Sunday 29 December 2019

To the Antipodes

This evening Mrs N and I are flying off to Wellington to spend a month with the New Zealand branch of the family. Looking forward to it all, apart from the horrendous journey – 24 hours and more in the air, with an overnight break in Singapore. It will be wonderful to be there, though.
Things will be rather quieter than usual on the blog front, but no doubt there will be occasional dispatches from the far antipodes.

Saturday 28 December 2019

Death of a Queen

On this day in 1694, Queen Mary II of England died at Kensington Palace of hemorrhagic smallpox. She was just 32 years old, and the death of this popular Queen unleashed a torrent of public grief unequalled by any royal death until the 21-year-old Princess Charlotte died in childbirth (with her newborn son) in 1817 (see chapter 'The Saddest Stories' in my book) – and, in our own time, by the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.
  Mary's husband, William III, who had hurried back to England from the Dutch Republic to be with her, was overcome with grief. This habitually austere and distant man dissolved into tears, and was inconsolable for days on end; some thought he would die. 'From being the happiest of men I shall now be the miserablest creature on earth,' he declared. 'The marble weeps,' wrote Matthew Prior, observing this broken man.
 Mary's embalmed body lay in state in Whitehall banqueting house through one of those cold winters that were frequent in that mini ice age, with the Thames frozen from bank to bank. On March 5th, 1695, she was buried in Westminster Abbey, her funeral the first to be attended by all the members of both houses of parliament. And, for the occasion, Henry Purcell wrote his moving and eloquent Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary, some of his greatest work –

Before the end of the year, Purcell was himself dead.
  But enough of these mournful numbers: during her reign Queen Mary was also the dedicatee of Purcell's joyful Birthday Odes, including this glorious masterpiece from the year of the Queen's death – Come, Come, Ye Sons of Art

Thursday 26 December 2019

Kipling at Christmas

Among my Christmas gifts was a British Library anthology, A Literary Christmas (no editor credited), a nice package of verse and prose, some of it familiar, some quite new to me. In the latter category, I discovered an early work (1886) by Rudyard Kipling which is surely one of the bitterest, most sardonic Christmas poems ever written –

Christmas in India

Dim dawn behind the tamarisks -- the sky is saffron-yellow --
  As the women in the village grind the corn,
And the parrots seek the riverside, each calling to his fellow
  That the Day, the staring Eastern Day, is born.
    O the white dust on the highway! O the stenches in the byway!
      O the clammy fog that hovers over earth!
    And at Home they're making merry 'neath the white and scarlet berry --
      What part have India's exiles in their mirth?

Full day behind the tamarisks -- the sky is blue and staring --
  As the cattle crawl afield beneath the yoke,
And they bear One o'er the field-path, who is past all hope or caring,
  To the ghat below the curling wreaths of smoke.
    Call on Rama, going slowly, as ye bear a brother lowly --
      Call on Rama -- he may hear, perhaps, your voice!
    With our hymn-books and our psalters we appeal to other altars,
      And to-day we bid "good Christian men rejoice!"

High noon behind the tamarisks -- the sun is hot above us --
  As at Home the Christmas Day is breaking wan.
They will drink our healths at dinner -- those who tell us how they love us,
  And forget us till another year be gone!
    Oh the toil that knows no breaking! Oh the Heimweh, ceaseless, aching!
      Oh the black dividing Sea and alien Plain!
    Youth was cheap -- wherefore we sold it.
      Gold was good -- we hoped to hold it,
    And to-day we know the fulness of our gain!

Grey dusk behind the tamarisks -- the parrots fly together --
  As the sun is sinking slowly over Home;
And his last ray seems to mock us shackled in a lifelong tether.
  That drags us back howe'er so far we roam.
    Hard her service, poor her payment -- she in ancient, tattered raiment --
      India, she the grim Stepmother of our kind.
    If a year of life be lent her, if her temple's shrine we enter,
      The door is shut -- we may not look behind.

