Tuesday 30 April 2019

A Flying Start

The last day of April, and my first outing of the year to my favourite butterfly haunt in the Surrey Hills. I set out in sunshine but arrived, as often happens, in cloud, which only gradually gave way to intermittent sun. My hopes were not high, but when the weather conditions are like this it can work to the butterfly watcher's advantage: in the absence of sustained sunlight, the butterflies are sluggish, taking only short, energy-conserving flights, and settling readily. If they're flying at all, that is – and, praise be, they were.
  It began when I all but trod on a basking Small Copper – and a very bright and beautiful one (with several more to follow). Then came my first Small Heaths of the year – always a cheering sight – and, soon after, the first of a dozen and more Dingy Skippers. A bit later, a little dull-looking moth-like thing settled nearby and I realised I'd just spotted my first Grizzled Skipper. I always forget just how tiny these little beauties are, and how their appearance in flight belies the beauty of their spread wings, dark brown spangled with creamy white and fringed
with tiny hairs. After that came one more gem – a Green Hairstreak, which posed perfectly with its emerald underwings on show.
This was followed by two more, both of which posed equally obligingly. I think that's as many Green Hairstreaks as I've ever seen in one year, let alone one day – and the same goes for the Grizzled Skippers (I saw four). A wonderfully rewarding day – and it means I've now seen sixteen species this year, before May! I don't think I've ever done that before.
I also saw – and managed to photograph – this beautifully marked moth, a Mother Shipton. It's so-called because each forewing carries what looks like the classic caricature profile of a witch, all nose and chin. See her? She's looking down from the top edge of the wing...

Monday 29 April 2019

Les Murray

The death of Les Murray, at the age of 80, robs Australia of her greatest, most distinctively Australian poet, and a giant literary figure. Like so many others, Murray wrote too much, but the energy, verve and bracing originality of his language seldom failed, and he embodied a unique vision: contrarian, conservative, cussed, of the earth earthy, but with the imagination of a true visionary – and, that rare thing among poets, a robust sense of humour.
With Easter a recent memory, how better to remember him than with his great poem, The Say-but-the-Word Centurion Attempts a Summary. (The link will take you there).

Birthday Boy

Today the indestructible Wille Nelson celebrates his 86th birthday. Still performing, still touring, still growing that weirdly luxuriant hair, still (no doubt) smoking weed – his vitality is simply amazing. As well as having written and performed a string of classic songs, he also has the distinction of having successfully sued Price Waterhouse (for putting his money in illegal tax shelters – and thereby losing it). Here he is responding to reports of his death a couple of years ago... Happy birthday, Willie!

