Friday 30 November 2018

Elizabeth Jenkins (one last time?)

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

Whatever Happened to Elizabeth Jenkins?

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 While still an unpublished author working on her first novel, she was invited to dinner by Virginia and Leonard Woolf, and duly received the usual Bloomsbury treatment – taken up and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


Thursday 29 November 2018

It Was Fifty Years Ago Today...

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

Wednesday 28 November 2018

Gunn Over California

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

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

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

Monday 26 November 2018


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

Sunday 25 November 2018

Gosse Postscript

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

Friday 23 November 2018


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday 20 November 2018

Gosse's Protest – and After

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

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

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

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

Sunday 18 November 2018

Good News

So I'm a grandfather again! A boy, born early this morning. This brings the tally to four – three boys, one girl. All is well and we are very happy. Going to see him soon...
 Shortly after getting the news, I stepped out of the house – and there was a fine Red Admiral, nectaring on a flowering Viburnum. The butterfly messenger. And then another one, on the ivy where the Speckled Wood was basking the other day (that's it, above).
 A happy day.

Saturday 17 November 2018

A Little Touch of Jeffrey in the Night

Just a quick tip-off for connoisseurs of Jeffrey Archer's unique, er, style. Now that his once legendary blog is a shadow of its former self, we must find our little moments of Archer magic where we can. So I strongly recommend the latest edition of A Good Read, which I caught on Radio 4 last night.
 Archer gets off to a solid enough start with his own recommendation (Fred Uhlman's Reunion), becomes more and more assertively obtuse as the programme continues (he does not approve of his fellow guest's choice), issues a terrifying barking laugh somewhere around the 17-minute mark, and really hits his stride with Hariett Gilbert's choice, Penelope Fitzgerald's The Bookshop, which clearly baffles and displeases him. If it were out of print, Archer assures us, he (being a man in a position to do such things) would make no effort to get in reprinted – but he does grudgingly admit in the end that its author is 'a class act'.
  A Good Read is available on the BBC iPlayer.

Friday 16 November 2018

Edmund's Party Piece

I must say I'm really enjoying Gosse's Father and Son. Though it tells what is in point of fact a terrible tale of the relentless domination of a lonely and unhappy boy by his father and his evangelical associates (Plymouth Brethren), it is told with admirable detachment and wry humour.
  In this passage, the young Edmund, now aged about ten or eleven, is, for a wonder, invited to a party – and, despite his father's best efforts to prevent it, allowed to go. He has recently discovered a  black-bound volume containing four of the most lugubrious poems in English – Young's The Last Day, Blair's The Grave, Beilby Porteous's Death and Samuel Boyse's The Deity. As these are almost his first experience of poetry, he is utterly enraptured.
  At the party, each child has been invited to recite a little party piece, and most have obliged with the likes of Casabianca ('The boy stood on the burning deck') or We Are Seven ('Two of us in the churchyard lie...')...

'I was then asked by Mrs Brown's maiden sister, a gushing lady in corkscrew curls who led the revels, whether I would not indulge them 'by repeating some sweet stanzas'. No one more ready than I. Without a moment's hesitation, I stood forth, and in a loud voice I began one of my favourite passages from Blair's 'Grave':
  If death were nothing, and nought after death –
  If when men died at once they ceased to be, –
  Returning to the barren Womb of Nothing
  Whence first the sprung, then might the debauchee...
'Thank you, dear, that will do nicely!' interrupted the lady with the curls. 'But that's only the beginning of it,' I cried. 'Yes, dear, but that will quite do! We won't ask you to repeat any more of it,' and I withdrew to the borders of the company in bewilderment. Nor did the Browns or their visitors ever learn what it was the debauchee might have said or done in more favourable circumstances.'

Thursday 15 November 2018

Moore's Years

Marianne Moore was born, in the Presbyterian manse of Kirkwood, Missouri, on this day 131 years ago. But what are years? Or rather –

What Are Years?

   What is our innocence,
what is our guilt? All are
   naked, none is safe. And whence
is courage: the unanswered question,
the resolute doubt —
dumbly calling, deafly listening—that
in misfortune, even death,
    encourages others
    and in its defeat, stirs

   the soul to be strong? He
sees deep and is glad, who
   accedes to mortality
and in his imprisonment rises
upon himself as
the sea in a chasm, struggling to be
free and unable to be,
    in its surrendering
    finds its continuing.

