Sunday 29 December 2019

To the Antipodes

This evening Mrs N and I are flying off to Wellington to spend a month with the New Zealand branch of the family. Looking forward to it all, apart from the horrendous journey – 24 hours and more in the air, with an overnight break in Singapore. It will be wonderful to be there, though.
Things will be rather quieter than usual on the blog front, but no doubt there will be occasional dispatches from the far antipodes.

Saturday 28 December 2019

Death of a Queen

On this day in 1694, Queen Mary II of England died at Kensington Palace of hemorrhagic smallpox. She was just 32 years old, and the death of this popular Queen unleashed a torrent of public grief unequalled by any royal death until the 21-year-old Princess Charlotte died in childbirth (with her newborn son) in 1817 (see chapter 'The Saddest Stories' in my book) – and, in our own time, by the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.
  Mary's husband, William III, who had hurried back to England from the Dutch Republic to be with her, was overcome with grief. This habitually austere and distant man dissolved into tears, and was inconsolable for days on end; some thought he would die. 'From being the happiest of men I shall now be the miserablest creature on earth,' he declared. 'The marble weeps,' wrote Matthew Prior, observing this broken man.
 Mary's embalmed body lay in state in Whitehall banqueting house through one of those cold winters that were frequent in that mini ice age, with the Thames frozen from bank to bank. On March 5th, 1695, she was buried in Westminster Abbey, her funeral the first to be attended by all the members of both houses of parliament. And, for the occasion, Henry Purcell wrote his moving and eloquent Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary, some of his greatest work –

Before the end of the year, Purcell was himself dead.
  But enough of these mournful numbers: during her reign Queen Mary was also the dedicatee of Purcell's joyful Birthday Odes, including this glorious masterpiece from the year of the Queen's death – Come, Come, Ye Sons of Art

Thursday 26 December 2019

Kipling at Christmas

Among my Christmas gifts was a British Library anthology, A Literary Christmas (no editor credited), a nice package of verse and prose, some of it familiar, some quite new to me. In the latter category, I discovered an early work (1886) by Rudyard Kipling which is surely one of the bitterest, most sardonic Christmas poems ever written –

Christmas in India

Dim dawn behind the tamarisks -- the sky is saffron-yellow --
  As the women in the village grind the corn,
And the parrots seek the riverside, each calling to his fellow
  That the Day, the staring Eastern Day, is born.
    O the white dust on the highway! O the stenches in the byway!
      O the clammy fog that hovers over earth!
    And at Home they're making merry 'neath the white and scarlet berry --
      What part have India's exiles in their mirth?

Full day behind the tamarisks -- the sky is blue and staring --
  As the cattle crawl afield beneath the yoke,
And they bear One o'er the field-path, who is past all hope or caring,
  To the ghat below the curling wreaths of smoke.
    Call on Rama, going slowly, as ye bear a brother lowly --
      Call on Rama -- he may hear, perhaps, your voice!
    With our hymn-books and our psalters we appeal to other altars,
      And to-day we bid "good Christian men rejoice!"

High noon behind the tamarisks -- the sun is hot above us --
  As at Home the Christmas Day is breaking wan.
They will drink our healths at dinner -- those who tell us how they love us,
  And forget us till another year be gone!
    Oh the toil that knows no breaking! Oh the Heimweh, ceaseless, aching!
      Oh the black dividing Sea and alien Plain!
    Youth was cheap -- wherefore we sold it.
      Gold was good -- we hoped to hold it,
    And to-day we know the fulness of our gain!

Grey dusk behind the tamarisks -- the parrots fly together --
  As the sun is sinking slowly over Home;
And his last ray seems to mock us shackled in a lifelong tether.
  That drags us back howe'er so far we roam.
    Hard her service, poor her payment -- she in ancient, tattered raiment --
      India, she the grim Stepmother of our kind.
    If a year of life be lent her, if her temple's shrine we enter,
      The door is shut -- we may not look behind.

Black night behind the tamarisks -- the owls begin their chorus --
  As the conches from the temple scream and bray.
With the fruitless years behind us and the hopeless years before us,
  Let us honour, O my brother, Christmas Day!
    Call a truce, then, to our labours -- let us feast with friends and neighbours,
      And be merry as the custom of our caste;
    For, if "faint and forced the laughter," and if sadness follow after,
      We are richer by one mocking Christmas past.

How on earth did Kipling ever gain his reputation as a gung-ho, jingoistic, unquestioning apologist for Empire? It is clear even in a work as early as this that his view of Empire was essentially tragic. For a fuller expression of it, see, for example, his later, more famous (and much better) poem, Recessional...

God of our fathers, known of old,
   Lord of our far-flung battle-line,
Beneath whose awful Hand we hold
   Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

The tumult and the shouting dies;
   The Captains and the Kings depart:
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
   An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

Far-called, our navies melt away;
   On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
   Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
   Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe,
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
   Or lesser breeds without the Law—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

For heathen heart that puts her trust
   In reeking tube and iron shard,
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
   And guarding, calls not Thee to guard,
For frantic boast and foolish word—
Thy mercy on Thy People, Lord!

Tuesday 24 December 2019

Christmas Eve

Yesterday, rather to my surprise, I found myself writing a kind of sermon. I am not, of course, a parson, and am woefully unqualified for the job; but if I were one, I fancy the only part of the job I might enjoy would be writing the weekly sermon. Anyway, here's what I wrote – too short for an actual sermon, but topical and to the point...