Black night behind the tamarisks -- the owls begin their chorus --
  As the conches from the temple scream and bray.
With the fruitless years behind us and the hopeless years before us,
  Let us honour, O my brother, Christmas Day!
    Call a truce, then, to our labours -- let us feast with friends and neighbours,
      And be merry as the custom of our caste;
    For, if "faint and forced the laughter," and if sadness follow after,
      We are richer by one mocking Christmas past.

How on earth did Kipling ever gain his reputation as a gung-ho, jingoistic, unquestioning apologist for Empire? It is clear even in a work as early as this that his view of Empire was essentially tragic. For a fuller expression of it, see, for example, his later, more famous (and much better) poem, Recessional...

God of our fathers, known of old,
   Lord of our far-flung battle-line,
Beneath whose awful Hand we hold
   Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

The tumult and the shouting dies;
   The Captains and the Kings depart:
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
   An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

Far-called, our navies melt away;
   On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
   Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
   Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe,
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
   Or lesser breeds without the Law—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

For heathen heart that puts her trust
   In reeking tube and iron shard,
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
   And guarding, calls not Thee to guard,
For frantic boast and foolish word—
Thy mercy on Thy People, Lord!

Tuesday 24 December 2019

Christmas Eve

Yesterday, rather to my surprise, I found myself writing a kind of sermon. I am not, of course, a parson, and am woefully unqualified for the job; but if I were one, I fancy the only part of the job I might enjoy would be writing the weekly sermon. Anyway, here's what I wrote – too short for an actual sermon, but topical and to the point...

Viewed as history, the story of the Nativity makes no sense – but viewed as parable, as imagery, as the embodiment of a higher truth, it is surely, in the words of the film title, 'the greatest story ever told', though it is only the beginning of that story. That God should have taken human form is wonderful enough; that He should have come to Earth not as a hero, a conqueror, a vindicated prophet, but as a helpless baby, and an outcast, born in a stable and laid in a manger where animals feed – that is something else altogether: that is a full taking-on the human condition at its weakest, humblest and most powerless. And yet, according to the story, kings and wise men come to join the lowly shepherds in worshipping this helpless child. Clearly something enormous, something entirely new, is happening here. The truth this child brings will be about the strength of the downtrodden, the transforming power of mercy and forgiveness, the loving nature of this God in whose name we must love even our enemies and throw away all former notions of what is just and proper, who is strong and who is weak. As Mary says in the Magnificat, 'He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away.' All is transformed, turned upside down, by this birth, obscure in the eyes of the world, but infinite in its true, its mighty significance. This baby, whose ignominious birth prefigures a yet more ignominious death, changes everything.
As often at this time of year, I think of the image at the end of R.S. Thomas's 'Song' –

I choose white, but with
Red on it, like the snow
In winter with its few
Holly berries and the one

Robin, that is a fire
To warm by and like Christ
Comes to us in his weakness,
But with a sharp song.

And a very happy Christmas to all who browse here!

(The painting, by the way, is by Georges de la Tour.)

Monday 23 December 2019

'Life is real! Life is earnest!'

Strolling through the churchyard (as I often do), I noticed a quotation on a gravestone that was definitely not biblical but was, to me, extremely familiar –

'Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.'

Yes, it's Longfellow again – The Psalm of Life – and the reason it was so familiar to me was that it was one of the bits of strenuously moralistic verse that my father liked to intone while shaving in the morning, in between the much more exciting narrative poems. I don't think he had the whole of this one by heart, but he certainly had the first quatrain:

'Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.'

And, from a little later in Longfellow's overlong effusion:

'Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time.'

(That last line was rewritten by some later poetical wag as 'Arseprints in the sands of time'.)

Another of my father's favourites in this moralising line was

'Life is mostly froth and bubble,
Two things stand like stone.
Kindness in another's trouble,
Courage in your own.'

