Friday 29 November 2019

Q: 'Homer, Dante, Shakespeare and some others'

'I must here ... avow my belief that before starting to lay down principles of literature or aesthetic a man should offer some evidence of his capacity to enjoy the better and eschew the worse. The claim, for the moment fashionable, that a general philosophy of aesthetic can be constructed by a thinker who, in practice, cannot distinguish Virgil from Bavius, or Rodin from William Dent Pitman, seems to me to presume a credulity beyond the dreams of illicit therapeutics. By "poetry", in these pages, I mean what has been written by Homer, Dante, Shakespeare and some others.'
  So ends the short Preface to Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch's Studies in Literature (published in 1918, in a handsome edition, by the Cambridge University Press – my latest charity shop find). 'Q', as he was generally known, had been appointed King Edward VII Professor of English at Cambridge in 1912. It was an appointment that raised eyebrows, as Q had until then been known chiefly as a journalist and popular novelist (and hard-working political activist in the Liberal cause – which probably helped to secure the position). This was a time when English Literature was the new kid on the academic block, and there was still some doubt about what exactly it was and how it should be studied. Sir Arthur, unlikely and unacademic figure as he was, had a lasting impact on Cambridge's 'English tripos', for one thing ensuring that it remained mercifully light on philology and Anglo-Saxon (Q, a Cornishman, regarded himself as a Celt), and for another insisting on the inclusion of a curious field of study called 'the English Moralists'. When asked who these English Moralists were, Sir Arthur would respond with 'a lyrical outburst' culminating in 'a roll-call of the great names – "Hooker – Hobbes – Locke – Berkeley – Hume "; and ending with an exhausted "my God", as emotion got the better of him' (these are E.M.W. Tillyard's recollections, quoted by John Gross in that wonderful book, The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters). When, more than half a century later, I took the English Moralists option, the definition was indeed broad: I remember that it then took in St Augustine at one end and Freud at the other, with more English figures like Mill and Ruskin – and indeed Hobbes – also in the mix. I rather enjoyed the course, especially as my tutor often gave me a glass of whisky to dull the pain of intellection.
  In Q's time, Eng Lit was far from the dry, analytical academic subject it was to become. Sir Arthur himself, in his lectures and 'studies', 'seldom did much more than ramble cheerfully round the subject, shedding a vague glow of enthusiasm' (as Gross puts it). I don't recall anyone shedding the faintest glow of enthusiasm in my Cambridge days, apart from the outsider figure of  George Steiner, who managed to enthuse me mightily about Beckett, Nabokov and Borges in one extraordinary lecture (or maybe it was a talk to the English Society).
  One of the questions about Eng Lit that had to be decided in Sir Arthur's time was how close to the present the study of the subject should come. In one of the Studies, ostensibly on the poetry of George Meredith, Q declares that 'I think it is time to hint at least that the Modern and Medieval Languages Board intend to justify by practice what they meant when, in framing the separate English Tripos, they so far ignored academic tradition and dared the rage of schoolmasters – which, like that of sheep, is terrible – as to open the study of English down to our own times, declining to allow that any past date could be settled, even by university statute, as the one upon which English literature took to its bed, and expired, and was beatified.'
  Sir Arthur goes on to state his conviction 'that upon a school of English there rests an obligation to teach the writing of good English as well as the reading of it: to teach the writing of it through the reading. I want the average educated Englishman to write English as deftly, as scrupulously, as the average educated Frenchman writes French; to have, as at present he has not, at least an equal respect for his language.' Ah, if only that had come to pass...

Thursday 28 November 2019


Well, this arrived today, looking like the kind of thing that used to be delivered 'under plain brown wrapper'. They don't package poetry books like this any more...
Nor do many poetry collections of today have an author's Foreword entirely devoted to scansion. In it Ewart quotes the two lines he was taught in Latin classes as an example of how the elegiac couplet scans:
'Down in a deep dark dell || sat an old cow munching a beanstalk.
Out of her mouth came forth || yesterday's dinner and tea.'

