Sunday 31 March 2019

Woman's Own, Woman's Dream and Deluded Sparrows

Regular readers of this blog will know that it was assiduous study of my mother's copies of Woman's Own that made me the man I am today. One of the regular features I enjoyed (along with Mary Grant's Problem Page, the adverts for mysterious women's things, and the musings of Beverley Nichols) was 'Doctor's Diary' by one Roderick Wimpole, M.D. This invariably took the form of a dialogue between the doctor and a worried woman patient, who as often as not was suffering from some form of 'nervous exhaustion' (a housewife's lot was hard in those days when most of them didn't go out to work and had only to do the housework and wait on Hubby). The patient's anxiety would soon be allayed by Dr Wimpole's reassuring, fatherly words, and perhaps a prescription for a mild sedative – though, as the image above shows, there was sometimes talk of more drastic treatment.
  Naturally I assumed that the chap with his back to us in the picture was Roderick Wimpole in person, and that the words below were his. I was very young. In fact, as Katharine Whitehorn recalls in her memoir Selective Memory, the 'Doctor's Diary' feature was written by a woman in the office who happened to be married to a gynaecologist and knew how to use of a medical dictionary.
 I was reminded of all this while reading the latest Auberon Waugh novel I'm enjoying (after this and this). The hapless hero of Who Are the Violets Now?, Arthur Friendship, earns his living by writing for Woman's Dream, a magazine that sounds very much like Woman's Own. Among his responsibilities are writing 'Padre's Hour' (as the Rev Cliff Roebuck), and, as Dr Dorkins, a medical column full of such stuff as this:
'When Mrs B came into the consulting room, it was clear she had something on her mind. She needed a bit of drawing out, but I was soon able to discover that she was worried because she no longer enjoyed her housework, was listless, and felt tingling in her finger-tips in the early morning...'
Pure Roderick Wimpole.
  At the point I've reached in the novel, the semi-deranged proprietor of Woman's Dream has had the bright idea of publishing a shock special issue devoted to cancer (about which, of course, Arthur knows almost nothing). Feeling that this might be his moment, Arthur, as Dr Dorkins, is diligently pursuing his researches (cue darkly comic hospital scene – a bit of a Waugh speciality) and has high hopes for the success of the special issue. Something tells me it might all go horribly wrong...

Meanwhile, I'm being woken early every morning by sparrows charging beak-first at my bedroom window pane. The first time this happened it was accompanied by much frantic chatter, fluttering of wings and scrabbling at the roughcast. I thought there must have been a squirrel (or corvid) attack on a nest, or a lost chick somewhere, but I could see no evidence of either. As it persisted day after day – and mercifully got rather less noisy – I realised that it must just be a case of sparrows fighting their own reflections, mistaking them for intruders on their territory. They are birds of very little brain. Let's hope it doesn't end badly –

I was the shadow of the sparrow slain
By the false rival in the window pane...

Saturday 30 March 2019

On the Day

As planned, I spent the day of the Great Betrayal (Mk 1) walking with friends in Hatfield Forest (which is nowhere near Hatfield, but over the Essex border, East of Bishop's Stortford). The day got off to a bumpy start when we found ourselves stuck in a wholly stationary traffic jam somewhere on the... actually I don't know the number of the road, and it hardly matters; we were somewhere near Potter's Bar, I believe, on our way to the M11.
 After a while, people started getting out of their vehicles, stretching their legs and chatting desultorily in the already warm sunshine. One of two – commercial drivers with deliveries to make – were understandably put out, but most were acting with typical English stoicism, laced with cynical humour. A rumour went around that 'they' had closed the motorway to fill in potholes, and this was widely believed, being just the sort of thing 'they' would do. I suggested that, in view of the date, there'd been a coup and the nation had ground to a standstill. Or maybe it was a dress rehearsal for the day we 'crash out'. Then a more plausible story developed, based on traffic news reports. Apparently there had been a lorry accident, which became an 'incident' for obscure reasons. Someone said there had been fighting, which might have explained the two police cars that whizzed by on the hard shoulder at one point, sirens blaring. Anyway, after an hour and three quarters of stasis in the sun, the traffic started to move, a cheer went up, and suddenly we were on our way...

