Monday, 16 September 2019

Sixty Years On

It was on (or around) this date 60 years ago that I arrived, a tenderly reared lad of but nine summers, in the suburban demiparadise where I have been securely rooted, off and on, ever since.
  My mother had secured me a place in the local state primary school, though the headmaster (a large plump man who, I noted, kept a hacksaw in his study) was clearly reluctant to swell the population of his already bursting-at-the-seams institution. I joined a class of 50-plus coevals, and soon discovered that I had a very strange curriculum to contend with. Having until now been educated at a cosy little prep school (whose uniform, embarrassingly, I was still wearing), I was used to learning Lat, Fr, Geog, Hist, Geom, Algy, ect, ect (as Nigel Molesworth would put it), but now I discovered that the most important thing, the one thing, the sine qua non, was to master the approved Surrey County Council italic script. And so a titanic struggle ensued, involving the purchase of a pen with a kinky nib to cope with my curious lefthanded grip, and much laborious copying out of words and passages. Eventually I was able to produce an acceptable semblance of S.C.C. italic and could embark on this next, rather undemanding phase of my education. 
 The huge class was presided over by a formidable woman of ample build and mighty bosom who, with the aid of a weaponised wooden ruler, singlehandedly maintained order and, greatly to her credit, managed to teach us to a level that, in some areas (grammar, punctuation, spelling) was about on a par with today's undergraduates. To my horror, I discovered that this strange curriculum also included, of all things, Country Dancing (Strip the Willow, etc). Such was my complete ineptitude in this essential life skill that I was finally allowed to sit it out and man the Surrey County Council gramophone.
 I passed through all this, as through just about everything else in life, in a state of utter bewilderment mingled with ear-burning embarrassment, but I went along with it, having no choice. And there were compensations – not least, Gurls! Yes, half my fellow pupils belonged, I was delighted to see, to a sex with which, until then, I had had all too little contact. I plunged into this new world of boys and girls with alacrity, making new friends of the opposite sex (we didn't have genders in those days, except in Lat, Fr, ect) and enjoying many a spirited game of kiss chase in the playground.
 But back to my first day. When the final bell rang out, I fell in with a little gang of boys who constituted a loose-knit 'tree climbing club' devoted to climbing all the trees – from veteran Spanish chestnuts to half-grown newcomers – in Carshalton Park. They knew every tree, had given names to many of them, and had worked out just how to climb each one and to what height you could go before things got really dangerous. They also knew where every bird's nest was (including, in those days, owls' nests) and where to find frogs, newts and other attractive wildlife. On a mellow sunny September afternoon, this all seemed to me like a little taste of paradise, and I arrived home at the end of that day happy to discover that I'd fallen on my feet. I just loved this new place.
 And, 60 years on, here I still am.

Saturday, 14 September 2019

Good News (for now) on Butterflies

Like many, I'm listening to Radio 4's Today programme less and less (and generally avoiding all news programmes, especially on TV), but early yesterday morning I happened to catch a pleasantly surprising item on Today – a report on the state of the nation's butterfly population that was actually upbeat in tone. What was still more surprising was that a spokeswoman for those dismal Jimmies at Butterfly Conservation was in the studio sounding positively cheery and delivering only good news – not a word about threatened species or 'climate change'. What occasioned all this good cheer was the news that this summer has been a Painted Lady summer, with a huge influx of these beauties swelling the numbers of butterflies being seen and contributing to a very heartening Big Butterfly Count result. John Humphrys, who was doing the interview, seemed very happy about it all, and also seized the opportunity to launch a little tirade against people replacing their lawns with Astro Turf (quite right too).
  In my inbox this morning was the Butterfly Conservation report that led to all this jollity – and it is indeed an unusually upbeat document, which arrived with the label 'A Smashing Summer' (not the kind of language BC often uses). The picture it presents is actually quite mixed, with, for example, 'Whites on the Wain' (to quote a bizarre crosshead) – but there is more than enough to justify the 'smashing summer' label. No doubt by the time all the numbers are in, Butterfly Conservation will have found ample contrary evidence to justify their traditional yearly jeremiad.
 My own butterfly summer – which has indeed been pretty 'smashing' (37 of Surrey's 41 species spotted) – continued this afternoon with a stroll around Belmont Downs, where there was a fine abundance of butterflies. Most of these, admittedly, were late Meadown Browns, flapping around with a decidedly fin de saison air (though one pair had mustered the energy for a bit of lepidopteral how's your father, as we scientists call it). But I also saw several pretty little Brown Arguses and Small Heaths, a few late Common Blues and the odd Speckled Wood. Earlier in the day I'd also seen several Red Admirals, a Peacock and a lovely, burnished Small Copper. So yes, a good season – and it's not over yet...

Friday, 13 September 2019


Yesterday I finally visited the Felix Vallotton exhibition at the Royal Academy, something I'd been meaning to do ever since it opened back in May, but you know how it is...
I only knew Vallotton from a few of his better known woodcuts, like the gorgeous La Paresse

I didn't know his much darker (in every way) woodcuts, like this one (L'Argent) from the series Intimit├ęs

Or Vallotton's lively Parisian street scenes, like this one, Le Coup de Vent

This exhibition has a fine display of his woodcuts, which make it clear that he was one of the very best woodcut artists of his time.
As for Vallotton's paintings, the only one I was familiar with was this strangely disturbing image of a little girl chasing a ball –

I had much to discover, and this superb exhibition opened my eyes to a remarkable artist, one who never settled long into any of the art-historical pigeonholes available – which is surely one reason he is not better known (this, I think, is the first major exhibition of his work in the UK). He vigorously resisted Impressionism, and, although he was one of the group that called itself Les Nabis (which included Bonnard and – an artist much closer to Vallotton in spirit – Vuillard), he seems always to have stood a little apart, as in this awkward, semi-parodic group portrait (he's standing at the left) –

The Swiss-born Vallotton began in thrall to the sharp naturalistic precision of the painters of the Northern Renaissance, as can be seen in this early, very accomplished self-portrait, painted at the age of twenty –

It shows too in such crisp and forceful paintings as La Malade, an early domestic interior –

Look at the play of reflections in the bottles on the bedside table. This is virtuoso stuff –

But Vallotton had soon developed a much looser style, dependent on flat masses of colour and blurring out of detail, that clearly owed something to Vuillard, especially when he turned his attention to domestic interiors –

Here, as so often with Vallotton, what looks at first sight like a cosy domestic scene becomes something rather unsettling – strangely disturbing indeed – as one absorbs it. This one shows his wife Gabrielle (a wealthy widow, to whom he owed his financial security) and her young daughter, but it is emotionally flat, and those reds (his best colour, along with green) are almost oppressive.
Here is another faintly menacing interior scene, of a woman looking for something (what?) in a cupboard –

  Vallotton's later career was dominated by his adoration of his artistic idol, Ingres, and his growing fascination with the possibilities of the nude. The trouble with Ingres, IMHO, is that he was a phenomenally brilliant painter, but a very bad model for imitation, not least because nobody could paint the kind of things he painted half as well as he did. Vallotton's austere Ingres-influenced nudes seem to me rather to prove the point, and their effect is generally chilling. However, among Vallotton's nudes, is also this extraordinary work, La Blanche et La Noire, clearly painted in response to Manet's Olympia. Whatever is going on here, this is definitely not a portrayal of a white mistress and her attentive black handmaiden. In the original, it's a large, powerful and deeply enigmatic picture  –

Late is his career (he died in 1925), Vallotton also painted stylised, pared-down landscapes, composed more in his head than en plein air. This one, of sandbanks on the Loire, is a good example...

