Thursday 31 December 2020

New Year's Eve

 This time last year I was in transit, somewhere between Singapore and Auckland (remember international travel? Fun, wasn't it?) with no idea what the new year was going to bring. No more have I any idea now, but I shan't be cranking up my progonstickation engine; rather I'll be looking back on 2020, and, this blog being what it is, remembering the high points, upsides and abundant pleasures.  
  2020 was the year in which I largely abandoned Radio 4 – something that would have been unthinkable a few years ago – and made Radio 3 my default network, a musical refuge amid all the madness. It was a good year to do it too, being the great Beethoven anniversary, an occasion to which Radio 3 rose splendidly. I ended the year more thoroughly convinced than ever of Beethoven's staggering musical genius. My greatest musical discovery of the year, though, I owe not to Radio 3 but to a tip-off from an old friend of this blog, Mahlerman: it was Teodor Currentzis's breathtaking Rameau album, The Sound of Light, to which I have become thoroughly addicted. (Beethoven aside, most of my listening and my musical exploration has been in the world of Baroque.) 
  Lockdown 1 – how long ago it seems – brought the welcome sound of silence, and with it birdsong, never before so clear and so welcome. With scarcely any cars on the road, the air became very much sweeter, and being a pedestrian a good deal easier – effects that, sadly, were not replicated in subsequent 'lockdowns'. Meanwhile, with spells of glorious weather recurring throughout the spring and summer, walking in my local bits of countryside was more delightful than ever – and, in terms of butterfly encounters, hugely rewarding. So much so that it sparked the idea of writing a short butterfly-themed book, which I am now engaged in doing, at my customary snail's pace; I'm hoping to have it finished by spring or thereabouts. By which time – here's another piece of 2020 good news – a fifth grandchild will be in the world, and happily near at hand, not in the Antipodes.
  The first lockdown also gave me the impetus and opportunity to go through 'my papers' – making some surprising, mostly pleasant discoveries – to write a brief memoir (not for publication) and read one of those big fat classics I'd never got round to: Alessandro Manzoni's The Betrothed, which I enjoyed very much more than I'd expected. Other highlights of the reading year included another big fat book I'd long been meaning to get round to – Jenny Uglow's excellent The Lunar Men – and A.J.A. Symons's extraordinary 'experiment in biography' The Quest for Corvo. Vikram Seth's An Equal Music was a mixed pleasure, but musically rewarding, and I greatly enjoyed the earlier, more youthful parts of Fanny Burney's diaries, while Elizabeth von Arnim's Vera flabbergasted me, and Kay Ryan's essay collection Synthesizing Gravity stimulated me (and made me laugh). Oddly, despite 'lockdown', this hasn't been a particularly rich book year for me, partly perhaps because I've been reading or rereading so many butterfly books. One of these in particular, Jeremy Thomas's Butterflies of Britain and Ireland (the full-sized edition), beautifully illustrated by Richard Lewington, has given me enormous pleasure.  
  This was also the year in which I finally took out a Netflix subscription. It proved to be worth it for the Coen brothers' astonishing western The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – my most memorable viewing experience in some while. On the art front, there was only one highlight, but what a highlight – the once-in-a-lifetime exhibition of Titian's reunited Poesie at the National Gallery. Simply stunning.
  With so many planned excursions, walks and breaks abandoned, it seems all but miraculous that we managed the traditional short family holiday in Dieppe, returning just days ahead of the latest round of quarantining. The few excursions I did manage in the course of the year are all the more precious for their scarcity, especially my visits to Lincoln, Lichfield, Newark and other Mercian parts. I have high hopes for more travel, both at home and abroad, next year...
  And with that I'll wish all who frequent this corner of the ever shrinking blogscape a very Happy New Year. Here's to better things!

