they are now,
But fresh always with new tears.

Wednesday 28 March 2018

Dockery and Son

On this day 55 years ago, Philip Larkin signed off on one of his relatively long poems, Dockery and Son. It is not, to put it mildly, one of his cheerier numbers, but a death-haunted affair  – Larkin, or rather his persona, even begins it 'death-suited' – and it relentlessly stresses his alienation from what most of us choose or have: family, home, companionable love. 'Visitant', 'ignored', he is even alienated from his own past. Doors are closed on him – 'the door of where I used to live', the tight-shut warped doors of 'what We think truest or most want to do'. He sees his life as the product of habit and choices made by 'something hidden from us', signifying nothing – 'Whether or not we use it, it goes', having brought with it 'age, and then the only end of age'. Sheesh, that's one potent miserabilist cocktail you've made there, Phil.
 And yet, somehow, Dockery and Son is a pleasure to read. It's beautifully made, with its simple rhyme scheme giving it shape and the mostly regular metre broken enough to make it entirely believable as interior monologue (enjambment galore helps the effect). There's nothing of the confessional splurge about this poem – there never is with Larkin; he is an artist, and he is always in control, working through a persona, however close that persona might be to the real-life Larkin in some respects (he was of course resolutely unmarried and family-free). Dockery and Son is a poised, well-wrought work of art, and that is what saves it, and makes it read as freshly today as when it was written.

‘Dockery was junior to you,
Wasn’t he?’ said the Dean. ‘His son’s here now.’   
Death-suited, visitant, I nod. ‘And do
You keep in touch with—’ Or remember how   
Black-gowned, unbreakfasted, and still half-tight   
We used to stand before that desk, to give   
‘Our version’ of ‘these incidents last night’?   
I try the door of where I used to live:

Locked. The lawn spreads dazzlingly wide.
A known bell chimes. I catch my train, ignored.   
Canal and clouds and colleges subside
Slowly from view. But Dockery, good Lord,   
Anyone up today must have been born
In ’43, when I was twenty-one.
If he was younger, did he get this son
At nineteen, twenty? Was he that withdrawn

High-collared public-schoolboy, sharing rooms
With Cartwright who was killed? Well, it just shows   
How much ... How little ... Yawning, I suppose
I fell asleep, waking at the fumes
And furnace-glares of Sheffield, where I changed,   
And ate an awful pie, and walked along   
The platform to its end to see the ranged   
Joining and parting lines reflect a strong

Unhindered moon. To have no son, no wife,   
No house or land still seemed quite natural.   
Only a numbness registered the shock   
Of finding out how much had gone of life,   
How widely from the others. Dockery, now:   
Only nineteen, he must have taken stock
Of what he wanted, and been capable
Of ... No, that’s not the difference: rather, how

Convinced he was he should be added to!
Why did he think adding meant increase?
To me it was dilution. Where do these
Innate assumptions come from? Not from what   
We think truest, or most want to do:
Those warp tight-shut, like doors. They’re more a style   
Our lives bring with them: habit for a while,
Suddenly they harden into all we’ve got

And how we got it; looked back on, they rear   
Like sand-clouds, thick and close, embodying   
For Dockery a son, for me nothing,
Nothing with all a son’s harsh patronage.   
Life is first boredom, then fear.
Whether or not we use it, it goes,
And leaves what something hidden from us chose,   
And age, and then the only end of age.

Monday 26 March 2018


Today is Housman-Frost day, the date on which both A.E. Housman (1859) and Robert Frost (1874) were born – two poets very different in their outlook but similar in their preference for simple poetic forms and (at least until Frost began to spread himself) brevity. Here are two spring poems - first Housman:

Spring Morning

Star and coronal and bell
April underfoot renews,
And the hope of man as well
Flowers among the morning dews.

Now the old come out to look,
Winter past and winter's pains,
How the sky in pool and brook
Glitters on the grassy plains.

Easily the gentle air
Wafts the turning season on;
Things to comfort them are there,
Though 'tis true the best are gone.

Now the scorned unlucky lad
Rousing from his pillow gnawn
Mans his heart and deep and glad
Drinks the valiant air of dawn.

Half the night he longed to die,
Now are sown on hill and plain
Pleasures worth his while to try
Ere he longs to die again.

Blue the sky from east to west
Arches, and the world is wide,
Though the girl he loves the best
Rouses from another's side. 

This is Housman at his cheeriest, though inevitably undercut with darker notes (''tis true the best are gone', 'Half the night he longed to die'). The beauty of the spring morning just about wins out. 'Star and coronal and bell' is a lovely first line, and 'gnawn' makes a daring rhyme with 'dawn'.