And he painted some glorious, semi-abstract sunsets. This one really has to be seen in the original, and close up. It's a glowing, vivid painting that seems to engulf you as you get closer to it –

This is a terrific exhibition that I found quite fascinating from beginning to end, with no trace of the gallery fatigue that so often overcomes me well before the last room. It was, for once, a real journey of discovery. The exhibition is on until 29 September, so there's still plenty of time to catch it.

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

A House of Many Mansions

I've just finished reading Willa Cather's The Professor's House, a novel that tends to get overlooked even by her admirers. It has been described as 'fragmentary and inconclusive', 'broken' in structure, psychologically ambivalent and (more pompously) 'morally and psychologically unachieved'. All those supposed faults are, it seems to me, the actual strengths of a book that never spells anything out, never (as it were) makes up its mind, but lays out the elements of what it is made of and invites us to put them together ourselves. And there is a fine abundance of elements for a book so small in scale – Professor St Peter's inability to leave the old house where he has lived the most productive part of his life and move into the smart new one; his daughters and the sons-in-law, representatives of the modern world, who are now the focus of his wife's passion; Tom Outland, the gifted and beloved should-have-been son-in-law who died in the war, leaving behind a fortune that has proved a deeply troubling legacy; Outland's first-person narrative of the discovery of an ancient cave city and a lost culture in the Southwest desert (shades of The Song of the Lark); the Professor's reflections on the course of his life, on science, home (a great Cather theme), civilisation and the modern world...
 It's easy to read, or rather deconstruct, the novel as composed of unresolved oppositions, mostly revolving around the modern world of 1920s America and older civilisations, older values, each element embodied in one or more characters. Which is fine, if that's how you want to read, but personally I'd sooner enjoy (the crucial word) this novel in the way you might enjoy a three-movement sonata, or a painting – or rather a set of paintings, domestic interiors contrasted with the vibrant plein air of Tom Outland's narrative, the central section of the book that some blame for breaking the novel's structure. Which, it seems to me, makes about as much sense as saying the middle movement of a sonata breaks its structure. The Professor's House is a richly rewarding book, replete with far more than appears on the surface (as always with Cather, it's 'the heat under the simple words') – a book to be read, slowly, on its own terms, and enjoyed.

Tuesday, 10 September 2019

Peter Nichols

Sorry to hear of the death of that rather wonderful playwright Peter Nichols. He had reached a good age – 92 – and lived long enough to be, finally, recognised for his achievements, with a CBE, awarded last year. Happily, his work lives on – or at least one of his plays, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, which is soon to open in a new production at Trafalgar Studios. That play and the very different Privates on Parade will surely endure, and several of the others are worth a revival any time. And, for the theatre averse (like me), there's also Nichols's gloriously named autobiography, Feeling You're Behind.
Here's how the Preface begins...
'At another man's publication party, someone asked me about my writing plans now that I'd left the theatre. I told him, with some pride, that I'd been commissioned to write my life.
 "So has everyone in this room," he said.
 A glance at the assembled drunks and derelicts was enough to show that I would need better reasons than vanity to sustain me through the writing...'
 Happily there were better reasons (not least the money), and Nichols found that his autobiography was 'a pleasure to write. No vainglorious director rewrote it, no manager talked about Bums on Seats or last trains, no numbskull actors told me it wouldn't stretch them or thanked me for what they called "a vehicle".'
 Feeling You're Behind is a joy to read – especially the chapters about his early years with his family in Bristol, in a part of the city still haunted by the recent presence of young Archie Leach, aka Cary Grant, whose mother was committed to the local asylum, from which she was eventually sprung by her now famous son. Nichols's account of touring in Malaya with Combined Services Entertainment, along with the likes of Kenneth Williams and Stanley Baxter (the inspiration for Privates on Parade) is great stuff too, much of it – as with a great deal of this playwright's memoir – written in dialogue. The line between Nichols's private life and his plays is so very fine that these dialogues from life and those from the stage are sometimes almost interchangeable. It's an unusually open and frankly spoken autobiography, and often very, very funny. If you see a copy, snap it up.
 And meanwhile RIP Peter Nichols.

Monday, 9 September 2019


Well, I'm back from my latest Derbyshire trip with a grim, disabling 'cold' (there really should be a more descriptive word for it), but with more happy Mercian memories, including a glorious wealth of early autumn butterflies flying in the (intermittent) sunshine and feasting on Buddleia: more Tortoiseshells than I've seen down South all year – many more – and a wealth of Red Admirals and Painted Ladies, plus Commas and Peacocks, Speckled Woods and the odd Small Copper, Common Blue and Small Heath. And a couple more Wall Browns at the Hoe Grange butterfly reserve. Something to remember on this grey, rainy morning...

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

Birthday Girl

Time to turn away from the endless political brouhaha and wish a happy birthday to that fine old trouper Mitzi Gaynor, 88 today. Born with the splendid name of Francesca Marlene de Czanyi von Gerber, Mitzi was a great all-rounder – singer, dancer, actress – and is best remembered for her award-worthy performance in the film of South Pacific. But here she is taking Cole Porter's Anything Goes and giving it the works. Not a great singer, but she sure can put a song across, and those camp-as-Christmas male dancers are great fun. Enjoy!

Tomorrow I'm off on my Mercian travels again. It's all go...

Tuesday, 3 September 2019

The Day War Broke Out

A visitor from another planet might be forgiven for concluding that this country stands on the brink of a catastrophe unprecedented in our island history and that a murderous fascist (yes, there's an 's' in it) regime has staged a coup in order to seize the reins of power and drive us all into the abyss. With a little investigation, our extraterrestrial friend might discover the cause of all this jumping up and down is simply that we're pulling out of a moribund would-be superstate, and that a new Prime Minister has, perfectly constitutionally, prorogued Parliament. And he might deduce something rather unflattering about the emotional resilience (and intellectual powers) of us Earthlings.
  Those who are hyperventilating over these supposed catastrophes would do well to think back to this day 80 years ago, when Neville Chamberlain was obliged to broadcast to the nation, informing us that we were, unavoidably, at war with Germany (a country with a five-star, fully accredited, world-class murderous fascist regime). Already the Nazis were sweeping across mainland Europe, and soon France would fall and we would stand alone against the world. That is a catastrophe, that is an existential threat.
 Within minutes of Chamberlain's broadcast, sirens began to sound across Britain – sirens that were then taken as warnings of impending toxic gas attack from the air.  'This was an opportunity for the people of Britain to demonstrate their traditional calm in the face of danger,' a Movietone newsreel reported. 'There was no sign of panic – men and women in the streets made their way to the nearest shelter and queued up in orderly processions at the entrances.'
  I hope that kind of spirit still lives on today – I believe it probably does, if only in pockets – but the evidence to the contrary is all too stridently present, especially in London. 

 Below, as a reminder of bygone times, is Robb Wilton's famous monologue, 'The Day War Broke Out'. The Home Guard (descendants of Shakespeare's Dogberry constabulary) proved such an inexhaustible mine of comedy gold that Dad's Army is never off the air, 42 years after the last new episode aired, and 74 years after the war ended (and there were excellent new productions of three 'lost' episodes just recently)...

Sunday, 1 September 2019

A Cambridge Sketch-Book

Here's my latest charity shop find – a pleasingly slim little volume originally published in 1913 and reprinted or reissued several times over the years (my copy dates to 1950). It's a fine specimen of skilful pencil sketching, with expert shading and cross-hatching, the product of a time when most educated people would have learnt to draw competently in the natural course of things.
Here is a familiar view of King's College chapel, with deftly positioned clergyman –

And here is a less familiar view, by way of Clare College gates –

And here is the market, overlooked by Great St Mary. The punters look a deal smarter than they did in the days when we reprobates used to cluster around Andy's record stall...