 Hatfield Forest is an extraordinary survival. Here, as the great Oliver Rackham puts it, 'all the elements of a medieval compartmental Forest survive: deer, cattle [sadly we saw neither], coppice-woods, scrub, timber trees, grassland, fen, the medieval Forest Lodge, and dozens of houses round the boundary of various dates back to the thirteenth century'. (There's also a rabbit warren, of later date.) Rackham reckons it unique in England and perhaps the world. It has survived because, in the mid-19th century, the Houblons, a banking family with a country house nearby, bought it to save it from the developers. They had used the forest as their deer park and pleasure ground since the 18th century, when Capability Brown put in a lake, and a very pretty Shell House (now a cafe and visitor centre) was built.
The Forest was saved again when the National Trust bought it in 1924, and since then the Trust has done good work on the conservation and restoration front, maintaining Hatfield's character as a working forest. It attracts a good many visitors, especially when the sun is out and it's dry underfoot, but it's easy enough to get away from other people and feel yourself part of a largely unchanged, centuries-old landscape of broad grassy rides, woodland paths and rough pasture. The coppices were carpeted with violets, both blue and white, and celandine, and the sun had wakened large numbers of Peacock butterflies, along with Brimstones galore, and the odd Tortoiseshell and Comma.
  Ah, England – England on a sunny day in spring, with the trees just coming into leaf and the birds singing. Whatever happens, nothing will ever lessen the beauty of that...

Wednesday 27 March 2019

Cather: What's to Say?

Some weeks ago, I finished reading Willa Cather's The Song of the Lark, the middle novel of the so-called Prairie Trilogy (and the last of the three that I've read). I realise now that I haven't posted anything about it, except to quote a passage. But then what is there to say about Cather? I find it hard to say anything much about her, other than that she is a quite wonderful novelist, who seems more wonderful to me with each of her works that I read. And I don't know quite why, still less how she does it. Though there is clearly great strength in her narration, characterisation and scene-painting – but there seems also to be some kind of magic at work...
  Some critics, and indeed Cather's first publishers, have found a problem with The Song of the Lark – a lack of believable continuity between Thea Kronbog, the Nebraska girl we meet in the early part of the book, and Kronborg, the formidable opera star that she becomes in the course of the latter parts. Some feel that, as she ascends into the musical firmament by way of Chicago, Germany and New York, she is somehow less present, her character weakens and becomes less convincing. I sometimes felt that myself, in passing, but by the end the transition from the one Thea Kronborg to the other seemed to me entirely believable: the seeds of what she was to become – the fierce determination, the ability to harden her heart, the romantic urges, the soaring aspirations – were all present in the young girl. The later Thea is certainly at times unsympathetic, but that, for me, is one of the strengths of Cather's heroines, that they are always portrayed in the round, with all their faults – and yet they are in the end quite extraordinarily lovable. That's part of the magic.
 In general, I simply cannot explain how Willa Cather achieves the powerful effects she does, how her novels hit home with such force. But there's no denying they do.
 Leon Edel said of Cather that 'the time will come when she is ranked above Hemingway'. That time has surely come already – and I feel sure her star will rise yet higher.

Tuesday 26 March 2019

'A fact as eerie as a dream...'

Robert Frost was born on this day in 1874 (as was A.E. Housman in 1859). Frost's centenary fell therefore on March 26th, 1974, so I was pleased to find that the Richard Wilbur poem usually titled April 5th, 1974 sometimes turns up as March 26th, 1974. If it isn't a centenary tribute to Frost – whom Wilbur hugely admired, and with whom he had a kind of family connection – then it certainly should be. It is one of the most Frostian of all Wilbur's poems, recalling the 'frozen ground-swell' of Frost's Mending Wall.
Here it is – call it what you will. It's a lovely piece of work, with a wonderful ending...

The air was soft, the ground still cold.
In wet dull pastures where I strolled
Was something I could not believe.
Dead grass appeared to slide and heave,
Though still too frozen-flat to stir,
And rocks to twitch, and all to blur.
What was this rippling of the land?
Was matter getting out of hand
And making free with natural law?
I stopped and blinked, and then I saw
A fact as eerie as a dream.
There was a subtle flood of stream
Moving upon the face of things.
It came from standing pools and springs
And what of snow was still around;
It came of winter’s giving ground
So that the freeze was coming out,
As when a set mind, blessed by doubt,
Relaxes into mother-wit.
Flowers, I said, will come of it.

Monday 25 March 2019


Today brings the sad news that the famously enigmatic singer and songwriter Scott Walker has died at the age of 76. In a sense, I grew up with Walker, relishing those epic pop songs he performed with the Walker Brothers, and following him into his solo career with something like obsessive devotion – I still have half a dozen or more of his solo albums on aged, played-to-death vinyl, and remember many a smoky evening wallowing in the glory of the Scott Walker sound (which at that time was largely the creation of the great producer and arranger Wally Stott, who later became Angela Morley). From the Eighties, as he moved on into ever more hermetic realms, often beyond melody and coherence (or so it seemed to me), I gradually gave up trying to follow him – it was too late for me; the world was too much with me, the smoky evenings were over, my musical taste had moved on. But I never lost my respect for that elusive touch of greatness in Scott Walker at his best. Here's a track from his first solo album. The lyrics don't bear much examination, but what a sound, what a performance, what a chorus – what grandeur...

