Thursday 31 October 2019

The Wreck of the Hesperus

All Hallows' Eve, and I see that R.T. has posted a fitting poem, Haunted Houses by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, that erstwhile giant of 19th-century verse (on both sides of the Atlantic).
  Longfellow was one of my routes into poetry. There were few poetry books on the family bookshelf of my boyhood, but a big fat volume of Longfellow was one of them – one of those ornate Victorian productions, poorly printed, in columns of small type, but lavishly illustrated with dramatic line engravings. I was drawn to The Song of Hiawatha, perhaps because I was invariably obliged to play the vanquished Red Indian in games of cowboys and Indians, so I found it easy to identify with these noble and oppressed people. However, the sheer scale of Hiawatha defeated me, much though I enjoyed its distinctive, unstoppable rhythm (trochaic tetrameter). 
  Excelsior – 'The shades of night were falling fast,/As through an Alpine village passed/A youth who bore, 'mid snow and ice,/A banner with the strange device,/Excelsior!...' – I found exciting and mysterious. But the Longfellow poem that thrilled me most was The Wreck of the Hesperus (partly because of the suitably melodramatic illustrations). I reread it just now, for the first time in many years, and I must say it's a devastatingly effective piece of work, ideal for heart-wrenching recitation. Subtle it isn't, but Longfellow's turbocharged ballad is perfectly designed to grip from the start and never let go. Here it is...
It was the schooner Hesperus, 
      That sailed the wintry sea; 
And the skipper had taken his little daughtèr, 
      To bear him company. 

Blue were her eyes as the fairy-flax, 
      Her cheeks like the dawn of day, 
And her bosom white as the hawthorn buds, 
      That ope in the month of May. 

The skipper he stood beside the helm, 
      His pipe was in his mouth, 
And he watched how the veering flaw did blow 
      The smoke now West, now South. 

Then up and spake an old Sailòr, 
      Had sailed to the Spanish Main, 
"I pray thee, put into yonder port, 
      For I fear a hurricane. 

"Last night, the moon had a golden ring, 
      And to-night no moon we see!" 
The skipper, he blew a whiff from his pipe, 
      And a scornful laugh laughed he. 

Colder and louder blew the wind, 
      A gale from the Northeast, 
The snow fell hissing in the brine, 
      And the billows frothed like yeast. 

Down came the storm, and smote amain 
      The vessel in its strength; 
She shuddered and paused, like a frighted steed, 
      Then leaped her cable's length. 

"Come hither! come hither! my little daughtèr, 
      And do not tremble so; 
For I can weather the roughest gale 
      That ever wind did blow." 

He wrapped her warm in his seaman's coat 
      Against the stinging blast; 
He cut a rope from a broken spar, 
      And bound her to the mast. 

"O father! I hear the church-bells ring, 
      Oh say, what may it be?" 
"'T is a fog-bell on a rock-bound coast!" — 
      And he steered for the open sea. 

"O father! I hear the sound of guns, 
      Oh say, what may it be?" 
"Some ship in distress, that cannot live 
      In such an angry sea!" 

"O father! I see a gleaming light, 
      Oh say, what may it be?" 
But the father answered never a word, 
      A frozen corpse was he. 

Lashed to the helm, all stiff and stark, 
      With his face turned to the skies, 
The lantern gleamed through the gleaming snow 
      On his fixed and glassy eyes. 

Then the maiden clasped her hands and prayed 
      That savèd she might be; 
And she thought of Christ, who stilled the wave 
      On the Lake of Galilee. 

And fast through the midnight dark and drear, 
      Through the whistling sleet and snow, 
Like a sheeted ghost, the vessel swept 
      Tow'rds the reef of Norman's Woe. 

And ever the fitful gusts between 
      A sound came from the land; 
It was the sound of the trampling surf 
      On the rocks and the hard sea-sand. 

The breakers were right beneath her bows, 
      She drifted a dreary wreck, 
And a whooping billow swept the crew 
      Like icicles from her deck. 

She struck where the white and fleecy waves 
      Looked soft as carded wool, 
But the cruel rocks, they gored her side 
      Like the horns of an angry bull. 

Her rattling shrouds, all sheathed in ice, 
      With the masts went by the board; 
Like a vessel of glass, she stove and sank, 
      Ho! ho! the breakers roared! 

At daybreak, on the bleak sea-beach, 
      A fisherman stood aghast, 
To see the form of a maiden fair, 
      Lashed close to a drifting mast. 