Wednesday 27 November 2019

RIP Clive James

Sad to hear of the death of Clive James, though it's wonderful that he managed almost another decade after he was diagnosed with leukaemia – and, of course, he continued writing almost to the very end. If he hadn't been blessed with such a prodigious range of talents, and such a highly developed sense of humour, he could have been his adoptive country's great public intellectual – but who'd want to be that when you could be having fun on (and with) television, being the finest TV critic there ever was, relishing low culture as much as high, meeting and interviewing the stars, living the life? James did the lot, wrote the lot, read the lot, broadcast the lot. He seems to have had the energy, mental and physical, of ten men, and the productive capacity of many more. Of course, being the man he was, he did and wrote too much, but the best of his writings will surely endure.
  Looking back through what I've written about him here over the years, I found a couple of quotations worth repeating. One is a chilling piece of self-analysis from his Cambridge memoir May Week Was in June. Observing himself as his Cambridge days come to a close, he writes, in the third person, 'he sits writing in his journal. He has just told it that he is reasonably satisfied. The insistent suspicion that he has not yet begun, and has nothing to show, is too frightening to record. For someone who has good reason to believe that he doesn't exist apart from what he does, to doubt that he has done anything worthwhile is to gaze into the abyss.'
 The second quotation is from the epilogue to a collection of his brilliant radio talks, A Point of View, in which James ponders the role of the broadcaster in a world undoubtedly going mad

‘The business of the broadcaster isn’t to correct abuses. It is merely to point them out, to those capable of seeing the implications. By definition, that audience is already ahead of the broadcaster, so it doesn’t really need him, except for consolation. But consolation can be important at a time when it feels as if the world is going mad. Probably the world always feels like that. But today it raves in a multiform jargon that sounds all the more demented because of its approximation to common reason: the patois of a Bedlam that confers degrees. This peculiarly modern interlingua of unjustified omniscience, now that it is here, will probably never go away. It will always transfer itself to a new area, because there will always be people with an interest in inflating their own importance by distorting reality. But part of reality, a heartening part, is that there will also always be people who know sense when they hear it. To this valuable audience we must be careful what we say…’

Wise words, and but a few among many.

Tuesday 26 November 2019

'A warming to us all'

On this date in 1981, Philip Larkin wrote one of his last published poems (it was printed in The Observer a month later). In it, he wittily mourns his own waning facility and generously celebrates the continuing, indeed unquenchable, poetic vigour of his friend Gavin Ewart.

Good for You, Gavin

It's easy to write when you've nothing to write about
   (That is, when you are young),
The heart-shaped hypnotics the press is polite about
   Rise from an unriven tongue.

Later on, attic'd with the all-too-familiar
   Tea chests of truth-sodden grief,
The pages you scrap sound like school songs, or sillier,
   Banal beyond belief.

So good for you, Gavin, for having stayed sprightly
   While keeping your eye on the ball;
Your riotous road-show's like Glenlivet nightly,
   A warming to us all.

Ewart had a most unusual career, beginning as a wunderkind in the Thirties, then falling silent during the war years (when he served in North Africa and Italy) and for some while after, finding his poetic voice again in the Sixties, then becoming ever more prolific as he went on. I remember reading him in the Seventies and Eighties and finding his work entertaining, engaging, sometimes more, but often giving the impression of a profligate talent, writing too much and throwing away too little. He had a rare sense of humour and an easy mastery of every poetical form he tackled, which no doubt encouraged him to write too much – and, when he wrote about sex, as he very often did, he could be quite jaw-droppingly filthy: one of his later collections was banned by W.H. Smith, back in the days when they could still be called booksellers. Today Ewart, who died in the same week as Kingsley Amis (another friend and admirer), seems destined to be all but forgotten before long. Nothing of his is in print, except perhaps in anthologies, and his Penultimate Poems is available for 1p on Amazon – or was until I snapped it up just now.
Here is one of Ewart's that I found in Wendy Cope's excellent anthology, Heaven on Earth: 101 Happy Poems. A kind of free-verse almost-sonnet, it's a happy poem indeed, one of quiet gratitude, for summers, bracken, children, for having survived...