Sunday 24 March 2019


This morning – sunny at last! – I was astonished to see one of these little beauties darting from flower to flower in a garden just round the corner from our house. At first I thought it was a bumblebee I'd spotted, but as I got closer I realised it was, unmistakably, a Hummingbird Hawk Moth. I'd never seen one of these aptly named day-fliers so early in the year – they're a summer sight, and an increasingly common one. But in March? Must be that global warming – time for action, if you ask me ;-)
  I also saw my first Small White of the year, flying rather desperately in West Ealing, just near my childhood home.

Saturday 23 March 2019

Poor Collins

This is the extraordinarily heartfelt epitaph of the poet William Collins, from his monument in Chichester cathedral. His name is often yoked with Gray and Goldsmith as the three leading poets of the mid-18th century, but he is probably now the least read even of these. The fervency of his epitaph shows how highly he was esteemed in his time, even after years of sad, unproductive decline.
In his Lives of the Poets, Johnson (himself one of the best poets of the 18th century) gives a judicious account of Collins's strengths and weaknesses as a poet, and clearly feels great sympathy for him as a man:

'The latter part of his life cannot be remembered but with pity and sadness. He languished some years under that depression of mind which enchains the faculties without destroying them, and leaves reason the knowledge of right, without the power of pursuing it. These clouds, which he found gathering on his intellects, he endeavoured to disperse by travel, and passed into France, but found himself constrained to yield to his malady, and returned: he was for some time confined in a house for lunatics, and afterwards retired to the care of his sister in Colchester [for Chichester], where death at last came to his relief.

After his return from France, the writer of this character paid him a visit at Islington, where he was waiting for his sister, whom he had directed to meet him: there was then nothing of disorder discernible in his mind by any but himself, but he had then withdrawn from study, and travelled with no other book than an English testament, such as children carry to school; when his friend took it into his hand, out of curiosity to see what companion a man of letters had chosen, "I have but one book," says Collins, "but that is the best."'

And that is the book (in rather larger format) that he is shown with in the relief above his epitaph. The relief was carved by Flaxman, the epitaph written by William Hayley, the friend and biographer of Cowper.

Friday 22 March 2019

Harold Gilman and Nick Goss

Yesterday to Chichester to visit the cathedral and Pallant House, one of my favourite galleries. The cathedral is something of an art gallery in itself, with its paintings by Sutherland, Patrick Prockter, Hans Feibusch etc, its Sutherland tapestry and Chagall window – and of course it's home to the famous Arundel 'tomb', of which I wrote recently. And the Pallant, I'm happy to say, has two exhibitions on which are both well worth seeing.
  Harold Gilman: Beyond Camden Town brings together a fine array of paintings and drawings by an artist often described as 'the English Vuillard', our home-grown intimiste. This is fair enough, and you could also describe him as 'Sickert in full colour'; having shaken off the powerful influence of his mentor, Gilman explored a world of light and colour that owed as much to French postimpressionism as to anything English, least of all the muddier aspects of the Camden Town school. Despite its title, this exhibition does include some Gilmans that are very 'Camden Town', but it shows how widely Gilman's art roamed, and indeed how widely he travelled in search of inspiration. The Van Gogh-influenced painting above – Canal Bridge, Flekkenfjord – was the product of a Norwegian sojourn, and there are works created in Sweden and even Halifax, Nova Scotia.
  Gilman was also a frequent visitor to Dieppe, and I was glad to see his fine painting of the Swing Bridge (which is still in place, and looking very much as Gilman painted it).
There are paintings and fine drawings of English landscapes and, particularly, trees, including the Cézanne-influenced Beechwood, Gloucestershire.

But the exhibition also offers plenty of the portraits and interiors for which Gilman is best known. There's the tender Interior with the Artist's Mother
And several domestic interiors featuring the redoubtable Mrs Mounter, Gilman's housekeeper – including this luminous, beautifully composed example.

The large painting known as Tea in the Bed-Sitter is represented in two versions, of which the one below, with only two at the table, is the more tense and unsettling. Note the wallpaper – this is the room from which we see Mrs Mounter in the painting above.

