Tuesday, 18 June 2019

Jewel of Suburbia

Having been on the look-out since mid-May, I'd more or less given up hope of seeing a Lime Hawk Moth this year. This unexpected jewel of suburbia is a sight I associate with warm evenings in late May or early June – certainly not with a grey, rainy afternoon in the second half of June. But, as I trudged through the park in a steady drizzle this afternoon, I spotted this beauty, spreading its handsome wings low down on a lime tree bole. A cheering sight – and a lucky one; when I passed back the same way ten minutes later, it had already flown.
  And yesterday, on a tiny triangular nature reserve where two local railway lines meet, I saw my first Marbled Whites of the year. I wonder if these beautiful downland butterflies (not Whites but Browns, fact fans) might have the potential to extend their range further into suburbia, as the Orange Tip and Common Blue have done. It would be a great gain if they did...

Sunday, 16 June 2019


if Seize the Day is, as I opined in the last post, 'one of the great short novels of the 20th century', what are the others?
Here's my provisional top ten (of novels under 200 reasonably spaced pages that aren't long short stories) –

Joseph Conrad Heart of Darkness
Henry James The Beast in the Jungle (other prime contenders are disqualified by date)
Willa Cather The Lost Lady
Flannery O'Connor Wise Blood
Vladimir Nabokov Transparent Things
Muriel Spark The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Jean Rhys Wide Sargasso Sea
J.L. Carr A Month in the Country
Penelope Fitzgerald The Bookshop
Samuel Beckett Ill Seen Ill Said

Actually, with Seize the Day, that would make 11. Never mind.
Any thoughts?

Saturday, 15 June 2019

Seize the Day Again

Seize the Day was, I think, the first Saul Bellow I ever read. This would be back in the Seventies some time, when Bellow was little more than a name to me (though, years before, I had noticed my intellectual uncle reading Dangling Man). I was certainly impressed by Seize the Day – impressed enough to read Mr Sammler's Planet when I came across it. And after that I rapidly became a devoted reader, devouring all the novels and most of the short stories, and finding the experience hugely exhilarating. However, I have reread less of Bellow than of most of the novelists I've loved; some of his longer works seem frankly daunting now, demanding a lot of intellectual energy and readerly stamina (indeed some, I think, could profitably have been trimmed down). However, Seize the Day I have certainly reread more than once – most recently in December 2008, as I know from a barely legible restaurant receipt I found, serving as a bookmark, in my Penguin Classics copy (Introduction by Cynthia Ozick). And now I have reread it again. 
  Suffice to say, it did not disappoint. It is surely one of the great short novels of the 20th century. The failed and fading charmer Tommy Wilhelm, whose day of reckoning the novel chronicles, is one of Bellow's most compelling creations, and he is well balanced by his vain, successful and self-protective father, and the philosophising con man, 'Dr' Tamkin, whose strange charisma Tommy cannot resist, though he knows him to be a fraud. The Fifties New York settings against which the action plays out are vividly evoked in some of the most extraordinary passages of the book, the whole of which is infused with tremendous, passionate, but always controlled energy, driving events to an unforgettable climax. It's a wonderful read, a wonderful reread, I think a true classic.

Thursday, 13 June 2019

Joad Again: Scrambling

I can't seem to escape the long (pot-bellied, pipe-smoking) shadow of the egregious Professor C.E.M. Joad, erstwhile celebrity intellectual (see here and here). Browsing in The View from Devonshire Hill, a memoir by the unjustly forgotten Elizabeth Jenkins, I was startled to come across the dread name again. Jenkins knew the great man in the late Thirties, and give this account of his notorious ticket-dodging activities, which casts now light on the sordid business...
'Coming up to London by rail as he often did, he realised that the London express made a stop for a few minutes at a point on the line below a steep bank that led out of some fields. By posting himself on the bank at a given time, he was able, when the train paused, to scramble down the bank, wrench open a carriage door and seat himself inside. This meant that he made the journey to London without a ticket. This curious practice is hard to account for in a man who made a comfortable income ... At the terminus he would wait, inconspicuously, until the crowd at the exit had dispersed, and then wander about as if he were looking for someone, before walking calmly out. Finally an inspector on the train saw him coming in at the carriage door, and exclaimed: 'This train doesn't stop here, sir!' To which Joad responded: 'Then I'm not on it.' [Ever the philosopher!] This was a neat reply, but it was a mistake: it called public attention to his practice. I think he must have been a marked man for some time. He came before a magistrate and was found guilty of cheating the railway company.'
The image of the rotund philosopher scrambling down the bank and hauling himself aboard a train is one to cherish. 

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Futile Gesture of the Day

So, the 'government' is going to be chucking away a trillion quid of our money on a futile gesture, a work of supererogation that takes the whole notion to a new level of fatuous virtue signalling. You couldn't, as they say, make it up. What's interesting is that the same people who declare, with absolute conviction, that a no-deal Brexit will be economic suicide are applauding a declaration that amounts to a national suicide note. Still, suicide has been the prevailing mode of this country and much of the West for decades now, so we might as well hand over the reins of power to Greta Thunberg...
  However, the BBC News website also carries the cheering story of Norman Borlaug, whose work on disease-resistant wheat saved millions from starvation. Mentioned towards the end is Paul Ehrlich, whose book The Population Bomb asserted that it was inevitable that 'hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death' – a Population Emergency, you might say. Like today's ecowarriors, he was convinced he knew what the future held. He was wrong.

