Wednesday 31 July 2019

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

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

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

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

Tuesday 30 July 2019

An Integrated Man

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

Monday 29 July 2019

Porter, Osborne, Temple, Swift

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

Dorothy Osborne in the Country

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

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

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

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

Sunday 28 July 2019

Who Needs English?

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

Thursday 25 July 2019

'Proud to catch cold at a Venetian door'

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

Wednesday 24 July 2019

Pevsner: 'cursing in common'

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

Friday 19 July 2019

Englishness (yawn)

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

Tuesday 16 July 2019


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

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

Sunday 14 July 2019

The Other Philip Larkin

When the 18-year-old Larkin came across this gravestone in St Michael's churchyard in Lichfield, he was understandably perturbed. Indeed, as he wrote to a friend with more than a little teenage hyperbole, 'I reeled away conscious of a desire to vomit into a homburg hat'.
  He needn't have been that surprised, as the grave of the other Philip Larkin was in the Larkin family plot, where the poet was later to inter both his parents, his father in 1944, his mother in 1977. This is their grave (below).

  When his mother's ashes were interred, the Rector told Larkin that this would be the last burial in the old churchyard, which would now be 'handed over to the Council to be "landscaped" into a vandals' playground, or some such nonsense. I expect I shan't see all the old Larkin graves again ... as they will all be levelled and the stones taken away.' He notes (in a letter to Barbara Pym) that he won't be sorry to see the other Philip Larkin's stone taken away.
  Like many of Larkin's darker prognostics, his vision of what would happen to St Michael's churchyard was wide of the mark. The Larkin graves are still there – I saw and photographed them yesterday on a trip to Lichfield – and, rather than a vandals' playground, the churchyard (one of the largest in England) is being well maintained as a carefully managed combination of well-kempt graveyard and nature reserve, with wildflower patches and areas of woodland.
  Lichfield is one of my favourite cathedral cities, with little of the olde worlde tweeness and blatant tourist-baiting that mar some of them. It helps that it's largely a brick-built town, with a sandstone cathedral – no seductive honey-coloured stone here. It has a sensible, real-world feel – but the three-spired cathedral, its close, the large ancient ponds and the fine Georgian buildings create a very beautiful ensemble. And, of course, it's the city where Samuel Johnson was born and spent his early years (the Johnson house is open to the public and well worth a look).
  Johnson's parents, like Larkin's, are buried at St Michael's  (along with his brother Nathaniel) – but inside the church. Dr Johnson paid his last visit to Lichfield in the autumn of 1784 and, on his return to London, composed a long Latin epitaph for his parents, to be inscribed on a memorial tablet and placed in the nave floor above the family vault.

He sent money and detailed instructions for the memorial and begged 'that all possible haste be made, for I wish to have it done while I am yet alive'. He died a fortnight later, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. Larkin's remains are in the municipal cemetery at Cottingham, outside Hull, under a stone saying only 'Philip Larkin, poet'.

Friday 12 July 2019

'Sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo'

Johnson's life of Thomas Gray (which I was looking at today) is decidedly cool in tone; there was a natural, and mutual, antipathy between the two men. However, in his estimate of the Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, Johnson is generous and, I think, sound, in particular and in general.
'In the character of his Elegy,' writes Johnson, 'I rejoice to concur with the common reader; for by the common sense of readers uncorrupted with literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtilty and the dogmatism of learning, must be finally decided all claim to poetical honours. The Church-yard abounds with images which find a mirrour in every mind, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo. The four stanzas beginning "Yet even these bones" are to me original: I have never seen the notions in any other place; yet he that reads them here persuades himself that he has always felt them. Had Gray written often thus it had been vain to blame, and useless to praise him.'
  Quite so. These are the stanzas...

Yet ev'n these bones from insult to protect, 
         Some frail memorial still erected nigh, 
With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture deck'd, 
         Implores the passing tribute of a sigh. 

Their name, their years, spelt by th' unletter'd muse, 
         The place of fame and elegy supply: 
And many a holy text around she strews, 
         That teach the rustic moralist to die. 

