Monday 30 April 2018

'And since 'tis a bad day...'

Here I am, hunkered down in my front parlour while the rain siles down, the North wind blows and the mercury falls to midwinter levels. The last day of April, and, for all the lush, rain-fed green out there, it feels more like December.
  Here, on the same date in 1829, amid similar weather, is Walter Scott, writing in his diary –

Dr Johnson enjoins Bozzy to leave out of his diary all notices of the weather as insignificant. It may be so to an inhabitant of Bolt Court, in Fleet Street, who need care little whether it rains or snows, except the shilling it may cost him for a Jarvie [coachman]; but when I wake and find a snow shower sweeping along, and destroying hundreds perhaps of young lambs, and famishing their mothers, I must consider it as worth noting. For my own poor share, I am as indifferent as any Grub Streeter of them all –
                  '– And since 'tis a bad day,
                   Rise up, rise up, my merry men,
                   And use it as you may.'
I have accordingly been busy. The weather did not permit me to go beyond the courtyard, for it continued cold and rainy. I have employed the day in correcting the history for Cyclopaedia, as far as page 35...

[The Cyclopaedia would be Lardner's Cabinet Cyclopaedia, an ambitious enterprise running to 133 volumes, including Scott's two-volume history of Scotland.]

And so, with Scott's example before me, I must use this bad day as I may, and get down to some work. Not, happily, a history of Scotland...

Sunday 29 April 2018

Not That Cranford

Yesterday I went to Cranford. No, not that one* – my destination was Cranford Park, one of those curious survivals of ancestral parkland that dot the outer fringes of West London. This one lies almost literally in the shadow of the M4. Approaching on foot from the North, you follow a succession of unlovely suburban streets until you come to a pedestrian subway that passes under the motorway – and you emerge on the other side into another world, one of decayed parkland, huge old trees, lush grass and new-growth woodland through which paths lead in all directions. The roar of the motorway is unignorable, but mute the soundtrack and you'd never think you were anywhere near London.
  Following the high brick wall of what must have been a kitchen garden – now in use as a community orchard – I came to the dismal 18th-century stable block that is all that remains of the demolished great house. And there, its brick and stone tower showing among the trees, was my target, the little church of St Dunstan with Holy Angels. My researches had led me here to see a tomb by William Cure II, one of a dynasty of monument makers of Dutch origin who did much distinguished work over here. I knew, too, that the church has a monument by Nicholas Stone, but as it's one that seldom gets much of a mention (and I'd never seen a picture), I wasn't expecting anything very exciting.
  So I was in for a glorious surprise. Stone's marble effigy of Elizabeth Carey, Lady Berkeley – who, 'after her pious pilgrimage of 59 yeares, surrendered her soule into the hands of her redeemer, the 23rd day of Aprill, anno domini 1635' – is one of his most beautiful. Sculpted in surprisingly low relief, it shows Lady Elizabeth lying atop her tomb chest in a relaxed pose, knees to one side, as if peacefully asleep – but in her shroud. This is quite extraordinary: a shrouded effigy is usually portrayed as if dead or at the point of death (as in John Donne's stark monument in St Paul's, also by Stone), but Lady Elizabeth is clearly alive, and young, and beautiful. The shroud is knotted above her head, but most of her lovely face is exposed, as are her elegant hands – this is more of a posing shroud than a burial shroud; it sets off the beauty of the body, and has no point to make about its imminent corruption.
  Elizabeth Carey's mother was the scholarly Elizabeth Spencer, patron of the arts and muse of Edmund Spenser, and she was as scholarly as her mother, and as interested in the arts. At the age of 18, she translated two of Petrarch's sonnets into English, and she was the dedicatee of Thomas Nashe's The Terrors of the Night and Peter Erondelle's The French Garden. She married Sir Thomas Berkeley at 19, and it might well have been at their wedding that A Midsummer Night's Dream was first performed in public. Elizabeth certainly danced in one of Ben Jonson's masques.
  Unfortunately Sir Thomas was ruinously extravagant, running up colossal debts, to the point that Elizabeth had to take over the management of his affairs and, with the Berkeley family steward John Smyth, the whole management of their various households. By the time Sir Thomas died, at the age of 37, most of his debts had been paid, thanks to Elizabeth's shrewd management, and she had enough money to buy the Cranford estate (from the co-heirs of Sir Robert Aston, whose monument faces hers across the chancel of St Dunstan's). After a short second marriage, she lived her latter years at Cranford, 'amongst [according to John Smyth] her thousands of books'.