This is a delightful little exhibition which does enough to demonstrate what a gifted and interesting artist Gilman was – and to make us wonder what he might have done next had his life not been cut short by the Spanish influenza in 1919, the day after his 43rd birthday.

I noticed, as I went in to see the Gilman, that there was another exhibition running, showing paintings by one Nick Goss, of whom I had never heard. I thought I'd give it a look – and I was hugely impressed. Goss is a young(ish) South London artist, who draws his subjects from life (and commuting) in London, personal memories and past events – in particular 'De Ramp', the terrible 1953 flooding of Zeeland, where Goss spent childhood summers (long after the floods, but these disasters cast long shadows). A related obsession with J.G. Ballard's The Drowned World also finds its way into many of his paintings.
 The exhibition, titled Morley's Mirror, is of large pictures on linen, all created with pigment, oils and screenprinting, creating strong, collage-like images working at several levels and depths. These are immersive pictures, the kind that draw you in and envelop you in their imagery (though not all of them, I thought, quite achieved this). They don't reproduce well on a small scale, but here is the title picture of the exhibition, the central motif of which was inspired by the window of a café –
and here is one (unusually in landscape format) that clearly shows Goss's obsession with inundation – Lagoon.
Supplementing Morley's Mirror is Inspirations, an exhibition of Goss's drawings, sketches and preparatory work, and of some of the paintings (taken from the Pallant's collection) that have inspired his art. One of these is Michael Andrews' The Estuary, a large, powerful and ultra-immersive canvas from his Thames Paintings series. Pointless to reproduce it, but here's part of it (below)...
If you're thinking of going to Chichester, now is a very good time.

Thursday 21 March 2019

Bach in Space

Today (by the Julian calendar) is the 334th birthday of the greatest composer this world has ever known, Johann Sebastian Bach.
It is also the birthdate (by the Gregorian calendar) of the Belgian violinist Arthur Grumiaux (1921-86), who made many recordings of Bach's violin music. One of these was chosen for the Voyager Golden Record that NASA launched into space in 1977, to let the aliens know what we Earthlings were all about. Here it is, the Gavotte en Rondeaux from Partita No 3...

 There are three Bach recordings on the Golden Record – more than any other composer (the others being the first movement of the second Brandenburg Concerto, and the first Prelude and Fugue from The Well-Tempered Clavier). Here's the one they should have sent, IMHO, to show what realms of glory Bach, at his greatest, could ascend to...

(Not the greatest recording, but the graphics are appropriate.)

Wednesday 20 March 2019

Equinox, and the Perils of Prediction

Today is the Spring Equinox, and Radio 4 is marking the occasion with a seasonal sprinkling of vernal poems dotted about the schedule. They seem like quite a nice selection, to judge by what I've heard. Larkin's The Trees has made the cut, and, to make sure nobody gets too jolly about the coming of spring, Edward Thomas's The Cherry Trees...

The cherry trees bend over and are shedding
On the old road where all that passed are dead,
Their petals, strewing the grass as for a wedding
This early May morn when there is none to wed.

   The weather (round here at least) is disappointingly dull and grey today, but it looked very different on this day in 1966, when Richard Crossman, a Labour grandee who is now all but forgotten, wrote in his diary: 'A lovely day here ... a cloudless blue sky and hot spring air. Steady, perfect electioneering weather. It really is getting uncannily like the autumn of 1959 when Gaitskell was fighting his valiant, hopeless campaign against Macmillan and the country had never had it so good and would have nothing said against him. All this week we have been fighting 1959 in reverse. Now it is we who are on top of the world, we who are the Government being given credit for the weather.'
Amusingly, Labour went on to lose the 1966 election. Even then, political prediction was a hazardous business. As for now – well, we've reached the point where even the most usually confident pundits have given up trying to predict what's coming next. The only thing they're all agreed on is that to leave the EU without a deal on March 29th (exactly what Parliament voted for by a large majority when they triggered Article 50) would be an economic catastrophe. Which, you might recall, was exactly what they said would be the consequence of a Leave vote (and no such thing has happened).
Thanks to Mrs May's staggering incompetence at every turn, those of us (17 million or so, I seem to remember) who voted to Leave are being presented with a choice between a 'deal' that ties the country into indefinite vassal status or – well, or what? I'm just hoping the clock runs down and we end up leaving by default on the legally enshrined, and repeatedly promised, date, in nine days' time. Failing that, the best chance of getting out is to stay in for a couple of years, which would give us the chance of negotiating (competently this time, perhaps) with a weakened and differently constituted EU – and we'd still have a say in EU decision-making during those two years, which we wouldn't have under Mrs M's 'deal'.
God, this is boring. Sorry, I shan't mention it again for a while.
On the 29th March, I shall be walking in Hatfield Forest. I think that's a pretty safe prediction. 

