Tuesday 31 July 2018

His Lordship's Spit, Mick Jagger's Underpants, etc.

Yesterday to Knebworth House, where I noticed that the guides seemed to be looking at me with more than usual interest. It transpired that I am the spit and image of David Lytton Cobbold, the 2nd Lord Cobbold, who ran the show until handing over to his son Henry. Or rather the spit and image of His Lordship as he was a few years back (he's 80-odd now). This was quite pleasing. We are, as far as I know, entirely unrelated.
  In the course of the guided tour of this masterpiece of High Victorian Gothic, I also leaned that Mick Jagger, after one of the Stones' epic performances at Knebworth, slept in the best bed, in which he left behind a pair of his minuscule red underpants. These are now in the Knebworth archives. Noel Gallagher didn't sleep in the house, but took a long bath in the best bathroom, where he recalled being served a bottle of champagne by the butler. That was no butler – it was the 2nd Lord Cobbold, my ermined doppelganger.

(I write as one who was recently mistaken for Jacob Rees Mogg by the proprietor of a Turkish restaurant. My proudest moment.)

Sunday 29 July 2018

This and That

The eagerly awaited return of rain to the scorched earth of Carshalton and environs gave me the opportunity to wheel out that fine word 'petrichor', which denotes the smell rising from sun-dried earth after rain. There was petrichor galore during Friday's intermittent thundery downpours. Then came a day of strong winds, blowing in fresh air at last. And today hours of lovely steady English summer drizzle. I'm not that keen on rain (certainly not as keen as Geoffrey Hill, our Laureate of Rain), but there are times when there's nothing like the feel of good English drizzle on your face.
  The cooling of the air seems to have roused my brain from its sun-stunned torpor, even to the point of taking some interest in the passing scene. Today I notice that the row over Labour's antisemitism might even lead to Jeremy Corbyn losing his precious allotment. In point of fact it seems unlikely that he will, but at least the story gifted the Mail On Sunday subs a great headline opportunity.
  In the Sunday Times, meanwhile, Mr Appleyard explores the curious absence of women novelists from the modern 'literary canon', whether the canon we carry half-consciously in our heads or the more official and approved canons. For myself, I discover a curious absence of male novelists when I survey my own 20th-century English-language canon; the men are grossly underrepresented, crowded out (as readers of this blog will know all too well) by the likes of Willa Cather, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Penelope Fitzgerald, Flannery O'Connor, Shirley Hazzard, Muriel Spark, etc, etc. And I might add that I've never felt the slightest embarrassment about reading women's novels in public. The only thing that matters about fiction – or pretty much anything else – is whether it's good or bad.
  One more thing. Listening to the endless coverage of the supposed threats posed by 'fake news', outside intervention in the democratic process, and the wicked wiles of the social media, I entertained a little thought experiment. Suppose Hillary Clinton had won the 2016 election and Remain had prevailed in the referendum – suppose, that is, that the stars had stayed in their courses and all had turned out as expected  – would we be hearing quite so much of this outcry against the social media, etc?  'Fake news' is only a problem if it favours the side you don't want to win.

Thursday 26 July 2018


Two stories ripped from the headlines –

1. The UK's universities confirm what they now are by offering a record 67,915 unconditional places to applicants – up from 2,985 just five years ago. This means that an applicant now has almost a one in four chance of being offered an unconditional place. And you thought universities were about higher education for those qualified to benefit from it? Wake up, grandpa.

2. That delightful fellow Michel Barnier confirms what the EU is, was and ever will be (until its  probably not too distant demise) by rejecting even the deeply compromised 'Chequers agreement'. Time to wake up to the fact that this is theology, not politics, and the only way out is through the door marked 'Danger! Do not open this door.' And you thought Brexit meant Brexit? Ah, if only...