A curious Cranford footnote: in the churchyard is a memorial tablet to the comedian Tony Hancock and his mother. Hancock's ashes were placed just outside the then boundary of the consecrated burial ground, as he was a suicide. A depressive alcoholic, he took his life in an apartment in Sydney, and his ashes were retrieved by Willie Rushton, who happened to be in the country, and brought back to England in his luggage.

* The original of Mrs Gaskell's Cranford is Knutsford in Cheshire.

Thursday 26 April 2018

The Curious Case of Godfrey Winn

Auberon Waugh's diary entry for the 27th of November, 1973, finds him reading Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart's Diaries, which he is reviewing for (the late lamented) Books and Bookmen. After passing on a few titbits (including the startling claim that 'Professor Joad, the notorious sexual braggart, was impotent'), Waugh declares that 'by far the most important revelation is on the delicate matter of Somerset Maugham's sex life. "Maugham has had relations with women," claims Sir Robert, who goes on to reveal that "because of his homosexual nervosity he could not perform alone. The liaison was à trois. The third was Godfrey Winn."'
 'What an august sandwich!' remarks Waugh. But who was Godfrey Winn? A footnote identifies him curtly as 'a journalist'. I have faint memories of Winn (known to some as 'Godfrey Winsome' or 'Winifred God') towards the end of his career, when he was a minor celebrity and a regular feature writer in my mother's women's magazines (the diligent study of which made me the man I am today). While Beverley Nichols took care of cats, gardens and whimsy, Godfrey Winn was more of an all-purpose showbiz hack, recording his meetings with the stars – hence the picture above, with the Beatles, and below, in one of the more bizarre encounters in showbiz history, with the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
  The careers of Beverley Nichols and Godfrey Winn are, to an extent, oddly parallel. Both began with early promise – Winn's first novel, Dreams Fade, was published when he was 22, and he continued to turn them out, along with biographies and volumes of memoirs, to the end – and both went on to became mainstays of the women's magazine market. However, Winn in the post-war years was far more of a celebrity than Nichols, making frequent radio and television appearances, judging Miss World contests (yes, really), and even taking a few small film roles – the last of which was as 'Archbishop of All England' in Up the Chastity Belt (hard to imagine Beverley doing that. Actually it's quite hard to imagine Godfrey...).
  Winn was also more of a seasoned journalist than Nichols, working as a war correspondent after being invalided out of the Royal Navy. He was reputedly the first British war correspondent to cross the Maginot line, and he survived the terrible fiasco of the PQ17 Arctic convoy (24 out of 35 merchant ships lost), subsequently writing a book about it. It seems there was a good deal more to Godfrey Winn than that august sandwich and those star-struck showbiz interviews.
(Yes, that's Jonathan King on the left.)

Wednesday 25 April 2018

'The lights are going out...'