Monday 28 December 2020

Be More Cat

 Lately I've been reading too many books at once, with the result that (slow reader as I am) I haven't finished one in a while. However, I have now read all 111 pages of John Gray's commendably short and typically brilliant Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life. Like all his work, it makes for a bracing, eye-opening read, and its pages, however few, are, as Dr Johnson would say, 'full of matter'. Never wasting a word, Gray surveys a wide horizon, touching on several religions and the thoughts of various philosophers (beginning with the cat-loving Montaigne). As ever, he coolly undermines all our illusions about ourselves and puts us in our place – our place being in the animal kingdom, from the other inhabitants of which we are distinguished chiefly by a morbid self-consciousness that leads us to fear death, to see our lives as meaningful narratives, and to devote ourselves to such dubious causes as the pursuit of happiness.
  Cats, needless to say, are unaffected by any such concerns and simply get on with living their lives, fulfilling their conatus. In this they are like all other non-human beings, but undeniably cats are a special case: they are the only undomesticated animals with whom we share our lives (or rather the only undomesticated animals who deign to share their lives, in part, with us). Cats were never domesticated; they are using us at least as much as we are using them for our human needs (vermin control, companionship, relaxation, something to care for, a show of affection). Unlike dogs, they never become ingratiating quasi-humans but remain absolutely themselves: even in terms of morphology and genetics, it is difficult to tell wild or 'feral' cats from 'domesticated' ones.
  What can we learn from them? Nothing by precept, of course, but everything by example: they have much to teach us, Gray argues, about how to live, and indeed how to die. As long as they are fed and their equilibrium is not seriously disturbed, cats live fearlessly, contentedly, without anxiety and without ambition. When their time has come, they die quietly, and when they have nothing particular to do, they sleep. One of the 'Ten Feline Hints on How to Live Well' that are listed at the end of the book is 'Sleep for the joy of sleeping – Sleeping so that you can work harder when you wake up is a miserable way to live. Sleep for pleasure, not profit.' Indeed.
  The first of the 'hints' is 'Never try to persuade human beings to be reasonable', and a later one is the almost folksy 'Forget about pursuing happiness, and you may find it'. But these are indeed only 'hints', and the last of them is 'If you cannot learn to live a little more like a cat, return without regret to the human world of diversion'. Which is what most readers will probably do, but, after reading this remarkable book, they will return chastened, stimulated, and even a little wiser. 

Sunday 27 December 2020

The Mask of Virtue

 In the supermarket this morning, I was passed by a woman wearing a 'Biden-Harris' face covering. I returned her glare with a sunny smile, and carried on shopping, wondering why anyone would want to assert their preference in an election that had already happened, and in a country in which we Brits have no franchise. The answer is all too obvious: face masks have, like just about everything else, been enlisted in the great cause of our times – virtue signalling (though one can but marvel at the level of sophistry required to detect virtue in either of those two operators). Perhaps I should strike back with a 'Trump 2024' face mask? No, I don't think so. A MAGA hat is out of the question too, being a baseball cap – but a MAGA trilby, now there's a thought...
 Another first today: on the way back from the supermarket, I looked up at the sky and saw the first red kite I've ever seen in these parts. Best keep an eye on the washing line: as Autolycus warns, 'When the kite builds, look to lesser linen.'

Saturday 26 December 2020


 While I was looking at something entirely unrelated on YouTube, this popped up in the sidebar. It made me laugh, so I'm passing it on in the spirit of Christmas cheer...
It's Jimmy Stewart – of whom, according to some, I am the living spit – telling a joke. Always a joy to hear that distinctive drawl – and the joke's pretty good. (By the way, Stewart was ten years older than I am when this was filmed.)

Thursday 24 December 2020

Happy Christmas

 To all who browse here – I wish you as merry a Christmas as you can get away with, and a happy New Year full of better things than the last one.  
 Here is some beautiful Nativity music in a beautiful setting (filmed in those far-off carefree days before 'social distancing'). 