The Queen herself quoted these lines in her Christmas message at the end of her annus horribilis of 1992, but didn't mention the author – not Longfellow but Adam Lindsay Gordon.
  Gordon was an interesting, rather dashing figure – an Englishman who, to escape the consequences of a wild and reckless youth, took passage to Australia, where he became a police officer before resigning to take up horse-breaking. A remarkable horseman and amateur jockey, he also had a brief political career. According to Wikipedia, 'his semiclassical speeches were colourful and entertaining, but largely irrelevant.' After this, he devoted himself more diligently to poetry – Bush Ballads and Galloping Rhymes being his chief claim to (posthumous) fame – while suffering various setbacks, including a head injury from a riding accident and chronic financial difficulties. In 1870, at the age of 36, he walked into the bush and shot himself.  He is now regarded as one of the fathers of Australian literature, even though much of his verse has been written off as quite indefensibly bad.

Sunday 22 December 2019

A Mind of Winter

There's no snow in prospect here in rain-lashed sodden England, so we can only cultivate 'a mind of winter' and look to poetry for something white and seasonal – and, in this case, glittering with enigmatic beauty. It's Wallace Stevens's great short poem of 1921, The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Tuesday 17 December 2019

Blogging Note

I'll be in Mercia for the next fews days, and pre-Christmas busyness is closing in, so blogging might be a little sparse for a while...

Monday 16 December 2019

A Churchyard Sonnet

Browsing in an anthology of sonnets, my eye – the eye of a churchyard-lover – was naturally drawn to this gloomy, but artfully constructed, specimen. It's by Charlotte Smith, whose Elegiac Sonnets were an instant success in 1784, paving the way for a revival of the sonnet form and making an early contribution to the 'Romantic' school of poetry. Her poetical development was frustrated by the need to write popular novels (file under 'Gothic' and 'Sensibility') for a living, a spendthrift husband and an endless lawsuit ensuring that she was always financially embarrassed: even the Elegiac Sonnets were written while she was living in a debtors' prison with her husband and children. However, she continued to write poetry throughout her career, much of it tending towards the lugubrious, often featuring extreme weather and perilous coastal locations: titles include Huge Vapours Brood above the Clifted Shore and Sonnet: On Being Cautioned Against Walking on an Headland Overlooking the Sea, Because It Was Frequented by a Lunatic. Here is the sonnet that caught my churchyard-loving eye:

Written in the Church Yard at Middleton in Sussex

Pressed by the moon, mute arbitress of tides,
While the loud equinox its power combines,
The sea no more its swelling surge confines,
But o'er the shrinking land sublimely rides.
The wild blast, rising from the western cave,
Drives the huge billows from their heaving bed,
Tears from their grassy tombs the village dead,
And breaks the silent Sabbath of the grave!
With shells and sea-weed mingled, on the shore,
Lo! their bones whiten in the frequent wave;
But vain to them the winds and waters rave;
They hear the warring elements no more:
While I am doomed – by life's long storm oppress'd,
To gaze with envy on their gloomy rest.

As it happens, I once knew Middleton (now Middleton-on-Sea) quite well. It was my sister-in-law's home village, and she and my brother were married in the church there. This, however, was not the church Charlotte Smith would have known: that building, much of which had already been destroyed by the sea, was reduced to a ruin by an exceptionally high tide in 1838, and replaced by a wholly new church a decade later. Charlotte's Middleton sonnet dates from 1789, by which time the sea was already eroding the graveyard, with the effects described so graphically in the poem. 

Sunday 15 December 2019

My Contribution to the Gender Debate

This fantastical rigmarole contains an interesting phrase.
It's the title page of a pamphlet put out by the extremely successful quack 'Dr' James Graham, proprietor of the Temple of Health and the Hymeneal Temple, in their day two of London's most sensational attractions:

                  'Il Convito Amoroso,
           Or a Serio-Comico-Philosophical
                            on the
Causes, Nature and Effects of Love and Beauty at the dif-
ferent periods of Human Life, in Persons and Personages,
Male, Female, and Demi-Caractère; and in Praise of the
 Genial and Prolific Influences of the Celestial Bed.
           As delivered by Hebe Vesteria
     The Rosy Goddess of Youth and of Health
                          from the
Electrical Throne, in the Great Apollo Chamber at the
           Temple of Hymen, in London.'