Monday 18 March 2019

The Stuffed Owl

Lately I've been trying to cut down on my book-buying; I've already got too many books piling up waiting to be read. So, the other day, I really should have stopped myself walking into the most book-rich of all my local charity shops. There on the shelf was a copy of The Stuffed Owl, the classic anthology of 'good bad verse', which I've been aware of for years but have never owned. Needless to say, I was unable to resist, especially as it was an as-new reprint (NYRB) of the second edition, complete with the most entertaining Subject Index ever compiled – of that, more later...
  The Stuffed Owl is edited by D.B. Wyndham Lewis and Charles Lee and was first published in 1930. Wyndham Lewis – no relation of the other one – was, among other things, a very successful newspaper columnist ('Beach Comber' in the Express). As an introductory note puts it, 'he intended to pursue the legal profession, but, after having suffered two bouts of shell shock and one of malaria, he set his sights on journalism' (and what better preparation could there be?). Charles Lee was an all-round intellectual, prolific author, editor, composer and pianist. Both men seem to have had an extensive knowledge of and affection for seriously bad poetry – hence the anthology, which draws on the unfortunate lapses of otherwise competent, good or even great poets, from Cowley to Tennyson. No poets still alive are included, partly from delicacy and partly because by 1930 many were abandoning the kind of formal structures that show up poetical missteps so cruelly. The anthology, says its compilers, is a 'sunny optimistic book ... since it reveals the follies of our predecessors and proves by implication what splendid fellows we are now'.
 Each poet is introduced with a lively thumbnail sketch, mostly with a biographical nugget or two: Abraham Cowley, for instance, 'lived comfortably enough ... enjoyed the incense of his contemporaries, and died (according to Pope) of the consequences of spending a July night under a hedge on the return, with his genial clergyman friend Sprat, later Bishop of Rochester, from a "repast of Attick taste", with wine'. Sprat himself is represented in the anthology by a lament (On His Mistress Drowned) which 'must represent the Absolute Zero of frigidity, and it is difficult to believe that the lover's sighs shook much powder from his great full-bottomed wig'. There are poets here I had never heard of, such as John Sheffield, Duke of Buckinghamshire, whose 'verse is good stout colonel's work, and he rides Pegasus on the snaffle' – and poets everyone has heard of, including Byron, Poe and of course Wordsworth, whose poetical lapses are well known, numerous and truly dire: 'Spade! With which Wilkinson has tilled his lands',  'The piteous news so much it shocked her, / She quite forgot to send the doctor', 'A fly that up and down himself does shove', etc. Henry Vaughan contributes the immortal line 'How brave a prospect is a bright backside!'
 As much fun as the anthology itself is the lovingly compiled Subject Index, which is full of entries such as 'Adam, his internal fluids', 'Beaux, Irish, their grovelling minds', 'Christians, liable to leak', 'Gases, goings-on of',  'Monster, grim, awful behaviour of', 'Clutterbuck & Co, their services requisitioned'. This last leads to George Crabbe's deadly lines 'And I was ask'd and authorised to go / To seek the firm of Clutterbuck & Co.' Wordsworth's terrible Simon Lee is comprehensively indexed: 'Lee, Simon, rumoured reduction of his stature; conflicting evidence concerning his age; fore-and-aft view of his coat; his general appearance, and particularly his legs and ankles, described; location of his residence; stumped by a root.' A fine strand of associations begins with 'Sugar. See Sand.' This takes us to 'Sand. See False Gallia's sons.' Which leads to 'False Gallia's sons. See Frenchmen', and finally to 'Frenchmen, fraudful, mix sand with sugar.' Which takes us at last to a passage from The Sugar Cane by one James Grainger – 'False Gallia's sons, that hoe the ocean's isles, / Mix with their sugar loads of worthless sand, / Fraudful, their weight of sugar to increase. / Far be such guile from Britain's honest swains.' Indeed.
 I'm inclined to agree with Vita Sackwille-West that 'The Stuffed Owl ought to be in every house'.