Wednesday 23 December 2020

Christmas Trees

 Here is a poem called 'Christmas Trees'. You might expect it to be a Christmas poem, or at least a poem about Christmas trees – but the author is Geoffrey Hill, and nothing is that simple with him. The 'Christmas trees' here are the green incandescent flares dropped by Allied bombers to illuminate their target area preparatory to bombing a German city. Those on the ground awaiting the onslaught nicknamed them, with macabre gaiety, 'Christmas trees'. 

Bonhoeffer in his skylit cell
bleached by the flares’ candescent fall,
pacing out his own citadel,
restores the broken themes of praise,
encourages our borrowed days,
by logic of his sacrifice.
Against wild reasons of the state
his words are quiet but not too quiet.
We hear too late or not too late.

The term 'Christmas trees' probably originated with the bombing of Würzburg, a town which, in proportion to its size, suffered more death and destruction than even Dresden. A few weeks after the bombing of Würzburg, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged for his unflinching Christian opposition to Hitler and all his works; and a few weeks after that, victory over Hitler was finally achieved. 
Bonhoeffer has another beautiful poetical tribute in Auden's 'Friday's Child' (In memory of Dietrich Bonhoeffer):

He told us we were free to choose
But, children as we were, we thought—
“Paternal Love will only use
Force in the last resort

On those too bumptious to repent.”
Accustomed to religious dread,
It never crossed our minds He meant
Exactly what He said.

Perhaps He frowns, perhaps He grieves,
But it seems idle to discuss
If anger or compassion leaves
The bigger bangs to us.

What reverence is rightly paid
To a Divinity so odd
He lets the Adam whom He made
Perform the Acts of God?

It might be jolly if we felt
Awe at this Universal Man
(When kings were local, people knelt);
Some try to, but who can?

The self-observed observing Mind
We meet when we observe at all
Is not alarming or unkind
But utterly banal.

Though instruments at Its command
Make wish and counterwish come true,
It clearly cannot understand
What It can clearly do.

Since the analogies are rot
Our senses based belief upon,
We have no means of learning what
Is really going on,

And must put up with having learned
All proofs or disproofs that we tender
Of His existence are returned
Unopened to the sender.

Now, did He really break the seal
And rise again? We dare not say;
But conscious unbelievers feel
Quite sure of Judgement Day.

Meanwhile, a silence on the cross,
As dead as we shall ever be,
Speaks of some total gain or loss,
And you and I are free

To guess from the insulted face
Just what Appearances He saves
By suffering in a public place
A death reserved for slaves.

Tuesday 22 December 2020

'Any colour, so long as it's grey'

 Samuel Beckett died on this day in 1989. He was 83 years old and the cause of death was emphysema, the legacy of a lifetime's smoking. A few months earlier, his wife Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil, had also died, and they are buried together in the Montparnasse cemetery, underneath a granite slab. Beckett had decreed that his gravestone should be 'any colour, so long as it's grey'. In the photograph above, the grave is garnished with a broken cross, a couple of messages on scraps of paper, and a scattering of small stones...

'I took advantage of being at the seaside to lay in a store of sucking-stones. They were pebbles but I call them stones. Yes, on this occasion I laid in a considerable store. I distributed them equally between my four pockets, and sucked them turn and turn about. This raised a problem which I first solved in the following way. I had say sixteen stones, four in each of my four pockets, these being the two pockets of my trousers and the two pockets of my greatcoat. Taking a stone from the right pocket of my greatcoat, and putting it in my mouth, I replaced it in the right pocket of my greatcoat by a stone from the right pocket of my trousers, which I replaced by a stone from the left pocket of my trousers, which I replaced by a stone from the left pocket of my greatcoat, which I replaced by the stone which was in my mouth, as soon as I had finished sucking it. Thus there were still four stones in each of my four pockets, but not quite the same stones. And when the desire to suck took hold of me again, I drew again on the right pocket of my greatcoat, certain of not taking the same stone as the last time. And while I sucked it I rearranged the other stones in the way I have just described. And so on. But this solution did not satisfy me fully. For it did not escape me that, by an extraordinary hazard, the four stones circulating thus might always be the same four. In which case, far from sucking the sixteen stones turn and turn about, I was really only sucking four, always the same, turn and turn about. But I shuffled them well in my pockets, before I began to suck, and again, while I sucked, before transferring them, in the hope of obtaining a more general circulation of the stones from pocket to pocket. But this was only a makeshift that could not long content a man like me. So I began to look for something else...'