Saturday 27 April 2019

Death of a Friend

A few days ago came the sad news that an old friend of mine – one who has made occasional appearances on this blog as the Sage of Tiverton – had died. He had been diagnosed with terminal cancer a year ago and more, and already outlived several predicted end-dates, so the news was not surprising, but there's something about even a long-projected death that always comes as a shock, a blow.
  It was half a century ago now (half a century!) that our friendship blazed into life. It burned brightly for a few brief but intense years, until we went our separate ways and completely lost touch, only to meet again forty-odd years later. We were both still at school when we first met. He was a year younger than me, but had an attractive glamour and air of mystery about him, and when we began to spend time together, we got on like the proverbial house on fire. He lived in a large house, of which a downstairs front room was, enviably, his own domain. His mother was sometimes around, but his father had died a few years earlier, leaving behind him a large and impressive library, the other side of the hall from the cosy, spectacularly untidy den in which he and I would sit smoking, drinking exotic teas (his mother had an impressive range of leaves) and listening to music. We took particular pride, I remember, in building up a thick fug of smoke, taking care to conserve it and top it up as required. It would choke me now, but then it seemed the very stuff of autonomy and possibility, of new exciting horizons dimly glimpsed.
  I remember also walking the streets with him in those days, often at remarkably high speed (both of us had a knack of moving our legs, and only our legs, extremely fast, while keeping hands in pockets and heads down). He often wore a green loden, or a black cape, and managed to get away with both. Sometimes we would descend on parties, and sometimes get thrown out, and he introduced me into a circle of friends who were, it seemed to me, even cooler and more glamorous than him – and some of them more criminally inclined; it was astonishing how much crime of all kinds went on in those circles, largely committed by the children of the nouveau riche bourgeoisie. Drugs were only a part of it. As he inducted me into that scene, my friend became the Withnail to my I, and I was happy with that role. They were heady times, and we sampled every consciousness-altering substance we could get our hands on. We talked and talked (and burbled) and shared memories and tastes and jokes and catchphrases.
  So we became very close – it was love, of course, though neither of us would have dreamt of calling it that (and it was 'platonic') – and we stayed that way through my university years. By then, he (having dropped out of art college) was living in various more or less squalid 'pads' in London, and I was a frequent commuter between my college rooms and those pads (which I much preferred). We were by now heavily into drugs of various kinds, and at one point appeared in court together and were fined for our folly. I remember in my last term, when I'd cleared the decks to get down to some much-needed revision for my finals, he suddenly appeared, smiling broadly and waving a bag of raw opium. My revision plans went up, predictably, in smoke... He had a way of popping up like that, as if from nowhere, like Jeeves materialising at Bertie Wooster's side. I once woke in the small hours to find him sitting at the foot of my bed rolling a joint, having somehow beamed himself up from London.
  By the end of university, I was sensing other endings – and beginnings – in my life, and over the following months an emotional tangle developed that could only be resolved, or so it seemed, by a clean break (or by acknowledging what was going on and talking openly about it – but something that obvious and uncool was clearly out of the question). Sometimes, as Tim Buckley says in Nobody Walkin', you gotta turn your back. It seemed the only way; at the time it probably was.
  And so, for four decades, I saw nothing and heard nothing of my old friend, apart from the rumour that he had taken off to the foothills of the Himalayas to live the simple life. Over the years I often wondered what had become of him, what he was up to, if I might bump into him on the street. He continued to make occasional cameo appearances in my dreams, but I never seriously expected to see him again. Then, by way of another friend's chance meeting with another lost friend, I learned that he was alive and surprisingly well, and living, rather reluctantly, in Tiverton, having returned from years of travel and living abroad. He was open to seeing me and the other friend again, and so a reunion was arranged.
  And there he was, my old friend, forty years on, his looks (and many of his teeth) gone, but beaming, arms outstretched, clearly delighted at this turn of events. Apart from his voice and his distinctive posture, he was quite unrecognisable – but the room in which he lived was instantly recognisable: it was essentially that fug-filled front room of yesteryear, strewn and piled with even more rubbish than the original (or indeed the Earl's Court room where we managed to fill a wide, deep club fender to the brim with fag-ends and roaches). He was still living the life he lived forty years ago, now fuelled by rum-and-water and heavy-duty dope (as we used to call it). Smiling beatifically, he sat cross-legged on the bed (or rather mattress) and surveyed the reunion with every sign of satisfaction. It was – for once the tired phrase is true – like walking back in time.
  He had indeed been travelling, spending many years in India and Nepal, in Spain, France and the Low Countries (his mother was Belgian, and he could speak Flemish). At one time he had a small boat and would commute to and fro across the Channel, one hand on the tiller, the other on his bottle of rum. A natural sailor, he never came to grief. He had not pursued anything resembling a career; having a talent for drawing, he could always make a few bob whenever he needed to by selling sketches. He had formed no permanent partnership with anyone and had no family beyond a few nephews and nieces he cared about (his mother of course was long dead). He had made none of the familiar compromises that most of us make, just to get along in the world; he had lived on his own terms, and by and large it had worked out remarkably well. He had a good deal of charm, and wherever he lived – as in the Dickensian rooming house in Tiverton – he tended to form a little family around him, a kind of unofficial mutual aid society. It seemed to work.
  I staggered away from that reunion determined to stay in contact, and the feeling was clearly mutual, as the old friendship flared back into life, if on a very much lower flame than before. We exchanged letters and mementoes, books and music, and texted frequently. Things were different of course, but it was good to be back in contact, on new, in some ways easier, terms. It felt good and right not to have lost touch entirely. The texts continued for a few years, but gradually petered out. Sometimes there was an angry, irascible tone in his communications, and this was something new. The friend who saw the most of him told me that he was becoming impossible, especially when drunk, and he was seeing less of him, being understandably fed up with making the effort to visit and then being roundly abused for his pains. I'm glad I never saw any of this, and on the last occasion I actually talked to him – by phone, having just heard of his initial cancer diagnosis – he was friendly enough. He was also commendably relaxed about the whole thing, having no complaints, and only hoping to die without being too much of a nuisance to anyone. I offered to visit, but I think we both knew that by then it wouldn't have been a great idea, so I never did see him – or that time-capsule room – again. The cancer took its course, but slowly and gently, and he seems to have managed his death as skilfully as his life, remaining in his own place, with ample supplies of morphine. When at length he died, his closest female friend was with him. It was a good death.
  Despite his ambition to outlive him, he died before his musical hero Hal Blaine had joined the great celestial jam session – but there will be music enough. RIP, old friend.