On the evening of the third of August, 1914, Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary, looked out from the window of his room in the Foreign Office to where the lamps were being lit along the Mall. 'The lights are going out all over Europe,' he remarked. 'We shall not see them lit again in our lifetimes.' Unlike many of the most famous quotations, this one was genuine, verbatim, and endorsed by the man to whom Grey made the remark, J.A. Spencer, editor of the Westminster Gazette.
It is a truly great quotation, one that evokes a whole world – one of European peace, imperial stability, the golden age of Edwardian England – as it faces its dissolution, localising the impending catastrophe in a simple image of St James's Park and the Mall in a summer dusk as the lamps are lit, one by one.
 Grey (who was born on this day in 1862) is still known for this quotation, but for little else, despite the fact that he was the longest-serving Foreign Secretary we have ever had (1905-1916). That he even became Foreign Secretary, let alone lasted so long in the post, seems wildly improbable in the light of his early years. The well-born Grey naturally went up to Oxford, but was so idle that, even with extra tuition, he only managed a Second in Mods. After this, he devoted most of his time to becoming university champion at real (royal) tennis. Sauntering back to Oxford after a break, he switched to jurisprudence, thinking it might be the cushiest available option, but was expelled after a few months. Allowed back to the university to sit his finals, he managed a Third, the 'gentleman's degree'.
  Not the most auspicious start, then, but after university Grey, putting his misspent youth behind him, suddenly and surprisingly developed a keen interest in politics, sought an opening, found one (he was nothing if not well connected), and became, at the age of 23, the youngest MP in the Commons. So began the illustrious career that would culminate in his long reign as Foreign Secretary.
  As well as his youthful sporting achievements, Grey was also an accomplished fly fisherman, fishing by touch in his later years when his eyesight was failing. Anticipating the legendary J. R. Hartley, Grey published a classic on the subject, titled simply Fly Fishing. He was also a keen ornithologist, writing a book on that too – The Charm of Birds. That's him below, with a robin on his hat.

Monday 23 April 2018

Gunn's Caravaggio

Ever since my absurdly belated discovery of Thom Gunn, I've been looking out for his earlier collections – and today, on the shelves of a local charity shop, I spotted one: My Sad Captains (1961, first edition, with the tattered remnants of its Faber dust-wrapper, and an inscription, 'To Ann, with Love from Romney'). I opened it, and read this, the first poem in the collection, a brilliant work of ekphrasis that explores the meaning of Caravaggio's bravura representation of The Conversion of Saint Paul – or rather, Gunn seems to suggest, the blinding of Saul...

In Santa Maria del Popolo

Waiting for when the sun an hour or less
Conveniently oblique makes visible
The painting on one wall of this recess
By Caravaggio, of the Roman School,
I see how shadow in the painting brims
With a real shadow, drowning all shapes out
But a dim horse’s haunch and various limbs,
Until the very subject is in doubt.

But evening gives the act, beneath the horse
And one indifferent groom, I see him sprawl,
Foreshortened from the head, with hidden face,
Where he has fallen, Saul becoming Paul.
O wily painter, limiting the scene
From a cacophony of dusty forms
To the one convulsion, what is it you mean
In that wide gesture of the lifting arms?

No Ananias croons a mystery yet,
Casting the pain out under name of sin.
The painter saw what was, an alternate
Candor and secrecy inside the skin.
He painted, elsewhere, that firm insolent
Young whore in Venus’ clothes, those pudgy cheats,
Those sharpers; and was strangled, as things went,
For money, by one such picked off the streets.

I turn, hardly enlightened, from the chapel
To the dim interior of the church instead,
In which there kneel already several people,
Mostly old women: each head closeted
In tiny fists holds comfort as it can.
Their poor arms are too tired for more than this —
For the large gesture of solitary man,
Resisting, by embracing, nothingness.

[Ananias was the Damascene disciple who, in a vision, was told by Jesus to seek out Saul of Tarsus. When he found him and laid hands on him, the scales fell from Saul's eyes and he could see again.]

