Tuesday 28 May 2019

Bed and Brexit

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

Winter Garden

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

Sunday 26 May 2019

Small Blues and Larger Concerns

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

Saturday 25 May 2019

Finished (sort of)

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

Friday 24 May 2019


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

Wednesday 22 May 2019


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday 21 May 2019

Nostalgia a New Heresy?

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

Monday 20 May 2019

Stoneywell, etc.

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

Thursday 16 May 2019

Little and Large

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

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

Tuesday 14 May 2019

A Journey

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

Sunday 12 May 2019

'The radio's prayer'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 11 May 2019

Joad's Pianola

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

A New Poet Laureate

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday 9 May 2019

The Breezes

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

Wednesday 8 May 2019

Gibbon, Not

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday 7 May 2019


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

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

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

Sunday 5 May 2019

More Trees, Please?

Ten years ago, this story appeared. This week it reappeared, bigger and bolder than ever: the plan now is to plant no fewer than three billion trees in this country, to counter 'climate change'. A man from the Forestry Commission was talking enthusiastically about it on the radio this morning, though he made it clear that a rich mixture of trees must be planted, rather than great blocks of single species or types (as was Forestry Commission practice for far too long). This is true, of course, as single species densely planted are especially vulnerable to pathogens. But there are other problems with the plan too – one being the sheer numbers involved. Three billion – really? That's in addition to the four billion we already have. You only have to look out of an aeroplane window to realise that this is a pretty well wooded country, and that much of the tree cover consists of dense, unmanaged or under-managed woodland with few or no clearings. This is bad for the trees and worse for biodiversity (flowers, undergrowth, insects, small mammals, etc.) If the great tree planting initiative only produces more of this, it won't be much of a gain – and to achieve the kind of numbers they're aiming at would involve taking land out of more productive and beneficial use.
  Planting three billion trees is one thing; managing them long-term is quite another, and much more challenging. And then there is the problem of sourcing all those trees: unless they can be produced from native stock and grown on here, the risk of importing yet more plant pathogens will be greatly increased. The tree-planting mania of recent years has led to much importing to meet demand – and to the insane situation where we send native trees abroad to be grown on, and they come back with added foreign-origin pathogens (Ash Dieback is a prime example, but only one among several novel pathogens imported in recent years). All this needs to be carefully considered before we rush into any tree-planting programme on such a vast scale. I suspect that this project is yet another example of environment-related supererogation. I also suspect that it is wildly over-optimistic and the targets will never be achieved. Which might be no bad thing.

Friday 3 May 2019

Lolly Willowes

Sylvia Townsend Warner's Lolly Willowes was fervently recommended to me by a friend some years ago, but at the time I consigned it to the reserves bench, suspecting that a novel about a woman who becomes a witch might not be quite my cup of tea. Since then I've read a couple of STW's other novels – The Corner that Held Them and Mr Fortune's Maggot – and been hugely impressed. So, when I saw Lolly Willowes on the charity shop shelf a couple of weeks ago, I ended my resistance. And I was right to: it's a terrific piece of writing, and, for a first novel (published in 1926), quite amazingly assured.
  It tells the story of Laura Willowes ('Aunt Lolly' to her family), who, after her father's death, finds herself assigned by her stuffy family to the role of 'indispensable' maiden aunt, unpaid nanny and housekeeper. The novel begins in Edwardian times, then shifts forward to the Twenties, at which point Laura, chafing at her situation, finally decides she has had enough and takes off to live on her own in a remote village in the Chilterns, chosen almost at random. Here she finds herself feeling completely at home, wandering at large in a countryside that seems to be welcoming and enveloping her, but in a way that leaves her free to be herself. Before long she does indeed become a witch, but in no ordinary way.
  Warner's skill is to make the whole process seem perfectly natural, even ordinary, an extension of Laura's yearning for independence and a life of her own. There is nothing explicitly supernatural in the narrative; if viewed from a different angle, the whole thing could be quite naturalistic (or, from another angle, a metaphorical projection of Laura's struggle). Laura discovers that she is far from alone in being a witch; it seems to be a routine part of village life, and she doesn't practise magic, either white or black – for her being a witch is a state of being, of being free. She does, in a sense, sell her soul to the devil, but experiences him as a kindly guardian rather than a rapacious predator (the subtitle of the novel as first published was The Loving Huntsman). He manifests not as a horned monster but an ordinary, rather attractive countryman. Similarly the 'witches' sabbath' that Laura attends seems to be no more than an unusually wild bucolic dance. As she looks at the assembled witches and warlocks milling around during a break in the music, 'There was something about their air of disconnected jollity which reminded Laura of a Primrose League gala and fete.' (The Primrose League, its emblem Disraeli's favourite flower, was a highly respectable nationwide social organisation that aimed to promote Conservative values. It was tremendously successful until well into the 20th century.)
  Deft, unpredictable and beautifully written, this is a novel that really holds the attention, and more than repays it. When it came out, it was a big hit, but Warner was dismayed that most readers took it for a charming piece of English whimsy. 'I felt as though I had tried to make a sword,' she wrote, 'only to be told what a pretty pattern there was on the blade.' I don't think any reader today is likely to make that mistake.

Wednesday 1 May 2019

And today...

... the first swifts of the year! Two of them, circling low and fast over my son's garden in Cheam. I glanced out of the window and there they were, as amazing as ever – and early this year, arriving before I've even seen a swallow. Another swift summer has begun.