The salt sea was frozen on her breast, 
      The salt tears in her eyes; 
And he saw her hair, like the brown sea-weed, 
      On the billows fall and rise. 

Such was the wreck of the Hesperus, 
      In the midnight and the snow! 
Christ save us all from a death like this, 
      On the reef of Norman's Woe! 

Wednesday 30 October 2019


This very agreeable painting, The Lane of Poplars at Moret by Alfred Sisley, has the distinction of having been stolen three times – in 1978, 1998 and 2007. Its home is the Musee des Beaux Arts in Nice, but the first time it was stolen it was in Marseilles on loan (it turned up a few days later in that city's sewers). Back home, it next fell victim to the museum's curator, who was convicted, with two accomplices, of the theft. Finally, in 2007, it was stolen in a raid on the gallery, only to be recovered the following year – in Marseilles again. The defendants in the trial for that theft boldly claimed that they were being used by the FBI in an undercover operation whose ultimate aim was to recover a much more important haul. The judge was having none of it, and jailed them all.
  Sisley, who was born on this day in 1839, was perhaps the most consistently Impressionist of all the impressionists, devoting virtually all his career to painting landscapes en plein air. Very nice they are too – in fact a little too nice, a little lacking in vigour and inclining (at least to modern eyes) to a kind of bland prettiness. But then, the same could be said for a good deal of Monet's output, hence his phenomenal popularity. Sisley was French-born, but to English parents, and he retained his British citizenship all his life. He also paid several long visits to England (and Wales, where he painted on the Gower peninsula). On one of these visits, he painted the bridge at Hampton Court, from above
and, interestingly, below –

This was the bridge from which I saw my mystery bird last year...

Tuesday 29 October 2019


I see that the excellent Zoe Colvin is recommending a certain book as the ideal Christmas gift. Here's the link – and while you're there, have a good look around; ZMKC is a lovely blog, and if you enjoy the kind of things I write about here, you will surely enjoy the kind of things Zoe writes about there. 

Monday 28 October 2019

Mustn't grumble

This morning I thought I'd discovered a word new to me, which is always one of life's minor pleasures. I was checking on the latest symptoms of this tiresomely indefatigable cough of mine, and came across the medical term 'rales', describing one of the four diagnostic lung sounds. Naturally I assumed this was a good old English word, probably of obscure origin. So I was rather disappointed to discover that it is simply the French word 'râles', stripped of its circumflex and adopted into the English medical lexicon. 'Râle' essentially means rattle, as in the cheering 'râle de la mort' or 'râle d'agonie', but the verb 'râler' can mean, colloquially, to grumble or grouch. 
So, mustn't râler, it's not the râle de la mort...

Sunday 27 October 2019


This gives a better idea of what the cover of my book looks like. Rather more attractive than the previous image, I think.
It's selling like hot cakes – in a city where hot cakes are being widely blamed for spreading bubonic plague...
Never mind. All the more for those discerning readers who have not yet bought a copy.
If you can't use Amazon – or don't want to give Jeff Bezos any further encouragement – just mail me at and we'll arrange something.
Meanwhile here's the Amazon link.
It's already got one (five-star) review. Feel free to add another...