Monday, 10 June 2019

Excellent Women

In a fascinating post, Patrick Kurp today quotes a typically pithy, gossipy life from John Aubrey's Brief Lives. It reminded me of a passage from Aubrey that I came across while researching my book. This was his thumbnail sketch of a kinswoman of his, Elizabeth Danvers (née Neville), who had 'prodigeous parts for a Woman. I have heard my father’s mother say that she had Chaucer at her fingers' ends. A great Politician; great Witt and spirit, but revengeful: knew how to manage her estate as well as any man; understood Jewels as well as any Jeweller. Very Beautiful, but only short-sighted. To obtain Pardons for her Sonnes she maryed Sir Edmund Carey, cosen-german to Queen Elizabeth, but kept him to hard meate.'
  The last phrase, I guess, means that her marriage to Sir Edmund was a mariage blanc. The sons whose lives she saved by this alliance had been obliged to flee the country after a feud with a local family ended in murder. One of them was later beheaded for his part in the Essex rebellion. Lady Carey died in 1630 at an advanced age, having already secured herself one of the most beautiful monuments of its time, carved by the great Nicholas Stone. (It stands in St Michael's, Church Stowe, in Northamptonshire, and is well worth seeking out.)

  The early seventeenth century seems to have been remarkably rich in women of great talent and practical ability. As I researched my book, I kept coming across them. One was another, later Elizabeth Carey (Lady Berkeley), who also has a notably beautiful monument by Stone. This Lady Elizabeth was a scholar, poet and patron of the arts from an early age – and proved also to be a woman of great practical ability, taking over the running of her wildly extravagant husband's estates and managing to pay off his huge debts. She died on her estate as Cranford, Middlesex (where she is buried), having lived her latter years 'amongst her thousands of books'.

Then there is Mary Browne, the much misused wife of the Second Earl of Southampton (who seems to have preferred men to women), who cut her out of his will and decreed that her children be taken from her. Mary, refusing to take this lying down, fought a successful battle to have this will overturned, regaining her status and rights, and having her children returned to her. What's more, she ignored her late husband's expressed wish to have his own monument, with a separate one for his parents (and no trace at all of his wife). Mary ensured that a single monument was built (at Titchfield in Hampshire), with her mother-in-law in pride of place, and her own name and lineage conspicuously displayed.
  One of Mary's sons was Henry, who became the Third Earl of Southampton, dedicatee of Shakespeare's narrative poems and very probably the Fair Youth of the Sonnets. It was to him, as it happens, that Elizabeth Danvers' sons fled after the murder, claiming his protection before they crossed to the Continent. And it was he who commissioned one of the most touching monuments to a dead child – his daughter, Lady Mary Wriothesley, who died in 1615 aged four years and four months. This monument (also at Titchfield) is unusual for its time in showing a child who looks like a child rather than a miniature adult, and might well have been made by the legendary Epiphanius Evesham.

  Mention of Evesham leads us to another redoubtable woman, Lady Frances St Pol, who, having been widowed, was relentlessly courted by the odious Third Baron Rich (they are both portrayed in a memorial tondo by Evesham at Snarford in Lincolnshire). Rich had divorced his first wife, the beautiful and gifted Lady Penelope Devereux, whom he married by force, and now he intended to get his hands on the wealth of Lady Frances, 'a person of shining conversation and eminent beauty' who was also one of the richest women in the county. Happily, by the time Rich married her, the resourceful Lady Frances had so arranged her affairs as to put her wealth beyond the reach of her avaricious husband. He died, disappointed, within three years of the marriage, and she spent the rest of her life doing good works in Snarford and farther afield. Another excellent woman.

Saturday, 8 June 2019

Tomorrow's Headlines Today

Here's an exclusive preview of the Sunday papers...

'My Drugs Hell' by Jacob Rees-Mogg

'Crystal Meth was Serious Mistake' admits Philip Hammond

'I Deeply Regret Shooting Up in the House' says Iain Duncan Smith

'My Glue Sniffing Days Are Over' pledges James Brokenshire

'I Once Took a Puff of a Cigarette' admits Theresa May

Kibber or Sibber

Just now I was wondering if the surname Cibber – as in the much-mocked poet Colley Cibber and his sculptor father Caius Gabriel Cibber – was pronounced Kibber or Sibber. As if it mattered.
It's not a name I often have occasion to utter, but as Caius Gabriel features in my book, I thought I'd make sure. So I decided to look online, as the answers to every question live out there in cyberspace. Sure enough, there were websites queuing up to enlighten me on this vital question. The first one I tried nearly made me jump out of my skin. Brace yourself...
I'm not going to forget that in a hurry.

Friday, 7 June 2019

His Funkitude

Today comes news that Doctor John (Malcolm John Rebennack), the  erstwhile Night Tripper, has gone to join the ever growing celestial Wrecking Crew. Last year his birthday was declared Dr John Day in New Orleans, celebrating the fact that he 'rose to international recognition for his musical funkitude in performing, writing and producing', and he was recognised by the State of Louisiana for 'embodying the culture of the state, from New Orleans to the Bayou'.
Here he is in full funky flow at SXSW a few years ago – try sitting still through this...

Thursday, 6 June 2019

Dialogues and Dandies

Nabokov's brilliant study of Gogol ends with a dialogue between author and publisher, which begins

' – "Well," – said my publisher, – "I like it – but I do think the student ought to be told what it is all about."
 I said ...
 – "No," – he said, – "I don't mean that. I mean the student ought to be told more about Gogol's books. I mean the plots. He would want to know what the books are about."
 I said ...'

Those are eloquent dots, and there are more of them as Nabokov tries, apparently in vain, to get his publisher to understand what he has already written, with luminous clarity, in the book.
 Nabokov appends this dialogue as a way of explaining why he has added a Chronology that he clearly thought unnecessary, though it is well worth reading, indeed is a little masterpiece in itself.