And here is Robert Frost, for whom spring is, more simply, an occasion for prayer and thanksgiving:

A Prayer in Spring
Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers to-day;
And give us not to think so far away
As the uncertain harvest; keep us here
All simply in the springing of the year.
Oh, give us pleasure in the orchard white,
Like nothing else by day, like ghosts by night;
And make us happy in the happy bees,
The swarm dilating round the perfect trees.
And make us happy in the darting bird
That suddenly above the bees is heard,
The meteor that thrusts in with needle bill,
And off a blossom in mid air stands still.
For this is love and nothing else is love,
The which it is reserved for God above
To sanctify to what far ends He will,
But which it only needs that we fulfil.

The evocation of the darting hummingbird is particularly good: 'And off a blossom in mid air stands still' is a perfectly poised line, one that seems itself to stand still in mid air. 

Saturday 24 March 2018

Gill Country

Yesterday I was walking on and below the South Downs with my walking friends – a rather gruelling circuit beginning and ending high up on Ditchling Beacon. It's a beautiful landscape: the Downs, with their big skies, wide views and rolling contours, still look very much as they do in the paintings of Ravilious, Nash and co; and the villages below are the stuff of picture-postcards. The churches are modest buildings that sit perfectly in the landscape. Their interiors are plain and contain little to catch the eye of a monument man (but one we visited, Clayton, has some truly astonishing twelfth-century wall paintings).
  As we walked from church to church, we noticed how many of the modern headstones in their graveyards bore decently, and more than decently, hand-carved inscriptions. It's a rare treat, in these days of machine lettering and incongruous black marble/granite, to come across hand-carved lettering on appropriate stone. Why was there such a pleasing concentration of good letter-carving here?
  The answer only occurred to me after I got back. I knew that Ditchling (where we lunched) was a place with artistic associations, but I couldn't think what they were. A moment's search online and I was reminded: it was at Ditchling that the great letter-carver, sculptor and print-maker Eric Gill [above] founded his first community of artists and craftsmen, the Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic, an idealistic enterprise modelled on the medieval guild system and founded in work, communal domestic life and Roman Catholic faith. According to its mission statement, it was a community of 'Men rich in virtue studying beautifulness living in peace in their houses'.
  'Men' was accurate enough – women were denied membership until 1972 – but Gill himself could hardly be described as a man 'rich in virtue'. Indeed, since the publication in 1989 of Fiona MacCarthy's revealing biography, Gill has been notorious for an untrammelled sexual appetite that extended to just about anything with a pulse. As a result he has become a popular focus of arguments about whether really bad people can create really good art, and how much our knowledge of its creator's vices should colour our judgment of a work of art. In my own opinion, the answer to the latter is 'as little as possible' – especially if the art is as impersonal and as far removed from direct self-expression as lettering. (It's harder, of course, to enjoy Gill's erotic prints in the knowledge of his incestuous and bestial habits.)
  Although Gill left his Guild to its own devices after a few years, it thrived without him, attracting a wide range of talented artists, writers, engravers, stone carvers, weavers, silversmiths, graphic designers and craftsmen and women of every kind. The Guild was dissolved in 1989, but its legacy lives on – not least in having kept alive the art of headstone lettering in this corner of Sussex.

Tuesday 20 March 2018

Charlie and Judy and Ernest and Ivy

By way of light relief after the rigours of Molloy, I've been reading Roger Lewis's hugely enjoyable biography of Carry On regular Charles Hawtrey, a creature of unbounded gaiety and joie de vivre whose life somehow slid towards a sad and dismal end (in that strange coastal town, Deal). Lewis's footnotes alone are worth the cover price – e.g. this one on Kenneth Connor:

'What a pain in the arse he is. The only person I know who can abide Connor's going-to-pieces, swallowing-hard, nervous-wreck act is Jonathan Coe, who wrote an entire novel on the subject, What a Carve-Up! (1994). His The House of Sleep (1997) was filled with allusions to Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, the Baker Street set for which at Pinewood was used for exterior views of the Hawtrey character's boarding house in [Carry On at Your] Convenience. I await Coe's homage to The Shoes of the Fisherman, no doubt to be called Kiss My Ring!'