Sunday 22 April 2018

And Back Again

The Mani in April continues to give a very convincing impression of paradise on earth. The air is full of butterflies – we spotted thirty-odd species, with swallowtails, fritillaries and Cleopatras especially abundant – and the scent of flowering broom and orange blossom, and birdsong and the humming of innumerable bees. The walking is good, if sometimes a little challenging, the views are magnificent, and the profusion of little Byzantine churches, in various states of decay and repair, is quite astonishing.
   It was a dry and forward spring this year, so at lower altitudes such beauties as the scarlet anemones, the wild cyclamen and many of the orchids were already past their best or altogether over – but higher up, they were still in their full glory. And we did get high up – one day by four-wheel drive along a seriously unmade, rock-strewn, rutted and fissured road, to something like 1,100 metres, where we paused by a flower meadow spangled with Star of Bethlehem and dotted with orchids, and enjoyed a sweeping, almost Alpine view spread before us.
  Sadly the inhabitants of this earthly paradise are finding it ever harder to make a living, burdened as they are with a government (EU-imposed) and banks that function chiefly as engines of extortion. But the black economy and the Greek resilience of spirit keep things ticking over, even if more and more of the smaller villages are becoming all but depopulated, and the tourist trade, outside of the high season, is not what it was. If you fancy visiting this part of Greece, book your accommodation direct (not through an agency), and take cash rather than plastic.
  My holiday reading this time was Peter Ackroyd's short novel The Lambs of London, about Charles and Mary Lamb and their (fictional) relationship with the Shakespearean forger William Henry Ireland. It's a fine piece of work, and very readable, so I thought I'd recommend it to the great Lambian Patrick Kurp – but of course he'd already written about it, nine years ago. Here is his characteristically perceptive review.
  And then I got home to discover that the country I had left in what felt and looked like winter had, in a matter of days, been transformed into a lush, verdant, flower-strewn, blossom-decked land, basking in warm sun – as warm as the Mani. And the butterflies are flying.

Monday 16 April 2018

Off Again

The long gallivant that is my post-retirement life continues when I fly off at an ungodly hour tomorrow to the Mani, for a few days of walking etc. (mostly etc, with any luck)...

Waugh's Crowded Years

For bedtime reading, I recently plucked Auberon Waugh's Four Crowded Years: Diaries, 1972-76 (Private Eye/ Andre Deutsch) off the shelf. It must be the best part of 40 years since I last looked at this collection, and I wasn't at all sure it would still work – but I needn't have worried: these 'diaries', set in a personal fantasy world loosely based on reality, are as funny as ever, yielding a laugh-aloud rate of at least once a page, which is very good going (if not terribly conducive to sleep). What's more, the volume is illustrated by the great Nicolas Bentley, whose pictures perfectly fit Waugh's humour, and it even has helpful footnotes to identify some of the forgotten figures of the Seventies.
  Amid all the comedy, there are moments of real insight and even foresight (I hesitate to say prophecy). As an equal-opportunities offender, the rectionary Waugh was very much in the vanguard. I hadn't realised quite how much until I read this passage, from 1973:

Thursday 14th March
Delighted to see they have burnt down the British Council Library in Rawalpindi again – this time in protest against the shooting of two Pakistani youths in London. The last time they burnt down this particular library was in February 1970, in protest against an article I had written in The Times, telling a joke about Allah which I had heard in the Army. This burning remains the only public recognition my little jokes have ever received.