Friday 15 March 2019


Today comes another of those birthdays that make you feel old – in fact, two of them. Phil Lesh, the Grateful Dead's incomparably brilliant bassist, is 79, and Mike Love of the Beach Boys is 78.
Lesh, a musician more interested in avant-garde classical music and free jazz than in rock, had never played bass before Jerry Garcia enrolled him in his proto-Dead band The Warlocks. Since he had no preconceptions about the role of bass guitar – traditionally little more than an extension of the rhythm section – Lesh developed along highly original lines, making the bass an equal musical partner with Garcia's guitar.
Lesh claimed his playing was more influenced by Bach counterpoint than by anything in rock or soul music. It could certainly be a thing of beauty, as here on Ripple (from the Dead's American Beauty album), a kind of secular 23rd Psalm, perhaps appropriate for this sad day...

Thursday 14 March 2019

'I escaped being blown over and blown under...'

On this day in 1818, Keats wrote to his friend John Hamilton Reynolds from Teignmouth in Devon, where he was experiencing weather very much like what we've been having here lately, as Storm Gareth sweeps across the country. Keats makes merry with the weather conditions, taking off into one of those quicksilver flights of fancy that make his letters so dazzlingly entertaining, so bursting with life and invention...

'Dear Reynolds,
I escaped being blown over and blown under & trees & house being toppled on me.—I have since hearing of Brown’s accident had an aversion to a dose of parapet, and being also a lover of antiquities
[Pg 83] I would sooner have a harmless piece of herculaneum sent me quietly as a present than ever so modern a chimney-pot tumbled on to my head—Being agog to see some Devonshire, I would have taken a walk the first day, but the rain would not let me; and the second, but the rain would not let me; and the third, but the rain forbade it. Ditto 4—ditto 5—ditto—so I made up my Mind to stop indoors, and catch a sight flying between the showers: and, behold I saw a pretty valley—pretty cliffs, pretty Brooks, pretty Meadows, pretty trees, both standing as they were created, and blown down as they are uncreated—The green is beautiful, as they say, and pity it is that it is amphibious—mais! but alas! the flowers here wait as naturally for the rain twice a day as the Mussels do for the Tide,–– so we look upon a brook in these parts as you look upon a dash in your Country–– there must be something to support this, aye, fog, hail, snow rain–– Mist–– blanketing up three parts of the year–– This devonshire is like Lydia Languish, very entertaining when at smiles, but cursedly subject to sympathetic moisture. You have the sensation of walking under one great Lamplighter: and you can’t go on the other side of the ladder to keep your frock clean, and cosset your superstition...'

And so on it goes – the young Keats on fizzing form.
'The flowers here wait as naturally for the rain twice a day as the Mussels do for the Tide' – surely only Keats could have made that connection.
Patrick Kurp recently quoted Auden's observation that the style of the great letter writers is 'characterized by speed, high spirits, wit, and fancy'. Almost any letter of Keats proves the point.

Wednesday 13 March 2019

Troubled Times

Today to the House of Lords for lunch with Lord and Lady –––, Mrs ––– and Lady–––. Lady––– (the first one) showed us around, and it really is quite a place. The iconography, expressed in huge Victorian narrative paintings, heraldic stained glass and sculptures of great men (yes, men, virtually all of them) of the past, drives home the deep history (and potent mythology) of Britain so forcibly that you wonder how those who run the country (in the Commons, at least) seem so blithely unaware of the past and what it has to tell us. I blame Tony Blair.
A highlight of the day was shaking the hand of Jacob Rees Mogg. I told him I'd once been mistaken for him (by the proprietor of a Turkish restaurant, but I didn't mention that detail) and he professed himself honoured. It's possible to carry good manners too far...
Meanwhile, outside, the crowds of Leavers and Remainers were milling around stoically, carrying their placards and waving their banners. Troubled times. But, as Lady––– (the first one) remarked, it's not a civil war. Not this time.

Tuesday 12 March 2019

Moravians and More

It's endlessly surprising what you come across in this richly various country of ours. The fine Georgian building above is the Moravian church in the village of Ockbrook, near Derby (yes, I've been on my Mercian travels again). The Moravian Settlement there is one of only three in Britain, and dates back to the 1750s. The Moravian Church itself, however, had its origins in the 15th-century Bohemian Reformation, and is arguably the oldest of all surviving Protestant sects. Being keen on missionary work, the Moravians still have a worldwide presence, not least in the Caribbean, where they were the first Protestant missionaries to minister to the slave population. The motto of the British Province is 'In things essential, unity... in non-essentials, liberty... in all things, charity', which seems fair enough.
  The Ockbrook settlement (which includes a large and thriving independent school) is a charming little enclave of handsome red-brick Georgian buildings, including some commodious houses, one of which has a box-hedge maze in its front garden.
Other highlights of the weekend included a visit to the inland port of Shardlow, a survival from the canal age, and one of only two recognisable canal ports in England (the other being Stourport). More handsome Georgian red-brick buildings, many now converted from industrial to residential use. And a walk around Elvaston Castle Country Park, the gardens and grounds of a grand neo-Gothic house (by James Wyatt) in what is now a Derby suburb. And now I'm back in storm-lashed Surrey, with the hatches battened down.