(In a later footnote, Lewis claims that Coe 'used to play the piano in a Lesbian pub called the Purple Passage in Welwyn Garden City'.)
  Hawtrey's stage career flourished in the age of the light revue, at which he excelled, particularly enjoying the ample opportunities for dressing up in female clothing – which he wore extraordinarily well – and even delivering the chanteuses' songs. A happy consequence of this was the show-stopping debut in wartime London of A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square, sung by Judy Campbell (Jane Birkin's mother) in the revue New Faces. Lewis quotes her memories of the occasion:

''Charlie was so good at my songs, I said, "Have them." He was much funnier than I'd have been, and he grabbed them. So he did the Vivandière's song, which was meant to be mine ("Vivandière, with a bottle of brandy on my derrière"); and that's how they got to give me Eric Maschwitz's "Nightingale" instead, which stopped the show in a most extraordinary way. You see – it was the early years of the war, when we thought we were losing. There was this incredible atmosphere of danger and uncertainty – and of excitement. The air raids were on. The show was constantly interrupted by bombs falling. The cast and the audience would sometimes be marooned in the theatre until two in the morning. We'd invite them up on the stage to dance with us. It's funny – up in the night sky, Hitler's bombers; down below, Charlie Hawtrey, with that beady face and huge specs, in a dress.'

  Among the names of the actors Hawtrey worked with at this time was one that rang a bell – Ernest Thesiger, with whom he performed in cod operettas and comedy sketches, often in drag. Was this the Ernest Thesiger who was for decades a stalwart friend of Ivy Compton-Burnett? It was indeed he, the man of whom Beverley Nichols declared that 'Nothing is more terrifying to me than the sight of Ernest Thesiger sitting under the lamplight doing his embroidery'. He was a keen and expert embroiderer who plied a very skilled needle – and there was indeed something oddly sinister about him, as became apparent when he played Dr Pretorius in his friend James Whale's The Bride of Frankenstein.
  Like Hawtrey, Ernest Thesiger (definitely not to be confused with his kinsman, the explorer Wilfred) was, in E.F. Benson's phrase, a 'not obtrusively masculine sort of person'. It was he who, on returning from the trenches of Flanders and being asked how it had been, made the immortal reply, 'My dear, the noise! And the people!' (Well, many say it was Thesiger, and it certainly sounds like him.)  Even in the trenches (whence he was sent home lightly wounded) he continued to ply his needle, as he would later do backstage and on set, and, in companionable silence, with Queen Mary herself. In 1941, he published a book titled Adventures in Embroidery (he also published an autobiography in which he oddly fails to mention his marriage or his wife – who was, in a common enough arrangement, the sister of a very special male friend).
  It's a shame Thesiger never secured Hawtrey an entrée to Ivy's exalted circle. They could have been joined by Charlie's fellow Carry On regular Joan Sims, who lived just round the corner, opposite T.S. Eliot. What a dinner party that might have been. Ivy might even have cracked open a second bottle of Cydrax.

Monday 19 March 2018


Sutton, the unlovely town a couple of miles from the demiparadise I call home, is blessed with many tall buildings and a thriving population of feral pigeons. For this reason, it has proved attractive in recent years to peregrine falcons, to whom a tall building is as good as a cliff and feral pigeons are so many flying lunchpacks. A pair has nested annually on one of the town's office blocks, and last year reared a brood of six, but, despite my best efforts, I hadn't once seen a Sutton peregrine until today.
 As I turned into a bitterly cold wind tunnel of a street, just off the High Street, I looked up and saw something rather impressive flying overhead – a kestrel, I thought at first, but no, the shape was wrong. Could it be? It was – a peregrine falcon, which, as I watched it,  rose elegantly to the top of a very tall and hideous apartment block, where it was joined by a second peregrine. I stood for some while, braced against the biting wind, and watched as the pair of them gracefully rode the thermals (there can't have been much thermal about them today) eddying around their urban cliff face. It was a joyous and beautiful sight, the more so for being so entirely unexpected. Maybe next time I'll see one stooping on a feral pigeon – that would be something to see.

Sunday 18 March 2018

Molloy Again

Having just finished reading Beckett's Molloy again, I realise that it's now 50 years since I first read it. In 1968, when I was just finishing school, I was aware of Waiting for Godot – I could hardly not be – but knew nothing of Beckett's other writings. Then, one fateful day, I was browsing the shelves of my local branch library when I spotted a muddy blue library-bound volume the spine of which was lettered 'Molloy. S. Beckett'. I took it home and was instantly drawn in, reading through it enthralled, from that famous opening –
'I am in my mother's room. It's I who live there now. I don't know how I got there...'
to the equally famous ending –
'Then I went back into the house and wrote, It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining.'
  From then on, I read every Beckett text I could get my hands on, and, 50 years on, my admiration for Beckett has never dwindled (unlike my admiration for many others I was reading at this time). I guess I must have read Molloy five or six times now, and every time something new comes to the surface. A passage that brought me up short this time was this, in Part I:

'I who had loved the image of old Geulincx, dead young, who left me free, on the black boat of Ulysses, to crawl towards the East, along the deck. That is a great measure of freedom, for him who has not the pioneering spirit. And from the poop, poring upon the wave, a sadly rejoicing slave, I follow with my eyes the proud and futile wake. Which, as it bears me from no fatherland away, bears me onward to no shipwreck.'