The story is told in A.N. Wilson's Our Times. Waugh, it seems, had 'jestingly referred to the baggy trousers worn by Turkish men in the days of the Caliphate. British soldiers used to call them "'Allah-catchers". There were demonstrations by Muslims outside The Times building in Printing House Square. In Rawalpindi an angry mob, many of whom, it is safe to guess, were not readers of The Times, stormed the British Council building and burned the library to the ground. Far from being supportive of Waugh, The Times sacked him, and this was the usual pattern of behaviour, from employers and governments in our time, when confronted with an angry Muslim mob.'
  So, the reflex appeasement of Islamic fanaticism had begun as early as 1970. I had always thought it started with Rushdie's Satanic Verses, when our boys in blue cheerfully stood around watching Muslims burn copies of the book and demand the death of Rushdie and all other 'blasphemers'.   Talking of Rushdie, here's Waugh later, writing in the Way of the World column in the Telegraph in 1993. He commiserates with 'poor Bill Clinton, who has been called the most hated man in Islam since he received Salman Rushdie in the White House. I am sure that Clinton, like most of us, has never read a word of Rushdie's novels and probably thought he was a carpet salesman. That won't save either of them from the fundamentalists. In Egypt, the fundamentalists have taken to murdering anyone they suspect of being lukewarm towards the Mohammedan religion. Once again, they claim that under Islamic law, Muslims have the right to kill any apostate.'
 A quarter of a century on, nothing has changed (for the better) on that front. But happily such serious matters don't often impinge on Waugh's comic world, one firmly based on the puncturing of self-importance and pomposity – neither of which is ever in short supply, especially in the worlds of politics and the 'yarts'.

Sunday 15 April 2018


Yesterday I dropped in on the exhibition Charmed Lives in Greece at the British Museum (which seems to be a great favourite with Chinese tour parties – though this particular exhibition was not on their itinerary). The aptly named Charmed Lives celebrates the warm creative friendship between the artists John Craxton and Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika (mercifully better known as 'Ghika') and the writer, adventurer and fabulist Patrick Leigh Fermor. Their charmed lives were conducted against idyllic backdrops on the islands of Hydra, Crete and Corfu and at PLF's beautiful home at Kardamili (of which I've written before).
  As well as paintings and drawings by Ghika and Craxton, the exhibition includes letters, book-jacket artwork, personal possessions (including PLF's typewriter and rather weedy-looking binoculars), and lots of black-and-white photographs of the three men in various combinations, with fellow artists and writers, celebrities and wives/boyfriends. Here's one of the supremely photogenic PLF with a goat on board a caique...
Both he and Craxton were fascinated by goats and felt great affection for them. Here's one of Craxton's lively goat paintings...
Craxton also loved cats, but PLF was not keen, describing them as 'interior desecrators and downholsterers' – was this the first use of the word 'downholsterer'?
  As for the paintings, it was interesting to see a range of Ghika's work, which I didn't know at all (that's a poster design of his above). He was clearly a gifted painter and draughtsman with a strong feeling for Greek landscapes. At some points in their careers, his and Craxton's paintings are strikingly similar in approach – bright colours and strong design, mixing abstraction and naturalism across a strongly patterned field. However, there is usually something lighter and somehow easier about Craxton's works, and he is clearly more interested in structure than the looser, brushier Ghika, whose later paintings tend to get larger, freer and more complicated, while Craxton keeps it simple and, usually, smaller in scale.
  However, Craxton was certainly capable of ambitious large landscapes, like this superb Landscape, Hydra, 1963-7...
  His figure paintings are, I think, weaker, though the images of dancing sailors and cafe life are full of energy and charm. For my money, the star of the show is another of Craxton's larger landscapes, the extraordinary, ravine-shaped Moonlit Ravine, which is painted, believe it or not, in tempera mixed with volcanic dust.
  I'm glad to have caught this fascinating little exhibition – not least because I'm flying off to Kardamili for a few days' walking next week.

Thursday 12 April 2018

Seventh Worst Butterfly Year...