I had just (re)read the last pages of Nikolai Gogol when, loitering in one of my favourite charity shops, the volume illustrated above caught my eye. They'd knocked the price down to a quid, to get rid of it, so naturally I snapped it up.
 Opening it, I discovered that the entire book consists of a dialogue between the author and his publisher... The latter thinks highly of the author's MS, but regards it as hopelessly uncommercial: 'I am sure we should not dispose of a hundred copies of your book.' However, when the author declares that 'I perfectly see the force of your observations, and so far as circulation goes, I may as well throw the MS in the fire!', the publisher insists that he shouldn't do any such thing, as 'there is still an interest in writing for the few'. From there the conversation drifts off into the changes that the years have brought, and so, easily enough, into the author's memories of the personalities and events of his younger years. The conversation becomes the book – a 200-page memoir in dialogue form.
 Alexander, Lord Lamington (to give the simplest form of his triple-barrelled name), was a prominent member of the wonderfully romantic Young England party that flourished in the 1840s, and for decades an ornament of high society and the literary world. In the Days of the Dandies began life as a series in Blackwood's Magazine – a series cut short by Lamington's death in 1890. The book version was published in 1906, and my copy once graced the shelves of the W.H. Smith subscription library on the Strand. It's printed on thick, flannel-like paper and is surprisingly readable – thanks in part, I'm sure, to the dialogue form. As a straight memoir, it might, I suspect, be rather wearing.

Tuesday, 4 June 2019

A London Mystery

Following the recent demise of Jamie Oliver's restaurant chain (of which I never heard a good word), Mr Appleyard remarked that it might have had something to do with the fact that, in his experience, the staff seldom got round to taking your order, however long you sat. I think he's put his finger on an interesting phenomenon of our times – the reluctance of serving staff in our trendier establishments to make themselves known and offer to bring you something in the way of food and drink in return for money.
  I experienced this in extreme form recently, when my cousin and I, weary after a long London walk, in desperation dropped in on achingly trendy cafe/eaterie/bar near St Pancras. We knew it was a mistake as soon as the wall of sound met us – loud and unpleasant music plus a hubbub of voices worsened by atrocious acoustics. Various young hipster types were milling about, chatting with each other, sauntering to and fro to no obvious effect, sitting down and standing up, wandering out and back in again. No uniforms, needless to say, so no way of telling if they were on the staff or just acquaintances passing the time of day. Similarly, of course, there was no indication of whether table service was on offer (it seemed unlikely) or it was a case of ordering at the bar, when there happened to be someone there. At least there was a menu, and on it a range of teas were listed – including, I was glad to see, Keemun, which I rather fancied. After much mystified waiting and speculation, I spotted a young man who, from his position behind the bar, I felt fairly sure must be a member of staff. He was indeed – though, when I approached to make my order, he reacted as if this had never happened to him before and he was none too pleased at the impertinence. Bellowing over the background noise, I managed to get him to understand that I was after a pot of Keemun tea. 'No,' he declared firmly, 'we don't have it.' I was too far gone by now to protest and draw his attention to the menu. We settled on another tea, which was eventually brought to us by a young woman who was presumably a waitress. We did not linger long over it.
  Experiences like this make London seem ever more mysterious to me. Not that long ago, it was a city I felt perfectly at home in. Now, if I stray from familiar haunts, I find myself increasingly unable to make head or tail of the place. Maybe it's just age – we must remember that oldsters like me and Bryan are invisible to the hipster eye.

Monday, 3 June 2019

NO ai Grandi Navi!

Yesterday's news of a gigantic cruise ship crashing into a smaller tourist boat and the dockside in Venice  – read all about it here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-48489158 – renews the hope that something will finally be done about the blight of the grandi navi. These floating hotels should never have been allowed into Venice in the first place, and Venetians regularly protest against their presence and the damage they are doing to their city. I gather that, if it was down to the city authorities, they would have got rid of them, but they have been overruled by the regional government. Perhaps now minds will be concentrated and something decisive will at last be done. The Mayor has called for 'urgent action' to divert cruise ships away from the Giudecca canal, and the Infrastructure Minister has declared that 'we are finally close to a definitive solution' – the kind of words you hear all too often from the dilatory Italian authorities. Let's hope, though, that this time they mean something.
  Meanwhile, on a more cheery note, here's a Venetian scene painted by Raoul Dufy, who was born on this day in 1877. Not a cruise ship in sight...

Sunday, 2 June 2019

Notes from North Wales

You don't often come across a church monument that makes you smile, but I found one such in the church of All Saints, Gresford, in Denbighshire. The monument to John Trevor (who died in 1589) irresistibly suggests, to modern eyes, the stage illusion in which a conjuror 'saws a lady in half'. At one end, an unconcerned John Trevor rests his head on his hand – an early example of the popular 'toothache' pose – and clutches the hilt of his sword, the rest of which emerges at the other end of the monument, along with his feet. The dark middle section bears a long inscription, now barely discernible. There's another, later monument elsewhere in North Wales that follows this curious design, but clearly it never caught on.
  Gresford church is a gem, with a wonderful array of carved screens and a beautiful angel roof.

The personal highlight of this tour, though, was a visit to the former lead-mining village of Gwernaffield in Flintshire. The Victorian church is not very distinguished, but in the churchyard stands a stone erected by my great-great-grandfather, William Jones, in memory of three of his children.

The inscription is in Welsh, and in translation (I am told) reads:

'Here lies AMELIA, daughter of Will'm and Marg't Jones, Pen y Fron, who died October 7 1838 at 5 weeks old.
      I am the first (child) to be given (the name)*
      (In a coffin of two shaped trees)
      I am wise where I will be wise
      Until my soul calls me to the south
      Although my body is weak and buried
      In the cold soil alone,
      A little girl is singing aloft
      Among the heavenly host and their music.
Also EMMA their daughter who died February 5th 1864 at 20 years, also Edwin their son who died February 21 1864 at 16 years.

* A later daughter was also christened Amelia.
And another later daughter went on to marry my philoprogenitive great grandfather (born 1808), who was undeterred by the fact she was his son's fiancée when she caught his eye – just like Miles Mowbray in Ivy Compton Burnett's A Father and His Fate.