Friday 26 April 2019

Let Nature Sing

What better way to expunge all memories of Whistling Jack Smith than to listen to Let Nature Sing, the birdsong single released today by the RSPB. The sounds are beautiful (and beautifully arranged), the images are amazing, and the alarmist message is, I suppose, forgivable in the circumstances.
You can find Let Nature Sing here –

Wednesday 24 April 2019

The Enigma of Whistling Jack Smith

Last night's Front Row (Radio 4's Yarts magazine) included a sublimely uninteresting piece on Joe Orton's record collection. It seems that, despite having an irreproachably 'queer ear' (i.e. penchant for musicals and torch songs), Orton's taste in pop music was disappointingly mainstream. In the Summer of Love, he even bought Engelbert Humperdinck's Release Me, thereby helping to keep the Beatle's Penny Lane/ Strawberry Fields for Ever off the Number One spot. Orton disliked Dylan, preferring Donovan (yes, really), so it seems he was not a man of sound judgment in this field. He also appears to have had a taste for novelty singles: one of the records mentioned in the Front Row report was I Was Kaiser Bill's Batman by Whistling Jack Smith.
  Whistling Jack Smith! (I borrow this formulation from Osbert Sitwell, who begins each of the biographical essays in Noble Essences thus – 'Ronald Firbank!', 'Edmund Gosse!', etc). Inasmuch as I'd ever thought about Whistling Jack Smith, I'd vaguely imagined him as one of those Sixties survivors still clinging on to some kind of career – a sad and haunted man with the remnants of a Beatles haircut and a grubby faux-Victorian military tunic, wetting his whistle in a seedy Brighton pub before shambling up to the mike and delivering yet again his single imperishable hit. Not so, it seems.
  Whistling Jack was indeed the ultimate one-hit wonder – I Was Kaiser Bill's Batman reached number five in the UK charts in 1967, and that was that – but who was he? The question is not easily answered. It is generally agreed that the siffleur on the single was John O'Neill, a trumpeter and vocalist with the Mike Sammes Singers, but others press the claim of record producer Noel Walker. John O'Neill's Wikipedia entry has the look of an epistemological battlefield, and is hedged about with editorial warnings. What seems certain is that O'Neill was paid a flat fee for his efforts, and never got a penny more. Worse, when the single was performed on Top of the Pops, it was whistled – or rather mimed – not by O'Neill but by an actor known as Coby Wells, who subsequently toured as Whistling Jack Smith. John O'Neill continued with the Mike Sammes Singers, who, among other things, later contributed to the strange goings-on in the background of The Beatle's I Am the Walrus. They chanted, under George Martin's guidance, choruses of 'ho ho ho, ha ha ha, he he he', 'oompah oompah, stick it up your jumper' and 'everybody's got one'. Heady times.
  In case you have forgotten the pernicious earworm that was I Was Kaiser Bill's Batman, here it is, performed on this occasion by John O'Neill. I think.

Monday 22 April 2019

Auberon Waugh, Novelist: 3.