Saturday 26 October 2019

K-Pop and One Hit Wonders

This wretched cough is still draining my energy and fuzzing my brain – which might partly explain why last night I found myself slumped in front of the telly blearily watching the latter part of a long documentary about K-Pop. This is a musical genre I was wholly unaware of until I saw it listed among the choices of listening on a Cathay Pacific flight. I investigated no further at the time, and am little wiser after sampling last night's documentary. It seems an entirely baffling, but (it seems) world conquering phenomenon, a kind of anodyne pop performed very energetically by young men of androgynous appearance, keen on face make-up and hair dye. One K-Pop band, called BSE or something, sold out Wembley twice last year and, we were told, could have done it many times over. Their concerts look like about the least fun you could have at a 'gig' (as I believe the young people call them) – incredibly orderly affairs, with no one so much as rising from their seats, and enthusiasm expressed by the synchronised waving of lights. All very Korean, no doubt – and yet, apparently, with worldwide appeal. Perhaps this is the future. Not that I care terribly much.
 More entertaining was the programme that followed: a compilation of Top of the Pops performances by one-hit wonders. Always a pleasure to see the likes of Up Town Top Rankin' and Kung Fu Fighting again. Then I was brought up short by the sight of a grinning conductor flailing his baton around in front of a French-horn-and-bassoon-heavy orchestra of men in unpleasantly coloured polonecks. What on earth was this? Soon the familiar earworm of a tune became all too apparent – it was Eye Level by the Simon Park Orchestra, the tune that, although it was written for library music, became the theme music of Van Der Valk, the hugely popular Amsterdam-set TV detective series starring Barry Foster (who gave a memorably disturbing performance as the killer in Hitchcock's Frenzy).
 Eye Level was at number one in the UK charts for four long weeks. Those were strange times, when instrumentals were a big feature in the charts, some of them adapted from the classics. The opening bars of Eye Level are very distantly descended from No Piu Andrai, but one performer made a career out of turning Mozart's catchier numbers into jaunty orchestral pop – an Argentinian called Waldo do Los Rios, who had a big hit in 1971 with an easy-listening version of the Allegro from Symphony no 40, as well as providing the BBC with a couple of its more annoying theme tunes.
 Anyway, fatigue overcame me and I had to haul myself to bed before my one-hit favourite, Joe Dolce's Shaddap You Face, came on. This was the single that kept Ultravox's Vienna off the number one spot in 1980. You've got to love it for that...

Friday 25 October 2019

'If electricity had an odour...'

It was inevitable that John Betjeman, the bard of the Metropolitan line, would make an appearance in Peter Ackroyd's London Under, and so he does. Ackroyd, writing about the distinctive smell of the London Underground – 'a faintly sour, faintly singed odour. It resembles the smell of hair cut with electric blades. There is also the taint of dust, largely comprised of human skin. If electricity had an odour, it would be this' – notes that Betjeman, in his verse autobiography Summoned by Bells, recalled that, in the Twenties, the Central line 'had the odour of ozone; but it was not a natural smell emanating from the sea or from the seaweed. It was not of the ocean...'
  Indeed it wasn't. Here's the passage, part of a description of happy days spent riding the Underground for hours on end with a young friend:

'We knew the different railways by their smells.
The City and South reeked like a changing-room;
Its orange engines and old rolling stock,
Its narrow platforms, undulating tracks,
Seemed even then historic. Next in age,
The Central London, with its cut-glass shades
On draughty stations, had an ozone smell –
Not seaweed-scented ozone from the sea
But something chemical from Birmingham.'

  Betjeman was remembering an experiment conducted by the Central London line in 1918 when it was decided to freshen the air by pumping a version of the invigorating seaside smell of 'ozone' into the stations. The effect, unfortunately, was to make passengers feel faintly nauseous – sea sick, perhaps?
  The tang of 'ozone' in sea air was greatly relished by visitors to the seaside from the smoky towns of coal-fired England. However, science now tells us that the smell we still refer to as 'ozone' is in fact that of a compound called Dimethyl Sulphide, which in combination with other chemicals present in sea air produces the distinctive bracing fragrance of the seaside. Aah, just smell that Dimethyl Sulphide – makes you glad to be alive... No, it will never catch on.
  (Incidentally, the dust in the Underground is not largely composed of skin particles. More of it consists of tiny metal fragments thrown up by the trains, especially when they're braking. And of course those 'cut-glass shades' on Central Line stations are long gone, more's the pity.)


Thursday 24 October 2019

Pieces of the Sky

A grimly oppressive, rainy day, and I'm still suffering from a tenacious and very tiresome chest cough. What better occasion to let in a breath of Tuscan air and a ray of Tuscan light? As Walter Pater wrote of the work of the Florentine della Robbia family, 'I suppose nothing brings the real air of a Tuscan town so vividly to mind as those pieces of blue and white earthenware'. (Not only blue and white; the frames and details are often vividly colourful.) They are, continues Pater, 'like fragments of the milky sky itself, fallen into the cool streets, and breaking into the darkened churches'.
 Andrea Della Robbia, perhaps the most talented of the whole clan, was born on this day in 1435. His uncle, Luca, had invented a new kind of glazed terracotta (terra invetriata) that proved amazingly versatile and durable, and the perfect medium for a new kind of colourful, delicately modelled ceramic artworks, for display both inside and outside the great Renaissance buildings of Florence. Among Andrea's most famous works are the medallions of the infant Jesus, no two alike, that adorn the colonnade of the foundling hospital in Florence –

where there is also a lovely Annunciation over the door:

Andrea della Robbia also made exquisitely beautiful portrait busts, both in relief –

and free-standing –

Ruskin owned a superb relief panel by Andrea, The Adoration of the Child (now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington).