   So he who strongly feels,
behaves. The very bird,
   grown taller as he sings, steels
his form straight up. Though he is captive,
his mighty singing
says, satisfaction is a lowly
thing, how pure a thing is joy.
    This is mortality,
    this is eternity.

And what is this poem? I'd say that its imaginative origins might lie in the kind of verses of bracing moral exhortation that were so popular in America in the nineteenth (and indeed into the twentieth) century. She takes the materials of such work, marinades them in her idiosyncratic imagination and language, ties them into a knot, and – behold – when she unties the knot, something entirely new and different has been made. We find we are somewhere else.

Wednesday 14 November 2018


This could be my last butterfly of the year – and a wonderful surprise it was. I was sauntering home from the shops when I spotted him, a fine Speckled Wood looking remarkably fresh and velvety, basking on the ivy. He wasn't exactly bursting with energy – well, it is mid-November – but he had enough to fly from one sunny spot to the next, settling each time with wings open to absorb the unseasonally warm sunshine.
  It's cheering to reflect that this beautiful butterfly – which in my boyhood was a summer flier, pretty much restricted to the the kind of sun-dappled woodland that so perfectly matches its wing markings – now turns up practically anywhere, and at almost any time of year. A good news story from the butterfly world.

Tuesday 13 November 2018


If you like, you can read my piece on the remarkable but easily overlooked Apsley House on the Pooky (fine lighting, etc) website. Here's the link...

'The tingly freedom song of a raptor lullaby'

To my surprise, my recent post on Old Spice's bizarrely sweet Wolfthorn deodorant spray proved one of the most popular in a while, in terms of hits – perhaps Wolfthorn is big in Norway?
  I had no intention of returning to the subject, still less trying another of Old Spice's 'Wild Collection' range – but there I was the other day, scanning the shelves in vain for my preferred brand (Tabac), when I spotted another Old Spice fragrance (if that's the word), Hawkridge. I pondered a while, then what the heck, I thought, I'll chance it – even if it's vile, it might help my statistics. And it's nothing if not cheap.
  The Boots website, I subsequently discovered, goes into ecstasies over Hawkridge:
'When your body flesh is covered in Hawkridge Body Spray, there is nothing for women to do but smell the tingly freedom song of a raptor lullaby and accept that science cannot explain the feeling in their hearts.'

 Lordy – is this stuff safe to wear? Is my 'body flesh' worthy of this irresistible potion?

   Then I came across a user review elsewhere which was frankly rather worrying: 

'The sweet and refreshing smell of coconut morphs into a dark, noxious, bitter mess that leaves me smelling like a stale piña colada.'
  Oh dear. Other reviews speak of 'strawberry donuts' and 'really sweet cherry cough syrup'. 
So, what was I in for – stale pina colada or tingly freedom? I raised a trepidatious arm and sprayed...
  And I have to report that what came out of the can was quite unexceptionable, and really, I must say, rather pleasant. I can't detect coconut in it, let alone strawberry or sweet cherry. Compared to Wolfthorn, Hawkridge is manly stuff indeed and pretty much what you'd expect of a modern Old Spice spin-off. It's a bit woody, a bit spicy, with a dash of citrus, and it seems to last very well – what more could a man ask? Sorry, ladies, science cannot explain that Hawkridge feeling in your hearts...