Sunday 20 December 2020


 It got even better this evening, when my walk took me down a road that is almost traffic-free and where many young families live. Here every house has put on a bravura display of Christmas lights (as so many have, by way of cheering things up), and this evening every family was out on its doorstep or strolling up and down the road, admiring each others' lights, chatting amiably and generally having a good time. The children were happy and excited, and passers-by too were enjoying the spectacle and the festive atmosphere. It was like a kind of benign version of the Halloween festivities, and had the feeling of a new Christmas tradition in the making; I rather hope it is.
Sweet are the uses of adversity. 

Cheerful Things

 As the Southeast of England wakes to find itself in the cheerless pre-Christmas wasteland of Tier 4, I remind myself that this blog is a 'hedonic resource', and look about me for reasons to be cheerful. 
  One presented itself last night when Bill Bailey, a far from svelte 55-year-old novice who had previously had no idea he could dance at all, emerged as the winner of Strictly Come Dancing. This was a triumph of both learning and teaching (Bill's mentor, Oti Mabuse, won last year too) and was a wonderful surprise: not long ago you could have got 66 to1 on Bill Bailey winning. 
  This morning was sunny and bright (after much rain) and I walked out to see how things were looking. They looked, I am happy to report, much as they have looked on any recent Sunday morning – a lot of traffic on the roads, the parks full of people mingling freely and enjoying themselves, a pretty relaxed life-goes-on atmosphere. Clearly the order to stay at home and only meet with a maximum of one person, outdoors, has not gained much traction round here. 
  Also, the redwings have arrived in numbers – always a cheering sight – so we might yet have some proper winter weather, which would be a good thing for the natural world, if not so great for us humans (though it might make it easier for us to huddle at home, in compliance with government orders). 
  Tier 4, as a far as I can make out, is pretty much identical to full lockdown, except that church worship is being allowed this time (subject to rigid hygiene precautions, distancing, etc.) – which is something. And, whatever the situation and the regulations, the one sure thing is that Christmas Day will come on the appointed date. Talking of which, here is a chorus from Bach's Christmas oratorio – a reason to be cheerful, if ever there was one. Enjoy!


Friday 18 December 2020


 As a long-standing lover of trees and enemy of the fashionable delusion that we can never have too many of them, I was delighted to find this piece by John Lewis-Stempel in the excellent online magazine Unherd. It deploys a range of strong, I would say unanswerable, arguments against the absurd programmes of mass tree planting and 'rewilding' that are being proposed and enacted at an accelerating rate, driven by mistaken ideas about 'climate change' and the nature of the countryside – not to mention that curious phenomenon, wildwood nostalgia. I wrote (more sketchily and less eloquently than J.L-S.) about all this last year, when an earlier wave of insane proposals threatened to engulf the land in billions of densely planted trees. As Lewis-Stempel makes clear, this (or anything like it) would be an environmental catastrophe, only worsening all the problems it purports to solve – and creating quite a few others too, not least for farmers. It would also be extremely bad news for butterflies, which need open, carefully managed woodland, treeless downs and heaths, open grassland and flower meadows – land, that is, exposed to the sun, not shaded over with impenetrable plantations of trees. 