Viewed as history, the story of the Nativity makes no sense – but viewed as parable, as imagery, as the embodiment of a higher truth, it is surely, in the words of the film title, 'the greatest story ever told', though it is only the beginning of that story. That God should have taken human form is wonderful enough; that He should have come to Earth not as a hero, a conqueror, a vindicated prophet, but as a helpless baby, and an outcast, born in a stable and laid in a manger where animals feed – that is something else altogether: that is a full taking-on the human condition at its weakest, humblest and most powerless. And yet, according to the story, kings and wise men come to join the lowly shepherds in worshipping this helpless child. Clearly something enormous, something entirely new, is happening here. The truth this child brings will be about the strength of the downtrodden, the transforming power of mercy and forgiveness, the loving nature of this God in whose name we must love even our enemies and throw away all former notions of what is just and proper, who is strong and who is weak. As Mary says in the Magnificat, 'He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away.' All is transformed, turned upside down, by this birth, obscure in the eyes of the world, but infinite in its true, its mighty significance. This baby, whose ignominious birth prefigures a yet more ignominious death, changes everything.
As often at this time of year, I think of the image at the end of R.S. Thomas's 'Song' –

I choose white, but with
Red on it, like the snow
In winter with its few
Holly berries and the one

Robin, that is a fire
To warm by and like Christ
Comes to us in his weakness,
But with a sharp song.

And a very happy Christmas to all who browse here!

(The painting, by the way, is by Georges de la Tour.)

Monday 23 December 2019

'Life is real! Life is earnest!'

Strolling through the churchyard (as I often do), I noticed a quotation on a gravestone that was definitely not biblical but was, to me, extremely familiar –

'Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.'

Yes, it's Longfellow again – The Psalm of Life – and the reason it was so familiar to me was that it was one of the bits of strenuously moralistic verse that my father liked to intone while shaving in the morning, in between the much more exciting narrative poems. I don't think he had the whole of this one by heart, but he certainly had the first quatrain:

'Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.'

And, from a little later in Longfellow's overlong effusion:

'Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time.'

(That last line was rewritten by some later poetical wag as 'Arseprints in the sands of time'.)

Another of my father's favourites in this moralising line was

'Life is mostly froth and bubble,
Two things stand like stone.
Kindness in another's trouble,
Courage in your own.'

The Queen herself quoted these lines in her Christmas message at the end of her annus horribilis of 1992, but didn't mention the author – not Longfellow but Adam Lindsay Gordon.
  Gordon was an interesting, rather dashing figure – an Englishman who, to escape the consequences of a wild and reckless youth, took passage to Australia, where he became a police officer before resigning to take up horse-breaking. A remarkable horseman and amateur jockey, he also had a brief political career. According to Wikipedia, 'his semiclassical speeches were colourful and entertaining, but largely irrelevant.' After this, he devoted himself more diligently to poetry – Bush Ballads and Galloping Rhymes being his chief claim to (posthumous) fame – while suffering various setbacks, including a head injury from a riding accident and chronic financial difficulties. In 1870, at the age of 36, he walked into the bush and shot himself.  He is now regarded as one of the fathers of Australian literature, even though much of his verse has been written off as quite indefensibly bad.

Sunday 22 December 2019

A Mind of Winter

There's no snow in prospect here in rain-lashed sodden England, so we can only cultivate 'a mind of winter' and look to poetry for something white and seasonal – and, in this case, glittering with enigmatic beauty. It's Wallace Stevens's great short poem of 1921, The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Tuesday 17 December 2019

Blogging Note

I'll be in Mercia for the next fews days, and pre-Christmas busyness is closing in, so blogging might be a little sparse for a while...

Monday 16 December 2019

A Churchyard Sonnet

Browsing in an anthology of sonnets, my eye – the eye of a churchyard-lover – was naturally drawn to this gloomy, but artfully constructed, specimen. It's by Charlotte Smith, whose Elegiac Sonnets were an instant success in 1784, paving the way for a revival of the sonnet form and making an early contribution to the 'Romantic' school of poetry. Her poetical development was frustrated by the need to write popular novels (file under 'Gothic' and 'Sensibility') for a living, a spendthrift husband and an endless lawsuit ensuring that she was always financially embarrassed: even the Elegiac Sonnets were written while she was living in a debtors' prison with her husband and children. However, she continued to write poetry throughout her career, much of it tending towards the lugubrious, often featuring extreme weather and perilous coastal locations: titles include Huge Vapours Brood above the Clifted Shore and Sonnet: On Being Cautioned Against Walking on an Headland Overlooking the Sea, Because It Was Frequented by a Lunatic. Here is the sonnet that caught my churchyard-loving eye:

Written in the Church Yard at Middleton in Sussex

Pressed by the moon, mute arbitress of tides,
While the loud equinox its power combines,
The sea no more its swelling surge confines,
But o'er the shrinking land sublimely rides.
The wild blast, rising from the western cave,
Drives the huge billows from their heaving bed,
Tears from their grassy tombs the village dead,
And breaks the silent Sabbath of the grave!
With shells and sea-weed mingled, on the shore,
Lo! their bones whiten in the frequent wave;
But vain to them the winds and waters rave;
They hear the warring elements no more:
While I am doomed – by life's long storm oppress'd,
To gaze with envy on their gloomy rest.