The phrase that caught my eye was 'Male, Female and Demi-Caractère'. Dr Graham seems to have been an early adopter of the non-binary view of these matters...
'Demi-Caractère' derives from dance, where it describes a style of dancing that partakes of both character dance and classical ballet – a hybrid style. Presumably it is used here to describe a kind of hybrid sex, with elements of both male and female. I pass this on as my contribution to the ever vexed gender debate. Wouldn't a term like 'demi-caractère' raise the tone considerably?

(The famous Celestial Bed is a story in itself, and a pretty mind-boggling one – follow this link for a brief account of it.)

Friday 13 December 2019


Well, that's a relief.
Old Nige's prognostickation engine called it correctly (if cautiously), and the native good sense and decency of the electorate prevailed. Phew. Now I can stand down the prognostickation engine for five years, with any luck.
Meanwhile, I devoutly hope the Labour party will consign Corbyn, McDonnell and co to what radicals like to call the 'dustbin of history', leave this shameful episode in the history of the party behind, and re-form as a decent and credible Loyal Opposition. That is what's needed now.
And with that, I retire from the political arena again.

Thursday 12 December 2019


I have just seen something I've never seen before – a mistle thrush actually eating mistletoe berries.
I take this for a good omen.

David Bellamy RIP

Sad to hear news of the death of David Bellamy, the naturalist, broadcaster and campaigner who was a major presence on TV – and a major force for good –  until he fell foul of the Climate Inquisition for daring to voice some doubts over what was then called 'global warming'. This heresy (along with his almost equally heretical support for the Referendum Party) effectively cost him the remainder of his career and cast him into the outer darkness where 'deniers' like him belong, according to BBC protocols (and a range of other interested parties).
  I always had a soft spot for Bellamy, partly because he was a local lad (Sutton and Cheam, just down the road from Carshalton) who, like me – and indeed the great Ray Mears – spent his early years exploring the wildlife of the North Downs. He deserved better – far better – than to be hounded out of public life for expressing an unwelcome view. Broadcasters – and, worse, scientists – have since learnt the lesson from cases like his: keep your head down, toe the line, remember 'the science is settled'.
  The ebullient Bellamy did more than most to spread the love of natural history, and he was a tireless campaigner in countless sound environmental causes (he was even imprisoned for his activities once, in Australia). In a just world, he'd have ended up revered and beatified like the secular saint David Attenborough. But a just world it is not. Let's hope that he is now blissfully roaming the celestial North Downs.

Wednesday 11 December 2019

Old Nige's Prognostickation

I fear it's time for my biennial excursion into the increasingly depressing world of politics. During the course of this fatuous and interminable election campaign (six weeks?! Who needs six weeks of this?) I've done my best to avoid the day-by-day news coverage and keep my mind on the big picture. And what a 'big picture' it is! Call me a sentimental nostalgist, but I never thought it possible that in this country a Tory government (or any government) would be facing a main opposition party led by quasicommunist antisemites and a second opposition party whose stated aim and principal policy is to overthrow a clear democratic mandate. Even if I had managed to envisage such a scenario, I could never have foreseen that said main opposition party might be in a position to steal the election and form a government with their quasicommunist antisemitic selves at the helm. And yet the tone of most of the coverage of this election has been much the same as for any other, with a carefully maintained illusion of equivalence between the main parties, and no serious discussion of the national catastrophe that would undoubtedly follow such a 'victory'.
  In these dismal circumstances, I have dutifully cranked up Old Nige's Prognostickation Engine yet again – and I'm happy and relieved to report that it's predicting a fairly comfortable win for the Tories, with an outside possibility of something more like a bluewash. Of course, I might not have done quite enough work on recalibrating the imbecility filters after the last time... But I remain confident that, in the end, the electorate (apart from that London lot, of course) still have more sense than to let the likes of JC anywhere near the levers of power.