Thursday 7 March 2019

GlassGlossGloom: In TV Dramaland

Last night, being too weary for anything else, I found myself watching BBC2's new, much-hyped, much-trailed big-name drama series, MotherFatherSon. My expectations weren't terribly high – but what I saw was even worse than I'd anticipated: a highly polished showcase for every tired cliché in the 'serious contemporary drama' book, and all enacted with such ponderous solemnity that it would have taken very little tweaking to turn the whole thing into a rather good spoof.
  Richard Gere – yes, that Richard Gere (he should have been better advised) – plays one of those immensely powerful media barons who, as we all know, are running the world. He's flown into Britain to sort out various business and family affairs – but first he drops in on the Prime Minster (who turns out to be a genial black man) and they have a loaded conversation about shortbread and fruit cake. Yes, really – you might not have thought it possible to have a loaded conversation about shortbread and fruit cake, but it is. Every single exchange of words in this massively self-important drama is taut, portentous, loaded with subtext, punctuated by pregnant silences, and delivered to the accompaniment of long meaningful looks.
 What's it all about? As the mists clear, we are given enough clues to gather that – as the title suggests – there's all sorts of trouble between Gere and his son, who edits his London newspaper, and between said son and his mother, Gere's ex-wife (played by the excellent Helen McCrory, who manages to breathe some life into her part – no mean feat), and between Gere and his ex-wife. There's a story brewing about the ex-wife getting too friendly with a man at a homeless centre where she volunteers. And there's a mysterious, much bigger story lurking beneath that, being investigated by two ethical journalists (the maximum permitted number in any TV newsroom), one of whom is newly sacked and, of course, dying.
 The editor, Gere's son, is a complete mess. He spends his time staring anxiously into the middle distance, rarely showing a spark of life except when he stirs himself to stuff his nose with large quantities of cocaine. Even as TV drama newspaper editors go, this one is deeply unconvincing – as is the high-gloss newsroom, full of underoccupied 'journalists' with nothing better to do than stare silently at the passing scene. As we know from last year's ludicrous TV drama, Press, newspaper editors live in expensive glass-and-chrome apartments with fine views across the city, and have depersonalised sex with high-end call girls. The sex this editor has is so weird it's hard to watch – with a straight face, anyway. And he follows it up on this occasion by snorting even more cocaine than usual, washing it down with whisky, and ending up the next morning collapsing with a brain haemorrhage. This brings his parents rushing to the operating theatre to watch as a surgical team opens his skull – a final treat for the viewers. The parents watch from a kind of VIP viewing gallery – behind glass, of course. There's an awful lot of glass in this drama – great sheets of the stuff everywhere in this high-rise glass city, a city of glass and gloss and gloom. It's the Anywhere capital of TV Dramaland. 

Technical Note 2

From the responses I've had to my recent note about commenters encountering problems in posting on this blog, I've concluded tentatively that (a) You should be all right with Chrome and Firefox (which account for the vast majority of the Nigeness audience, according to my stats), but you might get problems with Safari and other browsers, and (b) There may be a problem with commenting via mobile phone, but I have no firm evidence on that. Anyway, keep 'em coming (unless you're a certain Bangalore-based removals firm). 

Wednesday 6 March 2019

Second Chances and Top Novels

Under the curious headline here (on the BBC News website) is quite an interesting story: Cambridge University is going to use the clearing process to offer a second chance to students from 'deprived' backgrounds who narrowly miss getting a place on their initial application. As this is not a quota as such, and ethnic origin is not taken into account, it seems a sensible enough attempt to redress an undoubted imbalance. I knew things were bad, but I was startled to read that these days only two per cent of Cambridge students are white working-class. The percentage was certainly very much higher in my day – but there was a reason for that. As Charles Moore remarked in last week's Spectator:
'The truth is that no policy ever devised has seriously challenged the dominance of hereditary elites at Oxford and Cambridge, except for one. This was a thing called the grammar school, but you don't hear much about it these days.'