As Della Robbia work came back into fashion in the 19th century, Ruskin wrote of Luca that '[He] is brightly Tuscan, with the dignity of a Greek; he has English simplicity, French grace, Italian devotion – and is, I think, delightful to the truest lovers of art in all nations and all ranks.' And the same could undoubtedly be said of his brilliant nephew, Andrea.

Tuesday 22 October 2019

Father Figure

First, Edmund Gosse's wonderful Father and Son; then J.R. Ackerley's wince-inducing My Father and Myself; and now, to complete a trilogy of filial autobiographies, something very different – Beverley Nichols's Father Figure, which I have just finished reading.
  I've written about dear Beverley before, and have long felt a faint urge to read his shocking account of life with his hopelessly alcoholic, sadistic father and – what made the book so sensational when it was published in 1972 – his three attempts to murder the brute. Father Figure begins strikingly enough: 'The first time I remember my father he was lying dead drunk on the dining-room floor.' Not only dead drunk but surrounded by broken glass, spilled wine, fruit and silver from the dining table, and bleeding copiously from a wound inflicted by a broken port decanter that he'd taken down with him. 'Lying there on the floor, with groans coming from his open lips, with his moustache dyed dark from the wine into which he had plunged his face, with his glazed eyes rolling to and fro, my father looked like a great animal that had been wounded in the chase. A dangerous animal too, who might get up, who might stagger about again, and bite and claw and kill...' Beverley was six, he tells us, when he witnessed this distressing scene.
  As this passage suggests, Nichols is not one to underwrite a scene. His tone all too often teeters on the edge of melodrama, or mawkish sentimentality, or hysteria – and all too often falls over the edge. At the end of some of his more overheated passages, you have a sense of Beverley reaching for the smelling salts. But he has a powerful tale to tell – of a monstrous father brutally tyrannising his unfailingly docile wife and subjecting his family to endless sufferings and sordid accommodations – and he tells it slickly enough to keep the reader turning the pages, eager to discover what fresh hell lies in store. And, especially, to find out about young Beverley's three self-confessed attempts at patricide (all of which fail, leaving him convinced that his father is indestructible, as well as possessed by the devil).
 The problem with all this (apart from the style) is that we have no way of knowing how much of it is actually true, and how much is the product of Beverley's imagination. Nichols subtitled the book 'an uncensored autobiography', but is it really that? Was his father quite as appalling as this, did he really treat his wife (or Beverley) quite so badly, did he really deserve quite such obsessive, all-consuming hatred as he inspired in Beverley, or did Nichols's devoted, almost desperate love for his mother distort his perception of his father. Above all, did young Beverley really try to kill his father, or are those accounts of attempted murder essentially wish fulfilment, worked up from a rather less (melo)dramatic reality? Nichols's biographer, Bryan Connon, certainly had his doubts, and exposed various holes in Beverley's version of events. (He also came up with an intriguing, if wholly speculative, theory that might explain at least some of the Nichols family psychodrama: that Beverley was not his father's son but the son of his mother and his father's brother.) Some doubts about the factual reliability of Father Figure were expressed at the time of its publication – along with calls for Nichols to be prosecuted for attempted murder – but the book was presented as a straight factual memoir, and the author undoubtedly intended it to be taken as just that. 
  This intriguing penumbra of doubt – and the curious febrile tone of the writing – make Father Figure a fascinating document, if not a very good book.

Monday 21 October 2019

Underground, Overground

Here's a question for the next pub quiz: Which of these has been in existence longest – Germany, Italy, the London Underground?
Okay, it's a bit of a cheat: 'Germany' and 'Italy' here mean the unified nation states thereof (both of which finally came into existence in 1871 – only for Germany to divide again for 40 years and more after the Hitler War). The initial stretch of London's underground railway was up and running in 1863.
I came across this historical fact in London Under, Peter Ackroyd's fascinating little book on the richly various, often mysterious worlds that lie under London. It would serve (though this is of course not Ackroyd's intention) as another entry in my long-running occasional series on why the UK (the English part of it, at least) was never going to make a good fit with the EU. For us, thanks to our particular geography and history, the idea of nationhood seems as natural as breathing, and our sense of national identity has roots so deep that they are lost in the mists of time. Most countries of the EU have a history of fluid, ever changing boundaries, internal and external, and only achieved their current shape and identity in historically recent times. No wonder their grasp on the ideas of the nation state and national sovereignty is rather less firm than ours.