June 1966

Lying flat in the bracken of Richmond Park
while the legs and voices of my children pass
seeking, seeking: I remember how on the
13th of June of that simmering 1940
I was conscripted into the East Surreys,
and, more than a quarter of a century
ago, when France had fallen,
we practised concealment in this very bracken.
The burnt stalks pricked through my denims.
Hitler is now one of the antiques of History,
I lurk like a monster in my hiding place.
He didn't get me. If there were a God
it would be only polite to thank him.

Monday 25 November 2019

Book News latest

I'm not given to blowing my own trumpet, but I can't deny that I find it very pleasing when someone else does it for me – especially when that someone is Patrick Kurp, the best reader any writer could hope to have. Among other things, his piece about The Mother of Beauty on his Anecdotal Evidence blog explains what my book is, and what it was intended to be, better than I've yet managed to do myself.

(For anyone minded to buy a copy, the quickest and easiest way, at least if you're in the UK, is via Amazon – here's the link. Alternatively, send me an email and we'll try to come to some other arrangement. Remember, Christmas is drawing ever closer...)

Sunday 24 November 2019

From Bruno to Handel

A funny thing happened on Strictly Come Dancing last night. The flamboyant Bruno Tonioli, while showering (well deserved) praise on one of the performances said that it reminded him of Mark Morris's style of choreography. If any choreographer gets mentioned on Strictly, it's invariably Bob Fosse, so this was an interesting, and unexpected, development.
As it happened, this came only a couple of days after I'd discovered (thanks to my Derbyshire cousin) Mark Morris's choreography for the Handel duet I wrote about recently on this blog. It struck me as very beautiful, wonderfully responsive to the music, joyful, inventive, light and altogether lovely to look at. There's a taster below – enjoy!

Saturday 23 November 2019

More Tate

A picture that caught my eye at the Tate, and seemed new to me (though I'm not certain it was), was a self-portrait by William Dobson, painted around 1640. This dramatically conceived and lushly painted work is high-impact stuff and hard to miss. At a glance, you could almost mistake it for a Velzaquez. It is very clearly the work of an accomplished and more than confident portraitist – as is proven by the other Dobsons hanging nearby: a tender but sharply observed portrait of, probably, his wife, and a much grander bravura portrait of the gorgeously named Royalist Endymion Porter in all his glory, looking like a man whose veins flow with good claret.
  John Aubrey rated Dobson 'the most excellent painter that England has yet bred', and the art historian Ellis Waterhouse labelled him 'the most distinguished purely British painter before Hogarth'. Today his number one fan is the redoubtable Waldemar Januszcsak, who has called Dobson 'the first British born genius, the first truly dazzling English painter'. He surely deserves to be better known, to emerge from under the gigantic shadow of Van Dyck. Maybe there were other English painters of the period who deserve to be better known? Perhaps, under Charles I, there was a golden age of English painting running in parallel with the golden age of English church monuments (as celebrated in this book)?
  Be that as it may, several other Tate paintings caught my eye, including another from the 17th century (later, though) – a Portrait of a Young Girl by Mary Beale, a very successful portraitist. This intimate informal study is unfinished, but none the worse – and perhaps rather the better – for that.

  A painting I felt sure I'd never seen before was The Room in Which Shakespeare Was Born by Henry Wallis, he of The Death of Chatterton fame. The minute detail, fresh colour, sharp light and closeness of observation in this little picture is quite astonishing.

 And then there were two, very different examples of a sub-genre for which I'm always a sucker – Dieppe pictures: a view of the Café des Tribunaux by Sickert, one of his best in that line

and Ben Nicholson's Auberge de la Sole Dieppoise, a semi-abstract piece featuring Barbara Hepworth's face reflected in the window of a Dieppe eaterie –

(And here, not from the Tate's collection, is an image of the Auberge de la Sole Dieppoise in its heyday. The building now houses an estate agent's offices.)