Wednesday 16 December 2020

The Carshalton Sound

 Some time around 1980, in an Arena documentary, John Waters (not the actor – John Peel's producer) reported on a dubious musical phenomenon that became known, very briefly indeed, as the 'Carshalton Beeches sound'. This was a minor subset of a rather more real phenomenon, the 'sound of the suburbs'. Carshalton Beeches, the drearily affluent part of Carshalton (containing not a single pub), is still a byword for suburban respectability – as, for a long time, was Carshalton itself.  Those familiar with the quasi-paradisal delights of Carshalton proper will, of course, laugh at such a notion. 
  As it happened, there really was a 'Carshalton sound' – and I was reminded of it when, last night, I found myself torpidly slumped in front of an old TOTP2 Christmas special. On came the vaguely 'glam rock' band Mud, fronted by Les Gray, who was crooning his very creditable cover of Elvis's 'Lonely This Christmas', the festive Number One of 1974. I used to see Les Gray quite often, drinking at Carshalton's once legendary pub, The Greyhound. He was a local lad, I knew, one of our little band of local celebs (the others included Windsor Davies, Nicholas Smith (the big-eared one from Are You Being Served?) and, down the road in Wallington, Jeff Beck). What I didn't know, until I had a look on Wikipedia last night, was that Mud was very much a Carshalton band: four of its five members were Carshalton born and bred (and one, drummer Dave Mount, even died in Carshalton). Les Gray, a fun-loving type who (as they say) liked a drink, and smoked 50 cigs a day, moved to the Algarve in the 1990s and died there, of a heart attack, in 2006. 
  Here are Mud in their pomp, performing the glorious 'Tiger Feet', which was the best-selling single of 1974. This is the sound of Carshalton...

Tuesday 15 December 2020

This is getting ridiculous...

 That December Butterfly of mine turned out not to be the last, after all. This morning – sunny but very far from warm – I was astonished to see yet another Red Admiral, sprawled wearily on a sheltered ivy flower, taking what nectar it could. It was a faded specimen (and no wonder) and had a rueful fin de saison air, as if already having second thoughts about taking to the wing on a mid-December morning. A quarter of an hour later clouds rolled in and it started raining heavily. I hope the poor Admiral had taken shelter by then. 

Ida Haendel

 The legendary violinist and teacher Ida Haendel would have been 92 today, had she not sadly died in July. She had a quite extraordinary career, giving a prize-winning performance of the Beethoven concerto at the age of five, and at seven competing on equal terms with the likes of David Oistrakh. She studied in Paris under Carl Flesch and George Enescu, played in Myra Hess's wartime National Gallery concerts, and became a much-loved fixture at the Proms. She made her recording debut in 1940 and went on to record all the great Romantic concertos, as well as, late in her career, the Bach sonatas and partitas. 
This delightful footage shows her in her mid-seventies, on stage with her dog Decca, performing the great Bach chaconne. She is past her peak, and it's far from a great performance, but it does the heart good to see her – and the Chaconne is an inexhaustibly wonderful piece of music...

Sunday 13 December 2020


 Sorry to hear of the death of Charley Pride, the hugely successful country singer who, being black, was something of a rarity in that world. Born to poor share-croppers, he took a little while to find his musical vocation, but once he did, there was no stopping him. Pride was a middle-of-the-country-road artist, with a classic smooth country voice and a penchant for slightly schmalzy ballads, but he could certainly deliver the goods. My favourite song of his is this one – a lovely simple piece, and a demonstration of the poetical and musical power of American place names. As the Likely Lads once remarked, we Brits just don't have the place names for this sort of thing – Twenty-Four Hours from Cleethorpes, By the Time I Get to Peebles...  