Just because it's so beautiful...
(Give it time – it takes a little while to get going.)

Sunday 20 October 2019

Another One Back from Extinction?

It looks as if the Tasmanian Tiger or Thylacine might be the latest creature to return from 'extinction' and astound the world. It would be good to know it's still around, as it's a quite remarkable animal – a large carnivorous marsupial, one of only two species in which both female and male have pouches; in the male it serves as a scrotal pouch, into which the tender privities can be withdrawn for protection (a handy arrangement, but it never caught on). The Tasmanian Tiger can also open its jaws unusually wide, up to 80 degrees, stand briefly on its hind legs, and hop rather in the manner of a kangaroo.
  If the Thylacine is indeed still extant, it will join a distinguished and ever growing list of animals wrongly believed to be extinct – in some cases for millions of years. They range from the Highland Singing Dog of New Guinea to that fine New Zealand bird, the Takahe.  The most famous of these 'Lazarus species' is the Coelocanth, and the most mysterious, perhaps, the Australian Night Parrot and the Terror Skink of New Caledonia. Has nobody told these creatures that all life on Earth is supposed to be extinct the year after next (or am I distorting the XR message)?

Saturday 19 October 2019

'Not sufficient for a kite's dinner'

What with this Amazon business and one thing and another – those things including a sentimental journey to Cambridge to celebrate 50 years (yes, 50) since Appleyard, B. and I met there as callow Kingsmen; another return journey to other haunts, in Marylebone, where, a little more recently, I once worked for The Listener and Radio Times, both long gone from that increasingly chic but still agreeable London village; and a debilitating cough and 'cold' that came on today; and, of course, the seemingly endless shenanigans with Amazon and the book – what with all of that, I haven't been paying much attention to the blogscape or to my blog lately. This morning, though, I enjoyed a fascinating piece on Patrick Kurp's Anecdotal Evidence about (or partly about) the taste of the book-buying public in Victorian times, and earlier. That taste was then, it seems, very much drawn to the English classics. The bookseller from whom Henry Mayhew is gathering evidence (for his London Labour and the London Poor) gives an impressive list of works and authors in demand, in which (after Robinson Crusoe) the name of 'Philip Quarles' features. This brought me up short.
 In fact, it seems to be slip of the tongue, or of Mayhew's pen; the only writer of that name, as far as I can find out, is the fictional hero of Aldous Huxley's Point Counter Point (which I read once, long ago, and am unlikely to return to). The bookseller surely means Francis Quarles, a 17th-century poet of limited gifts who enjoyed a phenomenal success with his Emblems, a collection of elaborate biblical paraphrases, passages from the Church Fathers and epigrammatic quatrains, some of which are embellished with striking engravings by William Marshall. Pope wrote scathingly of Emblems in The Dunciad – 'the pictures for the page atone/And Quarles is saved by beauties not his own'. However, some of the epigrams are good: 'The heart is a small thing, but desireth great matters. It is not sufficient for a kite's dinner, yet the whole world is not sufficient for it.' Of the five books of Emblems, only the first two are original, the remainder being 'adapted' from the writings of the Jesuit Hermann Hugo and illustrated with the same prints as Hugo's work, but reversed. 
  Quarles's Emblems is one of those erstwhile bestsellers that remind us that the past is indeed a foreign country. It is impossible, without entering into the mindset of another age, to understand how such a book could have been such a runaway popular success. But its popularity lasted well into the 19th century, as is attested (presumably) by Mayhew's bookseller. There was a new edition, with new illustrations, as late as 1888. Improbably enough, a distant descendant of Francis Quarles was that star of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes.
 Quarles probably wrote the epitaph for his sister, who shares with her husband, Sir Cope D'Oyley, a fine monument in St Mary's, Hambleden, Buckinghamshire – a monument that features in the last chapter of... Aargh, it's back to my book again!

Thursday 17 October 2019

At Last!

O frabjous day! At last, after an epic struggle with Amazon (preceded by an epic, but less frustrating, struggle with Word), my book seems to be available to buy on Amazon – I say 'seems to be' as I can't quite believe, even at this stage, that it's going to work... A snip at £10, ideal stocking filler, etc. (The cover is a pleasanter colour than that when you see it.)