Geulincx rang a faint bell. He was, I (re?)discovered, a 17th-century philosopher much influenced by Descartes, and Beckett's imagery here derives partly from Dante's account of the doomed second voyage of Ulysses, and partly from an image in which Geulincx delineates the extent of human freedom. In Beckett's annotations to Geulincx's Ethics he paraphrased it thus:

'Just as a ship carrying a passenger with all speed towards the West in no way prevents the passenger from walking towards the East, so the will of God, carrying all things, impelling all things with inexorable force, in no way prevents us from resisting his will (as much as is in our power) with complete freedom.'

It's easy enough to see why this idea of freedom-in-slavery should have appealed to Beckett and fed into his fiction, populated as it is with sadly rejoicing slaves, all too aware that their freedom is simply that of walking the short walk from prow to stern of the boat that is bearing them inexorably onward in the opposite direction. It is indeed 'a great measure of freedom, for him who has not the pioneering spirit'. It might even be taken for a reasonable image of life itself, or rather living itself, carried on in the face of the certainty that we will all die. It feels like freedom, and that seems good enough.

Friday 16 March 2018


My butterfly year began among the Monarchs, Coppers and Yellow Admirals of Wellington – but that doesn't really count. Back in Blighty, it has felt like a long, long wait – it always does – but at last it's begun, the butterfly year proper: today I saw my first. Two bright male Brimstones were roving the ivy-clad railway embankment. Spring is on its way at last – though not before the Beast from the East comes roaring in again at the weekend...
March 16th is quite late for my first butterfly: last year my first sighting was a month earlier, and by this date I'd seen four species. In 2016 it was much the same as this year (March 14th) and in 2014 a week earlier, but 2015 began with the glorious surprise of a Red Admiral in Kensington on February 18th. Now that the 2018 season is under way, I'm hoping for the best year ever. I always am.

Clegg Oozes Passion in Tate Britain

I've just remembered something else from my recent visit to Tate Britain. On sale in the bookshop were copies of Nick Clegg's How to Stop Brexit ('oozes passion on every page' – Politics). What on earth was this doing in an art gallery bookshop? Presumably it was stocked on the assumption that everyone who is interested in the arts and likely to visit a gallery is anti-Brexit and would feel that little bit better just to see such a title on display.
  On Desert Island Discs this week, John Gray – yes, John Gray! On Desert Island Discs! – talked briefly about the consensus view in Academe that Brexiteers are (at best) nostalgic for a lost imperial past. 'For me,' Gray declared, 'the past is the European Project.'
  For me too, which was one of the reasons I was pro-Brexit, and one of the reasons I remain totally astonished that such a clapped-out relic of postwar thinking as the EU should be embraced so fervently by Young People. And indeed by the kind of trendies who visit Tate Britain.