Having read and written about Waugh's first two novels, I move on, inevitably, to his third, Who Are the Violets Now? Published in 1965, this is, I'd say, just about the best of the three, and the funniest (if you like your comedy dark). Like his father, Waugh was particularly adept at cutting away extraneous connective tissue, and here he exercises that talent to brilliant effect. Who Are the Violets Now? is less ambitious than The Foxglove Saga, and the canvas is less crowded than Path of Dalliance. The result is a structural elegance that, most of the time, matches the characteristic elegance of Waugh's prose.
  Once again a young, ineffective hero is at the centre of the action – but this one, Arthur Friendship, is also highly idealistic, remarkably innocent and romantic when it comes to girls, and, on one occasion at least, genuinely heroic (the attempted rescue of a child from a house fire leaves him badly burned and hospitalised). Friendship (as I've mentioned before) works for Woman's Dream magazine, while himself dreaming of higher things, working voluntarily for a left-wing peace organisation, and worshipping from afar the beautiful Elizabeth Pedal. He lives, as many did in those far-off days, in a boarding house, where one of his fellow tenants is the  wholly amoral chancer Ferdie Jacques, who is also involved in the peace organisation, and indeed lands a job working for its urbane, devastatingly charismatic leader, Mr Besant, a man who appears to be on close terms with all the great and good, and who daily expects nuclear annihilation. Indeed, as becomes clear, he rather relishes the prospect, the destruction of humanity being the ultimate manifestation of Peace.
  Waugh has much fun with the antics of the peace organisation, its inane discussions, and its amateurish attempts to foment trouble in this or that cause, 'colour prejudice' being the latest. A visiting black American writer called Mr Gray gives a speech in which he assures his bemused but admiring audience that 'You can do NOTHING. Everything the white man can do has been done. You have enslaved a continent and exploited an entire race. Now is the time for other people to be doing things.' That sounds very 21st-century.
  The plot bowls along very entertainingly, with frequent laughs, towards a farcical climactic scene at the Savoy, where, in a grand ceremony, Mr Besant is presented with the Cheese of Peace. What happens next reveals the more than surprising true identity of Mr Besant, and brings Arthur Friendship's pursuit of Elizabeth Pedal to a very definite end. I'm not sure the ending entirely works: neat though it undoubtedly is, it feels hurried – but I'm not complaining. This was a thoroughly enjoyable read, full of cherishable scenes, and I'm already looking forward to the next stage of my journey through Auberon Waugh's undeservedly forgotten novels. Two to go now...

Sunday 21 April 2019


These are flying off the shelves at Thornton's. Hurry, hurry...

Et Resurrexit

Wishing a Happy Easter to all who browse here.
Over to you, Johann Sebastian...

Saturday 20 April 2019

Les Abeilles de Notre Dame

A piece of cheering news from an unexpected source this morning. The 200,000 bees that live in three hives on the sacristy roof of Notre Dame have, against all expectations, survived the devastating fire. While the inferno raged all around, the bees responded to the danger by gorging on honey and clustering protectively around their queens. Then, it seems, they simply got drunk and slept through it. And now, to the amazement of all – including the cathedral's wonderfully named beekeeper,  Monsieur Géant – they are buzzing about again as if nothing had happened. A good story for Eastertide.

Friday 19 April 2019

Good Friday

For Good Friday, a beautiful and moving – and very short – story by Chekhov, the one he claimed was his own favourite among all his stories.
Here's the link – The Student.

Thursday 18 April 2019

London Calling

A little thought experiment...
  Let's suppose that the protestors currently trying to bring our capital city to a halt were not the usual bunch of gaphead ecofascists demanding a pointless emissions-reducing gesture by the Government. Let's suppose, rather, that they were protestors representing an organisation called Blackout Rebellion and demanding an end to the decommissioning of coal and gas power stations and an urgent programme of building small-scale nuclear plants – this in order to prevent the large-scale power blackouts that could well be hitting us very soon if we carry on along our present path.
  Now, do you suppose that such a protest would be treated sympathetically, as a kind of carnival event, by the BBC, that the Blackout Rebels would be chummily addressed by their first names and allowed to state their beliefs without any tough questions, that the police would handle the situation with kid gloves, and the authorities would have nothing of any substance to say? Call me an old cynic, but I rather doubt it.
  The difficulty is that the Extinction Rebellion mob are taking seriously, and acting on, what they have been repeatedly told for years by the BBC, David Attenborough, Prince Charles, Al Gore, their teachers, etc, etc – that we have [insert figure here] years / days to 'save the planet' and must act with the utmost urgency. The doomsayers can hardly challenge people who are doing what they themselves (the doomsayers) believe to be, well, right.