Monday 14 October 2019

Wincing Again: Back to Ackerley

I've written about J.R. Ackerley – and in particular that canine shocker My Dog Tulip – before, and now I've been reading him again, this time the autobiographical My Father and Myself (a title that would be more descriptive if it was reversed). I thought I might be on safer ground with this one, but, dear me, I was wrong. I haven't winced so often while reading a book since... well, probably since reading My Dog Tulip.
  Ackerley has a good story to tell in My Father and Myself – the story of how, after his father's death, he discovered that this prosperous and respectable fruit merchant, nicknamed the Banana King, had a family of three girls by his mistress, a fact entirely unknown to and unsuspected by his official family. In a disarming preface Ackerley writes: 'The apparently haphazard chronology of this memoir may need excuse. The excuse, I fear, is Art...' And yet the book is oddly artless, with lacunae left unfilled and areas of ignorance acknowledged, where a slicker biographer might have disguised these difficulties and produced an altogether smoother narrative. Ackerley tells the story of his father as well as he can, given those lacunae – and it's full of surprises and mysteries, particularly from his early years, when not one but two older men took him under their wing, gave him every assistance, and seem to have fallen in love with him (and fallen out with each other over him). He also had an early marriage, to the beautiful Louise Burckhardt (who was painted by Sargent). He met Ackerley's mother in Paris in the same year that Louise died of TB, and took up with her, though they didn't legally marry till nearly a quarter of a century later.
  When the book moves on to J.R's relationship with his father, this opens Ackerley to the irresistible temptation to write more about himself. Not that he loves himself – he seems more disgusted than anything – but he is, as he candidly admits, something of a self-fixated solipsist. He wonders whether his father knew about his son's homosexuality (it would have been pretty hard to miss) and, if so, whether that caused some awkwardness or distance between them. And that gives Ackerley the green light to write a long, explicit and gruesomely detailed account of his sex life (this was where most of my wincing was done). I'll spare you the details, gentle reader, but over the years Ackerley devoted an extraordinary amount of his time and energy to pursuing young men in uniform, and he's happy to tell us precisely what he did to them and they to him. There were so many he couldn't remember anything about many of his encounters – and all the while he seems to have believed that he was pursuing the 'Ideal Friend', a fiction that was surely wearing thin by the time his sexual appetite  finally became less pressing – at which point he fell in love with Tulip, the Alsatian bitch who seems to have been the closest thing he ever got to the Ideal Friend.
  There is another book about Ackerley's father, The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley by Diana Petre, one of those three secret daughters, another of whom, Sally, married Gerald Grosvenor and became Duchess of Westminster.
  And here is Sargent's portrait of Louise Burckhardt, Roger's first wife.

Saturday 12 October 2019

Pagan Carshalton Rises Again

Carshalton may be XR Central these days, but the place is still pagan at heart (a former Rector, newly arrived and getting his bearings, concluded that we were essentially tree worshippers, and he wasn't far wrong about some of us). On this soggy Saturday morning I found the village swarming with morris dancers of all kinds, some traditionally attired, others more colourfully dressed in a weird fusion of hippy, Goth, Celtic and steampunk styles, with faces luridly painted.
The traditional East Surrey Morris Men, I gathered, were at the heart of the action, along with folk dancers of other kinds, young and old. It was all rather heartening and, yes, very English.

The traditionalists and the more flamboyant modern morrises seemed not to be mingling much. I wonder if there is a schism in the morris world – it wouldn't be the first time. A book I recently had to read for review, The Lark Ascending by Richard King, tells of almighty fallings-out in the world of English folk dance in the Twenties and Thirties, mostly stirred up by one Rolf Gardiner, a man who viewed morris dancing as an expression of the kind of blood-and-soil neo-paganism then in vogue in Germany. Having fallen out with Cecil Sharp, the founder of the English folk revival, Gardiner went on to found a clandestine romantic-fascistic organisation called the English Mistery (later the English Array) which believed that 'our race can be saved and its vigour increased by the revival of instinct and tradition, and by the protection and development of national breeds, on which the existence and continuation of culture depend'. 'National breeds', eh?
Gardiner developed into a rather brilliant agricultural pioneer, whose next organisation, Kinship in Husbandry, evolved into the very successful Soil Association. However, his known affection for National Socialism understandably clouded his reputation. He was even turned down when he volunteered for the Home Guard.                             