Saturday 12 December 2020

Shakespeare's Flowers

Yesterday, after an excellent lunch at Locanda Locatelli (I wasn't paying), I strolled, Jeffrey Archer-like, down to Piccadilly and penetrated the Royal Academy shop. This was no easy undertaking: they point the temperature gun at you and send you to queue for an entry pass, which is only issued after you have given your name, address and email. Masks mandatory, of course. There was another queue (mercifully quite short) at the shop, but once in, I had the usual enjoyable browse. One of the cards I bought was this one. It's by Philip Sutton, an artist who is still working at the age of 92 (down at West Bay in Dorset). With its vivid coloration and dashing draughtsmanship, it could almost be a Dufy, but its subject is very English – 'Shakespeare's Flowers'. 
  Shakespeare's works include mentions of 175 varieties of plants (and not a single butterfly), and many 'Shakespeare gardens', containing some or all of these plants, have been created on both sides of the Atlantic. Most are quite approximate in their approach, aiming more at a vaguely Elizabethan and Shakespearean feel, perhaps concentrating on but one aspect of Shakespeare's flora. One such garden turns up in E.F. Benson's Mapp and Lucia, in which we find Lucia sitting in her 'Perdita's Garden'. Benson describes it thus:

'It was a charming little square plot in front of the timbered façade of the Hurst, surrounded by yew-hedges and intersected with paths of crazy pavement, carefully smothered in stone-crop, which led to the Elizabethan sundial from Wardour Street in the centre. It was gay in spring with those flowers (and no others) on which Perdita doted. There were 'violets dim', and primroses and daffodils, which came before the swallow dared and took the winds (usually of April) with beauty.

But now in June the swallow had dared long ago, and when spring and the daffodils were over, Lucia always allowed Perdita's garden a wider, though still strictly Shakespearian scope. There was eglantine (Penzance briar) in full flower now, and honeysuckle and gillyflowers and plenty of pansies for thoughts, and yards of rue (more than usual this year), and so Perdita's garden was gay all the summer.

Here then, this morning, Lucia seated herself by the sundial, all in black, on a stone bench on which was carved the motto 'Come thou north wind, and blow thou south, that my garden spices may flow forth.' Sitting there with Pepino's poems and The Times she obscured about one-third of this text, and fat little Daisy would obscure the rest...'

Thursday 10 December 2020

Mistaken Identity

Many years ago I reviewed a new biography of the incomparable children's author E(dith) Nesbit for a national newspaper. When the review was printed, I discovered that it bore a picture of a very different E. Nesbit – the once notorious Evelyn Nesbit (happily it was not this precise picture). Described by Wikipedia as an 'American artists' model, chorus girl and actress', Evelyn Nesbit was also a pin-up girl, dancer, fashion model and silent film starlet – and, most famously, she was involved in the 'trial of the century' after her husband, a mentally unstable multi-millionaire called Harry Kendall Thaw, shot dead the architect Stanford White at Madison Square Garden. Both men were obsessed with Nesbit, and Thaw believed, probably rightly, that White, who was nearly three times her age, had raped the young Evelyn while she was unconscious. There were two trials, both conducted against a background of press-driven hysteria (to counter this, the jury was sequestered for the second trial – the first time that had been done in America). Endless legal manoeuvrings followed, with Thaw claiming insanity, then sanity, making a break from a lunatic asylum, getting charged with another violent crime, etc. Thaw was even seen by some as a chivalrous hero figure defending womanly innocence. However, no one came out of this at all well – least of all Evelyn, who never managed to outlive her reputation as the 'lethal beauty' in the 'trial of the century', and whose career fizzled out in obscurity. How very different from the life of our own E. Nesbit.  

Tuesday 8 December 2020

From Another Age

 When I made my Happy Find the other day, I also picked up this little booklet containing a few Christmas carols and songs, with the words in full, and fairly simple piano arrangements. I liked the look of the artwork and thought it might be fun to bash my way through some old favourites over the festive season. Then I took a closer look at the booklet and realised that it was produced by the Esso company, to be given away at petrol stations. 
On the inside of the back cover is 'Call at the Esso Sign' ('The Esso sign means happy motoring – Call at the Esso sign'), a song I remember all too clearly from my boyhood. As it says under the words and music, 'No doubt you have seen the Esso Petrol Advertisements on Commercial Television and you may remember the catchy little song [I do, I do]. Here are the words and music, try them yourself and [trigger warning here] see if you can imitate the accents used by the singing Esso petrol pump globes.' Said globes are depicted at the foot of the page – a fine range of cheery racial stereotypes. Truly England in 1960 (the year of this publication) was another country – one in which there was still such a thing as 'community singing': opposite the Esso song is a page of Community Songs – 'Old Macdonald had a farm', 'Landlord fill the flowing bowl', 'Rolling home', and a couple of rather surprising items, 'John Brown's Body' (chorus and refrain only, to be repeated seven times, omitting the last word of the first line each time) and the lovely 'Drink to me only', with words by Ben Jonson ('To Celia'). 
Wishing you Happy Motoring for 1960.