Wednesday 14 March 2018

All Too Freudian, All Too Baconian

The other day I dropped in on the All Too Human exhibition at Tate Britain, an exhibition subtitled Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life. It certainly lives up to the first part of the subtitle, treating us to Bacon and Freud in quantity. As I take little pleasure in the works of either – so ugly, so grotesque, whatever their technical merits or 'importance' – this was for me the weak point of the exhibition (though I did enjoy Freud's uncharacteristically tender little portrait of his mother, and I rather like Bacon's Dog). So I was hoping for better things from the 'Century of Painting Life' (whatever that means).
 It turned out to be an odd selection of pictures and artists linked, for the most part, by nothing very much apart from being broadly figurative. As if in recognition of this incoherence, the curators make strenuous efforts to construct a connective thesis where it might have been more useful to provide a little more basic information about the artists and works concerned.
 The first room contains a few works by Sickert, Spencer, Bomberg (including a fine self-portrait) and, for some reason, Soutine. The second plunges us into Bacon (with a link to Giacometti), and the third is devoted to F.N. Souza, whose works look to me uncomfortably like the kind of garish Sixties kitsch that turns up in charity shops. The next room brings in William Coldstream and the Slade, and includes a couple of paintings I wouldn't have minded taking home: an early still life (with Delft jar) by Euan Uglow [right], and an orange tree (in a pot) by Coldstream himself.
After this, Bomberg reappears, along with some of his pupils, including Auerbach, Kossoff and Dorothy Mead (of whom I'd have liked to see more). A room full of glutinously impasted paintings of London scenes by Kossoff and Auerbach is followed by more Freud, including several of his huge and revolting nudes – and then comes another room of Bacons, but which time I was wondering if I was going to find anything in this exhibition to lift my spirits.
 The answer came in the following room, which contained just three paintings by Michael Andrews and three by R.B. Kitaj, each of which gave me more aesthetic pleasure than the whole of the rest of the exhibition. Andrews is represented by two large group portraits (more evocations than representations) taken from Soho life – The Colony Room and The Deer Park – and by Melanie and Me Swimming [below], a painting that transforms a holiday snap into a potent and touching image of human frailty, of the preciousness and precariousness of life and love.  Of the Kitajs, it was a joy to see To Live In Peace (The Singers) [above], especially on a cold grey March day, and to let the eye wander over the densely packed, richly coloured surfaces of The Wedding and Cecil Court (The Refugees), the centre of London's second-hand book trade viewed through the prism of Jewish history and yiddish theatre. Both Andrews and Kitaj are artists whose work is due a proper reappraisal – a joint retrospective would be a good thing. I'd certainly go and see it.
 All Too Human is rounded off by a room full of Paula Rego – easy to admire, hard to enjoy, impossible to live with – and a room of works by younger artists in the figurative tradition, as if to demonstrate that, despite everything, it's still going strong.

Monday 12 March 2018

The Monarch of Mirth

Sad news today that Ken Dodd, our greatest comedian, has died. He reached a good age, was active till very near the end, and even got round to making an honest woman of his partner of 40 years just before he died (let's hope she doesn't inherit any tax bills).
 Dodd was perhaps the last of the comedians who honed their craft in the music halls, and he was always first and foremost a stage comedian, with a quite astonishing gift for working an audience. I saw him in action once and I've never experienced anything like it. You might start with all kinds of reservations, you might even wonder what you're doing there – but within minutes you and everybody else in the audience will be eating out of his hand, and within not many more minutes you will be laughing as you've never laughed before at a stage comedian. Dodd could reduce any audience to helpless, weeping laughter – and it was a mystery how he did it. He didn't tell many jokes as such, and much of his material was on the corny side – it was, emphatically, the way he told them, and the extraordinary atmosphere of happiness and mirth he generated. His shows went on for hours, with bizarre musical interludes and singalongs, but you didn't care; for the time he was on the stage, all was well with the world. His comedy was a classic case of 'You had to be there', and I'm very glad that, on one occasion, I was. We'll certainly never see his like again.
 This link should take you to Dodd doing his vent act...