As it happens, I once knew Middleton (now Middleton-on-Sea) quite well. It was my sister-in-law's home village, and she and my brother were married in the church there. This, however, was not the church Charlotte Smith would have known: that building, much of which had already been destroyed by the sea, was reduced to a ruin by an exceptionally high tide in 1838, and replaced by a wholly new church a decade later. Charlotte's Middleton sonnet dates from 1789, by which time the sea was already eroding the graveyard, with the effects described so graphically in the poem. 

Sunday 15 December 2019

My Contribution to the Gender Debate

This fantastical rigmarole contains an interesting phrase.
It's the title page of a pamphlet put out by the extremely successful quack 'Dr' James Graham, proprietor of the Temple of Health and the Hymeneal Temple, in their day two of London's most sensational attractions:

                  'Il Convito Amoroso,
           Or a Serio-Comico-Philosophical
                            on the
Causes, Nature and Effects of Love and Beauty at the dif-
ferent periods of Human Life, in Persons and Personages,
Male, Female, and Demi-Caractère; and in Praise of the
 Genial and Prolific Influences of the Celestial Bed.
           As delivered by Hebe Vesteria
     The Rosy Goddess of Youth and of Health
                          from the
Electrical Throne, in the Great Apollo Chamber at the
           Temple of Hymen, in London.'

The phrase that caught my eye was 'Male, Female and Demi-Caractère'. Dr Graham seems to have been an early adopter of the non-binary view of these matters...
'Demi-Caractère' derives from dance, where it describes a style of dancing that partakes of both character dance and classical ballet – a hybrid style. Presumably it is used here to describe a kind of hybrid sex, with elements of both male and female. I pass this on as my contribution to the ever vexed gender debate. Wouldn't a term like 'demi-caractère' raise the tone considerably?

(The famous Celestial Bed is a story in itself, and a pretty mind-boggling one – follow this link for a brief account of it.)

Friday 13 December 2019


Well, that's a relief.
Old Nige's prognostickation engine called it correctly (if cautiously), and the native good sense and decency of the electorate prevailed. Phew. Now I can stand down the prognostickation engine for five years, with any luck.
Meanwhile, I devoutly hope the Labour party will consign Corbyn, McDonnell and co to what radicals like to call the 'dustbin of history', leave this shameful episode in the history of the party behind, and re-form as a decent and credible Loyal Opposition. That is what's needed now.
And with that, I retire from the political arena again.

Thursday 12 December 2019


I have just seen something I've never seen before – a mistle thrush actually eating mistletoe berries.
I take this for a good omen.

David Bellamy RIP

Sad to hear news of the death of David Bellamy, the naturalist, broadcaster and campaigner who was a major presence on TV – and a major force for good –  until he fell foul of the Climate Inquisition for daring to voice some doubts over what was then called 'global warming'. This heresy (along with his almost equally heretical support for the Referendum Party) effectively cost him the remainder of his career and cast him into the outer darkness where 'deniers' like him belong, according to BBC protocols (and a range of other interested parties).
  I always had a soft spot for Bellamy, partly because he was a local lad (Sutton and Cheam, just down the road from Carshalton) who, like me – and indeed the great Ray Mears – spent his early years exploring the wildlife of the North Downs. He deserved better – far better – than to be hounded out of public life for expressing an unwelcome view. Broadcasters – and, worse, scientists – have since learnt the lesson from cases like his: keep your head down, toe the line, remember 'the science is settled'.
  The ebullient Bellamy did more than most to spread the love of natural history, and he was a tireless campaigner in countless sound environmental causes (he was even imprisoned for his activities once, in Australia). In a just world, he'd have ended up revered and beatified like the secular saint David Attenborough. But a just world it is not. Let's hope that he is now blissfully roaming the celestial North Downs.

Wednesday 11 December 2019

Old Nige's Prognostickation

I fear it's time for my biennial excursion into the increasingly depressing world of politics. During the course of this fatuous and interminable election campaign (six weeks?! Who needs six weeks of this?) I've done my best to avoid the day-by-day news coverage and keep my mind on the big picture. And what a 'big picture' it is! Call me a sentimental nostalgist, but I never thought it possible that in this country a Tory government (or any government) would be facing a main opposition party led by quasicommunist antisemites and a second opposition party whose stated aim and principal policy is to overthrow a clear democratic mandate. Even if I had managed to envisage such a scenario, I could never have foreseen that said main opposition party might be in a position to steal the election and form a government with their quasicommunist antisemitic selves at the helm. And yet the tone of most of the coverage of this election has been much the same as for any other, with a carefully maintained illusion of equivalence between the main parties, and no serious discussion of the national catastrophe that would undoubtedly follow such a 'victory'.
  In these dismal circumstances, I have dutifully cranked up Old Nige's Prognostickation Engine yet again – and I'm happy and relieved to report that it's predicting a fairly comfortable win for the Tories, with an outside possibility of something more like a bluewash. Of course, I might not have done quite enough work on recalibrating the imbecility filters after the last time... But I remain confident that, in the end, the electorate (apart from that London lot, of course) still have more sense than to let the likes of JC anywhere near the levers of power.

Tuesday 10 December 2019

Emily Dickinson's birthday thoughts

Emily Dickinson was born on this day in 1830.
Here are her characteristically pungent and succinct birthday thoughts:

Birthday of but a single pang
That there are less to come —
Afflictive is the Adjective
But affluent the doom —

Monday 9 December 2019

'The complexion of a murderer in a bandbox'

This is not a quiz, but the passage below – the first paragraph of a book – invites some questions:
What is the writer on about? What could possibly be the subject of this book? And who on earth could the author be?