Tuesday, 28 May 2019

Bed and Brexit

Walking past a local bed store this morning, I noticed a sign proclaiming a 'Brexit Overstock Sale!' Apparently they are selling off  'Brexit overstock' to the tune of £1.3 million. How did this situation come about? What were they thinking of when they bought this huge quantity of beds? What has changed since then that has led them to want to get rid of it all? Have they concluded that Brexit is never going to happen after all, so their stockpiling was to no avail? Or that a 'no deal' Brexit will leave them with no option but to sell up and head for the hills? No one will be wanting beds any more, nessun dorma in the nightmare of the post-EU dark... Oddly, from what I hear of the early morning business news on the radio (as I drift in and out of sleep), I get the impression that the markets have already decided that it's going to be 'no deal' – and they don't seem unduly concerned. But I haven't heard from any representatives of the bed trade yet.
  Meanwhile, I'm off walking in North Wales for a few days. Hwyl am nawr!

Winter Garden

Breaking my resolve to lay off the fiction (particularly novels written by women) for a while, I've just read a short Beryl Bainbridge which I happened to spot on the charity shop shelf. I read it partly from curiosity, as the title – Winter Garden – was unfamiliar to me, even though over the years I must have read almost everything Bainbridge wrote.
  Published in 1980, Winter Garden follows the misadventures of Douglas Ashburner, an outwardly sedate middle-aged lawyer who has unfortunately fallen in love with a flaky artist called Nina and is accompanying her on a state-organised cultural visit to the USSR (having told his wife he's on a fishing trip in Scotland). Also on the tour are two other artists, the quiet but sexually voracious Enid and the obstreperous egotist Bernard. As for Nina, she disappears almost as soon as the group get to the USSR – a bold move, losing one of your leading characters, especially as Bernard and, especially, Enid are rather thinly drawn. Mostly we see the action through the permanently bemused Douglas's eyes – and no wonder he's bemused, as the events unfolding around him are endlessly mystifying. They are also, much of the time, very funny, and the early chapters are classic Bainbridge – razor sharp, pared down, darkly comic, beautifully engineered. The perplexing madness of a Soviet-controlled 'cultural tour' is effortlessly evoked, and each chapter works perfectly. It's a hugely enjoyable ride. The problem is that the larger picture, the overarching plot, never quite comes into focus – or so it seemed to me – and remains so mysterious that it leaves the reader (this one at least) as bemused as poor Douglas Ashburner.
  Maybe I was missing something, but I think Winter Garden must count as a Bainbridge misfire, one that doesn't quite come together – but even a misfire by her is a lot more fun than many another esteemed writer's best efforts. In the end, perhaps, she'll be remembered more for her late historical novels than her earlier works (the same might be true of Penelope Fitzgerald), but it was a pleasant surprise to find one that I'd never read, or even heard of.

Sunday, 26 May 2019

Small Blues and Larger Concerns

The arcane, ever varying delights of the butterfly season never fail. This morning, while the sun still shone, I made my way to the local nature reserve that I once spent a long while failing to find, but which is now so familiar to me that my feet could find their way there unsupervised. As I'd hoped, the Small Blues – tiny, dark and beautifully various – were flying, and in glorious abundance, along with as many Small Coppers as I usually see in a year (so good to see them thriving). Among the vetches and trefoils, copulation thrived – Small Blue copulation, that is.
  But perhaps it is time for me to wrest my attention from butterflies and church monuments and turn it briefly on the wider world... Therese May's tears as she ended her resignation speech were sad to see, but also, I found, acutely, squirmingly embarrassing. You couldn't help feeling sorry for her, but she was completely the victim of her own glaring failings – and even now she doesn't seem to realise it. Much better to leave office, as her predecessor did, with composure and a merry tune on your lips. So much more English.
 And now the long drawn out tedium of a Tory leadership election looms. It's a depressing prospect, not least because so many of the candidates and their backers are bent on one thing above all others – stopping a 'no-deal' Brexit (this is usually code for Brexit). MPs should be reminded that, by voting overwhelmingly to invoke Article 50, they were voting for the possibility of 'no deal', as Article 50 puts a clear time limit (already extended twice) on the process of leaving, regardless of whether a deal has been struck. Perhaps, like all those deluded plebs who voted for Brexit, they didn't know what they were voting for?

Saturday, 25 May 2019

Finished (sort of)

Yesterday, rather to my surprise, I finished my book on church monuments etc. Well, I say 'finished', but of course there is much more to be done: rereading, revision and correction, checking, some rewriting – and then the challenging business of putting it all together as a book, with the pictures (there are a lot of them) in the right places, and then finally publishing it. I gave myself two years to do the writing, and I've barely overrun that deadline. A few more months and the thing will be actually finished and out in the world, in good time for my 70th birthday (and Christmas, ho ho). That's a long gestation for a book of barely 60,000 words, but I don't have the stamina for long stretches of intensive writing – and besides, I had all those churches to visit. It's been fun.

Friday, 24 May 2019


On this day in 1881 the great painter and etcher Samuel Palmer died, a sad and disappointed man, in his house at Redhill (a rather ugly Gothic affair of curious design – I had a look round it once). He had never got over the death of the son (Thomas More Palmer) in whom he had reposed all his hopes and aspirations, and his career had never risen much above the getting-by stage – in painful contrast to that of his hugely successful father-in-law, John Linnell. As Palmer lay dying, he would sometimes reach out to touch an old cigar box on the table beside him; this contained the copperplates for his unfinished set of Virgil etchings, the last great project of his life. When the end came, Palmer died peacefully, with his old friend and fellow 'Ancient' George Richmond (with whom he delighted in drinking libations of goose fat every Christmas) kneeling in prayer by his bedside. He was buried in Reigate churchyard on a showery morning. A skylark was singing.
  At the time of his death, it looked as if Palmer's work would be forgotten by all but a small circle of admirers. His other son, Alfred Herbert, dutifully completed and published the Virgil etchings, and, a decade later, brought out a dull and dutiful Life and Letters in two volumes. Then, over several days in 1909, Alfred Herbert systematically destroyed large quantities of his father's notebooks, sketchbooks and pictures, mostly dating from his 'visionary' early years. 'Knowing that no one would be able to make head or tail of what I burnt,' wrote A.H. in justification, 'I wished to save it from a more humiliating fate.' Happily, despite this conflagration, enough of his early work survived to demonstrate Palmer's unique artistic vision, and to inspire the revival of his reputation that did eventually begin in the 1920s with an exhibition of drawings, etchings and woodcuts at the V&A. The revival continued after the war with Geoffrey Grigson's study of the artist, followed by more exhibitions and, eventually, a shelf of books. Palmer's extraordinary early work had a dramatic impact on Graham Sutherland, Paul Nash, John Piper and many others. Since then, the best of Palmer's later work has also come to be appreciated, and we now have a more rounded view of his art. The disappointed man who died on this day in 1881 has finally got his due.
 (Above: the late etching Opening the Fold).