Wednesday 25 July 2018

The Balm of Coolth, and Factor Ignotus

With Southeast England still in the grip of the Great Heatwave, the dear old C of E seems to have woken up to the fact that it has a Unique Selling Point in all those stone-cool church interiors that never warm up, whatever the weather, and often feel colder than the outside even in winter. Canterbury Cathedral's Twitter account has posted an image of the crypt, and the message 'With temperatures set to reach 30C in Canterbury this week, come and escape the heat in the tranquil environment of the crypt.' And why not? More churches should follow their lead and open their doors to sunstruck visitors seeking the balm of coolth. Indeed more churches should open their doors full stop, but that's another subject.
  Needless to say, my cousin and I were in many a cool church interior on our travels last weekend, including all the medieval churches of Stamford, surely one of England's most beautiful towns. Two monuments stand out from this latest jaunt – both of outstanding quality, and both of unknown authorship. At Exton in Rutland, amid one of the finest arrays of monumental sculpture in the land, stands the hauntingly beautiful monument to Anne, wife of Lord Bruce of Kinlosse, who died in childbirth in 1627.
On a tall tomb chest in black and white marble, Lady Anne lies in her shroud (like Lady Berkeley at Cranford), her head resting on a pillow decorated with two cherubs' heads. Her pose is not as languid and Berniniesque as Lady Berkeley's, nor is her face as delicately pretty; Lady Anne's feature are more like those of Mrs Coke (who also died in childbirth) in Nicholas Stone's great monument at Bramfield in Suffolk. It's hard to believe Lady Anne's monument is not also by Nicholas Stone, but if it was, it would, like all Stone's major works, be documented in his meticulous business records. Clearly some unknown genius was at work here.
  And one must reach the same conclusion about the second outstanding monument of this trip. It stands in the Farnham chapel of St Bartholomew's church in Quorn (or Quorndon), Leicestershire (a family chapel that is normally closed to visitors, but we struck lucky). This monument, to one of many John Farnhams and his wife, is quite extraordinary, for several reasons, but chief among them is the carving of the two figures that lie atop the ornamental tomb chest.
There's something almost Mannerist about the elongation of their necks in those extraordinarily high-collared ruffs, and the curious, unanatomical curvature of their praying hands. The figures too seem elongated, and the whole monument has a tendency to a kind of abstraction and simplifying of forms that also suggests something of medieval statuary. I've never seen anything quite like this in any English church, and the two figures make a startling impact. The monument is clearly work of the highest quality – an impression enhanced by the relief panel that stands against an adjacent wall, but has always been part of the monumental composition. It was probably this panel, portraying scenes of military triumph, that led Mrs Esdaile to tentatively suggest Epiphanius Evesham as the maker of the monument. That attribution has since fallen out of favour – but if not Evesham, who? Another unknown genius? Once again a mystery. Factor ignotus.

Friday 20 July 2018

Today, Tomorrow

I spent today walking among the butterflies of Oxfordshire – I'll spare you the details, but a good many glorious Silver-Washed Fritillaries were involved – and tomorrow I'm off on another Mercian expedition with my Derbyshire cousin. There will be churches, and monuments...

That's Nigeness – your one-stop shop for butterflies, church monuments and obscure books. No wonder my numbers are going through the roof, hem hem.

Thursday 19 July 2018

Good News for Retroprogressives

A good day for retroprogressives, with two news items to gladden our reactionary hearts...
  One: Sales of what are now quaintly called 'physical books' have risen again, bringing in five per cent more income. Sales of hardback fiction were up by an eye-popping 31 per cent, while sales of digital books were down by two per cent. All this was supposed to happen the other way round, with e-book sales soaring at the expense of 'physical books'. It's the old story – over-hyping the new and expecting that it will consign the old to oblivion. Things seldom work out that way, as technologies have a habit of co-existing rather than devouring one another.
  Two: After 35 years of huge sales (totalling some 120 million) and competition from all manner of trendier and higher-tech vehicles, that enduring fixture of the album charts, Now That's What I Call Music, has reached its century. Now That's What I Call Music 100 is about to be released. Now that's what I call retroprogressive.