Tuesday 10 December 2019

Emily Dickinson's birthday thoughts

Emily Dickinson was born on this day in 1830.
Here are her characteristically pungent and succinct birthday thoughts:

Birthday of but a single pang
That there are less to come —
Afflictive is the Adjective
But affluent the doom —

Monday 9 December 2019

'The complexion of a murderer in a bandbox'

This is not a quiz, but the passage below – the first paragraph of a book – invites some questions:
What is the writer on about? What could possibly be the subject of this book? And who on earth could the author be?

'In this strange "goose-weather", when even the snow and the black-fringed clouds seem like old theatrical properties, dead players' cast-off rags, "the complexion of a murderer in a bandbox, consisting of a large piece of burnt cork, and a coal-black Peruke", and when the wind is so cold that it seems like an empty theatre's "Sea, consisting of a dozen large waves, the tenth a little bigger than ordinary and a little damaged", I thought of those medicines that were advised for Melancholy, in the anatomy of this Disease, of mummies made medicine, and of the profits of dust-sifting.'
[The embedded quotations, by the way, are from a 'List of Theatrical Properties', in The Tatler, number 42.]

The writer is clearly in thrall to Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy – and, at the end of the chapter, quotes the passage from Sir Thomas Browne that ends 'Mummy is become merchandise, Mizraim cureth wounds, and Pharaoh is sold for balsam' – which at least gives the chapter a kind of circularity. But what is the subject of this book, and who is the writer? Well, the subject is English Eccentrics, and the author is Edith Sitwell, who has still several pages to write before – by way of the great 'Battlebridge Dust and Cinder-Heap', the Pandemonium Theatre Company, 'the clicking noises made by earthworms' ['recently discovered by the physiologist O. Mangold'], the 'morning worship' and vocalisations of lemurs, and attempts to teach human speech to chimpanzees – she finally arrives at the subject of Eccentricity, and the first of her English Eccentrics at last hoves into view.
'Eccentricity exists particularly in the English,' Sitwell observes, 'and partly, I think, because of that peculiar and satisfactory knowledge of infallibility that is the hallmark and birthright of the British nation.'
  I've always tended to go along with Leavis's sniffy judgment of the literary Sitwells – Osbert, Edith and Sacheverell – as belonging more to the history of publicity than of literature (I don't know why, as I'm sure I disagree with Leavis on most things). However, I owe a debt to Sacheverell, whose long introduction to Mrs Esdaile's English Church Monuments, 1510-1840 is the best, and by miles the most engaging, introduction to the subject, and was one of my chief inspirations in writing my book.
And now I'm giving Edith a try, and so far am greatly enjoying English Eccentrics. Reading it feels more like reading Burton or Browne than anything of the 20th century. I know too little of Edith Sitwell's other work to reach any great conclusions, but, for all her modernist experiments in verse, she seems, in this book at least, to demonstrate a thoroughly 17th-century sensibility – a rare thing in the twentieth.
 She was in many ways, however, of her own time, with her own place in 'the history of publicity', and with some surprising connections – here, by way of a coda, is Dame Edith talking, very astutely and sympathetically, about Marilyn Monroe...

Sunday 8 December 2019

70 and one day

Well, yesterday's events only deepened my sense of thankfulness for everything. A Surprise Party that wasn't entirely unexpected turned out in the event to be a magnificent surprise indeed, thanks to Mrs N's (and others') titanic efforts of clandestine organisation and preparation; its lavish scale; and the number and range of guests, several of whom were indeed surprise presences, and very wonderful surprises. From the moment I arrived and took in the scene before me, I entered a kind of blissful dream-like state, a high from which I'm only now coming down. Things will return to something like normal in due course, I dare say... Meanwhile, a huge and heartfelt thankyou to the redoubtable Mrs N and to all those who were there yesterday and are reading this. And for all the birthday wishes so many have sent. It was a day to remember.