Wednesday, 22 May 2019


I must have read Donald Justice's Pantoum of the Great Depression several times before the obvious question occurred to me...

Our lives avoided tragedy
Simply by going on and on,
Without end and with little apparent meaning.
Oh, there were storms and small catastrophes.

Simply by going on and on
We managed. No need for the heroic.
Oh, there were storms and small catastrophes.
I don't remember all the particulars.

We managed. No need for the heroic.
There were the usual celebrations, the usual sorrows.
I don't remember all the particulars.
Across the fence, the neighbors were our chorus.

There were the usual celebrations, the usual sorrows.
Thank god no one said anything in verse.
The neighbors were our only chorus,
And if we suffered we kept quiet about it.

At no time did anyone say anything in verse.
It was the ordinary pities and fears consumed us,
And if we suffered we kept quiet about it.
No audience would ever know our story.

It was the ordinary pities and fears consumed us.
We gathered on porches; the moon rose; we were poor.
What audience would ever know our story?
Beyond our windows shone the actual world.

We gathered on porches; the moon rose; we were poor.
And time went by, drawn by slow horses.
Somewhere beyond our windows shone the world.
The Great Depression had entered our souls like fog.

And time went by, drawn by slow horses.
We did not ourselves know what the end was.
The Great Depression had entered our souls like fog.
We had our flaws, perhaps a few private virtues.

But we did not ourselves know what the end was.
People like us simply go on.
We have our flaws, perhaps a few private virtues,
But it is by blind chance only that we escape tragedy.

And there is no plot in that; it is devoid of poetry.

The obvious question is, of course, What is a pantoum?
It is, I discover, a verse form of Malayan origin which works like this:
Each stanza is four lines long and cross-rhymed.
The 2nd and 4th line of each stanza become the 1st and 3rd of the next, and so on through the poem (which can be of any length).
In the final stanza, the unused 1st and 3rd line of the first stanza reappear, in reverse order, so that the poem ends with the same line it began with.
  That is a challenging form, and the strict rules, as can be seen from Justice's pantoum, are more honoured in the breach than the observance. With its slow pace – four lines forward, two lines back – it's a form that is particularly suitable to a meditative poem about the past (like Justice's) and to the gradual building of a scene or mood. Justice's pantoum uses the form both to embody the stasis of life in the Depression and to establish an ironic distance from its subject – the miseries of that life – but he allows that distancing to break down towards the end, and with it the strict framework of the pantoum.
  More straightforward, more static, and more respectful of the rules, is John Ashbery's Pantoum, which uses the form to build a scene and an atmosphere, mysterious, archaic and vaguely menacing...

Eyes shining without mystery, 
Footprints eager for the past 
Through the vague snow of many clay pipes, 
And what is in store? 

Footprints eager for the past 
The usual obtuse blanket. 
And what is in store 
For those dearest to the king? 

The usual obtuse blanket. 
Of legless regrets and amplifications 
For those dearest to the king. 
Yes, sirs, connoisseurs of oblivion, 

Of legless regrets and amplifications, 
That is why a watchdog is shy. 
Yes, sirs, connoisseurs of oblivion, 
These days are short, brittle; there is only one night. 

That is why a watchdog is shy, 
Why the court, trapped in a silver storm, is dying. 
These days are short, brittle; there is only one night 
And that soon gotten over. 

Why the court, trapped in a silver storm, is dying 
Some blunt pretense to safety we have 
And that soon gotten over 
For they must have motion. 

Some blunt pretense to safety we have 
Eyes shining without mystery, 
For they must have motion 
Through the vague snow of many clay pipes.

The first Western adopters of the pantoum form were French – Victor Hugo, Ernest Founiet, Charles Baudelaire (Harmonie du Soir) – and it has never been popular with writers in English. But Austin Dobson, master of the villanelle, produced a clever and atmospheric pantoum inspired by a line from Tennyson, 'The blue fly sung in the pane'. It's called In Town and is a very nifty piece of work...

TOILING in Town now is "horrid,"
(There is that woman again !)-
June in the zenith is torrid,
Thought gets dry in the brain.

There is that woman again :
"Strawberries ! fourpence a pottle !"
Thought gets dry in the brain ;
Ink gets dry in the bottle.

"Strawberries ! fourpence a pottle !"
Oh for the green of a lane !-
Ink gets dry in the bottle ;
"Buzz" goes a fly in the pane !

Oh for the green of a lane,
Where one might lie and be lazy !
"Buzz" goes a fly in the pane ;
Bluebottles drive me crazy !

Where one might lie and be lazy,
Careless of Town and all in it !-
Bluebottles drive me crazy :
I shall go mad in a minute !

Careless of Town and all in it,
With some one to soothe and to still you ;-
I shall go mad in a minute ;
Bluebottle, then I shall kill you !

With some one to soothe and to still you,
As only one's feminine kin do,-
Bluebottle, then I shall kill you :
There now ! I've broken the window !

As only one's feminine kin do,-
Some muslin-clad Mabel or May !-
There now ! I've broken the window !
Bluebottle's off and away !

Some muslin-clad Mabel or May,
To dash one with eau de Cologne ;-
Bluebottle's off and away ;
And why should I stay here alone !