Monday 12 November 2018


Here's a word that was new to me – 'jobation'.
  I came across it in Edmund Gosse's Father and Son, which I'm reading in an edition that is heavily footnoted – but not with notes that are likely to tell you anything you don't already know. Rousseau? 'Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78), major philosopher and writer.' Mrs Gaskell? 'Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-65), important novelist.' Who knew? But 'jobation'? The editor falls silent, forcing the reader – this one anyway – to reach for the dictionary.
  I'm glad I did. 'Jobation' is a fine and useful word which sadly seems to have fallen out of use. It means a lengthy and tedious reproof, lecture or harangue – the kind of thing Mrs Caudle delivered nightly to her errant husband in Mrs Caudle's Curtain Lectures. The origin is in the book of Job, in the lengthy and tedious reproofs dished out to the suffering Job by his various 'comforters'. Their lectures are then followed by a lengthy contribution from God himself, speaking from a whirlwind to remind Job that he is but a lowly worm by comparison with Him, the almighty, omnipotent and omnicapable God, who laid the foundations of the Earth and created, among many other fine things, the horse, who 'saith among the trumpets Ha, ha'. The jobation of all jobations, you might say.
 Young Edmund Gosse, a boy of nine, is on the receiving end of a 'jobation' from his father, for having the temerity to cry out when a fearsome-looking beetle crawls menacingly up his counterpane towards his face, while his father, beside the boy's bed, is fervently addressing God. Gosse writes:
'It is difficult for me to justify to myself the violent jobation which my Father gave me in consequence of my scream, except by attributing to him something of the human weakness of vanity. I cannot help thinking that he liked to hear himself speak to God in the presence of an admiring listener. He prayed with fervour and animation, in pure Johnsonian English, and I hope I am not undutiful if I add my impression that he was not displeased with the sound of his own devotions.'

Sunday 11 November 2018

Thankful Villages and Angry Words

The other day I caught a programme on Radio 4 that was being broadcast from a 'Thankful Village' (Herodsfoot in Cornwall it was). The Thankful Villages – a term popularised by the indefatigable Arthur Mee (The King's England) – are those that lost none of their men who went to serve in the armed forces in the Kaiser War. There are fifty-odd of them in England Wales, and perhaps a third are 'doubly thankful', having lost no men in the Hitler War either.
  If these numbers seem low, reflecting the devastating impact of the Great War, they need to be kept in perspective. France suffered far greater losses, and one of the results is that the Republic has only one Thankful Village – Thierville in Upper Normandy, a village in the 'Norman Alps'. Remarkably, Thierville also suffered no losses in any other war, including the Hitler War and the Franco-Prussian. I passed through this village, all unknown, a couple of years ago, walking to nearby Le Bec Hellouin.

Today, amid all the ceremonies of Remembrance and the ubiquitous (subsidised) art installations marking the centenary of the 1918 armistice, I wonder if it might now be time so start rethinking the whole business. As, with the passage of years, Remembrance comes to have less and less to do with actual memory, would it not be better to honour the dead of the two world wars by focusing less on the 'fultility' of their sacrifice and paying more attention to what they thought they were sacrificing their lives for? In particular, should we not be cherishing and preserving the freedoms that we have been all too happy to surrender to dubious supranational entities, or fritter away in response to confected outrage and spurious offence? And, in general,  should we not be encouraging better, more honourable behaviour, better education, common decency? Surely that would do more to honour our war dead than any number of poppy cascades. If it's not too late...
I think of the angry words of Geoffrey Hill in The Triumph of Love

At seven, even, I knew the much-vaunted
Battle was a dud. First it was a dud,
then a gallant write-off. Honour the young men
whose eager fate was to steer that droopy coque
against the Meuse bridgeheads. The Fairey
Swordfish had an ungainly frail strength,
cranking in at sea level, wheels whacked
by Channel spindrift. Ingratitude
still gets to me, the unfairness
and waste of survival; a nation
with so many memorials but no memory.

By what right did Keyes, or my cousin's
Lancaster, or the trapped below-decks watch
of Peter's clangorous old destroyer-escort,
serve to enfranchise these strange children
pitiless in their ignorance and contempt?