On a quite unrelated matter (and with a double tip of the hat to Dave Lull and Frank Wilson), I've been reading about a new list of the 100 Top Novels. What makes this one interesting is that the sole criterion is aggregate library holdings. And the most widely held novel in libraries worldwide is... Don Quixote. I must admit I was surprised (and I wonder if the figures include all published versions of the title, including abridgements, children's editions, graphic novels, etc.). The literary monument that is the full and unabridged Don Quixote is surely one of the least read of all the great novels (and I suspect Moby-Dick runs it fairly close). Everybody 'knows' Don Quixote, but how many have read it in its entirety? I know I haven't (nor, to my deeper shame, have I ever read all through Moby-Dick). Strange that a Great Unread like Don Quixote should be the book most frequently found on library shelves... The rest of the top five are much less surprising – Alice in Wonderland, Treasure Island, Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. Even I've read all of those.


Tuesday 5 March 2019


Not my photograph, but all through this winter I've been enjoying watching a hen Blackcap, very like the one in the picture, who has been haunting the garden, feeding on suet cakes and mealworms. All through my early years, I seldom saw a Blackcap. They tended to behave like the other warblers, singing generously but staying out of sight – and they were strictly summer visitors. Now, having discovered the benefits of garden bird feeders, they are overwintering here and have become quite a common bird of the suburbs. Common but never commonplace – in their subtle, unshowy way, they are surely one of our most beautiful small birds. And the female, with its chestnut cap, is every bit as beautiful as the black-capped male.

Monday 4 March 2019

'really shocking habits of classification'

'Scarcely anything was attractive to her in its natural state – indeed, scarcely anything was decent until it was clothed by the opinion of some authority. Her ideas about habit, character, duty, love, marriage, were grouped under heads, like a book of popular quotations, and were totally unrelated to the emergencies of human living ... In her behaviour Anna was a harmless girl, mild except where her prejudices were concerned, neat and industrious, with no graver fault than priggishness; but her mind had really shocking habits of classification ... She had none of the delicacy that goes with a nature of warm impulses, but the kind of fishy curiosity which justifies itself by an expression of horror.'

That's Willa Cather, writing about the elder sister of her heroine Thea Kronborg in The Song of the Lark (which I'm reading, slowly and with relish, at present). What a brilliant, insightful description of a certain kind of priggish closed-mindedness that is still very much with us, though it now takes different forms and classifies under different headings.
The more I read of Cather, the more luminous and magical I find her writing. Those of her admirers who regard her as the greatest American novelist of the twentieth century may well have a point...

Saturday 2 March 2019

Sore Heads in Reykjavik

Yesterday, as well as being St David's Day and Richard Wilbur's birthday, was also Beer Day in Iceland. I discovered this some time last night on the BBC World Service, where an interesting feature told the story. Iceland, a country which has (or had) its share of teetotallers, brought in prohibition of all alcoholic drinks in 1915 – a ban that was relaxed slightly in 1922 when the Spaniards refused to buy any more Icelandic fish unless Iceland agreed to import Spanish wines. So wine was no longer prohibited. Then, in 1935, a referendum resulted in the legalising of all alcoholic drinks – except, bizarrely, 'strong' beer, i.e. beer with anything more than a paltry 2.25% alcohol content. It was feared that freely available beer would have a deleterious effect on the nation's youth. However, with spirits and wines now legal, the nation's youth – and many of their elders – found ways of getting far drunker than they would have done on beer. Spirits were routinely added to the under-strength beer, and disgusting improvised cocktails of whatever was at hand were routinely drunk – just like my teenage years, when my friends and I would raid our parent's cocktail cabinets, take a bit from every bottle and mix the lot together into a kind of malign punch, guaranteed to make you first very drunk and then very ill. 
  In 1985 the teetotal justice minister banned pubs from adding spirits to beer (how on earth was that enforced?), and that proved the last straw. Eventually, on March 1st, 1989, beer of all strengths was legalised, and prohibition was at an end. Ever since, the anniversary – Beer Day – has been celebrated with epic pub crawls. There will be sore heads in Reykjavik today.

Friday 1 March 2019


Today, St David's Day, is Richard Wilbur's birthday. He would have been 98 today if he were still with us. Here, in the month of his birth, he observes, with his wonderfully sharp eye, the fate of gale-stripped beech leaves...


Beech leaves which might have clung
Parching for six weeks more
Were stripped by last night's gale
Which made so black a roar

And drove the snow-streaks level.
So we see in the glare
Of a sun whose white combustion
Cannot warm the air.

From the edge of the woods, in gusts,
The leaves are scuttled forth
Onto a pasture drifted
Like tundras of the north,

To migrate there in dry
Skitter or fluttered brawl,
Then flock into some hollow
Like this, below the wall,

With veins swept back like feathers
To our prophetic sight,
And bodies of gold shadow
Pecking at sparks of light.