Friday 22 November 2019

A Tate Caption

Yesterday I took a stroll around the gallery we must now call Tate Britain. The walls of the Duveen Galleries are at present covered with school photographs (Steve McQueen's 'Year 3' project), which somehow failed to pique my interest, so I strode briskly past and turned left into the permanent collection. I always enjoy wandering around these galleries, revisiting old favourites and seeing what else might catch my eye.
 An old favourite – or rather two old favourites – that I would place high in my list of top Tate paintings are George Stubbs's Haymakers and Reapers, a pair of beautifully balanced, perfectly composed (iconic even) representations of two seasons of the English farming year. I love the colours, so delicately and luminously handled, the landscape settings and the paradoxical sense of calm and repose in these scenes of agricultural labour. The figures (including, of course, the horses and the dog) are beautifully drawn and perfectly placed. I'd say they are two of the finest, and most English, of English paintings. But enough of me – here, in its entirely, is the Tate Britain caption:
'As a depiction of labour, this picture [The Reapers] is greatly idealised. The workers are spotlessly clean despite their drudgery. The church in the distance, and the farm manager on the horse to the right, serve as reminders of spiritual and social authority. Stubbs's picture can be seen as a celebration of the order and nobility of rural life, in tune with the concern with efficiency shown by agricultural writers of the time like Arthur Young. Alternatively, you may think that his picture robs these workers of their individuality and denies the harsh realities of work for sentimental effect.'
 Really sells it, doesn't it? The subtext seems to be: put on your Marxist spectacles before you go near these paintings, then move smartly along. Nothing to see here. 

Hail, Bright Cecilia

It's St Cecilia's Day today.
This calls for some music –

and this, from John Dryden – A Song for St Cecilia's Day, 1687

Stanza 1 
From harmony, from Heav'nly harmony 
               This universal frame began. 
       When Nature underneath a heap 
               Of jarring atoms lay, 
       And could not heave her head, 
The tuneful voice was heard from high, 
               Arise ye more than dead. 
Then cold, and hot, and moist, and dry, 
       In order to their stations leap, 
               And music's pow'r obey. 
From harmony, from Heav'nly harmony 
               This universal frame began: 
               From harmony to harmony 
Through all the compass of the notes it ran, 
       The diapason closing full in man. 

Stanza 2 
What passion cannot music raise and quell! 
                When Jubal struck the corded shell, 
         His list'ning brethren stood around 
         And wond'ring, on their faces fell 
         To worship that celestial sound: 
Less than a god they thought there could not dwell 
                Within the hollow of that shell 
                That spoke so sweetly and so well. 
What passion cannot music raise and quell! 

Stanza 3 
         The trumpet's loud clangor 
                Excites us to arms 
         With shrill notes of anger 
                        And mortal alarms. 
         The double double double beat 
                Of the thund'ring drum 
         Cries, hark the foes come; 
Charge, charge, 'tis too late to retreat. 

Stanza 4 
         The soft complaining flute 
         In dying notes discovers 
         The woes of hopeless lovers, 
Whose dirge is whisper'd by the warbling lute. 

Stanza 5 
         Sharp violins proclaim 
Their jealous pangs, and desperation, 
Fury, frantic indignation, 
Depth of pains and height of passion, 
         For the fair, disdainful dame. 

Stanza 6 
But oh! what art can teach 
         What human voice can reach 
The sacred organ's praise? 
Notes inspiring holy love, 
Notes that wing their Heav'nly ways 
         To mend the choirs above. 

Stanza 7 
Orpheus could lead the savage race; 
And trees unrooted left their place; 
                Sequacious of the lyre: 
But bright Cecilia rais'd the wonder high'r; 
         When to her organ, vocal breath was giv'n, 
An angel heard, and straight appear'd 
                Mistaking earth for Heav'n. 

As from the pow'r of sacred lays 
         The spheres began to move, 
And sung the great Creator's praise 
         To all the bless'd above; 
So when the last and dreadful hour 
   This crumbling pageant shall devour, 
The trumpet shall be heard on high, 
         The dead shall live, the living die, 
         And music shall untune the sky.