Saturday, 31 August 2019

The Professor Speaks

'I don't think much of science as a phase of human development. It has given us a lot of ingenious toys; they take our attention away from the real problems, of course, and since the problems are insoluble, I suppose we ought to be grateful for distraction. But the fact is, the human mind, the individual mind, has always been made more interesting by dwelling on the old riddles, even if it makes nothing of them. Science hasn't given us any new amazements, except of the superficial kind we get from witnessing dexterity and sleight-of-hand. It hasn't given us any richer pleasures, as the Renaissance did, nor any new sins ... We were better off when even the prosaic matter of taking nourishment could have the magnificence of a sin. I don't think you help people by making their conduct of no importance – you impoverish them. As long as every man and woman who crowded into the cathedrals on Easter Sunday was a principal in a gorgeous drama with God, glittering angels on one side and the shadows of evil coming and going on the other, life was a rich thing. The king and the beggar had the same chance at miracles and great temptations and revelations. And that's what makes men happy, believing in the mystery and importance of their own little individual lives. It makes us happy to surround our creature needs and bodily instincts with as much pomp and circumstance as possible. Art and religion (they are the same thing in the end, of course) have given man the only happiness he has ever had.'
  That's Professor St Peter in Willa Cather's The Professor's House (which I'm reading just now). He's speaking in, I guess, the early Twenties, just before science did in fact give us some 'new amazements', in the shape of modern quantum theory – but I think there's a lot of truth in the general thrust of his argument. As Wittgenstein put it, 'We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all.' And the role of scientific rationalism as a universal solvent acting to demystify human life has been spiritually and socially damaging, eroding the mythological basis that all societies need in some form or other, and encouraging a kind of moral nihilism by default. We need that sense that our little lives have an element of mystery and importance, and we need that 'pomp and circumstance' to sanctify our needs and instincts, that place where 'all our compulsions meet, are recognised and robed as destinies' (as Larkin puts it in 'Church Going'). One of the most eloquent lines in King Lear is Lear's anguished cry, 'O reason not the need!' (the need for the retinue of knights that makes him who he is). When reason gets to work corroding the mystique of our institutions and our sense of ourselves, reducing even a king to a 'bare forked animal', it can lead anywhere – to an old man being banished into the raging storm, and another old man having his eyes gouged out, and an innocent daughter being hanged. Not that I'm laying that at science's door.

Friday, 30 August 2019

In the Cotswolds

I was walking in the Cotswolds yesterday with my walking friends. It was a quite magnificent walk – great churches, beautiful rolling landscape, stone-built villages, and good late summer weather to set it all off. The highlight was Northleach, a small town dominated by one of the magnificent 'wool' churches of Gloucestershire, built in an age when great wealth often created great beauty. This church, glorious from the outside (that's a part of the beautiful South porch above), is strangely disappointing inside, after the initial jaw-dropping impact of its sheer size – vast height, length and width. It's an extremely bare and bright interior, the modern furnishings are unimpressive, the huge East window (Christopher Webb, 1963) is an awful anticlimax, and the whole thing feels as if it has had far too much attention from restorers, cleaners and scrapers over the years. It is spick and span to the point of sterility, and it's hard to detect anything numinous about it. Wonderful brasses, though, and plenty of them.
  Northleach is, like much of the Cotswolds, on the tourist trail, and it's not hard to see why. These villages of honey-coloured stone are quite achingly picturesque, to the point where they can seem almost like some kind of theme park. There is something unreal, and faintly depressing, about this endless perfection, this bland niceness, all marinated in heritage cosiness and, of course, money – its rich, horsey reek is everywhere. However, it is good to see the arts of stone carving and drystone walling still very much alive. And letter carving – the well lettered modern headstones in these Cotswold churchyards are a joy to see.
  And, speaking as a monument man, I have to add that the Cotswolds are home to at least two great Baroque monuments – to the Bray children at Great Barrington

and to Edward and Juliana Noel at Chipping Campden.

Wednesday, 28 August 2019

'Hassock and cassock, paraffin and pew...'

John Betjeman's birthday today – he was born on this day in 1906. Browsing the Collected Poems, I alighted on this one. It's an evocative piece for a church crawler (and occasional churchyard picnicker) like me, though the chances of finding a key under the mat of a locked church are now, sadly, zero. As so often with Betjeman, death is never far away (here in the 'sweet smell of cerements') and the innocence of the scene has a faintly erotic edge – or is that just me?

An Archaeological Picnic

In this high pasturage, this Blunden time,
  With Lady's Finger, Smokewort, Lovers' Loss,
And lin-lan-lone, a Tennysonian chime
  Stirring the sorrel and the gold-starred moss,
  Cool is the chancel, bright the altar cross.

Drink, Mary, drink your fizzy lemonade
  And leave the king-cups; take your grey felt hat;
Here, where the low-side window lends a shade,
  There, where the key lies underneath the mat,
  The rude forefathers of the hamlet sat.

Sweet smell of cerements and of cold wet stones,
  Hassock and cassock, paraffin and pew;
Green is a light which that sublime Burne-Jones
  White-hot and wondering from the glass-kiln drew,
  Gleams and re-gleams this Trans arcade anew.

So stand you waiting, freckled innocence!
  For me the squinch and squint and Trans arcade;
For you, where meadow grass is evidence,
  With flattened pattern, of our picnic made,
  One more bottle of fizzy lemonade.

I guess 'Blunden time' means a time of rural peace and quiet in picturesque surroundings, as in Edmund Blunden's pastoral poems.
The 'Tennysonian chime', 'lin-lan-lone', occurs in a poem written for music, Far-Far-Away – 'The mellow lin-lan-lone of evening bells...'
'Trans' – an abbreviation since hijacked for other uses – is short for Transitional (between Norman and Gothic).

Monday, 26 August 2019

The Undramatisable

Well, I can't pretend to have listened to all of Radio 4's A La Recherche (any more than I can pretend to have read it all – I've always retired defeated), but my general impression of the radio version is of a heroic, intermittently successful, attempt to do the impossible. Dramatising Proust is, I think, almost certainly doomed to fail, for the simple reason that the entire (written) work essentially takes place within the narrator's sensibility – it is action, interior action, as against plot – whereas drama happens in an exterior world; it is plot, it is out there, seen from outside. And, in the case of Proust, this external action can easily be seen as not amounting to very much at all: a lot of wealthy, well connected people with overdeveloped sensitivities and not enough to do, fussing endlessly about nothing very much and making a huge deal of everything. This uncharitable view cannot gain much purchase in the novels because we live through it all inside the narrator's extraordinary, supple, hyperacute sensibility; once it is out there, exposed to the light of day in the form of drama, it become something else, something much less interesting. And, it has to be said, the unconvincing heterosexual veneer wears even thinner. However, with all this acknowledged, there was enough of straight narration in this dramatisation to maintain something of the particular allure of the original, it was a quality production with an excellent cast and good use of music, and some scenes were effective as drama. It was probably about as good as a dramatisation of the undramatisable could be.