Tuesday 16 April 2019

Notre Dame

Terrible to see the overnight images from Paris of a burning Notre Dame, and to read the evident shock and grief in the faces of those looking on as one of France's – and the world's – great, genuinely iconic buildings seemed to be heading for total destruction. Today we learn that, although the wooden roof and much else is lost, the stone structure is intact and many artefacts have been rescued. It is already clear that there is a strong will to restore and reconstruct the cathedral to any extent necessary – so strong that one wealthy businessman has already pledged an incredibly generous 100 million euros to the work. I would confidently predict that, in a few decades, it will be as if nothing had happened, and Notre Dame will be restored to something very like – perhaps all but indistinguishable from – its former glory.
  When we look at a cathedral, what we are seeing is rarely the original structure – whatever 'original' means in such a context: most cathedrals replaced (or partially incorporated) an existing building, which itself might have replaced something earlier still. What we see is the result of a centuries-long process of building and rebuilding, demolition and replacement, repair and restoration, and adaptation to changing uses, both liturgical and secular (in Revolutionary times, Notre Dame was stripped and desecrated, and served as a Temple of Reason and a Temple of the Supreme Being). And, amid all these changes, there were also the ever-present threats of fire and structural collapse – towers and spires being particularly liable to the latter. Take Chichester cathedral, which I visited a few weeks ago: a fire in 1187 burnt out the building (and much of the town), the southwest tower collapsed in 1210 and was rebuilt, the northwest tower came down in 1635 and wasn't rebuilt till 1901, and the spire fell in on itself in 1861 and was promptly rebuilt, along with the central tower, by the tireless George Gilbert Scott (almost as tireless as his French equivalent, Viollet-le-Duc, who remodelled much of Notre Dame between 1844 and 1864, adding the famous spire). As well as all this necessary rebuilding and restoration at Chichester, there were also many modifications and reorderings of the interior over the years – including the installation of the Arundel 'tomb' made famous by Philip Larkin. And yet, when we look at Chichester cathedral, we still see a single thing, despite all the changes and remakings – an essence, a continuity. And so it will be with Notre Dame de Paris.

  As I watched the roof of Notre Dame burning, it put me in mind of the destruction of the old St Paul's in the Great Fire of London – and of a remarkable survival: Nicholas Stone's great monument to John Donne. Here, in an exclusive extract from my forthcoming book, I recall its happy escape...

'When the old St Paul’s Cathedral was all but destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, huge quantities of molten lead crashed down from what had been the roof and carried on downward, through the floor and into the crypt, destroying practically everything in the church and leaving nothing but ruined fragments of its former glories. What monuments survived were hideously mutilated – heads or limbs missing, grand effigies reduced to charred remnants, eerily reminiscent now of Giacometti sculptures. One monument, however, made of a single piece of white marble, slid off its pedestal intact, plummeted into the vault, and survived virtually unmarked. This was Stone’s monument to Donne, which lay unregarded among the rubble and fragmentary remains in the vault until near the end of the nineteenth century, by which time Donne’s poetry, long dismissed as flashy and uncouth, was being rediscovered. The great monument was rescued and reinstated where it still stands, in its niche in the Dean’s Aisle. If you look closely, you can still see a little scorching on the urn, the only mark of its extraordinary ordeal by fire.' 

  Donne's monument returned to the crypt for safe keeping during the Blitz. His successor as Dean, Walter Matthews, slept beside it, perhaps trusting that, having survived the Great Fire, it could survive anything.


Monday 15 April 2019


Regular readers will know that I seldom read recently published fiction. However, when I recently spotted Joseph O'Neill's Netherland on a charity shop's shelves, I bought it, if only because I knew it was partly about cricket in New York. I took it with me to Greece and found it thoroughly enjoyable holiday reading, and a good deal more...
  Set in post-9/11 New York and London, Netherland is related in the first person by one Hans van der Broek, a Dutchman by birth, who earns good money in oil equities. Finding himself alone in New York, in the Chelsea Hotel, after his wife leaves him and takes their young son with her back to London, Hans finds a kind of solace in cricket, the game he played in his boyhood. He discovers that in New York it's a very different game from the one he knew in England and the Netherlands – a decidedly urban and marginal game, played on coconut-matting strips in scruffy parks in obscure outlying parts of the city. It's almost entirely a game played by immigrants from the West Indies and South Asia. One of these (a West Indian) is the smooth-talking, charismatic Chuck Ramkisoon, a man with big ideas and big dreams – one of which is to create a world-class cricket ground in New York. Taking Hans under his wing, he leads him into areas of life, and of the city, that are quite new, and often mystifying, to him. What – apart from cricket – is Chuck's game? It takes a long while for Hans to discover the truth, or some of it...
  Chuck Ramkisoon is a strong and well drawn character, but others – especially Hans's wife – are underwritten (perhaps because other people are not quite real to the troubled and emotionally inadequate Hans?). Some of the Chelsea Hotel scenes are not entirely convincing, and Hans's accounts of his Dutch boyhood perhaps go on a little too long, but these are minor weaknesses. The strength of the novel is in its evocation of the particular atmosphere of New York after 9/11, and its descriptions of neighbourhoods that are rarely visited and barely noticed. And, of course, of the New York cricket scene.
  Overall, I'd rate Netherland as a very good, very readable novel by a man who can clearly write. And that, from me, for a contemporary novel, is high praise. If I come across another of Joseph O'Neill's, I might well buy it.