Wednesday 20 November 2019

Venezia Inondata

The recent exceptional acque alte in Venice have received much coverage in the news – coverage that has been predictably unilluminating, going straight from spectacular images of the flooding to talk of 'climate change' (a term that is shorthand for 'catastrophic anthropogenic climate change' and was adopted when 'global warming' failed to pan out as predicted). The real story, largely ignored by the news bulletins, has less to do with 'climate change' than with a host of other factors, not least corruption.
  I remember that even at the time of my first visit to Venice – 50 years ago! – there was much talk of a comprehensive solution to Venice's high water problems, envisaged in the form of some kind of flood barrier. When, after decades of discussion and mysteriously disappearing funds, this eventually took definite shape, as MOSE (MOdulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico), it soon became apparent to all but those driving the project that this was just the kind of monolithic, inflexible, over-engineered grand project that was likely to do as much harm as good in an environment as sensitive and complex as the Venetian lagoon. But every objection and critique has been swept aside and the juggernaut rolls on. The latest projection is that MOSE will be completed in 2022 – a mere 19 years after construction began – but don't hold your breath...
 No doubt a great deal more money will be siphoned off into secret bank accounts before it's finished (if it ever is). In 2014, 35 people, including the then mayor of Venice, were arrested on MOSE-related corruption charges, and it was estimated that some 20 million euros had gone astray. This led to management of the project being taken out of Venetian hands and placed in those of the famously efficient Italian state (which seems hardly to have improved matters). It's a sorry tale – and meanwhile the physical and social structure of Venice continues to suffer terrible degradation as a result, chiefly, of mass tourism on a wholly unsustainable scale, with thousands pouring in daily on the notorious grandi navi, giant cruise ships that have no place in a city as fragile as Venice. Getting rid of them would do more for Venice than MOSE is ever likely to do.

Monday 18 November 2019

In Town

Today I went up to town for a few hours, strolling around and dropping in on various establishments, including what must surely be the poshest bookshop in the known universe (and I don't mean Hatchards, which, compared to this one, looks like Book R Us). I didn't find anything I wanted, but enjoyed overhearing a slow-motion conversation of quite outstanding circular fatuity between a very posh cove in desultory search of a book and the equally posh bookseller. I didn't stay to discover the outcome, as time was dragging on and I was rapidly losing the will to live. So I went on my way, and as I went on it I couldn't help but notice that the Christmas shopping frenzy was already under way, even in the bookshops (though of course not in the one I'd just visited, where frenzy in any form was hardly to be expected).
  You can see where all this is leading, can't you? Yes, to this year's must-have Christmas present / stocking filler, The Mother of Beauty. This book has, I was astonished to learn, turned up in an obscure small bookshop in Carmarthen – heaven knows how it could have got there. A copy has also turned up on AbeBooks, with an eye-watering mark-up. Remember, you can get it for a mere tenner on Amazon. Here's the link...

Sunday 17 November 2019


I've just realised that today is Auberon Waugh's 80th birthday – or it would be if he were still with us. That eventuality was never very likely, though: not only did he have a poor genetic inheritance (his father, Evelyn, died at 62) but he was also a heroic smoker and drinker, and accident-prone, as was shown most dramatically when he inadvertently shot – and very nearly killed – himself with a machine gun while on national service in Cyprus. On that occasion, while lying on the ground waiting for the ambulance, he famously made a joke of his situation, inviting his platoon sergeant to 'Kiss me, Chudleigh.' Chudleigh, alas, did not catch the allusion.
  The joke was typical of Waugh's attitude to life in general, his refusal, or inability, to take anything too seriously. The injuries he sustained left him with health problems all his life, but Waugh barely acknowledged them. He died at the age of 61, in January 2001, working to the end as one of the most brilliant, funny and original journalists who ever lived. And, of course, he left half a dozen novels, several if which I've written about here. Happily his memory lives on, and he is still widely – and rightly – admired, perhaps rather more so than when he was still with us. It would be wonderful if he were alive today – England has need of him.

Literary Grappa

My addiction to Ivy Compton-Burnett has kicked in again, and I'm back on the hard stuff – in this case, A Family and a Fortune (1939), which so far is showing every sign of being vintage Ivy. No doubt I shall be writing of it in due course, as I have written here of many of ICB's incomparable novels over the years.
Browsing just now in my files, I see that I also at some point wrote a short essay on Ivy's works – something I have only the very vaguest recollection of doing. I have no idea what audience I had in mind, nor if I ever tried it on any magazine. Most likely I just squirrelled it away and forgot about it; trying to 'sell' Ivy Compton-Burnett is pretty much bound to be a doomed project. However, here it is, for what it's worth. Someone might find it useful. It might even start a lifelong addiction...