Wednesday 18 July 2018

How Not to Leave the EU

Call me a simpleton, but there's something I don't understand about this whole Brexit farrago. Didn't Parliament vote (by a very large majority) to hand over the decision on whether or not to stay in the EU to the people, the electorate, with no comeback and no further process (as per EU law)? In those circumstances, how can it be right that Parliament – which has always been overwhelmingly pro-EU and anti-Brexit (along with the rest of the political, administrative and cultural establishment) – now has a stranglehold on the entire process? This can only lead to a failure to actually leave the EU in any meaningful sense at all. Not that that's a great surprise (at least to the more cynical among us), but surely there was some effective way of getting from A (voting to leave) to B (actually leaving)? Shouldn't it have been an administrative, rather than a party-political, project?
  Never mind – this morning brings news (from arch-Remainer Anna Soubry) that Jacob Rees Mogg is running the country. I do hope she's right.

Tuesday 17 July 2018


Having been, for several days, itching to get out and stroll among the butterflies on the Surrey hills, I finally made it today. Unfortunately I arrived at my destination just as banks of sullen cloud moved into place, completely obscuring the sun. It was decidedly cool too (after days, indeed weeks, of searing heat). However, much to my delight, I soon found a few Adonis Blues flying among the all-weather Meadow Browns and Gatekeepers. When, an hour or two later, the sun finally broke through, the effect was instant: suddenly Chalkhill Blues (milky blue to the Adonis's brilliant near-turquoise) were everywhere, flying along with Adonis and Common Blues galore – a glorious downland spectacle.
 There were more blues – many, many more – as I made my way down the dip slope of Box Hill. Marbled Whites too – and, as I neared the Burford Bridge hotel (where, in 1817,  Keats worked on Endymion), a lordly Dark Green Fritillary was flying along the margin of a copse. A thing of beauty indeed.

Monday 16 July 2018


Born on this day in 1911 was the great danseuse and more than useful actress Ginger Rogers. She was the perfect partner for Astaire, as he was for her, and together they created a particular kind of dance magic that has never been bettered. And, of course, like all the true greats in every field, they made it all look as easy as breathing. Here's a little reminder of her loveliness...

Saturday 14 July 2018

Auberon Waugh, Novelist. 1.

Auberon Waugh, whose diaries I was enjoying recently, was also, for some years, a novelist, publishing five titles before abandoning the form in 1972, ostensibly in disgust at the fact that authors at that time received no money at all from public library loans of their titles (which in those days could run into huge numbers). Perhaps he was also tacitly recognising that he could never escape the shadow of his father's achievements as a novelist and that comparisons were always (and rightly) going to be to Evelyn's advantage. But what were Bron's novels like? I know I read them at the time, but have only the blurriest memories, so I thought I'd have another look, beginning with the first, The Foxglove Saga (1960 – long out of print but easily available from online bookshops).
  The title is misleading, as it's no saga. What it is is an accomplished, often very funny comic novel that at times is well worthy of comparison with Waugh pere's works. Beginning with a wry account of backbiting and petty rivalries among the monastic brothers at a Catholic monastery-cum-public school, it gradually introduces a group of pupils who are to be the central characters in the story that unfolds. Among them is Martin Foxglove, beautiful and charming son of the widely adored and apparently saintly Lady Foxglove. Oddly he does not remain at the centre of the unfolding action, most of which revolves around his school friends and their various misadventures. There is also, early on, a brilliantly managed comedy of confusion involving the elderly and ailing Brother Thomas's stay in an NHS hospital – which he is thoroughly enjoying until the do-gooding Lady Foxglove gets busy...
  The most prominent among Martin Foxglove's old school friends are the hapless Stoat and the reckless O'Connor, whose paths – and sometimes Martin's – repeatedly overlap as life takes them from school to an Army training camp, and into the murky world of trading in stolen goods from a Petticoat Lane stall (with a deeply dodgy character who styles himself Joseba da Farratoga). Again and again, Waugh sets up and executes brilliant comic set pieces involving these three and various authority figures and walk-on characters. Misunderstandings, confusion and crossed signals abound, and there are many laugh-aloud scenes and moments (which is a great deal more than you can say about many supposedly comic novels).
  Up to somewhere near the end, The Foxglove Saga is a joy to read. Then, I think, something goes wrong with the tone, and the latent cruelty in Waugh's (both Waughs') comedy comes too near the surface, in the shape of a monstrous baby, born to Dooley, a hospital doctor turned blackmailing biographer, and his ex-nurse wife, Herring. The farcical climax of the novel reads more like Tom Sharpe than either Waugh, and really doesn't work (at least for me). And then Waugh (A.) rounds things off with a thumbnail sketch of what happens next, over a good many years, to each of the major characters. This is seldom a good idea, especially in a comic novel.
  So, a novel full of promise, which for much of its length is brilliantly achieved and very funny, fails to carry through to the end. Never mind – the best bits are truly comparable to Waugh pere at his funniest, and suggest a great comic novelist in the making.  Bron, incredibly, was only twenty when he wrote this one. What happened next? Well, three years later, he published a second novel, Path of Dalliance. I have a copy, and am going to read it. I'll be reporting back...