Sunday 11 March 2018

A Canine Shocker

'I don't know when I read anything so indecent, disgusting, touching, beautiful and stylish; I do fervently recommend it,' writes Julia Strachey to Frances Partridge in 1956. What is this indecent, disgusting  etc. book, this 'veritable marvel of brilliance and shockingness'? It is My Dog Tulip by J.R. Ackerley, a slim volume that I'd always assumed was just another charming memoir of life with a much-loved dog. Having now read it, I can confirm that it is no such thing, and that Julia Strachey was quite right about it. It's an extraordinary book, by turns jaw-dropping, hair-raising and laugh-aloud funny, with odd moments that are indeed touching and even beautiful.
  Ackerley is a now nearly forgotten figure who was from 1935 to 1959 the hugely influential literary editor of The Listener, from which position he championed many younger writers, including Auden, Spender and Isherwood, Larkin and Francis King – often in the teeth of opposition from the obdurate BBC. He was openly gay, at a time when it was dangerous to be so, and was such a ruthless self-editor that he only brought to completion in his lifetime a memoir (Hindoo Holiday), a stage play, a novel (We Think the World of You) – and the sui generis My Dog Tulip.
  The real-life original of Tulip was an Alsatian bitch called Queenie, but the publishers understandably thought it wiser to change the name. Ackerley states matter-of-factly that he and 'Tulip' fell in love with each other at first sight; he has no qualms about using such anthropomorphic language, and even talks of finding a 'husband' for Tulip, by whom she will have 'children'. These twee usages are, however, totally at odds with Ackerley's all too vivid descriptions of Tulip's inflamed condition when she is in heat, and the exertions of her various sex-crazed suitors and carefully selected 'husbands' (selected in vain; a grubby mongrel eventually impregnates her, giving her eight 'babies').
  It becomes clear to the reader very early on that Tulip is a nightmare dog, so fixated on her equally besotted master that she won't let anyone near him and can't bear to be out of his sight. And Ackerley is a nightmare dog owner, the very model of arrogant irresponsibility, as is made unblushingly apparent in the extremely graphic chapter titled 'Liquids and Solids'. Surely no other dog memoir has gone into these matters – or the gynaecological ones – with such relish. The jaw drops, the hair is raised, and so it goes on, until the action reaches a kind of climax with Ackerley sharing his tiny Putney flat (the terrace of which is Tulip's outside lavatory) with his beloved bitch and her eight puppies – a situation that gets so out of hand that the author is threatened with immediate eviction if he doesn't get rid of the puppies (half of whom he had been calmly preparing to drown, before he had a change of heart).
  So what are the redeeming features of this often disgusting book? For one, it is extremely well written: Ackerley knows exactly what he is doing, every episode is expertly related, and the book has a crispness and sharpness that is surely the product of much paring down. Then, amid all the unsparingly anatomical stuff, there are passages of quiet lyrical beauty – especially in the descriptions of idyllic interludes on Wimbledon Common – and there are even times when you can see, or at least glimpse, why the author is in love with his nightmare bitch. The emotional restraint of this unblinkingly realistic book keeps it well this side of sentimentality, making its moments of tenderness all the more effective and believable. And unlike most dog memoirs, this one doesn't include the beloved's death. Ackerley merely notes that 'Whatever blunders I may have committed in my management of this animal's life, she lived on to the great age of sixteen-and-a-half'.
  Ackerley described that day of Queenie's death as 'the saddest day of my life' and declared that 'I would have immolated myself as a suttee when Queenie died. For no human would I ever have done such a thing, but by my love for Queenie I would have been irresistibly compelled'. After her death, he carried on writing and kept himself afloat on a sea of alcohol until his death in 1967.

Saturday 10 March 2018

To Firle

Yesterday I ventured into Bloomsbury country – not (you'll be unsurprised to learn) to pay my respects to Virginia, Vanessa, Duncan and co. at Charleston – but to visit St Peter's church in Firle village, which nestles, as they say, under the South Downs. This church is in the care of TV's Peter Owen-Jones, England's grooviest Rev., but I was not there to see him either. My destination was the Gage chapel of St Peter's, where I admired and photographed the fine alabaster effigies of Sir John Gage, a Tudor courtier, and his wife Philippa, which lie atop a plain chest tomb of elegant design.
 They lie with eyes open and hands pressed together in prayer (his rather crudely carved – perhaps repaired?). He, lying on a part-unrolled mat, wears his Garter insignia and the usual plate armour, she is in a relatively plain dress with an extraordinary, crisply geometric head-dress. Neither figure is quite in repose, nor quite 'alive'. Lady Philippa's face, however, is very sensitively modelled, as if from life, even though she and her husband were long dead when their monument was made in 1595. His handsomely bearded face is well modelled, but of a stock type. The coloration of the alabaster is lovely – these figures were surely never painted (as most were at the time).
 This beautiful monument is the work of one of the many Dutch monumental sculptors who came over in Elizabethan times to show us how it's done. Garret Jansen arrived from Amsterdam in 1567, set up a workshop in Southwark and anglicised his name to Gerard Johnson. By the 1590s he was getting commissions from some very grand families, who knew they were more likely to get quality work from the Dutch incomers than from native craftsmen. Two of Johnson's sons were also sculptors, and sadly one of them, Gerard junior, perpetrated the dire Shakespeare monument in Holy Trinity, Stratford-on-Avon.
 The Gage chapel at Firle is lit by a vibrantly colourful John Piper window (below) depicting the Tree of Life, and there's some good Victorian glass in the church. Happily nothing by Duncan Grant or Vanessa Bell.

Thursday 8 March 2018

Sleeping in the Top of the Mast

Dipping into A Short History of Drunkenness, an amusing little book I was given at Christmas, I came across an image that rang a bell – 'one who lies at the top of the mast'. The author, Mark Forsyth, was quoting a description of habitual drunkenness in the Book of Proverbs, and I was thinking of the line from John Bunyan that stands as the epigraph to Elizabeth Bishop's enigmatic poem The Unbeliever

'He sleeps on the top of a mast' – Bunyan 

He sleeps on the top of a mast 
with his eyes fast closed. 
The sails fall away below him 
like the sheets of his bed, 
leaving out in the air of the night the sleeper's head. 