With a double hat tip to Dave Lull and Frank Wilson, I pass on a link to this excellent piece on editing – copy and line, necessity for and sad decline of.
 I spent a quarter of a century seriously editing copy other than my own, and I owe most of what I know of the subject to my old friend Chris, with whom I worked for a couple of very formative years on a well known listings magazine. She was a formidably good editor, and, unlike many in the trade, a good communicator. She worked for some while on a style manual which was a model of lucidity and accessibility, and an invaluable tool, full of crystal-clear explantations of knotty points of syntax. Unfortunately she was gone before the project was completed, and some while later it was handed to me – but I too was gone before I could get much further, and it was then handed on to the person most likely to obfuscate it or run it aground. Moving on to my next job, I was fortunate to come across another gifted and splendidly rigorous editor, a veritable connoisseur of the art. Her all-time favourite mark was the insertion of a (correct, of course) hyphen into 'obsessive compulsive'...
 Subeditors (as we call them) weren't always as good as those two. Back in the days when I wrote features on this and that for The Times, I would quite often open the paper to find my piece hideously mangled – and, worse, with factual errors introduced – but since then, I think, fewer editors has tended to mean better editors. And of course the internet has changed everything, making factual errors – if not sloppy writing and editing – much rarer. However, as the Washington Free Beacon piece argues, good copy and line editors are still needed, and there are now too few of them.
 I heartily agree with Frank Wilson that much of what is written online goes on too long and digresses too much. So I'll stop here.

Saturday, 24 August 2019

Still Flukier

Seriously attentive readers might recall that in this post I concluded that I'd seen all the butterfly species I was going to see this year, barring a fluky Clouded Yellow or a 'still flukier Brown Hairstreak', the most elusive of all our butterflies... Well, this morning the 'still flukier' happened. I was strolling in the grounds of the local Ecology Centre – just making my way out actually – when I saw what I took to be a Gatekeeper fly down and settle on the lawn. I went over to have a look (they're beautiful little things) and when I saw its (actually her) underwings I knew it was no such thing. Could it be...? Yes, it was, as she promptly confirmed by flying off a little way and settling, wings folded, on the leaf of a bush, affording me a clear view of those beautiful and definitive 'hairstreaks'. A female Brown Hairstreak in prime condition. Alas, by the time I had laid my hands on my camera, she had flown off, this time disappearing over the roof of a building – but I had seen her, my first since a memorable occasion three years ago – and in the same place. I went on my way rejoicing.

Friday, 23 August 2019

One Universe the More

I do like these little Penguin Great Ideas volumes – so pleasingly compact, so attractively designed. When I spotted this one the other day, I naturally snapped it up. It contains a long essay on John Ruskin (a writer who fascinated Proust and whom he translated), an equally long essay about the ecstasy of childhood reading titled On Reading (I), a much shorter On Reading (II), a few passages from Against Saint-Beueve, and Swann Explained by Proust – useful reading ahead of Radio 4's epic broadcast of In Search of Lost Time. That's terrific value, and all packed into 120 small pages –especially good value as Proust is perforce such a slow read; those long, long sentences can be pretty hard to disentangle. Try this one, about how Proust felt and behaved immediately after he had finished reading a book:
'And then, so as to give the turbulence loose inside me for too long to be able to still itself other movements to control, I would get up and start walking up and down by my bed, my eyes still fixed on some point that might have been looked for in vain either inside the room or without, for it was the distance of a soul away, one of those distances not to be measured in metres or in miles, unlike others, and which it is impossible moreover to mistake for them once one sees the "remote" stare of those whose thoughts are "elsewhere".'
Sometimes Proust makes Ruskin read like Ernest Hemingway.
However, for all the knotty phrasing, it is wonderful to witness such an extraordinary mind and sensibility at work. And he can, of course, write plainly and wisely, as at the end of his remarks on Swann's Way:
'Style is not at all an embellishment as certain people think, it is not even a matter of technique, it is – like colour with painting – a quality of vision, the revelation of the private universe that each of us can see and which others cannot see. The pleasure an artist affords us is to introduce us to one universe the more.'

Thursday, 22 August 2019

Progress Report

Much to my surprise, I am now well advanced on the task of turning the individual chapters of The Book into something closely resembling an actual book, needing only to be printed. I had thought I would have to get professional help on this, but once I got going I found I could actually do it myself, though not without some technical difficulties along the way. I'm actually working on the last couple of chapters now, so it shouldn't be long before it's all put together – words, pictures and all – and sent to the printer (I've found a good one, recommended by a friend). There are a few last things that need ironing out, and could yet hold things up or even derail them altogether, but it's looking as if the book should be Out There in the early autumn. I'll let you know...

Wednesday, 21 August 2019

Crazy Day

On this day in 1961, Patsy Cline recorded that classic song, Crazy, written by Willie Nelson and since sung by virtually everybody with a larynx – but never better than by Patsy, who, incidentally, cut the track in one take.
The story of how the song got from Willie to Patsy is, like anything to do with Willie Nelson, confused and comes in several versions, all involving strong drink and bar-rooms. But somehow Patsy's husband ended up suggesting to her that she should record this great song by Nelson. When she heard Willie's own, er, characteristic rendition of the song – before the beat, behind the beat, all around the melody – she understandably thought it was not for her. But happily she soon realised its possibilities, and it turned out to be one of the best things she ever did.
There's another musical milestone today too. James Burton, the 'Master of the Telecaster' and one of the finest guitarists ever to take up a pick, will be celebrating his 80th birthday. Here he is in action only last year, running through a few sweet licks. Many happy returns, James!

Monday, 19 August 2019

Flying the Flag

So there I was, strolling through Carshalton Park just now, admiring the avenue of grand old horse chestnut trees in whose lengthening shadows my brother and I played out many an epic two-man 'Test match' (Martinia vs Nigelliana) in our far-off boyhood days. And then I saw it – flying from the top of one of those fine and blameless trees was the flag of Extinction Rebellion! They might not be great on critical thinking, but they clearly have some impressive tree-climbing skills – those trees are tall and complicated and the branches can be treacherous. I've no idea what gave XR the idea of flying their flag from one of them, but, as it happens, before I spotted it I was just thinking that it was high time to fell those annoyingly green trees and get down to some serious fracking. And now I have changed my mind completely, so well done Extinction Rebellion, keep up the good work!

Sunday, 18 August 2019

Big Reads and Eng Lit

Reviewing the newspapers on Radio 4 this morning, the guests were talking about the latest report of the ongoing boom in audiobooks, book downloads, podcasts etc – which they regarded as a good thing, while hoping that people also continued to get their 'big reads' from physical books. Radio 4, as it happens, has another of its epic dramatisations of a very big read coming up – Proust's great novel sequence read and dramatised across the three days of the August bank holiday weekend, a total of ten hours' radio in nine episodes. These ventures usually work rather well – Ulysses and War and Peace certainly did, I'd say from what I heard of them – and I hope Proust will too (though I have my doubts about Derek Jacobi as Marcel – maybe that's just me)...
  As part of this discussion, Dame Joan Bakewell (who smiled very nicely at me when we passed in a corridor at the House of Lords) lamented the fact that fewer and fewer students are taking English A level or studying English at university. This seemed to her extremely sad. However, given the state of Eng Lit studies these days, I'd say it's by and large a good thing and those students are choosing wisely.
 In the course of my working life, I came across many English graduates who had emerged from university having studied only a thin sliver of the literature, having read little or nothing not on the syllabus, and having no desire to read anything more except the latest talked-about middlebrow fiction. And yet they were convinced they knew their subject – they had the piece of paper to prove it. By contrast, many of the most widely read, curious and open-minded people I came across were those who had avoided university. With English and the other Humanities increasingly in the grip of a deadening ideology of anti-racism, anti-imperialism, anti-sexism, anti-DWEMism and the rest, they are surely destined to wither on the vine unless things change drastically. The fall in numbers of A-level students and university applicants is very likely a sign that the process is already under way.
 Meanwhile young people with a love of reading and a curiosity about the whole range of literature would be well advised to stay away from university and Read, Read, Read – that is how to study literature. And it's never been easier to do, thanks to the internet, the wide availability of cheap (or free) books, and, yes, all those audiobooks and podcasts.