For who to dumb Forgetfulness a prey, 
         This pleasing anxious being e'er resign'd, 
Left the warm precincts of the cheerful day, 
         Nor cast one longing, ling'ring look behind? 

On some fond breast the parting soul relies, 
         Some pious drops the closing eye requires; 
Ev'n from the tomb the voice of Nature cries, 
         Ev'n in our ashes live their wonted fires. 

And Johnson is surely right to conclude that 'the common sense of readers uncorrupted with literary prejudice' is the ultimate arbiter of 'poetical honours'. Which makes you wonder how many poets of the twentieth century had such appeal, convincing the reader that his lines reflect the things the reader has always him(her)self felt – Kipling of course, and later Betjeman, none of the modernists except maybe sometimes Eliot... maybe sometimes Auden and Yeats, even Larkin once in a while? But the century produced nothing with such strong and enduring appeal as Gray's Elegy. Or did it?

Thursday 11 July 2019

My Friends, It Was a...

Yes, it was a Purple Hairstreak, and I really wasn't expecting it so early in the month, but it was a wonderful thing to see. I was on Mitcham Common this morning, and there it was, settled on a leaf of the first oak I came across as I arrived on the common proper. It posed helpfully, just above my eye level, showing first its beautiful underwing and then a flash of upperwing with its telltale flush of purple. I didn't see another; I think it was a precursor of abundance to come.
  The common was gloriously alive with butterflies, mostly those grassland species that have come surging back after taking a bit of a knock last year when the extreme heat scorched the grasses – this year the grass is tall and lush. I was vaguely hoping that I might see a White-Letter Hairstreak, as Mitcham Common is supposed to be one of its hangouts, but in my wanderings I didn't even come across a single elm tree – the White-Letter's food plant and living space – let alone a representative of this elusive species. I think it's one of those butterflies that you'll never find if you go looking for it, but you might come across by chance in some unlikely place. If you're lucky. Meanwhile that unexpected Purple was delight enough.

Wednesday 10 July 2019

RIP Torn

Sorry to hear today that the brilliant actor Rip Torn has died. I think it's fair to say that he did well to make it to the age of 88, all things considered. I've written here before about Torn – the man who mistook a bank for his house – and his surprising casting as Walt Whitman, but for me he will for ever be Artie, the maniacal producer on The Larry Sanders Show. Here are some of Artie's finest moments – and if you stick with this video you'll also get the best of Hank Kingsley (the great Jeffrey Tambor). Enjoy...

Tuesday 9 July 2019


Heaven knows television has little to offer these days, especially on the main terrestrial channels – but there's always Talking Pictures TV. This is the ultimate retroprogressive TV channel, offering a diet of old movies, mostly from before the Seventies, and old TV, with an emphasis on detective dramas and what the French call policiers. And then there are the documentaries, one of which – Our Weekends in 1949 – I've just been watching.
  This was the year in which I was born, into a world that now seems in many ways as remote as some distant past. The documentary is filled with English faces such as you no longer see, and voices such as you no longer hear. The clothes, the cars, the smoking, the awful teeth, the lean angular bodies, all are of another age – but so, most conspicuously, is the whole feel of the cheerful, sane, commonsensical England depicted in the film. These 1949 weekenders are English people going about their leisure activities – hiking, cycling, boating, playing cricket on the village green, picnicking at the lido, bell ringing, playing bowls and skittles, drinking in pubs that open at 6 and close at 10.30 after a jolly singsong (Me and My Gal). They are English people being, quite unselfconsciously, English, part of a single, amiable, cohesive nation, united perhaps as never before by the recently ended war. It looked like another world, and being reminded of it – and of the fact that it existed in my lifetime – was, among other things, intensely sad.