'In this strange "goose-weather", when even the snow and the black-fringed clouds seem like old theatrical properties, dead players' cast-off rags, "the complexion of a murderer in a bandbox, consisting of a large piece of burnt cork, and a coal-black Peruke", and when the wind is so cold that it seems like an empty theatre's "Sea, consisting of a dozen large waves, the tenth a little bigger than ordinary and a little damaged", I thought of those medicines that were advised for Melancholy, in the anatomy of this Disease, of mummies made medicine, and of the profits of dust-sifting.'
[The embedded quotations, by the way, are from a 'List of Theatrical Properties', in The Tatler, number 42.]

The writer is clearly in thrall to Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy – and, at the end of the chapter, quotes the passage from Sir Thomas Browne that ends 'Mummy is become merchandise, Mizraim cureth wounds, and Pharaoh is sold for balsam' – which at least gives the chapter a kind of circularity. But what is the subject of this book, and who is the writer? Well, the subject is English Eccentrics, and the author is Edith Sitwell, who has still several pages to write before – by way of the great 'Battlebridge Dust and Cinder-Heap', the Pandemonium Theatre Company, 'the clicking noises made by earthworms' ['recently discovered by the physiologist O. Mangold'], the 'morning worship' and vocalisations of lemurs, and attempts to teach human speech to chimpanzees – she finally arrives at the subject of Eccentricity, and the first of her English Eccentrics at last hoves into view.
'Eccentricity exists particularly in the English,' Sitwell observes, 'and partly, I think, because of that peculiar and satisfactory knowledge of infallibility that is the hallmark and birthright of the British nation.'
  I've always tended to go along with Leavis's sniffy judgment of the literary Sitwells – Osbert, Edith and Sacheverell – as belonging more to the history of publicity than of literature (I don't know why, as I'm sure I disagree with Leavis on most things). However, I owe a debt to Sacheverell, whose long introduction to Mrs Esdaile's English Church Monuments, 1510-1840 is the best, and by miles the most engaging, introduction to the subject, and was one of my chief inspirations in writing my book.
And now I'm giving Edith a try, and so far am greatly enjoying English Eccentrics. Reading it feels more like reading Burton or Browne than anything of the 20th century. I know too little of Edith Sitwell's other work to reach any great conclusions, but, for all her modernist experiments in verse, she seems, in this book at least, to demonstrate a thoroughly 17th-century sensibility – a rare thing in the twentieth.
 She was in many ways, however, of her own time, with her own place in 'the history of publicity', and with some surprising connections – here, by way of a coda, is Dame Edith talking, very astutely and sympathetically, about Marilyn Monroe...

Sunday 8 December 2019

70 and one day

Well, yesterday's events only deepened my sense of thankfulness for everything. A Surprise Party that wasn't entirely unexpected turned out in the event to be a magnificent surprise indeed, thanks to Mrs N's (and others') titanic efforts of clandestine organisation and preparation; its lavish scale; and the number and range of guests, several of whom were indeed surprise presences, and very wonderful surprises. From the moment I arrived and took in the scene before me, I entered a kind of blissful dream-like state, a high from which I'm only now coming down. Things will return to something like normal in due course, I dare say... Meanwhile, a huge and heartfelt thankyou to the redoubtable Mrs N and to all those who were there yesterday and are reading this. And for all the birthday wishes so many have sent. It was a day to remember.

Saturday 7 December 2019


Today I achieve my three score years and ten. Well, 'achieve' is hardly the word: so long as you continue to breathe in and breathe out, reflect light and occupy space, these landmarks come and go. As this one arrives, I find myself hugely thankful, that I have survived and am in good health, and that my life has been so abundantly full of love and delight – and luck. I am truly blest, and know it. I hope Tom Waits is feeling the same...
And I'm also very glad that I managed to get the book out into the world before this landmark date arrived. 

Friday 6 December 2019

'A morning dew, pearling the grass beneath'

Today on Anecdotal Evidence, Patrick Kurp writes about a treasured book – an edition of the poems of George Herbert that was a gift from the poet Helen Pinkerton. Published in New York in 1854, this collection was edited 'by the Rev. George Gilfillan' – a name that rang quite a loud bell with me.
  Sure enough, Gilfillan features in John Gross's classic The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters, where he is affectionately described as 'the McGonagall of criticism'. A man of formidable energy and self-belief, he did pioneering work in introducing the classics of English literature to a hungry reading public in the mid-19th century, but was also wildly enthusiastic about the emerging school of 'Spasmodic' poets – such long forgotten names as Alexander Smith, Philip James Bailey, J. Stanyan Bigg and Sydney Dobell, all authors of grandiose, tormented spiritual epics. This enthusiasm laid Gilfillan open to a well aimed satirical attack, William Aytoun's Firmilian, A Spasmodic Tragedy, an assault that might have ended the career of a lesser man. Gilfillan, however, battled on, dismissing all criticism of himself, producing a spasmodic epic of his own – Night, a poem in nine books – and bringing out an annotated edition of the English poets in 48 volumes, a publication supported by an impressive 7,000 subscribers.
  My own edition of Herbert, which belonged to my grandmother, is of similar vintage, but published by the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge. No editor is named, but the volume includes Izaak Walton's life of the poet, some Commendatory Verses by various hands, and a small selection of Herbert's letters. Browsing in these just now, I came across this beautiful letter 'for my dear sick Sister':

Most dear Sister,
Think not my silence forgetfulness; or that my love is as dumb as my papers: though businesses may stop my hand, yet my heart, a much better member, is always with you; and, which is more, with our good and gracious God, incessantly begging some ease of your pains, with that earnestness that becomes your griefs and my love. God, who knows and sees this writing, knows also that my soliciting Him has been much and my tears many for you; judge me then by those waters, and not by my ink, and then you shall justly value
           Your most truly, most heartily
                 affectionate brother and servant...