Thursday, 15 August 2019

Joys of Late Summer

It's a rash man who says he has seen his last swift of the year, but I'm pretty sure I have now. It was last Friday (a week after I thought I'd seen my last) – just the one, flying high over the garden – and since then there has been so much foul weather that it's unlikely even the tardiest of swifts has been tempted to hang around.
 This afternoon, however, the clouds broke up and the sun finally came out, so I headed for Box Hill to see what butterflies I might find. It was rather blowy when I got there, and the sun was coming and going, so I wasn't too hopeful, especially of seeing the heat-loving Silver-Spotted Skipper, so short-winged and plump in the body it needs a good charge of solar energy to get it off the ground.
Amazingly, however, almost the first butterfly I saw was a Silver-Spotted Skipper, no less, sitting on the ground with its wings neatly folded to display those diagnostic silvery spots on the green underwing – and then another joined it before they both flew off, showing a remarkable turn of speed. A little later, I found another settled on a flower head and was able to take a longer look. It's always one of the great joys of late summer to see these exceptionally pretty – and obliging – little beauties.
  There were also Chalkhill Blues galore, and – what I was most hoping for – Adonis Blues. Not many – maybe half a dozen – but thrillingly beautiful as ever: there is no blue in nature (in English nature) quite like the intense celestial blue of the male Adonis's upperwings. With the Skippers and the Chalkhills too, this was a glorious show to end the butterfly year. It added what are surely the last two species to my 2019 list (unless a fluky Clouded Yellow appears, or a still flukier Brown Hairstreak). The total stands at 37 – all but one seen in my home county – which makes this, despite the vagaries of the weather, a pretty good year.

Wednesday, 14 August 2019

Children's Crusades, Then and Now

I feel sorry for Greta Thunberg, the school-skipping 'climate activist' – well, sorry for her and intensely annoyed by her, also uneasy and embarrassed. She's certainly going to be having a hellish time for the next couple of weeks crossing the Atlantic on a racing yacht (basically one enormous sail with an afterthought of a hull) – but beyond that I can't help feeling that this is a vulnerable child who is being used as a mouthpiece for opinions that she's swallowed wholesale because she hasn't the maturity, breadth of knowledge or critical apparatus to question them. She's a child, and a more or less autistic one at that. She is being exploited – and, along the way, encouraging (among 'adults') an infantile level of discourse about the 'climate emergency'.
  Naturally, one's mind goes back to the Children's Crusade of 1212. This, according to traditional accounts, was inspired by a French boy who had, he believed, been visited by Jesus and instructed to lead a crusade to convert the Islamic world (by peaceful persuasion) to Christianity. Reports of portents and miracles seemed to confirm the charismatic child's mission, and soon some 30,000 children were heading South to the Mediterranean, confidently expecting the sea to part and allow them to walk dryshod to Jerusalem. This failed to happen, and the whole venture ended badly. Offered free passage on a boat, the children were either lost in a shipwreck or taken to Tunis and sold into slavery.
  Modern accounts, based on sounder historiography, tell a different tale (one of two distinct movements), but, like the traditional version, they do not end well.

Tuesday, 13 August 2019

Swinging Classics from the Maestro of Mournful

I know, I know – this has got to stop. But I couldn't resist this one...

It's a poster for an album that was, alas, never made. In case you can't make out the small print, the quintet members are PL, Kingsley Amis, Johns Betjeman and Wain, and Barbara Pym. Track titles include 'Toad in My Lawnmower', 'Complan and Gin', 'Dewey Decimal Lady' and 'Can't Find the Gents'.
[Note for American readers: Complan is a powder that can be made into an ultra-bland nutritious drink for those unable to cope with food.]

Monday, 12 August 2019


Born on this day in 1644 (in Bohemia) was the great Baroque composer Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber, who wrote some of the most extraordinary solo violin music in the repertoire. If you have ten minutes to spare today, I'd recommend immersing yourself in this performance of his monumental Passacaglia by the rather lovely Elicia Silverstein...

Sunday, 11 August 2019


When it comes to rhyming 'all along the line' (see yesterday's post), there is surely no more accomplished exponent than Kay Ryan. I just came across this one again –

Chinese Foot Chart
Every part of us
alerts another part.
Press a spot in 
the tender arch and
feel the scalp
twitch. We are no
match for ourselves
but our own release.
Each touch 
uncatches some
remote lock. Look,
boats of mercy
embark from 
our heart at the
oddest knock.

Saturday, 10 August 2019

It's That Man Again

I may have put that 700-page volume of Selected Letters behind me, but it seems there's no escaping Philip Larkin. Yesterday, his birthday. Today, I find this image in my inbox, courtesy of a picture-sharing website. It shows Larkin paying a visit to his mother, and clearly having a whale of a time...
  So, to get away from Larkin, I thought I'd see if there were any literary anniversaries today. It turns out that Laurence Binyon, poet and scholar, was born on this date 150 years ago. He is remembered now chiefly for a stanza from his 1914 poem For the Fallen, which is still read at services of remembrance throughout the English-speaking world ('They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old...'). Other than that, his greatest contribution to poetry was perhaps in introducing the likes of Ezra Pound, Richard Aldington and H.D. to Chinese and Japanese art, of which he had an expert knowledge. He also did much to revive interest in Blake's pictorial work, and to save Samuel Palmer's visionary early pictures from being wholly forgotten. And he translated Dante.
 This was news to me, but in fact Binyon's translation became hugely successful when it was selected for the Viking Portable Library. It was written in Dante's own terza rima (aba bcb cdc, etc) form, despite this being impossible to sustain for very long in English without severe strain (our language is just too short of rhymes to keep the ever-rolling stream of terza rima flowing). Not that this stopped Dorothy L. Sayers attempting just the same thing with her translation (which was also, in its Penguin edition, very successful).
  Reading a little around the matter of Dante translation, I came across an essay by Clive James about his own translation (published 2013), which abandons terza rima in favour of the four-square quatrain – thereby, many would say, throwing overboard rather too much. In the course of his ruminations, James notes that, in Dante's original, 'within the terzina there is all this other intense interaction going on. (Dante is the greatest exemplar in literary history of the principle advanced by Vernon Watkins, and much approved of by Philip Larkin, that good poetry doesn't just rhyme at the end of the lines, it rhymes all along the line.)'  Yes, Larkin again – there's no escaping him.
  For the record, I maintain that the best way to read Dante is in an edition with the original on one side and an accurate prose translation on the other (as in the old Temple Classics). That way you keep the unique, unEnglishable beauty of the verse – and learn a little Italian along the way.

Friday, 9 August 2019


Well, nothing much has changed in dear old Dieppe ('Nous ne changeons pas,' as the formidable patronne of our hotel declared proudly, and accurately). One or two of the more interesting little shops have gone, but there are still plenty left, and happily no sign of an English-style 'death of the high street'. The epic restoration of the church of St Jacques proceeds slowly but (these days) surely, though it's unlikely to be finished in my lifetime. At the smaller St Remy, on the other hand, recent progress has been rapid, and the building is quite transformed from the crumbling near-ruin it was a decade or two ago – though of course much remains to be done. The back streets of the old town, too, are getting smarter as more and more of the old buildings are refurbished as apartments, mostly without loss of character. On the Quai Henri IV, the old reliables among the restaurants are as good as ever, the seafood wonderfully fresh – and the old-fashioned Mini-Golf by the promenade is still in business. Needless to say, a good time was had by all in the days we were together (though I was turned out of the swimming baths for wearing unsuitable swimwear – swimming shorts, as against trunks, are banned in all public pools in France, I was bemused to learn)...