The novels of Ivy Compton-Burnett are absolutely unlike anyone else’s. Dame Ivy – a highly distinguished literary figure from the mid-Twenties through to her death at the end of the Sixties – is nearly forgotten today, and most of her twenty-odd novels are out of print. However, it’s easy to find many of them online (praise be to Amazon) – and they are well worth finding, though Ivy is very much an acquired taste. If she were a drink, she would be Grappa, that formidable Italian digestif – fierce, harsh and bitter at first sip, but, once you’ve got the taste for the stuff, strangely alluring and moreish, even addictive.
  Ivy grew up in a large, complicated and troubled Edwardian family. Her father died when Ivy was 16 and grief turned her mother into a fearsome, emotionally manipulative domestic tyrant – a role that Ivy seems to have taken over after her mother’s death. Two favourite brothers died young – one of influenza and one in the Great War – and her two youngest sisters died in an apparent suicide pact. ‘One was a good deal cut up by the war; one’s brother was killed, and one had family troubles,’ as she later summed up, with typical understatement.
 Then, apparently out of nowhere, came Pastors And Masters, the first of the stream of novels that were to make Compton-Burnett’s name. The tale of two talentless academics and a sorry act of plagiarism, Pastors And Masters set the template for all the subsequent novels (right down to the binary title). Like all of them – regardless of when they were written – it is set in the Edwardian period and in a social milieu some way north of middle-class. Like all of them, it depicts a small, airless, claustrophobic world – domestic or institutional or both - in which the characters talk endlessly in long, ultra-formal, finely nuanced conversations that teem with subtext, with unspoken motives and passions.
 Almost everything – the action, characterisation and character development, sudden twists and shocking revelations – is carried by dialogue alone; there is virtually nothing else in a typical Ivy Compton-Burnett, apart from unhelpful thumbnail sketches of the characters and rudimentary stage directions. Most of the rest you have to work out for yourself, reading that extraordinary dialogue with care and close attention to discover – gradually or, often, explosively – what is really going on. You have to be on your toes even to keep track of who is speaking, as these conversations often involve several people, sometimes talking over each other or aside. It’s rather like listening from outside a door – something Ivy’s characters frequenty do. (They also have a habit of suddenly appearing from nowhere, like Jeeves.)
 Yes, I know, all this sound like hard work, and no one would describe Ivy Compton-Burnett as an easy read – she herself once said that her novels were ‘hard not to put down’. However, once you have plunged in, you gradually begin to get your bearings, and then the fun begins. For these novels are – for all the seething tensions, vicious power struggles and murderous resentments – comedies. Comedies of the darkest hue – featuring all manner of dastardly deeds, up to and including murder – but comedies none the less. They might even make you laugh (they do me) – more with a shocked gasp than a hearty chuckle, but it’s laughter all the same.
 The comedy comes partly from the contrast between all that endlessly refined dialogue and the baseness and dark emotions that drive it, and partly from the author’s shameless use of creaky plot contrivances that could have been lifted straight out of popular Victorian fiction. But of course it’s pointless trying to analyse comedy – far better to dive in and read.
 Where to begin? In a sense, it hardly matters, as every Compton-Burnett is very much like every other (and very much unlike anything else), but her own two favourites were Manservant And Maidservant – a novel in which life ‘downstairs’ mirrors the emotional battleground ‘upstairs’ - and A House And Its Head, a devastating portrait of masculine domestic tyranny.
Ivy’s opening paragraphs are always, to put it mildly, arresting. Here’s how A House And Its Head begins:

‘”So the children are not down yet?” said Ellen Edgeworth.
 Her husband gave her a glance, and turned his eyes towards the window.
 “So the children are not down yet?” she said on a note of question.
 Mr Edgeworth put his finger down his collar, and settled his neck.
 “So you are down first, Duncan?” said his wife, as though putting her observation in a more acceptable form.
 Duncan returned his hand to his collar with a frown…’

And here are the opening exchanges of Manservant And Maidservant:

 ‘”Is that fire smoking?” said Horace Lamb.
 “Yes, it appears to be, my dear boy.”
 “I am not asking what it appears to be doing. I asked if it was smoking.”
 “Appearances are not held to be a clue to the truth,” said his cousin. “But we seem to have no other.”’
[The fire is indeed smoking – there’s a dead jackdaw in the flue.]