Patrick quotes Herbert's marvellous sonnet, 'Prayer', and confesses to having a weakness for such 'list poems'. Here is another, by the minor Elizabethan poet Barnabe Barnes. Like 'Prayer', and like most of Barnes's poetical output, it's a sonnet – but, unlike Herbert's, it reveals its subject not in its title but in its closing couplet:

'A blast of wind, a momentary breath'

A blast of wind, a momentary breath,
A wat'ry bubble symbolized with air,
A sun-blown rose, but for a season fair,
A ghostly glance, a skeleton of death;
A morning dew, pearling the grass beneath,
Whose moisture sun's appearance doth impair;
A lightning glimpse, a muse of thought and care,
A planet's shot, a shade which followeth,
A voice which vanisheth so soon as heard,
The thriftless heir of time, a rolling wave,
A show, no more in action than regard,
A mass of dust, world's momentary slave,
  Is man, in state of our old Adam made,
  Soon born to die, soon flourishing to fade.

Thursday 5 December 2019

Scenes from Another World

On this day in 1958, two momentous events occurred – the kind of events that make a person of my vintage realise how long he's been around.
  Before this date, it was not possible to make a telephone call of any distance at all without going via 'the operator', who would connect you (if you were lucky) to the number you wanted. Then came STD (subscriber trunk dialling) and it became possible to dial direct to relatively far flung parts of the country. The maximum distance achievable was roughly that from Bristol to Edinburgh. And so it was that, on this date in 1958, the Queen (with Postmaster General Ernest Marples at her right hand) made the first STD call from Bristol's central telephone exchange to the Lord Provost's residence in Edinburgh. Happily it worked, and the Queen was able to speak the historic words, 'This is the Queen speaking from Bristol. Good afternoon, my Lord Provost.'
 On the same day, elsewhere in England, prime minister Harold Macmillan was opening Britain's first motorway – the Preston bypass, all eight and a quarter miles of it (long since subsumed into the M6). A large and enthusiastic crowd had gathered at the Samlesbury interchange to watch the historic ceremony, such as it was. Macmillan, in an Austin Sheerline limousine, then became the first person to drive (or, rather, be driven) on an English motorway, travelling the length of the bypass at a sensible speed.
  It's fair to say that Britain's first motorway was not an instant success. Many cautious drivers stayed away for fear of being overtaken by maniacs risking speeds of 70mph – or more! Traffic levels (and speeds, which averaged 38mph) were initially low, and it was to be some years before, driven by sheer necessity, British drivers got the hang of motorways. Now a Britain without motorways, and with telephone operators, is inconceivable – and yet that is exactly what we had in my own living memory. Truly it was another world.

Wednesday 4 December 2019

Unhappy Scenes from Clerical Life

On this day in 1835, the novelist and critic Samuel Butler was born. Readers of The Mother of Beauty will recall that he was born at Langar in the Nottinghamshire wolds, where his father was Rector of St Andrew's, and where he spent a desperately unhappy childhood. St Andrew's church houses the Scroope monument, one of the finest of its time, and it was this, rather than the Samuel Butler connection, that first drew me to Langar. The church itself, alas, is sadly over-restored... In this exclusive extract from the chapter Scenes from Platonic England, I take up the story:

'Pevsner describes the exterior of St Andrew’s as being ‘unfortunately so vigorously restored by Thomas Butler that little of its original surface remains’. This Thomas Butler, vigorous restorer, was the Rector of Langar – and father of the late-Victorian writer Samuel Butler. Thomas, the son of a very distinguished father – headmaster of Shrewsbury School and Bishop of Lichfield – had been pressed into the Church against his inclinations and had a far from stellar ecclesiastical career. He would be quite forgotten today, had he not had the misfortune to be immortalised in his son’s autobiographical novel, The Way of All Flesh.
  This is one of the most savage accounts of an oppressed childhood ever written, and Butler Senior, a physical and emotional bully, comes out of it very badly indeed, as does his wife, Samuel’s mother. The author considered both of them ‘brutal and stupid’, and wrote of his father that ‘he never liked me, nor I him; from my earliest recollections I can call to mind no time when I did not fear him and dislike him’. The unhappy Thomas Butler might well have been taking out the frustrations of his own failed life on his son, re-enacting his own father’s dominance over him in still harsher form – but that, of course, was no consolation to the son on the receiving end, who was never reconciled with his parents.
  Surprisingly, the young Samuel Butler allowed himself to be steered towards the same career as his father and grandfather. However, after Cambridge, his religious doubts began to prevail – much to his father’s wrath – and, to make a radical break with his parents and the future that had been laid down for him, Samuel emigrated to New Zealand, where his experiences inspired his first literary success, the satirical novel Erewhon.