And now we're back in England, just in time for Philip Larkin's birthday – he would have been 97 today, so it's the big one in three years. 'Birthdays,' he remarked in a letter to Monica (Jones), 'are a time when one stock takes, which means, I suppose, a good spineless mope: I scan my horizon and can discern no sail of hope along my own particular ambition...' Well, cheers – happy birthday, Phil!
Here's Larkin on days in general, short and to the point –


What are days for?
Days are where we live.   
They come, they wake us   
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:   
Where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor   
In their long coats
Running over the fields.

Saturday, 3 August 2019

Swift Summer Over?

The third day of August, and already the neighbourhood swifts have flown. There were a couple passing by quietly the evening before last, and that, it seems, was that – an early finish to the swift season. No doubt I'll see more elsewhere before they're all gone – last year my final sighting was on August 19th, and my first of this year was on May 1st, so at least the close season was pleasingly short. It always seems too soon, though, when the swifts disappear. We have them for a scant three months, in which time they manage to mate, nest and raise a brood to the point where they can fly South with the older birds. They are extraordinary, mysterious creatures, and we are lucky to have them with us for that short season, the 'Swift Summer'.
  Talking of flying South, today we are off on the first leg of the annual pilgrimage to Dieppe, with son, daughter-in-law and their two enchanting children. This short visit has become a fixture, and continues – even unto the third generation – a tradition that began 30 years ago, back in those golden days when the Dieppe ferries were fast and frequent, and sailed right into the heart of the town. Au revoir, mes amis! I'll be back by the end of next week...

Friday, 2 August 2019

Porter and Betjeman in Cornwall

The poetry of church crawling is dominated by Philip Larkin's mighty Church Going, a poem that stands in a league of its own. A little further down the slopes of Parnassus, the other great practitioner of the genre is Betjeman, and some fine specimens by other hands are collected in the recent anthology Building Jerusalem, which I wrote about a while back...
Peter Porter, too, wrote church poems, notably An Angel in Blythburgh Church.
This one (which I spotted in his Collected Poems) finds him in Betjeman country, down in Cornwall – though there is little of Betjeman's tone about it:

Visiting Cornish Churches

Folded in lush combe
Or sentinelling the land,
The wide-naved churches stand,
Like platitudes of doom.

Lanteglos with Polruan,
Lansallos by Lantivet –
Paths of stormy privet
Where leaves soundlessly are strewn –

Hoarders of forgotten saints,
Sites for moral doggerel,
Lit by the improbable
Gold of restorers' paints,

Sanctuaries of afternoon
When the sun lies in the wheat
And flower-arrangers meet
To make comfortable God's room.

Past Celtic cross and over
Graves at a hundred angles,
Through grass and nettle tangles,
The tourist breaks from cover.

The air he breathes is clean
And roseate with death,
Pevsner-listed souls beneath
Share with pew and screen

Small absolutes of fame:
Nothing remarkable here
But men's and women's fear
Of losing even a name,

And when he comes to quiz it
No monument will keep
Him long. He hopes they sleep
The better for his visit.

Betjeman loved Cornwall so much that he ensured he was buried there, in the churchyard of the remote, dune-girt church of St Enodoc, Trebetherick, now surrounded by a golf course. His funeral cortege had to walk the length of the tenth fairway in driving rain, followed by the struggling London literary press corps, seriously underdressed for the wild weather.
Eighteen years earlier, Betjeman wrote this uncharacteristically dark poem recalling a death-scented moment at St Enodoc –

By the Ninth Green, St Enodoc

Dark of primaeval pine encircles me
With distant thunder of an angry sea
While wrack and resin scent alternately
     The air I breathe.

On slate compounded before man was made
The ocean ramparts roll their light and shade
Up to Bray Hill and, leaping to invade,
     Fall back and seethe.

A million years of unrelenting tide
Have soothed the strata of the steep cliffside:
How long ago did rock with rock collide
    To shape these hills?

One day the mayfly's life, three week's the cleg's,
The woodworm's four-year cycle bursts its eggs,
The flattened centipede lets loose its legs
    And stings and kills.

Hot life pulsating in this foreshore dry,
Damp life upshooting from the reed-beds high,
Under those barrows, dark against the sky,
   The Iron Age dead –

Why is it that a sunlit second sticks?
What force collects all this and seeks to fix
This fourth March morning nineteen sixty-six
   Deep in my head?

[A cleg, by the way, is a horse fly.]

Wednesday, 31 July 2019

'Well, the tape draws to an end...'

When I started reading that hefty volume Selected Letters of Philip Larkin, 1940-1985, I thought I'd just skim it for a while then put it aside to dip into later – but it turned out to be strangely compelling reading, and increasingly so the more I read. So I ended up reading most of the letters, skipping only the contractual wrangles and jazz obsessives' in-talk – and I enjoyed the experience so much that I was sorry when, last night, I reached the final page.
  Larkin's heroic grumbling continues to the last, along with his comically dystopian take on the way the country is going, and of course the jokes, the crudities and the gloriously scathing judgment of certain other writers, some of whom he adored in his youth (notably Dylan Thomas). That garden and that lawn continue to be a regular source of misery and woe, but Larkin treats his more real miseries and woes – his fast failing health and its attendant horrors, along with Monica's* medical problems – with commendable stoicism. The last letter in the volume is to his old friend Kingsley Amis, and, in its understated way, it makes sad reading, not least because Larkin has had to dictate it onto tape for his secretary to type. The closing paragraph reads:
'Well, the tape draws to an end; think of me packing up my pyjamas and shaving things for today's ordeal [more hospital tests], and hope all goes well. I really feel this year has been more than I deserve; I suppose it's all come at once, instead of being spread out as with most people.
You will excuse the absence of the usual valediction,
                                                              Yours ever,
The 'usual valediction' in letters to Amis was the word 'bum', appended to some completely irrelevant sentence, e.g.
'Mrs Thatcher must reconsider her

Eleven days after writing his last letter to Amis, Larkin was dead.

* Monica Jones, who was by this stage living with him, and who outlived him by many years. She seems never to have got over Larkin's death.

Tuesday, 30 July 2019

An Integrated Man

I've been rereading Julia Strachey's An Integrated Man (originally published, in 1951, as The Man on the Pier and subsequently reissued, under the author's preferred title, by Penguin in 1978). Regulars might recall that I've written about Julia Strachey before – e.g. here and here – and I've long been an admirer of the tiny body of work she managed to bring herself to publish: the long-short-story-length Cheerful Weather for the Wedding and the novella-length An Integrated Man. The first is a brilliant comedy with decidedly dark edges, and the second is something very different: indeed, it is shaped like a tragedy, tracing the course of a self-satisfied man's downfall, brought about by an intense erotic fixation – though he is not the principal victim...
  It's set in 1936, so was something of a period piece when it was published, and its feel is decidedly pre-war. A group of friends spend the summer in the country home of two of them, the married couple Gwen and Reamur (what names they had then!). Ned, our 'integrated man', is tutoring the couple's son, known as Co-Co, and preparing to open a new school with his best friend Aron, the other guest. When Ned, in the first paragraph, declares that 'Everything in my life is well ordered and serene ... At the age of forty-one, I'm bound to admit that I have become that fabulous beast an "integrated man"!', then you know for sure that this is a man riding for a fall. The only question is what will bring that fall about, and how hard he will fall.
  For some while the days pass agreeably and more or less uneventfully, with lots of walking and eating and relaxed conversation in which ideas about education, art and such matters are bandied about in a civilised, detached, rather Bloomsburyish manner. It is only with the arrival of Aron's wife, Marina, that things begin to change – especially for Ned – and the tension begins to build. The once integrated man is soon disintegrating, stumbling about in an erotically charged daze as events move towards an unforgettably shocking climax in which, suddenly and dramatically, everything is changed. The whole thing turns on one brief moment of recognition, one startlingly raw paragraph.
 As well as being a thoroughly convincing portrayal of erotic obsession, An Integrated Man offers one of the best evocations I've ever read of an English summer, with all its vagaries of weather and mood. Strachey has a sharp eye, an artist's eye, and her descriptions are often arresting. Here's a taster:
'Once the lesson was over [Co-Co's morning lesson with Ned] one had begun to notice the flies. At ten minutes to one the postman had appeared ... And certain cows, those that had lost their calves, on perceiving his red bicycle from afar, charged joyfully across the field in a bunch, imagining he was bringing back to them their stolen children. When they had realised their mistake, they had stood and trumpeted shrilly as usual for half an hour.
 Then luncheon – and a massed rendezvous of flies!
... After lunch the cows had suddenly begun to bellow again. The flies, however, had dropped off to sleep.'
And here, later, are the flies again:
'All of a sudden the flies on the window-pane woke up and started to rage together with a venomous zizzing. One amongst them began to boom deafeningly and to throw its scaly body repeatedly against the glass. Others, too, began to boom in the same echoing manner, and soon all of them together were hurling their scaly bodies agains the pane. One could imagine that packets of tintacks were being showered again and again at the glass.'
  This high-strung, high-pitched style injects tension into what might otherwise seem placid and uneventful scenes – and, of course, it comes into its own as Ned succumbs to his erotic fixation. It gives the novel a quite unique atmosphere and makes it a memorable reading experience. It's hard to think of anything else quite like it. Julia Strachey was truly a one-off.