Saturday 7 December 2019


Today I achieve my three score years and ten. Well, 'achieve' is hardly the word: so long as you continue to breathe in and breathe out, reflect light and occupy space, these landmarks come and go. As this one arrives, I find myself hugely thankful, that I have survived and am in good health, and that my life has been so abundantly full of love and delight – and luck. I am truly blest, and know it. I hope Tom Waits is feeling the same...
And I'm also very glad that I managed to get the book out into the world before this landmark date arrived. 

Friday 6 December 2019

'A morning dew, pearling the grass beneath'

Today on Anecdotal Evidence, Patrick Kurp writes about a treasured book – an edition of the poems of George Herbert that was a gift from the poet Helen Pinkerton. Published in New York in 1854, this collection was edited 'by the Rev. George Gilfillan' – a name that rang quite a loud bell with me.
  Sure enough, Gilfillan features in John Gross's classic The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters, where he is affectionately described as 'the McGonagall of criticism'. A man of formidable energy and self-belief, he did pioneering work in introducing the classics of English literature to a hungry reading public in the mid-19th century, but was also wildly enthusiastic about the emerging school of 'Spasmodic' poets – such long forgotten names as Alexander Smith, Philip James Bailey, J. Stanyan Bigg and Sydney Dobell, all authors of grandiose, tormented spiritual epics. This enthusiasm laid Gilfillan open to a well aimed satirical attack, William Aytoun's Firmilian, A Spasmodic Tragedy, an assault that might have ended the career of a lesser man. Gilfillan, however, battled on, dismissing all criticism of himself, producing a spasmodic epic of his own – Night, a poem in nine books – and bringing out an annotated edition of the English poets in 48 volumes, a publication supported by an impressive 7,000 subscribers.
  My own edition of Herbert, which belonged to my grandmother, is of similar vintage, but published by the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge. No editor is named, but the volume includes Izaak Walton's life of the poet, some Commendatory Verses by various hands, and a small selection of Herbert's letters. Browsing in these just now, I came across this beautiful letter 'for my dear sick Sister':

Most dear Sister,
Think not my silence forgetfulness; or that my love is as dumb as my papers: though businesses may stop my hand, yet my heart, a much better member, is always with you; and, which is more, with our good and gracious God, incessantly begging some ease of your pains, with that earnestness that becomes your griefs and my love. God, who knows and sees this writing, knows also that my soliciting Him has been much and my tears many for you; judge me then by those waters, and not by my ink, and then you shall justly value
           Your most truly, most heartily
                 affectionate brother and servant...

Patrick quotes Herbert's marvellous sonnet, 'Prayer', and confesses to having a weakness for such 'list poems'. Here is another, by the minor Elizabethan poet Barnabe Barnes. Like 'Prayer', and like most of Barnes's poetical output, it's a sonnet – but, unlike Herbert's, it reveals its subject not in its title but in its closing couplet:

'A blast of wind, a momentary breath'

A blast of wind, a momentary breath,
A wat'ry bubble symbolized with air,
A sun-blown rose, but for a season fair,
A ghostly glance, a skeleton of death;
A morning dew, pearling the grass beneath,
Whose moisture sun's appearance doth impair;
A lightning glimpse, a muse of thought and care,
A planet's shot, a shade which followeth,
A voice which vanisheth so soon as heard,
The thriftless heir of time, a rolling wave,
A show, no more in action than regard,
A mass of dust, world's momentary slave,
  Is man, in state of our old Adam made,
  Soon born to die, soon flourishing to fade.