Now read on…
No, really – do.


Friday 15 November 2019

Moore's Silence, James's Amenities

Today is the 132nd birthday of Marianne Moore, so a poem is surely called for.
Here is her 'Silence', a poem full of wise words, which she attributes to her father. This is odd, as she never met her father, who suffered a psychotic episode, and split up with her mother, before she was born. The name of Longfellow pops up again here, by way of his grave (in Mount Auburn cemetery, west of Cambridge, Mass.)...

My father used to say,
"Superior people never make long visits,
have to be shown Longfellow's grave
nor the glass flowers at Harvard.
Self reliant like the cat --
that takes its prey to privacy,
the mouse's limp tail hanging like a shoelace from its mouth --
they sometimes enjoy solitude,
and can be robbed of speech
by speech which has delighted them.
The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence;
not in silence, but restraint."
Nor was he insincere in saying, "`Make my house your inn'."
Inns are not residences. 

Talking of inns – here is Henry James, in English Hours, reflecting on the traditional English inn:
'I have sometimes had occasion to repine at the meagreness and mustiness of the old-fashioned English inn, and to feel that in poetry and in fiction these defects had been culpably glossed over. But I said to myself the other evening that there is a kind of venerable decency even in some of its dingiest contingencies, and that in an age in which the conception of good manners is losing most of its ancient firmness one should do justice to an institution that is still more or less of a stronghold of the faded amenities.'
Well, that 'ancient firmness' has only weakened since James's time, and those 'faded amenities' have faded yet more. Those who work in what is nowadays oxymoronically called the 'hospitality industry' display a hollow form of 'good manners' that is no more than a matter of following a script. This helps things to run smoothly – at least until circumstances demand a departure from the script – but at a cost in character, spontaneity and variety. James would not be impressed.
To our ears, his phrase 'faded amenities', in the context of an inn, suggests something very different from, and more concrete than, James's meaning. 'Amenities' is a word he uses broadly and freely to convey all those things that make life pleasing, decent and liveable. On his memorial stone in Chelsea Old Church, James is described as a 'lover & interpreter of the fine amenities, of brave decisions & generous loyalties.'

Thursday 14 November 2019

Niv, a Good Egg

I couldn't resist this picture of David Niven, exuding that characteristic officer-and-gentleman charm even when mounted, improbably, on a bicycle. Niven, readers of the authoritative Me Cheeta might recall, is one of the few Hollywood stars of whom Cheeta – always a very sound judge of character – approves. One of the comic highlights of Cheeta's memoir is an anecdote about Johnny Weissmuller and 'Niv' borrowing Douglas Fairbanks's Rolls-Royce and sending it on its way with Cheeta driving and Jackie, the MGM lion, in the passenger seat (it does not end well).
  Niven, with his irresistible charm and preposterous good looks – and ability to act, should the occasion demand it – was pretty much bound to become a star, once he reached Hollywood. Before he got there, he had been a Lieutenant in the Highland Light Infantry, but became bored with life in the peacetime Army. A minor 'act of subordination' got him placed under close arrest, but, having finished a convivial bottle of whisky with the officer who was guarding him, he was allowed to escape from a first-floor window. He was soon on his way across the Atlantic, resigning his commission by telegram.
  In the second spot of bother, however, he returned to England as soon as war was declared – the only British Hollywood star to do so – and ended the war as a Lieutenant-Colonel, having done important undercover work in the Allied invasion of Normandy. He had a 'good war', but, despite being a famous anecdotalist, he spoke little of his wartime experiences, saying on one occasion, 'I will, however, say one thing about the war, my first story and my last. I was asked by some American friends to search out the grave of their son near Bastogne. I found it where they told me I would, but it was among 27,000 others and I told myself that here, Niven, were 27,000 reasons why you should keep your mouth shut after the war.' Another story emerged that Niven, about to lead his men into action, calmed their nerves by telling them, 'Look, you chaps only have to do this once, but I'll have to do it all over again in Hollywood with Errol Flynn.'
  He was a good egg – and there weren't many of those in Hollywood.