Monday, 29 July 2019

Porter, Osborne, Temple, Swift

Having noticed Peter Porter's Collected Poems (Oxford, 1983) languishing on the charity shop shelf, what could I do but buy its freedom (for £1.50!) and give it a good home and a new life on my bedside bookshelf? I've been dipping into it ever since, and yesterday found this quiet little gem:

Dorothy Osborne in the Country

Watching the doves in the drowned park,
Every leaf dripping its colourless wax,
The shine of water over the world's face,
I envy the slightest fish in its cold pond.
I shall take the waters of Epsom for my spleen
Among high ladies and their little dogs:
Boredom is like the great clock in the hall,
It writes the hours with unchanging face.

My suitors' wheels turn upon the drive:
Sir Entail and Sir Gravitas approach –
The one owns all a lake and half a shire,
The other is tone deaf and keeps a choir.
The wet birds still sing and dare to love.
Easy to arm against melancholy,
Hard to be true hearted at midnight
Alone in England under uncertain stars.

Fortune is a horse that must be ridden,
Fear a curtain to be pushed aside.
Birds build in soundest branches,
Percepts of love hang all about my eyes.
In a field a boy fights the wind
Whipping his kite to a corner of the sky,
The string still holds and the proud frame
Turns its cheek upon the dangerous air.

Like many of Porter's endlessly allusive poems, this could do with notes. Here's all you need to know...
Dorothy Osborne, in love with the diplomat Sir William Temple, steadfastly resisted all attempts by her disapproving family to marry her to one of her other suitors. Eventually she got her wish, and she and Sir William were happily married until her death in 1695. The spirited and witty letters she wrote to Temple during their enforced separation in the 1650s are (or were) justly famous. She and the poet Thomas Gray are the subjects of David Cecil's joint biography Two Quiet Lives.
Dorothy and Sir William lived at Moor Park in Surrey, where the young Jonathan Swift was Temple's secretary. While in his service, he wrote The Battle of the Books, and acted as tutor and mentor to Esther Johnson ('Stella'), who was eight years old when he met her, and was to become – if such a term can be applied to a man as strange as Swift – the love of his life. 

Sunday, 28 July 2019

Who Needs English?

I see that fewer pupils than ever are taking English as an A-Level subject, and I can't say I'm surprised – they won't be missing much. From what I know of current A-Level syllabuses, they seem to involve rather little reading of anything that could well be described as classic English literature, the Hard Stuff (in both senses). And as a degree subject, English seems to have even less to offer than it did when I was a student: sadly it has become a prime focus of the 'cultural Marxist' programme of all-round multicultural wokeness. Considering that the whole point of the humanities was to teach students to think, not to subscribe to received opinion, this is very sad.
  Things were bad enough at the turn of the Seventies when I emerged blinking from Cambridge with a degree and a (mercifully short-lived) inability to read anything with any enjoyment at all; indeed I was almost incapable of reading anything full stop. What I got out of what might loosely be called my studies had, for the most part, little to do with the prescribed course and far more to do with the various tangents I went off on along the way. To that extent it helped to widen my reading – but I'm not sure it actually helped me to read any better.
 The study of English at university level is a relatively recent phenomenon. As John Gross writes, in The Rise and Fall of the English Man of Letters: 'At the beginning of the nineteenth century, and for at least a generation after that, the idea of a university offering to teach "English" would have seemed ludicrous', and it was not until the 1890s that Oxford was prepared to entertain the idea of English as an academic subject. As it was, the eventual acceptance of English studies had much to do with recent advances in scientific philology and the growth of the adult education movement. These were phenomena of their time, and perhaps the study of English at university level might prove to be the transient product of a particular phase in education. At present the main reason to keep it going, I'd say, is not what's offered to the students, but rather the serious research and editing work (and indeed writing) that a university enables. Maybe, with time, a new rigour will be introduced to the study of the humanities and things will improve. Let's hope so.

Thursday, 25 July 2019

'Proud to catch cold at a Venetian door'

A hot sunny day today, and there's excited talk on the BBC and elsewhere of the 'hottest day ever' and all manner of records tumbling as 'climate change' makes itself felt. Well, as warmists always remind us, weather is not climate (except when it suits them) – and besides, reliable weather records only go back two or three centuries (or less), which is no time at all in climatic terms.
  There were certainly no reliable weather records on 'Hot Tuesday' in July 1707, when the Rev William Derham of Upminster noted that the day was 'so excessively hot and suffocating, by reason there was no wind stirring, that divers persons died, or were in great danger of death, in their harvest-work'. One who died was a former servant of Derham's, 'a healthy, lusty young man', who 'was killed by the heat; and several horses on the road dropped down and died the same day'.
  The heatwave of 1707 was one of a succession that came in the first decade of the 18th century, ensuring bumper harvests and swelling the fortunes of the land-owning classes. This was one of the factors than enabled a building boom, as the aristocracy and gentry set about improving or entirely rebuilding their houses, typically in the fashionable Palladian style. It must have seemed a good idea, in a period of hot, bright summers, to adopt the architecture of sunny Italy, with its cooling arcades and colonnades, small windows and pleasingly articulated surfaces designed for strong light and shade. However, many followers of architectural fashion must have regretted their choice as the English weather returned to its less than sizzling normal.
 Pope, in Epistle IV of Epistles to Several Persons, addressed to Lord Burlington, mocks the 'imitating fools',
'Who random drawings from your sheets shall take, 
And of one beauty many blunders make; 
Load some vain church with old theatric state, 
Turn arcs of triumph to a garden gate; 
Reverse your ornaments, and hang them all 
On some patch'd dog-hole ek'd with ends of wall; 
Then clap four slices of pilaster on't, 
That lac'd with bits of rustic, makes a front. 
Or call the winds through long arcades to roar, 
Proud to catch cold at a Venetian door; 
Conscious they act a true Palladian part, 
And, if they starve, they starve by rules of art.' 