Friday 11 October 2019

Nobel Time Again

I haven't read anything by Peter Handke (though I know a couple of his films), so I have no idea how good he might be as a writer. However, the furore that has greeted Handke's winning the Nobel Prize for Literature is giving me much amusement. This piece in The Guardian is hilarious. Salman Rushdie (passed over again?) is particularly incandescent, but the likes of Hari Kunzru, Slajov Zizek and even Jennifer Egan, speaking for Pen America, run him close. This is clearly an award that has annoyed all the right people, and annoyed them intensely.
  The principal source of all this fury is Handke's idiotic remarks about certain incidents in the Balkan Wars in the Nineties, and his unstinting support for Slobodan Milosevic. These are not the kind of things you'd expect to warm the hearts of the Nobel committee. Nor, come to that, was Handke's call in 2014 for the Nobel literature prize to be abolished as a 'false canonisation'. And, whatever else he might be, Handke is an ageing white European male – just the kind of winner the committee was being urged by all and sundry to avoid, in favour of voices, preferably female, from the Third World. (His co-laureate, admittedly, is a 'dreadlocked feminist' called Olga Tokarczuk, but she is still guilty of being white and European.) Could it be that the Nobel committee believe that freedom of expression and quality of writing trump political correctness? It seems hardly likely, but that is the impression this year's award gives. It's actually made the Nobel Prize for Literature slightly interesting for once.

Thursday 10 October 2019

XR Central

Picture my horror – no don't, it won't be pretty – when I happened on this extravaganza of imbecility just around the corner from my home in the demiparadise that is Platonic Carshalton. A blameless Edwardian semi has apparently been converted into XR Central, painted in hideous 'rainbow' colours, every surface covered with inane slogans and symbols, and an earth rampart covered with white stones ('Act Now!') thrown up in the front garden, along with various items of garden furniture, water features and unhappy-looking plants. The perpetrator of this monstrosity has proudly chalked his name on the pavement outside, and an Extinction Rebellion flag flies high over the lot (now I know where the one in the park came from).
  This invasion of public space by in-your-face assertions of ideology – and always the same ideology (because to its intellectually challenged proponents it's incontestable)  – is fast becoming one of the more tiresome features of modern life. Public space should be neutral, a forum for the whole of the community, not the preserve of strident ideologues. We English used to be very good at keeping our opinions to ourselves, and living peaceably as a result, rubbing along together in an atmosphere of mostly good-humoured mutual tolerance. How all that has changed, thanks to the emotions unleashed by Brexit and 'climate change'.
  Anyway, I hope the council has noticed what has been inflicted on this particular house and will take appropriate action, preferably something involving heavy machinery...

Wednesday 9 October 2019


Born on this day in 1593 was the Dutch surgeon Nicolaes Tulp, a man who would be no more than a footnote in medical history had he not been immortalised in a great painting by the young Rembrandt, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp. In the painting, Tulp (who changed his name from the more commonplace Claes Peterszoon to speed his rise to the upper reaches of Amsterdam society) stands at the right, expatiating on the anatomy of the dead man's flayed forearm and left hand, while his audience direct their gaze elsewhere, on the huge anatomical volume that stands open in the far right of the picture space.
 As W.G. Sebald points out in The Rings of Saturn, this flayed left hand is larger than the right and, bizarrely, the tendons shown are not those for the palm but for the back of the hand. It looks, in fact, like an anatomical illustration taken out of context and appended incongruously to this cadaver. And it is on this cadaver (of a hanged criminal called Aris Kindt) that Rembrandt the great artist focuses his attention, while Rembrandt the brilliant portraitist is focused on the worthies assembled around him. Iconographically this hanged criminal is the dead Christ, and Rembrandt paints him with due attention, with compassion, respect and tenderness. Our gaze, and our pity, are drawn to him in his naked mortality, not to the bizarre exposure of his tendons. That is what raises the Anatomy Lesson from a superb group portrait to a great work of art.
  Sebald speculates that our old friend Sir Thomas Browne, who was pursuing his medical studies in Holland at the time, was very probably present at this dissection. One wonders what he made of it – but of course what he was seeing was the event in life, not The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp.