Friday 9 November 2018

A Very Good Haul

I don't want to give the impression that I spend all my waking hours scouring the bookshelves of charity shops, but this week, I must say, I've had a very good haul. A couple of days ago I picked up Edmund Gosse's Father and Son (Penguin Modern Classics, with extensive footnotes carefully restricted to things you already know). I'm now reading (technically rereading) this, with mingled pleasure and astonishment. An extraordinary book... And then I spotted The Adventures of Sir Thomas Browne in the 21st Century by Hugh Aldersey-Williams – hardback, good as new, £2.99 – which of course I had to have.
Then today, on the £1 table at another charity shop, the irresistible volume pictured above (oddly enough, the first American edition) turned up, demanding to be bought and taken to a good home. The illustrations alone are a delight, let alone the poems. Supposedly 'for younger people' – but this was 1962 – it's a good selection from Betjeman's poems, divided into sections, each of which begins with a related passage from Summoned by Bells and an Ardizzone frontispiece. I guess the notes at the back are aimed at the 'younger readers' of 1962, but they are well written, often useful and interesting, unlike those in the Penguin Father and Son. 'Flannel dance' anyone? It's 'a dance where people went in informal clothes such as flannel trousers and blazers'. 'Ted'? 'Spread out for drying'. Lionel Edwards? 'An artist who specialised in sporting and hunting pictures with the rainy, grey skies of the English winter'. Good to know.

Thursday 8 November 2018

How Studying Eng Lit Stopped Me Reading

Yesterday on Anecdotal Evidence, Patrick Kurp wrote of how 'even dedicated readers tell horror stories about teachers who tried their damnedest to sour them on literature'. In Patrick's case, a teacher managed to turn reading Julius Caesar into 'an exercise in vivisection'. At school I had a similar experience with Henry IV, Part One, a play that became a torment to me, largely because I had difficulty sorting out who was who and what exactly was going on (I've always been weak on plot), and the teacher in question made a point of interrogating me relentlessly on precisely the things I didn't know. Happily his efforts did not put me off the play for life.
  Far worse, for me, was the effect of what is quaintly called the English Tripos at Cambridge. I arrived in the 'city of perspiring dreams' (copyright Frederic Raphael) a fresh-faced youngster in love with literature, and staggered out of the place three years later quite literally unable to read any substantial literature for pleasure or even profit. For about a year I read very little at all, and my appetite for reading only revived when I found myself working in a university library and my wanderings in the stacks left me in no doubt of the vast extent of my ignorance. It was time to start again...
 But what on earth had happened in those three dazed years at Cambridge (a question that applies to more than my literary studies)? What had managed so effectively to put me off literature altogether? I think it was partly the 'exercise in vivisection' aspect – so much probing of the text, so little genuine engagement with it. The work in question was not something to be appreciated on its own terms but a mere springboard for displays of intellectual gymnastics and contortionism, the more modish and far-fetched the better. I even had an early immersion in what I daresay was deconstructionist criticism, which made everything that much worse, and probably put the tin hat on the whole sorry business. Although I managed a decent degree (thanks in part to a gift for creative plagiarism – a very English thing, according to Peter Ackroyd's Albion), I left university thoroughly alienated from the thing I had loved, English literature. Thank heavens the effect was short lived.

Wednesday 7 November 2018

Word Needed

In an essay on V.S. Pritchett (collected in Life Sentences), Joseph Epstein quotes Pritchett as saying, 'I have talent, but no genius.'
'This may well be true,' writes Epstein, 'but it has always seemed to me that the English language is deficient in not possessing a word that lies between the two; it would be a word that described how far talent, honed under the pressure of unrelenting hard work, can take one. The missing word would, I think, apply nicely to V.S. Pritchett.'
  It surely would, and it's a shame that no such word is available in English (is it in any language?). Pritchett, who admired and appreciated Chekhov so hugely, wrote short stories that were often decidedly Chekhovian, but the distance between the best of his stories and the best of Chekhov's is precisely that between the highest pitch of talent and genius.
  In painting, it's the distance between Pieter de Hooch and Vermeer. In music, the distance between Telemann and Bach. In architecture, between Adam and Soane... A word would indeed be useful.