To dash one with eau de Cologne,
All over one's eminent forehead ;-
And why should I stay here alone !
Toiling in Town now is "horrid,"

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Nostalgia a New Heresy?

The first of Jonathan Sumption's Reith Lectures went out this morning and, it seemed to me, lived up to expectation. It was lucid, elegantly expressed, thoughtful and incisive, and raised some very pertinent questions about the effects – particularly on our freedoms – of the relentless advance of law to fill the space left by the retreat of politics.
  In the question and answer session that followed, I noted that more than one questioner accused Sumption of being 'nostalgic' for some past time. I've noticed this accusation being made before, notably about Brexit voters and UKIP members, both of whom are supposed to be nostalgic for a mythical past, sometimes identified as the Fifties. Which begs the question, even if this were true, what is wrong with nostalgia? Surely it's a part of the human condition to look back fondly on times that now seem better than these – often the times of our childhood and early years. We all feel at some level the sense of a lost Golden Age which is irrevocably past and can never be recaptured – hence the pain of nostalgia. Nowadays, however, the word 'nostalgia' is becoming an accusatory term in political discourse (or what passes for it). It seems to be a kind of code word (even a 'dog whistle'?) that suggest reactionary views, inability to cope with the present, a tendency to the swivelling eye and the foam-flecked chin. Is 'nostalgia' on its way to becoming a new heresy, a deplorable new 'phobia' (of the present), an unpardonable denial of the narrative of Progress and its unshakable faith that the present can only be better than the past? That will never do.
  Not that Sumption is 'nostalgic' anyway – which made it all the odder that this term was deployed against him.

Monday, 20 May 2019

Stoneywell, etc.

My latest Mercian jaunt began with Stoneywell, a National Trust property hidden away in the rocky, rolling Charnwood forest in Leicestershire. The house, or rather cottage, is an Arts and Crafts gem, designed by Ernest Gimson and built by him and the wonderfully named Detmar Blow for Ernest's brother Sidney and his family, several generations of whom lived there until finally handing it over to the National Trust. A small house on several levels, it seems to emerge organically from the rock it's built on. Nothing about the interior is predictable or regular, and every room is a joy to be in – at least for an inveterate Arts and Crafts fan like me. There's plenty of beautifully made furniture, by Gimson and others, to admire too. I didn't care for the planting of the parts of the garden near the house, which look more Fifties seaside than Gertrude Jekyll (not the Trust's fault), but apart from that, it was a delight – and (having booked ahead) we were taken round by a knowledgable and enthusiastic guide.
  Later there was a walk in Lathkil Dale, one of the most beautiful of the Derbyshire dales (and much quieter than, say, Dove Dale), and a morning visit to a nature reserve adapted from an abandoned quarry, where I saw more Wall butterflies than I have ever seen in a day since my far-off, butterfly-rich boyhood.
 Not a single church on this visit. That's surely a first.

Thursday, 16 May 2019

Little and Large

Today I had lunch 'in town' (as we used to say) with an old friend, and, with mutual support, we summoned up the stamina to take in not one but two exhibitions, one before and one after lunch.
First we went to the Elizabethan Treasures exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery – about which I can only say that it is truly amazing, and that, alas, it is closing on Sunday. An exhibition of miniatures nearly all by the two great masters, Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver (whose The Browne Brothers is above), it magnificently confirms that these two were among the finest painters this nation has ever produced, and that their work amounts to one of the great treasures of English art (and one that's all too easily undervalued, like the equally great work of the 17th-century monument makers Nicholas Stone and Epiphanius Evesham, cf my forthcoming book). If you can make it to the NPG this weekend, do go – and allow plenty of time, as you may well have to wait your turn to get a close-up view of these little gems of English painting; the exhibition is proving very popular. Helpfully, magnifying glasses are provided, and it's well worth taking one to appreciate the almost superhuman delicacy, subtlety and psychological insight of these tiny masterpieces. They make nearly all the large-scale portraiture of their time (Holbein excepted) seem clumsy and crude by comparison.

From the exquisite and small-scale to the broad-brush and large, very large – after lunch it was the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery for the blockbuster exhibition, Sorolla: Spanish Master of Light. The 'master of light' epithet is well earned; this turn-of-the-last-century Spanish artist is certainly very adept at portraying strong Spanish sunlight, both direct and reflected. But, beyond that, I didn't find much to praise (apart from some interesting cropping): his paintings tend to the flashy and facile, with something of picture-postcard kitsch about some of them. Even in the more subdued pictures, there's a striving for effect and a lack of delicacy. Some of them suggest comparison with Sargent or Whistler or the Danish Skagen painters – but the comparison is never to Sorolla's advantage. Having said that, I'm sure these big canvases would look very much better in a different setting – hung in a large space, so that they could be seen from a suitable distance, and in a less unforgiving light than that of the Sainsbury Wing's underground galleries. I've never really liked it down there.
  Anyway, tomorrow I'm off on my Mercian travels, but not for long.