  The Way of All Flesh was considered too incendiary to be published in his lifetime, but after its posthumous publication came to be seen as a minor classic. As a novel, it’s a bit of a mess, but the earlier chapters offer an unforgettably vivid picture of the life of gloomy and stultifying piety, reinforced by brutal punishment, that was once lived in Langar rectory. Platonic England, house of solitudes, had – no doubt still has – its dark side.'

Tuesday 3 December 2019

O tempora, o mores

For anyone not yet entirely convinced that (a) the world has gone mad and (b) events in the 'woke' world have moved way beyond the reach of satire and parody, I pass on this story.
I don't think any further comment is required...

Monday 2 December 2019

'Ewart is very frivolous and brittle...'

Well, I've read Gavin Ewart's Penultimate Poems, and by and large it has confirmed my memory of reading Ewart as being an entertaining, engaging experience but seldom anything much more. He was wonderfully fluent and productive – facile even – and a fine practitioner of what is called 'light verse'.
 The last of the Penultimate Poems is a handy piece of good-humoured auto-criticism by a poet who knows he's now outdated and out of critical favour (though outselling most of the poetical competition, even so) and doesn't much care. The line 'Ewart can do very little' is decidedly wide of the mark: Ewart could do practically anything, and with ease. He was versatile to a fault.

A Critic Speaks

Ewart is very frivolous and brittle.
Ewart can do very little –
though every once in a while
he might raise a weary smile.

A stallion neighing at a filly?
His best poems are silly.
Some find them not very nice.
Perhaps they're just worth the price.

But only just. It must be said,
The first thing that comes into his head
is what he writes about,
with rhyme and rhythm, or else without.

What, no insects? And no flowers?
No Heavenly or Earthly Powers?
No pike, no plaice, no crabs, no cod?
No fish at all! And, worse, no God!

Where is the secret narrative, the myth?
The mysticism? The concentrated pith
of Martian Arts? The learned story
of the proud High Tory?

The surrealist touch, quite gay
when the boys come out to play?
Animals, landscapes? Not a hint.
One wonders wanly: Why, why print

all this sad old-fashioned stuff?
It was once new enough –
but now, as fresh modes come in,
we drop it, fastidiously, in the bin!

Sunday 1 December 2019

Apostrophes: A Battle Lost

Sadly, but unsurprisingly, the Apostrophe Protection Society has closed down.
  This little pressure group was founded 18 years ago for the sole purpose of resisting the incorrect use of the apostrophe in English, as in 'it's' for 'its' or the all too common 'greengrocer's [or indeed greengrocers'] apostrophe', as in 'Best Carrot's 50p lb', etc. The founder of the society, who is now 96 years old and, reasonably enough, cutting back on his activities, has concluded, with regret, that the battle is lost, and that 'the ignorance and laziness present in modern times have won'.
I fear he is right that this particular battle is lost: I come across 'it's' for 'its' all the time, often used by otherwise perfectly literate people, and the conviction, especially among traders, that an apostrophe denotes a plural remains firmly entrenched. A striking example of the latter can be seen on the approach to the west terminal at Victoria, where some years ago a railway worker painted on the wall the warning 'Mind Spike's'. Whatever he wrote it in, it has proved remarkably durable, quite possibly outliving the spikes themselves and no doubt infuriating many a passing apostrophist. Spike's what?
  Does the apostrophe matter that much? Although it's clearly preferable that it's used correctly, I don't think it's ever likely to result in a confusion of meaning or a loss of nuance. Other lost battles have robbed the language of useful distinctions, e.g. the now ubiquitous 'forever' used indiscriminately to cover both English usages: 'for ever', meaning for all time, and 'forever', meaning all the time, or continually, as in 'I'm forever blowing bubbles'. Another battle now almost completely lost is that for 'different from': even upmarket journalists are now happy to use not only 'different to' but even 'different than'. Though it grates, it doesn't matter too much, but it does separate the adjective from its verb of origin and slightly blurs the sense of that word. And then there's the almost universal use of 'amount of' for countable things, as in 'the amount of people'. It seems that not a lot of people [spot the deliberate error]  know this is incorrect. But that's enough pedantry from me.
  I hope the founder of the Apostrophe Protection Society is wrong in his broader point and that 'the ignorance and laziness present in modern times' have not won. Or at least not anywhere it really matters.

Friday 29 November 2019

Q: 'Homer, Dante, Shakespeare and some others'