Yesterday's news reports found room for Butterfly Conservation's annual Jeremiad about declining butterfly populations – and a good thing too, as a broad-brush consciousness-raising exercise: the more aware people are of butterflies, the threats to them and the ways in which we can help them, the better. However, it was something of a stretch to make headline news out of 2017 being the seventh worst butterfly year 'since records began' (i.e. 1976). As was acknowledged further into the story, it was actually the usual mixed picture of some species having a good year, others a bad one, against a background of undeniable long-term population decline caused by a combination of widespread habitat loss, 'climate change' and other environmental factors (e.g. rising nitrogen levels). No prizes for guessing which of those factors got the most attention (clue: it's the one in quotation marks), though it's hard to see how a tendency towards cold, wet springs and warmish winters (interrupted by two or three harsh winters and a couple of sunny springs in recent years) equates to anything more than fluctuating weather.
  As it happens, my own butterfly year bucked the trend to some extent, as in May I quite unexpectedly saw a couple of Grizzled Skippers – one of the fastest declining species – in a place where I had no idea they occurred, and in late summer I enjoyed such numbers of Adonis Blues as I had never before seen. If only this spring would brighten and warm up, 2018 might yet be a good year. We certainly had a properly cold winter, with plenty of frost and snow, and that always helps. If the forecasters are right, things could be warming up by next week. Here's hoping it’s not too late...

Wednesday 11 April 2018

Queeney According to Beryl

As one who's been browsing the book shelves of charity shops for many years, I've noticed how, from time to time, a particular author or title will suddenly start cropping up repeatedly. Leaving aside discarded dross such as Fifty Shade of Grey (still multiple copies everywhere) or the works of Dan Brown, literary authors and titles are also subject to these spates and gluts. Iris Murdoch has been turning up a lot in recent years, and Muriel Spark is an oddly persistent presence, while Hilary Mantel's Fludd continues to show up, invariably in the Penguin edition and often accompanied by Wolf Hall.
  But the most recent phenomenon I've noticed is a curious one – a sudden glut of Beryl Bainbridge's According to Queeney (published 2001). I've no idea why this should have happened, but in the past couple of weeks I've come across it four times, in three editions. I rather fancied re-reading it, as it had been a long time and I wasn't sure I still had it at home, so I bought a copy – the American first edition, as it happened. 
  It's a very clever piece of work, spry and sparely written, presenting the relationship of Samuel Johnson with his sometime protectors and friends, the Thrales, largely through the cool, sharply observant eyes of the young Hester 'Queeney' Thrale, for whom Johnson had a special fondness (I think I have a copy of The Queeney Letters somewhere). Bainbridge also skilfully recreates the bizarre goings-on in Johnson's house, recounting farcical and macabre incidents and misunderstandings in her usual matter-of-fact tone, and making surprising, under-the-radar connections. The narrative revolves around certain key incidents, each of which is given a chapter, and between the chapters are dismissive letters from the grown-up Hester to the inquiring biographer Laetitia Hawkins, letters that often seem to disown the novel's narrative. This injects an intriguing note of uncertainty into this fictional version of the best-documented life in English literature, while suggesting new levels of meaning and emotion barely hinted at in the biographies.
  Like Penelope Fitzgerald, Beryl Bainbridge found a new lease of authorial life when, quite late in her career, she turned to the historical past for inspiration. According to Queeney was her fourth historically-based novel – and, as it turned out, her last published work. If you spot it in a charity shop near you, do pick it up. 

Tuesday 10 April 2018

Ben, Bill and Billiards

Born on this day in 1894 was the artist Ben Nicholson, son of the illustrious William Nicholson. In contrast to his father, Ben embraced abstraction, and as a result his fame came to eclipse Sir William's, who never strayed from the unfashionable figurative path. This imbalance has been corrected to some extent in recent years; the big William Nicholson exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2004 surely opened many eyes (mine included) to his greatness.
  When young Ben was studying at the Slade, he spent most of his time (according to his fellow student Paul Nash) playing billiards. Nicholson claimed that the abstract formality of the green baize and the ever changing relationship between the coloured balls stimulated his aesthetic sense. Hmm.
  That's his First Abstract Painting (Chelsea, 1924) above.