Thursday 5 December 2019

Scenes from Another World

On this day in 1958, two momentous events occurred – the kind of events that make a person of my vintage realise how long he's been around.
  Before this date, it was not possible to make a telephone call of any distance at all without going via 'the operator', who would connect you (if you were lucky) to the number you wanted. Then came STD (subscriber trunk dialling) and it became possible to dial direct to relatively far flung parts of the country. The maximum distance achievable was roughly that from Bristol to Edinburgh. And so it was that, on this date in 1958, the Queen (with Postmaster General Ernest Marples at her right hand) made the first STD call from Bristol's central telephone exchange to the Lord Provost's residence in Edinburgh. Happily it worked, and the Queen was able to speak the historic words, 'This is the Queen speaking from Bristol. Good afternoon, my Lord Provost.'
 On the same day, elsewhere in England, prime minister Harold Macmillan was opening Britain's first motorway – the Preston bypass, all eight and a quarter miles of it (long since subsumed into the M6). A large and enthusiastic crowd had gathered at the Samlesbury interchange to watch the historic ceremony, such as it was. Macmillan, in an Austin Sheerline limousine, then became the first person to drive (or, rather, be driven) on an English motorway, travelling the length of the bypass at a sensible speed.
  It's fair to say that Britain's first motorway was not an instant success. Many cautious drivers stayed away for fear of being overtaken by maniacs risking speeds of 70mph – or more! Traffic levels (and speeds, which averaged 38mph) were initially low, and it was to be some years before, driven by sheer necessity, British drivers got the hang of motorways. Now a Britain without motorways, and with telephone operators, is inconceivable – and yet that is exactly what we had in my own living memory. Truly it was another world.

Wednesday 4 December 2019

Unhappy Scenes from Clerical Life

On this day in 1835, the novelist and critic Samuel Butler was born. Readers of The Mother of Beauty will recall that he was born at Langar in the Nottinghamshire wolds, where his father was Rector of St Andrew's, and where he spent a desperately unhappy childhood. St Andrew's church houses the Scroope monument, one of the finest of its time, and it was this, rather than the Samuel Butler connection, that first drew me to Langar. The church itself, alas, is sadly over-restored... In this exclusive extract from the chapter Scenes from Platonic England, I take up the story:

'Pevsner describes the exterior of St Andrew’s as being ‘unfortunately so vigorously restored by Thomas Butler that little of its original surface remains’. This Thomas Butler, vigorous restorer, was the Rector of Langar – and father of the late-Victorian writer Samuel Butler. Thomas, the son of a very distinguished father – headmaster of Shrewsbury School and Bishop of Lichfield – had been pressed into the Church against his inclinations and had a far from stellar ecclesiastical career. He would be quite forgotten today, had he not had the misfortune to be immortalised in his son’s autobiographical novel, The Way of All Flesh.
  This is one of the most savage accounts of an oppressed childhood ever written, and Butler Senior, a physical and emotional bully, comes out of it very badly indeed, as does his wife, Samuel’s mother. The author considered both of them ‘brutal and stupid’, and wrote of his father that ‘he never liked me, nor I him; from my earliest recollections I can call to mind no time when I did not fear him and dislike him’. The unhappy Thomas Butler might well have been taking out the frustrations of his own failed life on his son, re-enacting his own father’s dominance over him in still harsher form – but that, of course, was no consolation to the son on the receiving end, who was never reconciled with his parents.
  Surprisingly, the young Samuel Butler allowed himself to be steered towards the same career as his father and grandfather. However, after Cambridge, his religious doubts began to prevail – much to his father’s wrath – and, to make a radical break with his parents and the future that had been laid down for him, Samuel emigrated to New Zealand, where his experiences inspired his first literary success, the satirical novel Erewhon.

  The Way of All Flesh was considered too incendiary to be published in his lifetime, but after its posthumous publication came to be seen as a minor classic. As a novel, it’s a bit of a mess, but the earlier chapters offer an unforgettably vivid picture of the life of gloomy and stultifying piety, reinforced by brutal punishment, that was once lived in Langar rectory. Platonic England, house of solitudes, had – no doubt still has – its dark side.'