Wednesday, 24 July 2019

Pevsner: 'cursing in common'

I'm finding it hard to tear myself away from Ferdinand Mount's English Voices – very much my kind of book. One of its many delights is a superb essay on that great honorary Englishman Nikolaus Pevsner. Ostensibly a review of the second edition of Pevsner's Berkshire, it begins by defending Pevsner against those (very much including John Betjeman) who caricatured him as 'dry-eyed and thin-lipped, the archetypal Prussian pedant'. Mount quotes Pevsner's foreword to the first edition of Berkshire:
'Berkshire was the first English county I had to travel and describe after my wife had died. She had driven me through nearly all the preceding counties, had done all the day-to-day planning, and more and more also visited the buildings. Four eyes are better than two, and her eyes were quicker than mine. I fear this volume will have suffered from that private circumstance. The journey could not have the zest, the fun, the cursing in common which all belonged to so well tried a partnership.'
Hardly the tone of a cold-hearted Prussian pedant.
  Mount is not blind to Pevsner's shortcomings – 'the occasional over-laconic or dismissive entry with its dread interposed semi-colon: "Nave perp; dull" and the hasty, unanswered question: "Can this be eighteenth-century?"' Any regular user of first-edition Pevsners will be all too familiar with those. And yet the sheer scale of Pevsner's achievement in describing the notable buildings of every English county continues to amaze, and to disarm criticism. Besides, the later editions have filled out Pevsner's descriptions – filled them out and then some. As the new editions have continued to appear over the years they have grown bigger and bigger, to the point where they no longer serve as the portable pocket books they were originally intended to be. This gigantism has been greatly to the advantage of serious students of England's buildings, but equally to the detriment of those of us who like to wander around the country with a handy guide in our pocket.
  Pevsner completed his grand project in 1974 with the publication of Buildings of England: Staffordshire. This includes Some Words on Completion of The Buildings of England, in which he looks back over the series and acknowledges the shortcomings of the first editions – 'Don't be deceived, gentle reader, the first editions are only ballons d'essai; it is the second editions which count.' Yes indeed, though he surely didn't envisage the doorstop scale of more recent volumes.
  Looking back over the changes of the 23 years in which the series was written – including changes in architectural taste – he notes some practical matters. In the Fifties it was still possible to drop in on a modest hotel at the end of a day's exploration and check in for the night. By the Sixties that was fast becoming impossible, as hotels seemed to be always fully booked, largely with business travellers, and so all trips had to be planned in advance. And it was also the case that in the Fifties nearly all C of E churches were open all day, but by the Sixties and Seventies huge numbers of these churches were kept locked, with no key under the mat and often no indication of how the key was to be obtained. 'The time wasted on hunting,' he writes, 'may be more than the time needed for viewing the church. If this development goes on, it means that the work I have done could in future no longer be done in the same time.' Well, quite. And it also means frustration for many a church crawler with Pevsner in hand – or pocket.

Friday, 19 July 2019

Englishness (yawn)

Yes, it's a dreary subject (though not quite as dreary as 'Britishness'), and one about which too much has been written lately, nearly all of it based on certain received opinions. These are that there is nothing special or unique about Englishness, that it is a constructed notion of relatively recent origin, and that it has no real substance because we are so obviously a 'mongrel nation', the product of wave after wave of migration, conquest, settlement and intermarriage. But how true is any of that?
  I've been dipping into – or trying to dip into, but finding myself reading the whole thing – English Voices, a volume of 'Lives, Landscapes, Laments' by Ferdinand Mount. It's a collection mostly of short biographical essays and book reviews – all of them extraordinarily insightful and beautifully written – and it begins with an Introduction in which Mount demonstrates that 'the English have always had a fierce sense of themselves' and that outside observers – who invariably see more of the realities than the natives – have always been 'fascinated by the quiddities of the English'. He traces this all the way from Tacitus (who noted the English preference for living separately, with a little land around them, rather than crowded together in cities, like the Romans) to the 20th-century historians of foreign origin – Isaiah Berlin, Lewis Namier,  Geoffrey Elton – who saw clearly what was distinctive and cherishable about Englishness.
  The English people's deep-seated sense of itself and its specialness, Mount points out, is based on taking pride 'not in its ancient bloodlines but on its ancient liberties'  (so being a 'mongrel nation' was neither here nor there). The English, having always embraced the idea of monogenesis (one creation) rather than polygenesis (separate creation of different races), have never gone for 'scientific' racism – as against xenophobia – and racism has never taken root in England as it has in so many Continental countries.
 Our ancient liberties and our specialness, Mount argues, are rooted in English common law and the English language. And the two are closely related, as English law has always been written in the vernacular, rather than the Latin that was used all over Europe. The continuity of use of the English language, in its various forms – and the wealth of words flowing into it from all those migrants and occupiers – gave it the unique richness, flexibility and resilience that equipped it to be a world language on an unprecedented scale. When, in Norman times, it went into abeyance for a couple of centuries, it only bounced back renewed, reinvigorated and ready to develop into modern English as we know it. The extraordinary richness of the language also, Mount argues, fostered a highly developed individuality and a fascination with the quirks that make one person different from another – hence the English genius for biography, a form of writing that is looked down on across the Channel.
   Though I'm sure it is far from Mount's intentions, I cannot help but note that all the above adds up to a pretty good summing-up of the deeper-seated reasons why we were never going to make a fit with the European Union...

Tuesday, 16 July 2019


Even before hearing from a fellow graveyard aficionado (see comment under previous post), I was pondering why it is that I am so drawn to these places. Leaving aside historical, biographical or (sometimes) aesthetic interest, what is the nature of the pleasure that I get from walking around cemeteries and churchyards? It occurred to me today that I find the experience consoling.
  It is consoling and somehow reassuring, I find, to be surrounded by numbers of the dead from former times, a small battalion of that great army that will always outnumber us*. The world of the living, in this perspective, seems merely the point at the tip of an iceberg – or, perhaps, the narrow neck of an immense hourglass (aeonglass) through which the army of the yet to be born passes on its way to join the army of the dead. Such reflections might lead some to conclude that life is futile and our individual lives are as nothing, but for me it tends to concentrate the sense of wonder that life, as we experience it, should be of such infinite significance, to lend it an even sharper brilliance against the great unknowable darkness ahead and behind and all around. A populous graveyard puts us in our place, reminding us how fleeting – and how precious – life is. That is a reminder we cannot have too often.
  Leaving aside all that, though, there are also incidental pleasures to be had from strolling in graveyards, one of which is that increasingly they are being allowed to turn at least partly wild, with the result that more native flowers bloom and more insects – in particular more butterflies – are attracted. So it was that this morning I set out for Brookwood, the vast cemetery occupying many acres of heathland near the western border of Surrey. As well as enjoying a revisit, I was hoping to see two species in particular – the lovely little Silver-Studded Blue and the once common, but now very hard to find, Grayling. On a patch of heathland adjacent to the cemetery, I had soon spotted the former – a female, rather than the radiantly blue male – and thought I might be lucky and see a good many more, but in fact that was it for the Silver-Studded Blue; it is, after all, quite late in their season.
 Graylings, however, were flying in abundance – and they were the first I had seen in years. In my boyhood, this butterfly (the only one to share its name with a fish, fact fans) was a common sight on any kind of rough stony grassland, but, for a variety of reasons, it has since then become very much scarcer, particularly inland. But here they were, dozens of them, all around me, flying in their distinctive, slightly crazy way and suddenly dropping to the ground, folding their wings and tilting them at an angle from the vertical. I had forgotten how enchanting these butterflies are, and how beautifully marked are their underwings (which is all you normally see of them, so reluctant are they to spread their wings). As they flew around me and settled almost at my feet – they seemed strangely drawn to my white chinos (another argument, if any were needed, against wearing shorts) – it was like being back in my earliest butterfly days, down by the sea at Kingsdown, where Graylings were among the first butterflies I learned to recognise. In more ways than one, cemeteries take you travelling in time.

* I believe mathematicians have calculated that the population of the earth would have to reach something like 30 billion before we came near to parity with the dead.