Sunday 8 April 2018

Eggs and Eggmen

On my Mercian travels I came across this handsome memorial tablet in Southwell Minster. It commemorates a chap I'd never heard of, but his contribution to 'oology' (the scientific study of eggs) was indeed considerable. His huge collection of eggs was catalogued as the Ootecha Wolleyana and donated to the British Museum after his death. But, being a Victorian, he packed a great deal more than oology into his short life, travelling in Spain, Germany, Switzerland (where he climbed Mont Blanc), Arctic Lapland, Norway and Finland, studying law, then medicine, and taking a special interest in the Dodo and the Great Auk (as who wouldn't?). And then, in 1911, more than half a century after his early death, his admirers and relatives were moved to give him a fitting monument in the glorious surroundings of Southwell Minster. Incidentally, readers with any kind of interest in birds' eggs should read Tim Birkhead's brilliant book on the subject, The Most Perfect Thing.

Wednesday 4 April 2018


I'm going to be in Mercia for a few days, so there might be a bit of a hiatus...

Burning Injustice?

I sometimes worry (in a small way) about Theresa May. Does she really believe what she's saying when she declares that today's 'gender pay gap' findings represent a 'burning injustice'? Wouldn't it be better to save that kind of talk for, say, burning injustices (the world is never short of them)? As Jordan Peterson pointed out on the Today programme this morning, the methodology used to come up with these 'gender pay gap' figures was so staggeringly crude and inept that a first-year social science student would have been failed if they [note gender-neutral pronoun] presented such work. He ran through a few of the obvious reasons why, if the figures are totted up in this way, men will usually come out as earning more money than women – one of the chief ones being that most women are not mad enough to devote their lives, hearts, souls and all their waking hours to becoming 'top executives' and clinging on to their place on the corporate greasy pole. They have better things to do. As someone else pointed out later in the programme, if you ran the same methodology on part-time work, you'd come up with a marked 'gender pay gap', but this time in favour of women. No one seems to regard that as a 'burning injustice'. Hey ho.
  And then there's Radio 4's Book of the Week – Factfulness by Hans Rosling, the Swedish physician, statistician and showman (who died last year). The subtitle of this book is Ten Reasons We're Wrong about the World – and Why Things Are Better than You Think, and it's clear that he is using 'facts' to support a particular (liberal, meliorist, Pinkeresque) argument. And that argument does have merit: thanks to capitalism, living standards have, by all kinds of measures, greatly improved, and continue to do so. But I put the word 'facts' in quotation marks because Rosling persistently equates statistical findings – often single statistical findings – with facts. The thing about statistical findings is that they are only as valid as the methodology that produced them, and that they can be used (and generated) selectively to support almost any thesis. They are not, in themselves, facts. We'd do well to remember the wise words of Mark Twain (okay, he didn't originate them*, but it isn't clear who did): 'There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.'
  Incidentally, the 'gender pay gap' story, which was top of the news and monopolised discussion on Today, features nowhere on the BBC News website's 'Ten Most Read' stories. Apparently even Vince Cable's claim that the Lib Dems are a 'secret phenomenon' (?) is of more interest to those who follow BBC News.

* A fact.