Tuesday 3 December 2019

O tempora, o mores

For anyone not yet entirely convinced that (a) the world has gone mad and (b) events in the 'woke' world have moved way beyond the reach of satire and parody, I pass on this story.
I don't think any further comment is required...

Monday 2 December 2019

'Ewart is very frivolous and brittle...'

Well, I've read Gavin Ewart's Penultimate Poems, and by and large it has confirmed my memory of reading Ewart as being an entertaining, engaging experience but seldom anything much more. He was wonderfully fluent and productive – facile even – and a fine practitioner of what is called 'light verse'.
 The last of the Penultimate Poems is a handy piece of good-humoured auto-criticism by a poet who knows he's now outdated and out of critical favour (though outselling most of the poetical competition, even so) and doesn't much care. The line 'Ewart can do very little' is decidedly wide of the mark: Ewart could do practically anything, and with ease. He was versatile to a fault.

A Critic Speaks

Ewart is very frivolous and brittle.
Ewart can do very little –
though every once in a while
he might raise a weary smile.

A stallion neighing at a filly?
His best poems are silly.
Some find them not very nice.
Perhaps they're just worth the price.

But only just. It must be said,
The first thing that comes into his head
is what he writes about,
with rhyme and rhythm, or else without.

What, no insects? And no flowers?
No Heavenly or Earthly Powers?
No pike, no plaice, no crabs, no cod?
No fish at all! And, worse, no God!

Where is the secret narrative, the myth?
The mysticism? The concentrated pith
of Martian Arts? The learned story
of the proud High Tory?

The surrealist touch, quite gay
when the boys come out to play?
Animals, landscapes? Not a hint.
One wonders wanly: Why, why print

all this sad old-fashioned stuff?
It was once new enough –
but now, as fresh modes come in,
we drop it, fastidiously, in the bin!

Sunday 1 December 2019

Apostrophes: A Battle Lost

Sadly, but unsurprisingly, the Apostrophe Protection Society has closed down.
  This little pressure group was founded 18 years ago for the sole purpose of resisting the incorrect use of the apostrophe in English, as in 'it's' for 'its' or the all too common 'greengrocer's [or indeed greengrocers'] apostrophe', as in 'Best Carrot's 50p lb', etc. The founder of the society, who is now 96 years old and, reasonably enough, cutting back on his activities, has concluded, with regret, that the battle is lost, and that 'the ignorance and laziness present in modern times have won'.
I fear he is right that this particular battle is lost: I come across 'it's' for 'its' all the time, often used by otherwise perfectly literate people, and the conviction, especially among traders, that an apostrophe denotes a plural remains firmly entrenched. A striking example of the latter can be seen on the approach to the west terminal at Victoria, where some years ago a railway worker painted on the wall the warning 'Mind Spike's'. Whatever he wrote it in, it has proved remarkably durable, quite possibly outliving the spikes themselves and no doubt infuriating many a passing apostrophist. Spike's what?
  Does the apostrophe matter that much? Although it's clearly preferable that it's used correctly, I don't think it's ever likely to result in a confusion of meaning or a loss of nuance. Other lost battles have robbed the language of useful distinctions, e.g. the now ubiquitous 'forever' used indiscriminately to cover both English usages: 'for ever', meaning for all time, and 'forever', meaning all the time, or continually, as in 'I'm forever blowing bubbles'. Another battle now almost completely lost is that for 'different from': even upmarket journalists are now happy to use not only 'different to' but even 'different than'. Though it grates, it doesn't matter too much, but it does separate the adjective from its verb of origin and slightly blurs the sense of that word. And then there's the almost universal use of 'amount of' for countable things, as in 'the amount of people'. It seems that not a lot of people [spot the deliberate error]  know this is incorrect. But that's enough pedantry from me.
  I hope the founder of the Apostrophe Protection Society is wrong in his broader point and that 'the ignorance and laziness present in modern times' have not won. Or at least not anywhere it really matters.