Thursday 12 July 2018

Top Marx

I've had this little book for years, and am very fond of it (it's an excellent selection, as well as being a pleasure to handle), but it wasn't until I dropped in on the Enid Marx exhibition at the House of Illustration on Granary Square that I realised the cover design is one of hers. Marx, best known for her classic London Underground textiles, also, among many other things, designed the jackets for Chatto & Windus's Zodiac Books and Phoenix Library (and many another book, including several King Penguins).
  One of the prodigiously talented Royal College of Art generation that included Ravilious and Bawden, she was versatile and prolific as well as gifted. Rather amazingly, at the RCA, Sir Frank Short banned her from his wood engraving classes on the grounds that she couldn't draw, but Ravilious used to let her in to the studio after hours to engrave with him. Marx worked all her long life as painter, printmaker, textile designer and anything else that came her way. She even designed stamps, including a set for Christmas 1976 based on Opus Anglicanum embroideries. All her work has the vigour, exuberance and strong sense of pattern so characteristic of her generation, and she was especially fascinated by animals and fish and by English folk art (she co-created the Batsford volume on English Popular Art). This small but wide-ranging exhibition, full of delightful things, exudes a very English kind of good cheer, and is more than likely to leave you with a smile on your face.

Tuesday 10 July 2018

'I Say!'

Born on this day in 1911 was Thomas Terry Hoar Stevens, who changed his name to Terry-Thomas and built a glittering career as a comic actor, playing the archetypal upper-class English cad or bounder. He was, like many actors of his time (e.g. Charles Hawtrey), his own creation, having entirely reinvented himself, name and all. Born to a lower-middle-class family – his father was a merchant at Smithfield meat market – he soon began the process of turning himself into 'Terry-Thomas', beginning by imitating all the posh actors and comedians he saw or heard, and adopting the dandyish style that he was to develop to a high, almost absurd pitch (Beau Brummel would not have approved of his excesses). After his parents had managed to send him to a minor public school for a few years, he made his debut in the world of work at Smithfield, dressed in a taupe double-breasted suit with carnation buttonhole, olive-green pork-pie hat and yellow gloves, and flourishing a long cigarette holder and silver-topped malacca cane. He did not last long at Smithfield, believe it or not, and was soon making his way in show business, becoming, by the Fifties, a star of the silver and the small screens, of cabaret and the comedy circuit.
  One of his stranger film roles was in the dire John Boulting version of Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim. Terry-Thomas was wildly miscast as Bertrand Welch, the most odious and pretentious character in the novel. Amis notes in his memoirs that 'the hash he made of the part was so comic that the result was a large net gain'. The author took an immediate liking to T-T, whom he found to be just the same off-screen as on, and with whom, of course, he shared an avid interest in drinking and womanising. On an epic pub crawl in Edinburgh, they got on like a house on fire.
 And here's a curious footnote. In 1960, when T-T was playing the Liverpool Empire, a prized cigarette holder, decorated with 42 diamonds, disappeared from his changing room, much to his chagrin. The police investigated, and found 40 of the diamonds inside a roll of carpet in the home of a 20-year-old unemployed would-be comedian called James Joseph Tarbuck. Yes, that one – Jimmy Tarbuck (who pleaded guilty and was given two years' probation).