Tuesday 6 November 2018

A Glass of Blessings

I've been at the Barbara Pyms again – A Glass of Blessings this time, which I rate about the best of those that I've read. Philip Larkin thought it 'the subtlest of her books', in which 'the sparkle on first acquaintance has been succeeded by the deeper brilliance of established art'.
  Unusually for Pym, it's narrated in the first person, so we see events through the eyes of the gloriously named Wilmet Forsyth (her Christian name comes from a Charlotte M. Yonge novel). Wilmet is comfortably off, married to a slightly stodgy husband, childless and decidedly under-occupied. She observes the world with amused detachment, finding plenty of scope for amusement in the goings-on of her London parish – extremely high and ritualistic, with celibate clergy and a small army of officials and acolytes, assisted by another small army of 'excellent women', on the fringes of which Wilmet, feeling she ought to do something, finds some occupation and much comic material.
  As the novel goes on, it becomes increasingly apparent (though not, of course, to her) that Wilmet has a way of missing the most obvious things – for example, that the object of her romantic crush (a very Pymian thing) is clearly gay. He's not the only gay character either: for an English novel published in 1958, A Glass of Blessings is pretty relaxed about such things. Wilmet also fails to spot not one but two impending marriages, and that her husband is up to something. She also makes a wholly wrong assumption about the source of a romantically anonymous Christmas gift.
  Towards the end, the endearing Wilmet realises how much she's missed and got wrong – but with that realisation comes another: that perhaps her life has been, and is, rich in blessings. This sense of being blest is prompted by a friend whose life has taken a wholly unlooked-for turn for the better:
'Oh, Wilmet,' she exclaims, 'life is perfect now! I've everything that I could possibly want. I keep thinking that it's like a glass of blessings. Life, I mean,' she smiled.
  'That comes from a poem by George Herbert, doesn't it?' I said.
                       'When  God at first made man,
                        Having a glass of blessings standing by...'
Then her friend's vicar husband chips in:
'But don't forget that other line ... how, when all the other blessings had been bestowed, rest lay in the bottom of the glass. That's so very appropriate for a harassed suburban vicar. What an afternoon! I'm simply exhausted.'
  In Barbara Pym's world, everyone can be expected to have George Herbert at their fingertips. She's a great one for the seventeenth-century poets.
  Here is the poem they are quoting from, The Pulley (with its wonderful last verse)
When God at first made man, 
Having a glass of blessings standing by, 
“Let us,” said he, “pour on him all we can. 
Let the world’s riches, which dispersèd lie, 
Contract into a span.” 

So strength first made a way; 
Then beauty flowed, then wisdom, honour, pleasure. 
When almost all was out, God made a stay, 
Perceiving that, alone of all his treasure, 
Rest in the bottom lay. 

“For if I should,” said he, 
“Bestow this jewel also on my creature, 
He would adore my gifts instead of me, 
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature; 
So both should losers be. 

“Yet let him keep the rest, 
But keep them with repining restlessness; 
Let him be rich and weary, that at least, 
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness 
May toss him to my breast.” 

Monday 5 November 2018

A Touch of Gaudi in Knutsford

Strolling with my cousin around the very pleasant little town of Knutsford, Cheshire – yes, Elizabeth Gaskell's Knutsford, the original of Cranford – I suddenly came upon this extraordinary building. The tower with the curiously irregular top is the Gaskell Memorial Tower, and it's just one element in an architectural extravaganza that also includes what were originally the council offices and a coffee house, all together in one crazy, randomly fenestrated whole. The walls, of sandstone and Portland stone, are inscribed with what seem to be the names of every historic figure ever associated with Knutsford (and the titles of Mrs Gaskell's novels), and the Tower is decorated with a bust and a bronze relief of Mrs G. A second, lower tower, with a domed top, rises beside what was originally the King's Coffee House, designed to attract the locals away from the pubs.
  The building, completed in 1907, was the masterwork of a local amateur, Richard Harding Watt, with some architectural assistance. It is of course completely out of place in Knutsford  – as it would be anywhere – but it's great fun, in its blatantly incorrect, wholly 'tasteless' way, and parts of it are really rather attractive. It's probably as close to Gaudi as any building in England. Pevsner, unsurprisingly, was not impressed, remarking that 'any Fine Arts Commission now would veto such a monstrous desecration of a small and pleasant country town'. Not a great one for fun, Sir Nikolaus.

Thursday 1 November 2018

Off again

Above, as if you didn't know, are the Three Graces by the great Italian neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova, who was born on this day in 1757. I was recently admiring, if that's the word (rather than, say, laughing at), his gigantic nude statue of Napoleon, which was eventually presented to the Duke of Wellington, who installed it at the foot of the staircase in Apsley House. It looks very silly indeed.
  Tomorrow I'm off on my Mercian travels again for a few days. Pip pip.