Monday 7 October 2019

Butterfly Brouhaha

It's the Stones in Hyde Park all over again (or the Somme!). The 'artist' Damien Hirst has released a new series of works made with geometrically arranged butterfly wings – the kind of kitsch polychrome mosaics that were popular with the Victorians (yes, he's that cutting edge) – and controversy is raging in the sort of places where this kind of controversy usually rages. These particular works are made with large numbers of butterfly wings, imported from butterfly farms in tropical countries – farms which, Hirst's defenders claim, were set up in order to curb the highly destructive illegal butterfly trade. 
 We've been here before with Hirst, who as far back as 2003 was the UK's largest importer of exotic butterfly parts. His 2012 exhibit In and Out of Love caused a bigger outcry – and no wonder. It consisted of two windowless rooms full of huge numbers of live butterflies, and was part of the gigantic Hirst retrospective that ran for a depressing 23 weeks. In the course of those weeks, around 9,000 butterflies died, many of them trodden underfoot by visitors. The butterflies used, which were bought from UK butterfly breeders, were Caligo and Heliconius species. In the wild these live for up to nine months, but at the Tate they lasted only a matter of hours or days. This Telegraph report on the furore includes probably the only statement by a PETA representative that I've ever agree with: 'Damien Hirst's quest to be edgy is as boring as it is callous.' Indeed.

Sunday 6 October 2019

Butterflies and Bungee Ballet

Well, that was good. There's nothing like a few days walking and church crawling in France to restore the spirits, reward the palate and punish the liver. I was with my brother and a friend in Brittany and over the border in Normandy, and our wanderings began with a walk along the spectacularly beautiful Breton coast near Cancale – where, on a breezy day of sun and (mostly) cloud, a fine flurry of fin de saison butterflies greeted us: Red Admirals and Painted Ladies in abundance, Speckled Woods, Common and Holly Blues, a Comma, a Brown Argus, and a wealth of Whites, Small and Large... This was followed by a lunch of superb oysters at a thriving huitrerie, and then into St Malo for the evening and night. Next day inland to Dol-de-Bretagne, a delightful small town with a fine, if architecturally puzzling, cathedral, many medieval buildings, and a good claim to be the ultimate home town of the Stuart dynasty (via the Fitzalans).
 Our next destination was Mayenne, just inside Normandy, and on the way there we had yet another demonstration (if any were needed) of how inexhaustibly rewarding even the more obscure corners of France can be. Breaking our journey at Fougeres, a small town of which none of us knew anything, we discovered that it has, among other attractions, one of the most extensive and spectacular castles you could hope to see anywhere. Mayenne, too, beautifully sited on the river of the same name, has a pretty impressive castle, though on a much smaller scale, and an imposing, much rebuilt basilica. And so it goes on: the following morning, en route to Le Mans (where I picked up the TGV to take me, ultimately, back to London), we stopped at Evron – another small town of which we knew nothing – and discovered that it is home to one of the finest basilicas in Normandy. Unfortunately we weren't able to take a proper look inside as a funeral was going on. Also going on, against a cinema-style white screen outside the basilica were rehearsals for a kind aerial dance show, or bungee ballet. Three very agile young ladies were practising some breaththaking vertical dance moves and acrobatics, rising and falling and swinging from side to side on their bungee ropes. Ah France, France...

Wednesday 2 October 2019

On the Beach and In the Stacks

When would you say this photo was taken? Sixties? Seventies?
 In fact, it was taken in 1913, using the autochrome colour process, by Lt-Col Mervyn O'Gorman, a man of many parts who did much to ensure that Britain had something like a fighting air force when the Kaiser War came along. Later in his career, he took a keen interest in road safety and was instrumental in getting the first Highway Code published. And, in 1913, he took a series of photographs of his neighbour's teenage daughter, Christina, dressed in red and with her hair down, striking hippyish poses on the beach. He also made etchings and linocuts, and published a volume of poetry with the deeply unpromising title Verses Gloomy and Gay.
 I came across the name of Mervyn O'Gorman while browsing in one of my current bedside books, Florian Illies's 1913, where I also discovered that in that year Marcel Duchamp, fresh from his succès de scandale  at the Armory Exhibition in New York, did what the finest minds and choicest spirits of every generation do and became a librarian. He took a position as Assistant Librarian at the Sainte-Geneviève library in Paris, and spent most of his spare time playing chess, going on to represent France four times at the Olympic games. There's the making of a pub quiz question there, I think.
 But now I'm off to France again for a few days. A bientot, mes amis...