Monday 9 July 2018

The Golden Booker

Now that it's become humid and oppressive – and even hotter – this heat has made all physical and mental effort something of a challenge. However, my sluggish brain has registered a few blurry impressions of the larger world. Today I learnt that Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient has won the Golden Booker, having been voted (by 'the public') the best Booker winner in the prize's 50-year history – or, rather, voted the best of the five nominees, one from each decade, chosen by the illustrious judges.
  Well, something had to win, and it could have been worse (The Bone People, anyone?), but I remember reading The English Patient at the time, on the fervent recommendation of a friend, and finding it, for the most part, hard going and quite uninvolving, though a good many passages seemed rather brilliant. It is certainly a representative Booker-winning novel, a loose baggy monster with a wide sweep, big ambitions and a multi-national, multi-cultural, multi-everything mise-en-scène.
  To his credit, Ondaatje modestly – and surely accurately – declared on winning the award:
'Not for a second do I believe this is the best book on the list, especially when it is placed beside a work by V.S. Naipaul [In a Free State], one of the masters of our time, or a major work like Wolf Hall. I suspect and know more than anyone that perhaps The English Patient is still cloudy, with errors in pacing.' He also acknowledged that the big Oscar-winning movie of his novel 'probably had something to do with the result of this vote', and went out of his way to praise some of the fine authors who never won the Booker, naming William Trevor, Alice Munro and Barbara Pym. Good for him. 

Wednesday 4 July 2018

Seriously Imposing

Today my researches took me to St Peter's, Titchfield, down in Hampshire, to marvel at the grand – not to say grandiose – monument to two Earls of Southampton, Thomas and Henry Wriothseley, and Thomas's wife, Lady Jane. That's a view of part of it above, seen through a doorway from the chancel. The whole thing, made by the Dutchman Garret (or Gerard) Johnson, is seriously imposing, occupying most of the South chapel of the church. At each corner stands an obelisk of all things, modelled on the famous red granite obelisk in Rome, and the tomb is on three levels, with Lady Jane, surprisingly, lying above her husband (Thomas) and son (Henry). There are extravagant displays of heraldry – achievements, coats of arms and heraldic beasts – all over the monument, and four kneelers, children of Henry, in pairs on the long sides of the tomb chest. One of them, kneeling to the right of the picture above, was another Henry, the Third Earl of Southampton, who was a major patron of the young Shakespeare, among other poets. He was the dedicatee of Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, and has been widely identified as the Fair Youth of the Sonnets.
  His grandfather Thomas, the First Earl, by contrast, put all his energies into advancing his career, unhindered by any scruples, in the courts of Henry VIII and Edward VI, until he finally fell from grace, losing the office of Chancellor and his place on the Privy Council. In the course of a deplorable career, Thomas, despite his supposed Catholic faith, played a big part in the dissolution of the monasteries and profited hugely from his endeavours. Along the way, he personally tortured the supposed heretic Anne Askew in the Tower of London, turning the wheel of the rack with his colleague Richard Rich – yes, the same Rich who is memorialised in one of Epiphanius Evesham's greatest monuments.
  On the Titchfield monument, Thomas lies in his Garter robes, bland and blameless, his hands together in prayer – but this is a generic image. In real life, Thomas, though slim and handsome in his youth, became, like the King he served with such zeal, fat and bloated – so fat that, at the time of his death, a horse could not be found strong enough to bear his body. No man, or woman, is fat on their monument – at least, not until post-Restoration times, when true likenesses came into fashion and a gentleman was expected to look well fed and a little corpulent.