Sunday 14 April 2019

Mani Notes

Well, I'm back from the glorious Exo Mani, and less than surprised to find that I'm still a citizen of the dear old escape-proof EU.
  The country we were walking in was as beautiful as ever, though the weather was unusually iffy for the time of year, with quite a lot of cloud and rain, some of it heavy. As a result, the landscape was greener and lusher than I've ever seen it. There were orchids aplenty (and cyclamens and rich scarlet anemones), rather fewer butterflies than usual, and of course an inexhaustible wealth of wonderful Byzantine churches and monasteries and of picturesque villages, many of them all but deserted at this time of year.
Highlights included Oitylo, once a thriving centre of piracy and slaving with historical connections with Medici Florence and Corsica, and now a sleepy village with a monastery that contains some of the finest wall paintings in the Mani. We were lucky enough to be let in to admire them, but no photography is allowed.
And a return visit to the beautiful Kastania and its superbly restored Church of the Metamorphosis. And a first visit (for me) to the wonderful triple village of Melia with its upper, middle and lower 'towns', each with a fascinating church. In the lowest of these the wall paintings include, in addition to the obligatory Biblical images and scenes from the lives of popular saints, some decorative panels, including this surprisingly illusionistic representation of a flowered curtain.
And, in the same church, this curious scene. Can anybody suggest what it might represent? None of us was able to crack it...

Friday 5 April 2019

Ireland Goes French, and I'm Going to Greece

It's startling to learn that Ireland is now a junior member of the French commonwealth, the Francophponie. This is the Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar's latest attempt to cosy up to his little EU chum Emmanuel Macron. Apparently Varadkar wants to increase Ireland's 'global footprint', and he  claims that Ireland clearly qualifies as part of the French-speaking world because Samuel Beckett (an Irishman who got out as soon as he could) wrote many of his works in French.
Oh dear, oh dear. I suppose this nonsense might have given Beckett a quiet chuckle (while doing nothing to improve his opinion of the governance of his native land). It's just a shame that Myles na gCopaleen isn't around to see it – imagine what fun he'd have had with the notion of Ireland as an essentially French nation reclaiming its rightful place in La Francophonie...

Anyway, in the ridiculously early hours of tomorrow morning, I'll be flying out to Kalamata for a week of walking in the Mani. I wonder which queue I'll be in at Gatwick when I return – will I be returning to a sovereign nation or a vassal state? I rather think I know the answer to that one, but I still hold out a faint hope that Macron, the Emperor of Europe and of the far-flung Francophonie, might have put his foot down and forced la perfide Albion into a no-deal Brexit (i.e. Brexit). You never know.

Philip Larkin's Skin

On this day 65 years ago, Philip Larkin wrote (or signed off on) this short and far from cheering poem...


Obedient daily dress,
You cannot always keep
That unfakable young surface.
You must learn your lines –
Anger, amusement, sleep;
Those few forbidding signs

Of the continuous coarse
Sand-laden wind, time;
You must thicken, work loose
Into an old bag
Carrying a soiled name.
Parch then; be roughened; sag;

And pardon me, that I
Could find, when you were new,
No brash festivity
To wear you at, such as
Clothes are entitled to
Till the fashion changes.

It's a cleverly constructed piece of work (of course), wearing its abacbc rhyme scheme more lightly with each stanza, blurring into half-rhymes and enjambment in the last. The image of time as 'the continuous coarse sand-laden wind' is especially good.
It's a bit of a shock to realise that Larkin was only 31 when he wrote so feelingly about the dermal ravages of age and looked back so regretfully on the lost opportunities of youth. No doubt his skincare regime was minimal, but his hide can't have been very far advanced along the road he describes so unblinkingly. Andrew Motion reports that, on first shaking the poet's hand, he found his skin 'rather moist', but perhaps Larkin was stricken with nerves on meeting a literary titan of Motion's stature.
In the spring of 1954 Larkin was on something of a creative roll. A couple of weeks before Skin, he'd written the justly famous Toads – and the day after Skin he wrote the brilliant Water
If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.

Going to church
Would entail a fording
To dry, different clothes;

My liturgy would employ
Images of sousing,
A furious devout drench,

And I should raise in the east
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.