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

A Journey

This morning I set out for the wilds of Norfolk – an enterprise never to be undertaken lightly – with a view to seeing a fine church monument. This was to be the last monument visit related to my now nearly completed book...
  Having managed the grim business of crossing London by Underground – often the most stressful part of a journey – I arrived at Liverpool St with minutes to spare before my train left, and settled down in the rattling, noisy carriage confident that I would arrive at Norwich in ample time to make my connection. Suffice to say that the train was halted at Colchester by An Incident up ahead: a freight train had been observed 'smoking heavily' and needed to be dealt with (counselling? Nicotine patches?). After upward of 20 minutes, we finally got moving again – just in time, it transpired, for me to miss my connection at Norwich. A fine station, a fine city, but I would sooner not have had to wait the best part of an hour for the next connection. Happily I'd arranged for a taxi at the other end and, when I got off the train, there it was waiting, punctual and ready to go. Things were looking up.
  The driver, rather surprisingly for this corner of Norfolk, was a youngish oriental lady, very charming and affable but with certain limitations, including the following: she knew the village I needed but had no idea where the church is (and it's way outside the village); her satnav, when she got it working, turned out to be somewhat unreliable, with a habit of falling off the windscreen and disconnecting itself; and her mastery of the satnav keyboard was decidedly lacking. After a long, time-consuming scenic tour of various back roads and lanes, we finally happened upon the church. I knew it was locked (I'd phoned beforehand) but I also knew that the key was available from the old vicarage, which I was assured was hard by the church. There was, needless to say, no sign of it, but, after yet more satnav business, we located it, hidden away down a side road some way from the church. By now I was running so late I realised I had barely time to nip into the church, take a quick look and a photo, and be no my way back to London. But heck, there it was – the old vicarage – so I might as well pop in and get the key. The old vicarage, however, was not quite what I'd been expecting: it was a large opulent house set a long way back from the road – and behind firmly locked security gates. I pressed all the buttons I could see, but nothing happened. I waved and jumped about in case someone in that distant mansion happened to be looking out. There were video cameras too, so I tried to attract their attention. All to no avail. No response, no sign of life (despite firm assurances that I could call any time and pick up the key – the work of a moment was the impression I got). Hey ho. There was nothing to do by this time but give up. I could manage without this particular monument, and I'd been in two minds whether to make the journey. I rather wish I'd stayed in one mind and not bothered.
  Anyway, we got back to the station surprisingly fast, fate having finally smiled on my endeavours, albeit a little late in the day. The genial taxi driver was full of apologies and slashed the fare. And so I embarked on the long journey home. Amazingly, this time I made the smoothest of smooth connections at Norwich and was home in, oh, barely four hours.

Sunday, 12 May 2019

'The radio's prayer'

On Anecdotal Evidence today, Patrick Kurp writes about that 'metaphysical medium', radio. He notes that in films set in the Thirties and Forties, the radio is invariably playing a comedy show or news of Pearl Harbor. The English equivalents are ITMA (the popular wartime comedy show) and Neville Chamberlain's solemn announcement that the nation is at war.
  'Like prayer,' Kurp writes, 'radio demands attentiveness, openness and imagination'. In this country, radio can be overtly like prayer: we have that magical incantation, the Shipping Forecast, which Seamus Heaney celebrates in a sonnet –

Dogger, Rockall, Malin, Irish Sea:
Green, swift upsurges, North Atlantic flux
Conjured by that strong gale-warming voice,
Collapse into a sibilant penumbra.
Midnight and closedown. Sirens of the tundra,
Of eel-road, seal-road, keel-road, whale-road, raise
Their wind-compounded keen behind the baize
And drive the trawlers to the lee of Wicklow.
L'Etoile, Le Guillemot, La Belle Hélène
Nursed their bright names this morning in the bay
That toiled like mortar. It was marvellous
And actual, I said out loud, 'A haven,'
The word deepening, clearing, like the sky
Elsewhere on Minches, Cromarty, The Faroes.

The Shipping Forecast finds its way, too, into a fine Carol Ann Duffy sonnet that bears the title Prayer

Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer
utters itself. So, a woman will lift
her head from the sieve of her hands and stare
at the minims sung by a tree, a sudden gift.

Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth
enters our hearts, that small familiar pain;
then a man will stand stock-still, hearing his youth
in the distant Latin chanting of a train.

Pray for us now. Grade 1 piano scales
console the lodger looking out across
a Midlands town. Then dusk, and someone calls
a child's name as though they named their loss.

Darkness outside. Inside, the radio's prayer –
Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.

And not that long ago, radio also regularly featured the late evening office of Compline, which gives its title to this Larkin poem – 

Behind the radio’s altar light
the hurried talk to God goes on:
'Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done...
produce our lives beyond this night,
open our eyes again to sun.'

Unhindered in the dingy wards
lives flicker out, one here, one there,
to send some weeping down the stair
with love unused, in unsaid words:
for this I would have quenched the prayer

but for the thought that nature spawns
a million eggs to make one fish.
Better that endless notes beseech
as many nights, as many dawns, 
if finally God grants the wish.

Has television ever inspired a poem? I can't think of any. There's nothing metaphysical about television.

Saturday, 11 May 2019

Joad's Pianola

Talking of Larkin, I came across a mysterious reference in one of his early letters to the celebrity philosopher C.E.M. Joad, about whom I have written before. Larkin talks of having 'played a few records and bashed out several choruses of blues like Joad playing his f*cking Bach [Lord, young Larkin is foul-mouthed – that's my asterisk, needless to say] every morning on the pianola'.
  I had not until now associated Joad with the pianola – did he really play one? Indeed he did, and here's the proof (below) in a cherishable little Pathé documentary, in which we also get to see the Socrates of the 20th century running around in baggy shorts playing hockey (it looks like a men v women match, no doubt designed to prove yet again the uselessness of the fair sex) and to hear him addressing the vexed question of when it might be ethically justifiable to break the law. When defrauding the railway companies perhaps? If so, it was an argument that didn't carry the day at Tower Bridge Magistrates Court in 1948.

A New Poet Laureate

So we have a new Poet Laureate, and it's Simon Armitage. This seems an excellent appointment, as he is just the kind of poet to fit this particular post: he's already a 'public' writer, popular (as poets go), accessible, active, media-friendly, prolific to a fault, and willing to tackle 'big' themes (I see he has promised to address 'climate change', for which many thanks). In terms of quality, Armitage is certainly good enough for the Laureateship – which, let us remember, was recently held by the proser Andrew Motion – though I'd judge Carol Ann Duffy a better poet. The giants are all gone now, so a kind of Silver Age competence is the best we can hope for. But let's not be ungenerous – at least those bestowing this honour held their nerve and appointed a white middle-aged male, and one who is a decent poet.
Most of Armitage's work is too long to quote here, but this (English) sonnet, called Poem, is an effective piece of work –

And if it snowed and snow covered the drive
he took a spade and tossed it to one side.
And always tucked his daughter up at night
And slippered her the one time that she lied. 
And every week he tipped up half his wage.
And what he didn't spend each week he saved.
And praised his wife for every meal she made.
And once, for laughing, punched her in the face. 