Tuesday 3 July 2018

Larkin's Magician

Yesterday I caught a curious Radio 4 programme called I Was Philip Larkin's Magician – a rather misleading title, suggesting a retainer employed to provide entertainment at the glittering court of the poetic potentate. In fact the chap being interviewed was an eminent biochemist, Edwin Alfred Dawes, who is also an accomplished conjuror. He got to know Larkin when he arrived at Hull university to set up a Biochemistry department and went to see the university librarian (our Phil) about setting up a departmental library. Larkin was having none of that, but the two became good friends, and Dawes in due course became chairman of the library committee. And the poet was, we were told, greatly amused by Dawes's conjuring tricks. In the programme, the Professor demonstrated a few of his best ones to the interviewer, who was also impressed, though it remains true that magic on radio does not make for radio magic.
  There wasn't very much about Larkin really, and the discreet Dawes had no revelations. However, we were treated to a few of Larkin's better known poems (including the inevitable This Be the Verse, suitably bleeped) and excerpts therefrom, all read by the poet. As for Dawes, he went on to develop a successful biodegradable polymer that could be used to make disposable plastic items. It didn't catch on at the time, but is, unsurprisingly, attracting renewed interest now. Dawes also holds a Magic Circle gold medal, and is chairman of the Philip Larkin Society.
  Well, it was a nice programme, very Radio 4 in the best sense (one that, alas, is more about what Radio 4 once was than what it is now).

Monday 2 July 2018

A One-Off

I've been reading a very strange, but hugely enjoyable, book by Antal Szerb, a Hungarian writer who was recommended to me by an unfailingly reliable source. He is best known – inasmuch as he's known at all over here – for his novel Journey by Moonlight, which I intend to read very soon, but I decided to start with his first, The Pendragon Legend (first published in 1934 and reissued in 2006, newly translated, by the excellent Pushkin Press).
  The Pendragon Legend is best described as a romp – but a romp like no other I've ever come across. This is a Hungarian writer throwing himself full tilt at a very British kind of action adventure, mixing into his particular blend elements of supernatural thriller, romantic fiction, murder mystery, gothic horror, modern psychoanalysis, ancient alchemy and historical memoir – all of which are lightly parodied and satirised. As are the curious ways of the English and Welsh upper classes, observed with bemused wonder by the Hungarian narrator, who is himself presented as a kind of parody of the stereotype fiery Hungarian, with his weakness for adventure and romance (and indeed sex, of which there is a surprising amount, though all of it is discreetly presented).
  The novel was the product of a year spent in England, much of it in the reading room of the British Museum, where the learned Szerb was researching for his compendious histories of English and of world Literature. He was also pursuing a keen interest in Rosicrucianism, alchemy and the occult, and he puts his knowledge of those fields to good, but far from serious, use in The Pendragon Legend, much of which involves spooky goings-on in a castle whose previous occupants included a pioneering alchemist who, it seems, might have discovered the secret of eternal life.
  It's an introduction to the Earl of Gwynedd, a descendant of the great alchemist, that plunges our hero, Dr Janos Batky, into the headlong thrills-and-spills adventure that then unfolds, at dizzying speed. Eagerly accepting an invitation to the Earl's Welsh seat, Blatky immediately encounters some very rum goings-on, and some pretty rum people, as the spicy goulash of a plot thickens at an alarming rate. Soon, without quite realising it, Blatky is in way over his head...
  The Pendragon Legend is surely the least Hungarian of Hungarian novels, and it's impossible to think of any parallel. Perhaps there's something of the dashing tone of the young William Gerhardie (Futility), but no further resemblance. As a read, it's a highly entertaining page-turner, whose preposterous plot is strangely compelling, probably because of the unexpected sidelights, jokes and insights that keep popping up among the nonsense. There's a decidedly modern, ironic – and, of course, Hungarian – sensibility in evidence amid all the Gothic set pieces. Journey by Moonlight is, by all accounts, an entirely different kettle of fish, much deeper and darker. I look forward to reading it.

Sunday 1 July 2018

Peter Firmin

Sad news today that Peter Firmin, the surviving half of the greatest creative pairing in children's television, has died. Sixty years ago, with Oliver Postgate, a kindred spirit, he set to work in his barn in Blean, Kent, lovingly creating a string of utterly original, joyous, characterful and enduring classics – Bagpuss, Ivor the Engine, The Clangers, Noggin the Nog and Pogles' Wood (as well as, with Ivan Owen, co--creating Basil Brush). Firmin was also a fine illustrator and print-maker. RIP one of the greats.