'I must here ... avow my belief that before starting to lay down principles of literature or aesthetic a man should offer some evidence of his capacity to enjoy the better and eschew the worse. The claim, for the moment fashionable, that a general philosophy of aesthetic can be constructed by a thinker who, in practice, cannot distinguish Virgil from Bavius, or Rodin from William Dent Pitman, seems to me to presume a credulity beyond the dreams of illicit therapeutics. By "poetry", in these pages, I mean what has been written by Homer, Dante, Shakespeare and some others.'
  So ends the short Preface to Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch's Studies in Literature (published in 1918, in a handsome edition, by the Cambridge University Press – my latest charity shop find). 'Q', as he was generally known, had been appointed King Edward VII Professor of English at Cambridge in 1912. It was an appointment that raised eyebrows, as Q had until then been known chiefly as a journalist and popular novelist (and hard-working political activist in the Liberal cause – which probably helped to secure the position). This was a time when English Literature was the new kid on the academic block, and there was still some doubt about what exactly it was and how it should be studied. Sir Arthur, unlikely and unacademic figure as he was, had a lasting impact on Cambridge's 'English tripos', for one thing ensuring that it remained mercifully light on philology and Anglo-Saxon (Q, a Cornishman, regarded himself as a Celt), and for another insisting on the inclusion of a curious field of study called 'the English Moralists'. When asked who these English Moralists were, Sir Arthur would respond with 'a lyrical outburst' culminating in 'a roll-call of the great names – "Hooker – Hobbes – Locke – Berkeley – Hume "; and ending with an exhausted "my God", as emotion got the better of him' (these are E.M.W. Tillyard's recollections, quoted by John Gross in that wonderful book, The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters). When, more than half a century later, I took the English Moralists option, the definition was indeed broad: I remember that it then took in St Augustine at one end and Freud at the other, with more English figures like Mill and Ruskin – and indeed Hobbes – also in the mix. I rather enjoyed the course, especially as my tutor often gave me a glass of whisky to dull the pain of intellection.
  In Q's time, Eng Lit was far from the dry, analytical academic subject it was to become. Sir Arthur himself, in his lectures and 'studies', 'seldom did much more than ramble cheerfully round the subject, shedding a vague glow of enthusiasm' (as Gross puts it). I don't recall anyone shedding the faintest glow of enthusiasm in my Cambridge days, apart from the outsider figure of  George Steiner, who managed to enthuse me mightily about Beckett, Nabokov and Borges in one extraordinary lecture (or maybe it was a talk to the English Society).
  One of the questions about Eng Lit that had to be decided in Sir Arthur's time was how close to the present the study of the subject should come. In one of the Studies, ostensibly on the poetry of George Meredith, Q declares that 'I think it is time to hint at least that the Modern and Medieval Languages Board intend to justify by practice what they meant when, in framing the separate English Tripos, they so far ignored academic tradition and dared the rage of schoolmasters – which, like that of sheep, is terrible – as to open the study of English down to our own times, declining to allow that any past date could be settled, even by university statute, as the one upon which English literature took to its bed, and expired, and was beatified.'
  Sir Arthur goes on to state his conviction 'that upon a school of English there rests an obligation to teach the writing of good English as well as the reading of it: to teach the writing of it through the reading. I want the average educated Englishman to write English as deftly, as scrupulously, as the average educated Frenchman writes French; to have, as at present he has not, at least an equal respect for his language.' Ah, if only that had come to pass...

Thursday 28 November 2019


Well, this arrived today, looking like the kind of thing that used to be delivered 'under plain brown wrapper'. They don't package poetry books like this any more...
Nor do many poetry collections of today have an author's Foreword entirely devoted to scansion. In it Ewart quotes the two lines he was taught in Latin classes as an example of how the elegiac couplet scans:
'Down in a deep dark dell || sat an old cow munching a beanstalk.
Out of her mouth came forth || yesterday's dinner and tea.'

Wednesday 27 November 2019

RIP Clive James

Sad to hear of the death of Clive James, though it's wonderful that he managed almost another decade after he was diagnosed with leukaemia – and, of course, he continued writing almost to the very end. If he hadn't been blessed with such a prodigious range of talents, and such a highly developed sense of humour, he could have been his adoptive country's great public intellectual – but who'd want to be that when you could be having fun on (and with) television, being the finest TV critic there ever was, relishing low culture as much as high, meeting and interviewing the stars, living the life? James did the lot, wrote the lot, read the lot, broadcast the lot. He seems to have had the energy, mental and physical, of ten men, and the productive capacity of many more. Of course, being the man he was, he did and wrote too much, but the best of his writings will surely endure.
  Looking back through what I've written about him here over the years, I found a couple of quotations worth repeating. One is a chilling piece of self-analysis from his Cambridge memoir May Week Was in June. Observing himself as his Cambridge days come to a close, he writes, in the third person, 'he sits writing in his journal. He has just told it that he is reasonably satisfied. The insistent suspicion that he has not yet begun, and has nothing to show, is too frightening to record. For someone who has good reason to believe that he doesn't exist apart from what he does, to doubt that he has done anything worthwhile is to gaze into the abyss.'
 The second quotation is from the epilogue to a collection of his brilliant radio talks, A Point of View, in which James ponders the role of the broadcaster in a world undoubtedly going mad

‘The business of the broadcaster isn’t to correct abuses. It is merely to point them out, to those capable of seeing the implications. By definition, that audience is already ahead of the broadcaster, so it doesn’t really need him, except for consolation. But consolation can be important at a time when it feels as if the world is going mad. Probably the world always feels like that. But today it raves in a multiform jargon that sounds all the more demented because of its approximation to common reason: the patois of a Bedlam that confers degrees. This peculiarly modern interlingua of unjustified omniscience, now that it is here, will probably never go away. It will always transfer itself to a new area, because there will always be people with an interest in inflating their own importance by distorting reality. But part of reality, a heartening part, is that there will also always be people who know sense when they hear it. To this valuable audience we must be careful what we say…’

Wise words, and but a few among many.

Tuesday 26 November 2019

'A warming to us all'

On this date in 1981, Philip Larkin wrote one of his last published poems (it was printed in The Observer a month later). In it, he wittily mourns his own waning facility and generously celebrates the continuing, indeed unquenchable, poetic vigour of his friend Gavin Ewart.

Good for You, Gavin

It's easy to write when you've nothing to write about
   (That is, when you are young),
The heart-shaped hypnotics the press is polite about
   Rise from an unriven tongue.