And for his mum he hired a private nurse.
And every Sunday taxied her to church.
And he blubbed when she went from bad to worse.
And twice he lifted ten quid from her purse. 

Here's how they rated him when they looked back:
sometimes he did this, sometimes he did that. 

When Larkin was offered the Laureateship, he rightly turned it down; he was creatively blocked and not far from death. It went to Ted Hughes, a poet of whom Larkin was not an admirer. 'The thought,' he wrote to Kingsley Amis, 'of being the cause of Ted's being buried in Westminster Abbey is hard to live with.' But in the end they both got their stone in Poets' Corner, where Simon Armitage might join them one day. He'll be a good Laureate (I just wish he'd change his hair style).

Thursday, 9 May 2019

The Breezes

Having enjoyed reading Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, I decided that, if I happened to see another of his, I'd probably try it. Sure enough, a week or so later, I spotted not one but two O'Neills sitting there in the same charity shop where I'd happened on Netherland. As is my usual practice these days, I chose the shorter – The Breezes, a black comedy dating from 1995 (13 years before Netherland).
  Described by the TLS as 'a hilarious chronicle of life's crappiness', it is indeed that, but it's done with some depth and real tenderness. Told in the first person by John Breeze, a man who might uncharitably be described as a failed chair-maker, it revolves largely around his father, a hapless railway manager and would-be amateur football referee (the only ref ever to have been sent off). Pa Breeze is a man of resilient and optimistic spirit, eager to think the best of everyone and everything, despite what the world has done to him.
  'Fourteen years ago,' the novel begins, 'my mother, whose name was Mary Elizabeth Breeze, was killed by lightning, and you may think that my father's quota of misfortune would have been used up once and for all on that violent afternoon. If so, you are mistaken...'  Mistaken indeed, as, in the short span of time in which the story unfolds, misfortunes rain down relentlessly on the undeserving Pa's head. It would be unbearable if it wasn't so funny – O'Neill shows a real talent for comedy here, the particular kind of comedy that mingles tragedy and farce. Happily, after all the strands of the plot knit together into a grand tragicomic climax and Pa finally hits rock bottom, glimmers of light and even hope appear. A kind of catharsis has been achieved, and life can go on...
 The odd thing about The Breezes is that, to me at least, it read like an American novel, specifically a Jewish-American novel – and yet no one in it is Jewish, and the setting is somewhere in England. I only realised this when I noted that the football being described was soccer, not American football, and that the railway network Pa Breeze works for could only be English. The setting is an English coastal town near to an industrial city with a big-time football team, perhaps in the North, but it's hard to tell; it just didn't feel like England. Nor did the characters, or even the narrator, feel English. When I heard the dialogue in my head, it was in American accents. A very odd effect, but it in no way detracted from my enjoyment of this tight and accomplished black comedy.
  And now I'm taking a break from fiction for a little while. The charity shop's latest gift to my bookshelves, bought today, is the Selected Letters of Philip Larkin, which will keep me busy – and, I hope, entertained – for quite some time. Also I have a (non-fiction) book to review, and I've just begun rereading Nabokov's brilliant Gogol.

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Gibbon, Not

The great historian and prose stylist Edward Gibbon was born on this date in 1737. While few these days undertake the demanding project of reading his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in its entirety, Gibbon's reputation lives on, partly in the form of quotations widely circulated on the internet. One of these goes like this:

'The five marks of the Roman decaying culture:
Concern with displaying affluence instead of building wealth;
Obsession with sex and perversions of sex;
Art becomes freakish and sensationalistic instead of creative and original;
Widening disparity between very rich and very poor;
Increased demand to live off the state.'

You don't need to be George Saintsbury to sense that there's something wrong here. Gibbon, who wrote in beautifully balanced sentences and paragraphs, was not a man much given to bullet-point presentation, nor was he an early adopter of the numerous anachronisms that pepper this supposed quotation. However, it thrives on many quotation sites on the internet and is no doubt passed around in meme form, along with similarly bogus quotations from the likes of Lincoln and Jefferson, Churchill, Orwell and Gandhi.
  Never mind. Here's one of my favourite genuine quotations from Gibbon:

'Unprovided with original learning, unformed in the habits of thinking, unskilled in the arts of composition, I resolved to write a book.'

I'm tempted to use it as an epigraph for my book...


Tuesday, 7 May 2019


I've written before about the undignified death of that terrible man Robespierre (born on yesterday's date in 1758). I had no idea, until I came across it yesterday, that Donald Justice – not a poet much given to historical subjects – had written a fine poem on the subject...

A Man of 1794
And like a discarded statue, propped up in a cart,
He is borne along toward the page allotted to him in history.
To open his heavy-lidded eyes now would be merely
To familiarise himself with the banal and destined route.
He is aware of the mockery of the streets,
But does not understand it. It hardly occurs to him
That what they fear is that he might yet address them
And call them back to their inflamed duty.
But this he cannot do; the broken jaw prevents speech.
Today he will not accuse the accusers; it is perhaps all that saves them.
Meanwhile his head rocks back and forth loosely on his chest
With each new jolt and lurch of the endless-seeming street:
Impossible to resist this idiot shaking.
—But it is hard after all to sympathise
With a man formerly so immaculate,
Who, after a single night of ambiguous confinement,
Lets go all pride of appearance. Nevertheless,
Under the soiled jabot, beneath the stained blue coat,
Are the principles nothing has shaken. Rousseau was right,
Of that he is still convinced: Man is naturally good!
And in the moment before the blade eases his pain
He thinks perhaps of his dog or of the woods at Choissy,
Some thought in any case of a perfectly trivial nature,
As though already he were possessed of a sweet, indefinite leisure

After the guillotine fell on the 'sea-green incorruptible', the applause and shouts of joy from the crowd who had once loved him lasted some fifteen minutes.