Monday 2 April 2018

J.C. Squire and T.S. Eliot: Strong Views on Cheese

Born on this day in 1884 was J.C. Squire, a once highly influential man of letters – poet, editor, critic and formidable networker – who is now one of those all but forgotten names of the interwar literary scene. He and his friends, who inevitably became known as the Squirearchy, were (as John Gross writes in his classic The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters) 'associated with everything that an intellectual of the day was liable to wince at most – cricketing weekends, foaming tankards, Sussex-by-the-Sea, pale green pastorals, thigh-slapping joviality'. Squire founded a literary cricket club, the Invalids (which survives to this day), and was even an early radio commentator on the Boat Race and Wimbledon. Virginia Woolf described him as 'more repulsive than words can express, and malignant into the bargain' – so he can't have been all bad.
  Squire was also, according to an arresting sentence in Wikipedia, 'an expert on Stilton cheese'. Indeed he was at one time chairman of the Stilton Memorial Committee – and this brought him into conflict, not for the first time, with T.S. Eliot. In the latest volume of Eliot's letters is one to the editor of The Times in response to a 'spirited defence of Stilton cheese' written by J.C. Squire. Squire had proposed that a statue should be erected to the supposed inventor of Stilton cheese, a Mrs Paulet of Wymondham. Eliot questioned whether it was worth going to such lengths: 'In a few years' time the Stiltonian monument would be just another bump in a public place, no more inspected than the rank and file of statesmen, warriors and poets.'
  Eliot himself favoured the founding of a Society for the Preservation of Ancient Cheeses, in order that cheese might be 'brought back to its own in England'. The Society could, for example, 'visit all hotels and inns in Gloucestershire, demanding Double Gloster'. Eliot's own cheese preference was for the 'noble old Cheshire', though he also described Wensleydale as 'the Mozart of cheeses'. Clearly he was, like Squire, a man who took his cheese seriously.
  Alas, Squire's latter years were, as Gross puts it, 'a sad affair, with something of the macabre overtones of an Angus Wilson short story'. Drinking more and more heavily, he drifted into a semi-vagrant existence amid 'a chaos of unpaid bills and unfulfilled commitments'. Having grown a straggling beard and taken up residence in a suburban hotel, he took to calling himself 'the sage of Surbiton' (though he insisted on being addressed as 'Sir John'; he was knighted in 1933). On one occasion, he turned up at the Athenaeum wearing 'white flannels, black evening slippers, a badly moth-eaten, blue, high-necked pullover, a wing collar and an Old Blundellian tie'. But at least he died knowing that Macmillan's were planning to publish his collected poems. They came out in 1958, shortly after his death, with an introduction by John Betjeman, whose work Squire had been among the first to publish.
  Squire was certainly a clever parodist and achieved some of his earliest successes in that form. So, to wind up, here's a curiosity – his double parody of Gray's Elegy and Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology. Surely this is the strangest fruit of Thomas Gray's great poem.

Sunday 1 April 2018

Happy Easter

'... she turned herself back and saw Jesus standing, and she knew not that it was Jesus. Jesus saith unto her, "Woman, why  weepest thou? Whom seekest thou?" She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, "Sir, if thou have born him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away." Jesus saith unto her, "Mary!" She turned herself, and saith unto him, "Rabboni"; which is to say, "Master".'
  This beautiful and mysterious incident in John's version of the Resurrection story can be glossed theologically: the risen Christ as gardener of the new Eden, culminating a gospel that begins, like Genesis, as a creation story. However, it also reads like one of those curious naturalistic details that give the gospel stories their particular flavour of truth-telling at many levels. Painters and engravers picked up on the homely image of Christ the gardener and ran with it: that's Dürer's version above, with Jesus, his wide-brimmed gardener's hat turned back, hefting a long-handled shovel as he tells Mary not to touch him, for he is not yet ascended to his Father.
Perhaps the most beautiful version is Rembrandt's Christ and Mary Magdalen at the Tomb, which is in the Royal Collection, and which I've posted here more than once. The face of Jesus [left], lit by the morning light of the garden and tinted with the rose-apricot of his wide-brimmed hat, is so tender and human that it's hard to imagine this Jesus uttering the 'Noli me tangere'... He could almost be the gardening Christ imagined by Mrs Hurstpierpoint in Ronald Firbank's Valmouth:

'With angelic humour Mrs Hurstpierpoint swept skyward her heavy-lidded eyes. 
'I thought last night, in my sleep,' she murmured, 'that Christ was my new gardener. I thought I saw Him in the Long Walk there, by the bed of Nelly Roche, tending a fallen flower with a wisp of bast.... "Oh, Seth," I said to Him... "remember the fresh lilies for the altar-vases... Cut all the myosotis there is," I said, "and grub plenty of fine, feathery moss..." And then, as He turned, I saw of course it was not Seth at all.'

Happy Easter to all who browse here.