Asleep he was transported there, 
asleep he curled 
in a gilded ball on the mast's top, 
or climbed inside 
a gilded bird, or blindly seated himself astride. 

"I am founded on marble pillars," 
said a cloud. "I never move. 
See the pillars there in the sea?" 
Secure in introspection 
he peers at the watery pillars of his reflection. 

A gull had wings under his 
and remarked that the air 
was "like marble." He said: "Up here 
I tower through the sky 
for the marble wings on my tower-top fly." 

But he sleeps on the top of his mast 
with his eyes closed tight. 
The gull inquired into his dream, 
which was, "I must not fall. 
The spangled sea below wants me to fall. 
It is hard as diamonds; it wants to destroy us all."

The quotation from Bunyan comes from a passage in The Pilgrim's Progress in which Christian comes across three men who are fast asleep, with fetters on their legs. They are conveniently named Simple, Sloth and Presumption, and Christian upbraids them: 'You are like them that sleep on the top of a mast, for the Dead Sea is under you, a gulf that hath no bottom; awake, therefore, and come away...' Despite Christian's best efforts, they resume their perilous slumber.
  Bunyan surely had in mind that passage about the dangers of drunkenness in Proverbs, which in the Geneva Bible – his bible, and Shakespeare's – reads:

'Looke not thou upon the wine, when it is red, and when it sheweth his colour in the cuppe, or goeth down pleasantly. In the ende thereof it will bite like a serpent, and hurt like a cockatrise. Thine eyes shall looke upon strange women, and thine heart shall speake lewde things. And thou shalt bee as one that sleepeth in the middes of the sea, and as he that sleepeth in the top of the mast. They have stricken me, shalt thou say, but I was not sicke: they have beaten me, but I knew not, when I awoke: therefore will I seeke it yet still.'

I wonder if the Bunyan epigraph to Bishop's poem is there as a clue to lead us beyond The Pilgrim's Progress to Proverbs and to that vivid description of habitual drunkenness. Perhaps The Unbeliever is as much about the precarious life of the alcoholic (which Bishop knew all too well) as of the unbeliever – or, at times, any of us, when life is strange and sleep is even stranger. 

Tuesday 6 March 2018

An Unlikely Tribute to Bob Wills

Born on this day in 1905 was Bob Wills, the 'King of Western Swing'. Here are the Rolling Stones, of all people, paying tribute, in front of an enthusiastic Texan audience. Mick's voice is a long way from Western Swing, or even Country (there weren't many honkytonks in Dartford), but he delivers in his way, and Ronnie does a surprisingly good job on the pedal steel. Enjoy...

Monday 5 March 2018

Donne in His Shroud

Anyone would think I was a tourist. First it was Westminster Abbey, then today it was St Paul's Cathedral – not, I have to say, my favourite building: it's magnificent, but in a somewhat overpowering and wholly unEnglish style, out of place amid the alleys and courtyards of the old City, and now increasingly hemmed in by monstrous modern erections. The interior has all the makings of a great building, but the ghastly mosaics under the dome and other gilded nonsense at the East end fatally undermine the effect. With clean lines and plain surfaces, à la Palladio, it would be an awe-inspiring interior...
 Never mind, I was in St Paul's (entry charge a scandalous £16 even for an aged lifelong Londoner like me) chiefly to admire and photograph Nicholas Stone's extraordinary monument to John Donne. In an entirely original composition (apparently his own idea), the poet and Dean of St Paul's stands upright on an urn, wrapped ready for death in his shroud, which is tied in a kind of ruff at head and feet. From this really rather elegant shroud, Donne's face emerges, his eyes hooded, a half-smile on his lips, a dashingly cut beard setting off his lean but far from deathly features. According to his biographer Isaak Walton, Donne posed in just this posture for the preparatory drawing, wrapped in his shroud and standing on a wooden mock-up of an urn. He was ailing, within weeks of his death,  and he looked it, but Stone, when he came to make the monument, preferred to present him in altogether better shape, modelling his face with his typical delicacy of touch. The carving of the folds in the shroud, and the way it falls about Donne's body, are equally masterly. This is an unusually lively memento mori, more an expression of a sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the body. Donne would surely have been pleased.
  When Old St Paul's burnt down in the Great Fire of 1666, molten lead fell from the roof in such quantities that it broke through the floor, filling the crypt with smashed-up remnants of the monuments that had stood in the old cathedral – but John Donne's monument survived intact, and was eventually dug out from the ashes and rubble.
 It's a shame, to put it mildly, that more monuments didn't survive. Those that fill the cathedral now include many huge neoclassical constructions that are grandiose to the point of absurdity. Did no one laugh when the monument to the commander of HMS Ardent was unveiled, showing the naval hero nude but for a wisp of classical drapery? Or how about the captain of the Majestic, clad only in a skimpy Roman tunica, swooning into the arms of Victory? Or Captain Faulknor, similarly sinking into the arms of Neptune, who appears to be copping a feel of his manly pecs? Oh dear, oh dear – what happened?