Monday 8 July 2019

First Person

A word of warning to anyone planning to travel North on Virgin Trains any time soon (as I've just done).  If you venture into the on-train WC, you will be greeted, out of the blue, by a talking toilet, introducing itself, loud and clear, in the voice of a young Welsh woman. 'Hello,' it begins, 'this is your toilet speaking.' Actually I couldn't swear those were the precise words – I was rather too startled by this turn of events to be taking notes. The voice then goes on to explain, with a chuckle, that it's not actually the toilet speaking (No!!), but a Welsh girl who won a competition for the honour of being, er, the voice of a toilet. What the toilet has to say is that it does not want various items thrown down it – as it happens, the very items listed on the notice above the pan. But the message is so much more persuasive coming from a talking toilet, no? The first person is everything these days. And everywhere.

Sunday 7 July 2019

We ♥ Europe

In yesterday's Daily Mail (I only buy it for the TV listings, honest – though they're not what they were), I noticed a quickfire Q&A with our Prime Minister in waiting, Boris Johnson. To judge by some of the answers, I don't think he was taking it altogether seriously...

Favourite Movie? Dodgeball.
Favourite Movie Scene? The multiple retribution killings at the end of The Godfather.
Favourite Poem? The Iliad.
Secret for Losing Weight? Eat less.
Political Hero, apart from Churchill? Pericles.
What Can He Cook? Fish pie (once, delicious but took a long time).
Message for new EU Commissioner Ursula Van Der Leyen? We  Europe.
Classical Hero? Odysseus.

The Iliad, Pericles, Odysseus... He's got my vote – or he would have if I was a member of the Conservative Party.

Saturday 6 July 2019


Regular readers will know how much I enjoy the little exhibitions mounted in the National Gallery's Room 1 (to the left of the main stairs) – so much preferable to the blockbusters (especially if they're in the basement galleries). The latest exhibition in Room 1 is a gem, showcasing the Spanish 15th-century master Bartolomeo Bermejo.
  Little is known for sure about this extraordinary painter, and few of his works survive (around 20 in total). Seven of them have been assembled for the National Gallery's exhibition, four of which are a set, so the focus is on three large paintings, each of which is a masterpiece – the National's own Saint Michael Triumphs over the Devil, the star of the show (and all the brighter after a year of restoration), the Triptych of the Virgin of Montserrat from Alessandria in Italy, and Bermejo's last documented work, the newly restored Despla Pieta from Barcelona, which has never before left Spain.
  These are all stunning pieces of work, real jaw-droppers (as are the set of four, come to that), displaying complete mastery of the oil glaze technique perfected by the Flemish masters, a brilliant use of colour and exquisite rendition of textures and materials and the play of light on them, as well as fine naturalistic portraiture in the Flemish style, vivid background landscapes and minutely observed wild flowers. Each painting invites long, close attention, and repays it in sheer aesthetic delight – and amazement that any Spanish artist of the 15th century could have painted like this. Do go and see it if you get a chance – it's on till the end of September.

Friday 5 July 2019

Reading Group Notes

I've just finished rereading J.G. Farrell's The Siege of Krishnapur (having reread Troubles shortly before my retirement). The Siege was every bit as good as I remember from my first reading, and, if anything, even funnier. It has all the virtues of Farrell at his best – the brilliant organisation of narrative and character, the unfailing light touch, the humour, the cool but indulgent eye for absurdity and self-delusion – and it adds up to at least as great an achievement as Troubles. As a review of the time said, 'For a novel to be witty is one thing, to tell a good story is another, to be serious is yet another, but to be all three together is surely enough to make it a masterpiece' – and, for a wonder, The Siege of Krishnapur won the Booker Prize in 1973.
 The edition I read, a Weidenfeld & Nicolson paperback, comes complete with several pages of Reading Group Notes, including a couple of brief synopses which get no further than the opening pages (as far as reading group members are likely to read?) – and a peculiarly deadening list of points For Discussion, e.g.

'One cannot change something that is sacred.' How does the Padre's view fit with nineteenth-century Britain?

What does the author feel about bureaucracy? How does he demonstrate his feelings?