Wednesday 3 April 2019

Old Iron Eyes

Born on this day in 1904 was Iron Eyes Cody, the 'Native American' film star who, among many other roles, played Chief Iron Eyes in the Bob Hope vehicle The Pale Face. Later in life, he was also famous as the 'weeping Indian' in a 'Keep America Beautiful' public service ad, shedding a tear as litter tossed from a passing car lands at his feet. What's more, he provided some good old Native American chanting on the Joni Mitchell song Lakota (1968).
  The only problem was that 'Iron Eyes' was no Native American: he belonged neither to the Cherokee nation nor to any of the other tribes he named in the course of his career. He was in fact an American of Sicilian descent, born Espera Oscar da Corti. Because his facial features looked vaguely – very vaguely (see above) – 'Indian', he found himself landing Redskin roles in Westerns, and decided to 'become' a Native American, simply by staying in character off-screen, retaining his film costumes and acting like everybody's idea of a Native American. Though some questioned his origins, he stuck firmly to his story, and no real evidence of his ethnicity came to light until he was well into old age.
 This kind of deception was so much easier in those innocent pre-internet days – and besides, he was giving the public the kind of Native American they wanted to see. As was another great 'Native American' impostor, the Hastings-born Archibald Stansfeld Belaney, who had a very successful career – and did important work – in Canada as the pioneering conservationist 'Grey Owl'. You can read his story here...  https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-sussex-24127514

Tuesday 2 April 2019

The Book

In case you haven't seen this month's Literary Review, here's my Diary contribution, about the all but legendary Book that has been haunting this blog for many months...

So, what are you doing with your retirement? It’s a question I’m often asked, and at some point in my answer I have to own up to the fact that I’m writing a book (‘Neither am I,’ Peter Cook would always say at this juncture – but I am, really). It’s a tricky one, as the book is rather hard to describe – at least in terms that aren’t going to lead to an awkward silence and a swift change of subject. The fact is that the core subject of my book (now nearing completion) is English church monuments. Worse, English church monuments of a particular period, roughly speaking the seventeenth century. I don’t think there’ll be a scramble for the film rights.
  But hear me out. Those monuments I’m writing about represent a wealth of superb, world-class sculpture, here in England – and almost nobody even knows it’s there. Why? Largely, I guess, because so many of these beautiful monuments stand in obscure parish churches, scattered across the country, often in the most remote locations. One of the greatest of them, for example – Epiphanius Evesham’s hauntingly beautiful monument to Sir Adrian Scrope – stands in the isolated, unvisited church of St Leonard’s, South Cockerington, in an all but deserted corner of Lincolnshire. If a gallery full of these monuments were to be assembled in a national museum, their beauties would be obvious to all – but, as it is, they must be sought out, and that isn’t always easy. It involves a good deal of research, and much traveling to out-of-the-way corners of the country. And then there is the frustrating problem of getting inside.

So often in my travels I’ve come across church doors firmly locked. I know now to telephone beforehand, make the necessary arrangements, and hope for the best. Even the redoubtable Mrs Esdaile, author of the essential English Church Monuments, 1510-1840 (Batsford, 1946), sometimes encountered a locked church. It happened once when she was visiting Stowe Nine Churches in Northamptonshire to see one of the most beautiful monuments in England  –Lady Elizabeth Carey’s, a marvel of white marble, carved by the great Nicholas Stone. Remonstrating with the Rector, she was duly chastened when he told her he had recently surprised a pair of Americans trying to prise up Lady Carey’s effigy with a crowbar. There are sometimes good reasons for keeping a church locked. 
  Existing books on church monuments, with the exception of Mrs Esdaile’s – and especially its long introductory chapter by Sacheverell Sitwell – tend to be dry antiquarian accounts, more like catalogues than books that anyone would want to read through. The sheer aesthetic charge that the best monuments deliver is barely even hinted at in these resolutely objective works – whereas it will be central to mine, which might almost be called (but happily isn’t) The Joy of Monuments. But it isn’t only about monuments; it’s often as much about people and places, and mortality and immortality, and poetry and butterflies. 
It’s not a scholarly treatise, nor a heritage guidebook or gazetteer – but nor is it the sort of book a publisher would no doubt want to be made out of this subject: a ‘journey of discovery’ with a catchy title, each chapter beginning with a bit of first-person, present tense scene-setting (‘It’s a wet Wednesday and I’m standing in the middle of nowhere – or, to be precise, South Cockerington, where I have an appointment with Sir Adrian Scrope’). That’s exactly the book I didn’t want to write. What will come out (before the end of the year) is the book I wanted to write. This means I shall be self-publishing, and that, no doubt, is going to be an adventure in itself – a ‘journey of discovery’, even. 
  Philip Larkin is a persistent presence in my book. It was an encounter with a church monument, in Chichester cathedral in the winter of 1956, that inspired one of his most famous poems, An Arundel Tomb. The monument, battered and not especially distinguished, is fourteenth-century work and commemorates Richard FitzAlan, Tenth Earl of Arundel, and his second wife, Eleanor of Lancaster (their actual tomb is at Lewes priory). Their hands are joined, and Larkin, having never seen this on a monument before, found the detail 'deeply affecting'. However, he had reservations about An Arundel Tomb as a poem, partly because he'd muddled up the hands (the Earl's right, not left, holds the Countess's) and had not realised that the effigies were restored in 1843, and it was at that point that the present joined hands were carved (the originals having been lost). He might have learned, too, that the gesture of joining hands is not uncommon on medieval monuments, and denotes something much closer to dynastic union than to romantic love.