Saturday 3 March 2018

Battlefield Butterflies

In the new issue of Butterfly magazine, there's an excellent piece by Peter Marren on the Rolling Stones' Hyde Park concert in 1969, at which hundreds of Large White butterflies were released in memory of Brian Jones, who had died just days before. I've written about the occasion here before, and quoted Charlie Watts' remark about the high casualty rate among the unfortunate Large Whites, that 'It was like the Somme.'
 I took this for rock-star hyperbole, and perhaps that's all it was – but, as Marren points out, it was also a surprisingly apposite image, for the  battlefields of the Western Front often witnessed similar summer snowstorms of white butterflies. The war artist William Orpen describes one at the Somme in August 1917:
'The dreary, dismal mud was baked white – and pure dazzling white. Red poppies and a blue flower [most likely cornflower], great masses of them, stretched for miles and miles. The sky was dark blue, and the whole air up to a height of 40 feet thick with white butterflies. Your clothes were covered with butterflies, it was like an enchanted land...'
 Marren quotes another visitor who wrote of the great profusion of butterflies that 'it was as if the souls of the dead soldiers had come back to haunt the spot where so many fell. It was eerie to see them. And the silence! It was so still that I could almost hear the beat of the butterflies' wings.'
 In one of the most famous novels of the First World War, Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, the narrator, Paul, who collected butterflies in his boyhood, notices their presence amid the devastation of the battlefield: 'The grasses sway their tall spears; the white butterflies flutter around and float on the warm wind of the late summer.' Later in the novel, he sees 'brimstone-butterflies, with red spots on their yellow wings. What can they be looking for here? There is not a plant or a flower for miles. They settle on the teeth of a skull.' A grisly image of the endurance of nature and beauty amid all the man-made horror.
 The film version of All Quiet on the Western Front ends, famously, with Paul reaching out towards a butterfly and being casually shot by a French sniper. It's a devastating scene – and, for the watching aurelian, it begs the question, What is that butterfly? It sure ain't a Large White, nor even a Brimstone. Consulting my Higgins and Riley field guide, I can't identify it as any European species. I imagine the production people decided to go for something big and showy to justify Paul's fascination (and perhaps to show up well on screen), but I can't help feeling that a Large White would have been far more eloquent...
 This link should bring up the famous finale. If anyone can identify that butterfly, do let me know.

Friday 2 March 2018

Libraries Old and New

The central library of my borough is closed for three months for a major 'refurbishment', the aim of which is, of course, to 'bring it into the 21st century'. This award-winning, state-of-the-art library only opened a few decades ago, and has already been 'refurbished' once, with bewildering results – see my remarks here and elsewhere – and now it's all being done again. Odd, isn't it, how bang up-to-date public libraries like this date so fast and seem unable to adapt to change without virtually remaking themselves, whereas those sturdy old Victorian libraries of the municipal golden age can deal with whatever challenges the times throw at them with much less fuss and bother. As someone said, nothing ages faster than le dernier cri.

Thursday 1 March 2018

A Strangely Persistent 'Thing of the Past'

Today it really is the 1st of March – sorry about yesterday's gun-jump. The first day of Meteorological Spring, and while the snow lies round about, deep and crisp and even, and the bitter East wind howls, it's cheering to recall the 20 March 2000 front page story in The Independent headed 'Snowfalls are now just a thing of the past'. It was written by one Charles Onians and quoted the view of climatologist Dr David Viner of the University of East Anglia (later the focus of the 'Climategate' scandal) that, thanks to global warming, snowfall in the UK would become a 'very rare and exciting event' and 'children just aren't going to know what snow is'.
 This was reputedly the most-cited Independent story ever, and yet it has mysteriously disappeared from the paper's website and cannot be found there by any search term. How odd.
 The story can still be found, though, on various other sites, e.g. here...

One of the good things about this kind of weather is that it brings some surprising birds flying in from wilder places in search of food. Yesterday a couple of Lapwings were wheeling over my local park – a joy to see this once common farmland bird (now on the Red List)  in such a setting.