'A people, a nation, does not create itself according to its own best ideas, but is shaped by other forces, of which it has little knowledge.' This is how the author ends the novel – what do you understand by his conclusion? How does it apply to modern society?

How indeed? And are these really the kind of questions they discuss in reading groups? Not if Mrs N's experience of such groups is anything to go by...
  As for me, I can't wait to reread The Singapore Grip.

Wednesday 3 July 2019

The Man of Property

A few pages on, Larkin is in that garden. Writing to Robert Conquest (recipient of some of his more unbuttoned letters), he grumbles about the May bank holiday weekend:
'I've spent it slaving away in my sodding garden, mowing and scratching up weeds, or what I take to be weeds. Anything that looks bright and positive I take to be a weed. Of course, I know dandelions and groundsel, but I'm not so good on Lesser Willow Herb and Old Man's Knee and Old Man's Old Man and suchlike. Then I sat on a cushion in the sun and drank two Guinness and finished an Agatha Christie. The Man of Property.'

(sounds like a character in Henry James)

For some while now the Selected Letters of Philip Larkin – all 700-plus pages of it – has been my intermittent bedtime reading. I'm now past the 500-page mark and still, somehow, enjoying the exercise. Some of the letters are eminently skippable – especially the business ones, in which Larkin shows a terrier-like tenacity in extracting the best possible terms from publishers (and why not?) – but most are very readable, revealing and often enjoyable. Larkin is too good a writer to compose a truly dull sentence, and, despite every sign of reluctance and tardiness, he's a natural letter writer, fitting his style to his correspondent, showing tenderness and sensitivity where it's required and foul-mouthed blokiness where that is what's called for. What's best – and unlike so many other writers' letters – is that these are often very funny.
 Larkin's comedy (often at its best in asides) sits alongside, and is closely related to, his determination to present his life – the life of a very successful poet and university librarian – as a miserable succession of barely endurable woes. A letter of February 1974 to Judy Egerton (recipient of some of the most tender and considerate letters) demonstrates both the comedy and the love of grumbling. He is moving house  – did ever a man have to endure such a thing? – from Pearson Park to Newland Park (both in Hull, of course):

'Well, at any rate it isn't the bungalow on the bypass. But I can't say it's the kind of dwelling that is eloquent of the nobility of the human spirit. It has a huge garden – not a lovely wilderness (though it soon will be) – a long strip between wire fences – oh god oh god – I am 'taking over' the vendor's Qualcast (sounds like a character in Henry James). I don't know when I shall get in ... I hope before the bloody garden starts growing. So Larkin's Pearson Park Period ends, & his Newland Park Period begins...'

He's right – Qualcast, or even Vendors Qualcast, does sound like a character in Henry James.
 That Qualcast is to become literature's most famous lawnmower, the one that inspired one of Larkin's finest late poems, The Mower. (His other great mowing poem, Cut Grass, was written in Larkin's pre-Qualcast Period.)

The mower stalled, twice; kneeling, I found   
A hedgehog jammed up against the blades,   
Killed. It had been in the long grass.

I had seen it before, and even fed it, once.   
Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world   
Unmendably. Burial was no help:

Next morning I got up and it did not.
The first day after a death, the new absence   
Is always the same; we should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind   
While there is still time.

 And now the Qualcast, preserved for posterity, is in the exhaustive Larkin archives at Hull, along with everything from his house – from Beatrix Potter figurines to S&M pornography, knickers, ties, knitted rabbits, his father's statuette of Hitler... A poet's life.

Monday 1 July 2019


A new month, and today my late mother would have turned 98 – and golden age film star Olivia de Havilland, amazingly, is 103 and still with us. That's her above, not my mother. Also birthdaying today is Deborah Harry, who turns 74 but would probably not thank you for the reminder.
I am in Derbyshire again, where my brain seems to have turned to mush, probably as a result of a long and strangely exhausting walk yesterday. Hugely enjoyable though, wonderful countryside – and the Painted Ladies are flying here too. Definitely a Painted Lady summer.