Later on, attic'd with the all-too-familiar
   Tea chests of truth-sodden grief,
The pages you scrap sound like school songs, or sillier,
   Banal beyond belief.

So good for you, Gavin, for having stayed sprightly
   While keeping your eye on the ball;
Your riotous road-show's like Glenlivet nightly,
   A warming to us all.

Ewart had a most unusual career, beginning as a wunderkind in the Thirties, then falling silent during the war years (when he served in North Africa and Italy) and for some while after, finding his poetic voice again in the Sixties, then becoming ever more prolific as he went on. I remember reading him in the Seventies and Eighties and finding his work entertaining, engaging, sometimes more, but often giving the impression of a profligate talent, writing too much and throwing away too little. He had a rare sense of humour and an easy mastery of every poetical form he tackled, which no doubt encouraged him to write too much – and, when he wrote about sex, as he very often did, he could be quite jaw-droppingly filthy: one of his later collections was banned by W.H. Smith, back in the days when they could still be called booksellers. Today Ewart, who died in the same week as Kingsley Amis (another friend and admirer), seems destined to be all but forgotten before long. Nothing of his is in print, except perhaps in anthologies, and his Penultimate Poems is available for 1p on Amazon – or was until I snapped it up just now.
Here is one of Ewart's that I found in Wendy Cope's excellent anthology, Heaven on Earth: 101 Happy Poems. A kind of free-verse almost-sonnet, it's a happy poem indeed, one of quiet gratitude, for summers, bracken, children, for having survived...

June 1966

Lying flat in the bracken of Richmond Park
while the legs and voices of my children pass
seeking, seeking: I remember how on the
13th of June of that simmering 1940
I was conscripted into the East Surreys,
and, more than a quarter of a century
ago, when France had fallen,
we practised concealment in this very bracken.
The burnt stalks pricked through my denims.
Hitler is now one of the antiques of History,
I lurk like a monster in my hiding place.
He didn't get me. If there were a God
it would be only polite to thank him.

Monday 25 November 2019

Book News latest

I'm not given to blowing my own trumpet, but I can't deny that I find it very pleasing when someone else does it for me – especially when that someone is Patrick Kurp, the best reader any writer could hope to have. Among other things, his piece about The Mother of Beauty on his Anecdotal Evidence blog explains what my book is, and what it was intended to be, better than I've yet managed to do myself.

(For anyone minded to buy a copy, the quickest and easiest way, at least if you're in the UK, is via Amazon – here's the link. Alternatively, send me an email and we'll try to come to some other arrangement. Remember, Christmas is drawing ever closer...)

Sunday 24 November 2019

From Bruno to Handel

A funny thing happened on Strictly Come Dancing last night. The flamboyant Bruno Tonioli, while showering (well deserved) praise on one of the performances said that it reminded him of Mark Morris's style of choreography. If any choreographer gets mentioned on Strictly, it's invariably Bob Fosse, so this was an interesting, and unexpected, development.
As it happened, this came only a couple of days after I'd discovered (thanks to my Derbyshire cousin) Mark Morris's choreography for the Handel duet I wrote about recently on this blog. It struck me as very beautiful, wonderfully responsive to the music, joyful, inventive, light and altogether lovely to look at. There's a taster below – enjoy!

Saturday 23 November 2019

More Tate

A picture that caught my eye at the Tate, and seemed new to me (though I'm not certain it was), was a self-portrait by William Dobson, painted around 1640. This dramatically conceived and lushly painted work is high-impact stuff and hard to miss. At a glance, you could almost mistake it for a Velzaquez. It is very clearly the work of an accomplished and more than confident portraitist – as is proven by the other Dobsons hanging nearby: a tender but sharply observed portrait of, probably, his wife, and a much grander bravura portrait of the gorgeously named Royalist Endymion Porter in all his glory, looking like a man whose veins flow with good claret.
  John Aubrey rated Dobson 'the most excellent painter that England has yet bred', and the art historian Ellis Waterhouse labelled him 'the most distinguished purely British painter before Hogarth'. Today his number one fan is the redoubtable Waldemar Januszcsak, who has called Dobson 'the first British born genius, the first truly dazzling English painter'. He surely deserves to be better known, to emerge from under the gigantic shadow of Van Dyck. Maybe there were other English painters of the period who deserve to be better known? Perhaps, under Charles I, there was a golden age of English painting running in parallel with the golden age of English church monuments (as celebrated in this book)?
  Be that as it may, several other Tate paintings caught my eye, including another from the 17th century (later, though) – a Portrait of a Young Girl by Mary Beale, a very successful portraitist. This intimate informal study is unfinished, but none the worse – and perhaps rather the better – for that.

  A painting I felt sure I'd never seen before was The Room in Which Shakespeare Was Born by Henry Wallis, he of The Death of Chatterton fame. The minute detail, fresh colour, sharp light and closeness of observation in this little picture is quite astonishing.

 And then there were two, very different examples of a sub-genre for which I'm always a sucker – Dieppe pictures: a view of the Café des Tribunaux by Sickert, one of his best in that line

and Ben Nicholson's Auberge de la Sole Dieppoise, a semi-abstract piece featuring Barbara Hepworth's face reflected in the window of a Dieppe eaterie –

(And here, not from the Tate's collection, is an image of the Auberge de la Sole Dieppoise in its heyday. The building now houses an estate agent's offices.)