Wednesday 13 November 2019

'Restoring intellectual day'

Has there ever been an election campaign as dismally uninspired, and uninspiring, as this one? Apart from the one important issue – Brexit, about which there is probably little more to be usefully said at this point  – the parties seem to have nothing more to tell us than how much of our money they're itching to throw away. With the socialists and the tories competing to outspend each other, those of us of a conservative bent can only look on and wonder what became of English conservatism; it certainly doesn't reside in Johnson's 'Conservative' party. What a dismal lookout.
  As a result of all this – piled on top of what was already wrong with them – the news programmes are becoming quite unlistenable (not to mention unwatchable). Radio 4's Today programme has become something from which I recoil each morning in horror, taking refuge with Radio 3, or my own music. Recently I've been exploring Handel, particularly the operas – why did it take me so long to realise what a great composer he was?
  And so it was that this morning I happened upon this sublimely beautiful duet...

It's from his pastoral ode L'Allegro, Il Penseroso ed Il Moderato, but the words of 'As Steals the Morn' are adapted from Shakespeare, from the final act of The Tempest –

As steals the morn upon the night,
And melts the shades away:
So truth does fancy's charm dissolve,
And melts the shades away:
The fumes that did the mind involve,
Restoring intellectual day.

'Restoring intellectual day' – aah, if only...

Monday 11 November 2019


Something warm and sunny for this chilly day – Morning in the Garden at Vaucresson by Edouard Vuillard.
The great intimiste, born on this day in 1868, is best known for his enigmatic, often dim domestic interiors, but pictures like this show that he could work just as well outdoors, in the sun.

Sunday 10 November 2019


This morning – happily a bright and sunny one – I was at a local remembrance ceremony, along with all the local worthies (a category that doesn't include me, I hasten to add). After the Minister's introductory sentence, the Mayor stepped up to the mike – far too close to the mike – and began to bellow, in a pawl-and-ratchet monotone, something that I assumed must be a poem. From the few words I could make out through the booming distortion, I guessed it was something by Wilfred Owen, always popular on these occasions. Consulting the programme afterwards, I discovered it was this one, The Send-Off

Down the close, darkening lanes they sang their way
To the siding-shed,
And lined the train with faces grimly gay.
Their breasts were stuck all white with wreath and spray
As men's are, dead.
Dull porters watched them, and a casual tramp
Stood staring hard,
Sorry to miss them from the upland camp.
Then, unmoved, signals nodded, and a lamp
Winked to the guard.
So secretly, like wrongs hushed-up, they went.
They were not ours:
We never heard to which front these were sent.
Nor there if they yet mock what women meant
Who gave them flowers.
Shall they return to beatings of great bells
In wild trainloads?
A few, a few, too few for drums and yells,
May creep back, silent, to still village wells
Up half-known roads.

Naturally this puts me in mind of Philip Larkin's thematically similar MCMXIV,  a poem more contained, more vivid, more controlled, and, I think, more eloquent for its restraint...

Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;
And the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens,
The tin advertisements
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day;
And the countryside not caring,
The place-names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheat's restless silence;
The differently dressed servants
With tiny rooms in huge houses,
The dust behind limousines;
Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word – the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.
Between the Laurence Binyon ('They shall not grow old...') and the Kohima epitaph ('When you go home, tell them of us and say, For your tomorrow, we gave our today') came the Last Post, the silence and the Reveille. Unfortunately the bugler was having a bad day, had lost his high notes and had but a shaky grasp of the lower ones, so the Last Post sounded like a solo by a member of the Portsmouth Sinfonia, and the Reveille was little better. 
This was all as it should be, of course. This is England, and we English are naturally suspicious of anything too slick, preferring to give an appearance of amateurism, even in things we're rather good at. Like winning wars.  Or maybe that should all be in the past tense.