Larkin is now remembered more for the resonant last line of that poem – ‘What will survive of us is love’ – and the equally resonant first line of This Be the Verse (‘They f*ck you up, your mum and dad’) than for anything else he wrote. ‘What will survive of us is love’ is far from a heartfelt statement, still less an assertion. It’s almost strangled by reservations: ‘Time has transfigured them into Untruth,’ writes Larkin of the hand-holding effigies. ‘The stone fidelity / They hardly meant has come to be  / Their final blazon, and to prove / Our almost-instinct almost true:  / What will survive of us is love.’ And what has survived most tenaciously of the poem is that last line, wrenched out of context to become a favourite consoling quotation at funerals. The Arundel monument has become one of the most famous and most visited in England. And Larkin’s stone in Poets’ Corner is inscribed with those last words he hardly meant.
  When I began the book, I thought I’d be ending it with those words – which would have been nicely symmetrical, as I begin it with Larkin and his other great church poem, Church Going. There is no better evocation of the feeling that comes with stepping for the first time into an unfamiliar church, into that ‘tense, musty, unignorable silence, / Brewed God knows how long’ – a mix of abashed self-consciousness, awkward reverence, bewilderment and awe. I still feel it every time. And what words will end my book, if not Larkin’s? I think I know, but I haven’t written that last chapter yet. Time to get on.

Monday 1 April 2019

TV for Retroprogressives

Finding something – anything – bearable to watch on television seems to be getting harder all the time, but there's a channel available to all (well, it's on Freeview, Freesat, Virgin and Sky) that can offer a way out. It's called Talking Pictures TV and it's devoted to old films and television from, predominantly, the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies. Some of it is, undeniably, pretty awful – but usually awful in an enjoyable, old-school way – and some of it is very good, and very different from what we see on the screen today. Case in point: last night TPTV showed a drama that originally appeared on ITV's Armchair Theatre, a high-rating showcase for single plays by prominent writers (even Pinter did one) that ran from 1956 to 1974. Douglas Livingstone's Competition (1971) is a tense, rather unsettling drama that revolves around a poetry reading competition (the set poem is Browning's Home Thoughts from Abroad). Jimmy, an out-of-work man, something of a charming waster who seems to have married money, has to take his clearly unhappy son to the competition. He and the boy are accompanied by their neighbours, Tony and Joyce, who are of an altogether lower caste, and their daughter. Tony, in contrast to Jimmy, has just landed a good job, and this is causing some tension between the two men – but not as much as the fact that Jimmy is having an affair with Joyce. Michael Jayston as Jimmy and John Thaw as Tony both give fine, nuanced performances, Anne Carroll does well with the underwritten role of Jenny, and William Relton is a strong presence as the unhappy boy.
  Competition made for gripping viewing, but what was most striking about it – as about so many productions on TPTV – was how much the grammar of TV drama has changed, and not necessarily for the better. There is more use of close-ups and tight cropping and, with cameras more static and fewer sets involved, much less movement. As a result, there is far less of the time-wasting connective tissue that fills out modern TV dramas – 'atmosphere' shots, people getting in and out of cars, entering and leaving buildings, walking and talking, or just walking. The words have to work harder, and there are far more of them – a script for an hour of TV drama then would be a fatter volume than its equivalent today. Everything is tighter, in every sense, and as a result more intense and concentrated (an effect helped by that tight cropping – and, incidentally, the squarer screen shape). Furthermore, it's all properly lit, there is no background music, and the lines are delivered audibly. What's not to like? If you haven't discovered Talking Pictures TV yet, give it a try. It's like stepping back in time, and at present that's no bad thing.