Monday 7 December 2020


 Today Tom Waits and I celebrated our 71st birthday – and, in a startling development, Bob Dylan sold his entire publishing catalogue. Coincidence – or something more? (No.) 

Sunday 6 December 2020

Young Osbert

 Born on this day in 1892 was the prolific writer, connoisseur and one-time avant-gardiste Osbert Sitwell. At the age of seven, he had the good fortune to be immortalised by John Singer Sargent in the grand family portrait above, painted in 1900. Osbert, in a sailor suit, is at bottom right, with his younger brother Sacheverell still in his long-clothes and curls. The dog is the family pug, who spent much of the long sitting trying to bite the children. Standing to the left, with her father, Sir George, is Edith, in a red dress, and in white, entirely dominating the pictorial space, is her mother, Lady Ida. 
  Everything about this picture (as Edith delighted in pointing out) is faked. The setting is not the Sitwells' ancestral seat, but Sargent's large studio on Tite Street, Chelsea. The carefully chosen props were brought down from Renishaw Hall in Derbyshire, the family home, and arranged in the studio to give the desired effect. Sir George was no horseman, and the riding boots are intended to give the impression of the country squire. Lady Ida is shown, as Edith recalled, 'arranging, with one prettily shaped, flaccid, entirely useless hand, red anemones in a silver bowl (she never arranged flowers and in any case it would have been a curious occupation for one wearing a ball-dress, even if, at the same time, she wore a hat) ... I was white with fury and contempt, and indignant that my father held me in what he thought was a tender paternal embrace.' Happy families.
  Lady Ida was famous for her straight-nosed Grecian profile, whereas Edith's nose was slightly bent. Sir George, a man not famous for his tact or sensitivity, pointed this out to Sargent, who – having already had more than enough of Sir George's endless interventions – responded by painting Edith's nose straight and introducing a slight kink to Sir George's. 

Saturday 5 December 2020

A Happy Find

Seurat's Les Poseuses is perhaps his most enigmatic work, and I've long been fascinated by it. I have a postcard-sized reproduction of it on my bedroom wall, and only last night was looking at it, wishing I had a larger image. So I was delighted when I walked into a local charity shop this morning and straight away spotted a considerably larger reproduction, evidently purchased at the centenary exhibition in Paris in 1991, but in pristine condition. There was a similar reproduction of one of Seurat's paintings of Port-en-Bessin with it, so I bought them both. 
  Les Poseuses shows the same model in three poses, which are not really 'poses'; she is off duty, sitting with her back to us, partly draped in a white robe, standing naturally with her weight on one hip and her head slightly tilted, and sitting down, pulling off (or on?) green stockings. And behind her is a part of Seurat's recently completed magnum opus, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, the painting for which this model posed. The subject is the model herself, the nature of her work – not what she is posing as. Les Poseuses, like some medieval painting, shows three different moments in time – and, unlike almost any other painting, relates them directly to another work of art. Seurat painted it in response to critics who thought him incapable of convincingly portraying real, living human beings. I think it's safe to say he proved them wrong... The picture exists in two versions: one, the more 'granular' and obviously pointilliste, is on loan from our own National Gallery to Berlin's, and the other, more smoothly finished, hangs in the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.

Thursday 3 December 2020


 Scrub that. Here it is, more or less...

Being Betjeman(n) By Jonathan Smith (Galileo Publishers) 

  Why the bracketed second ‘n’ in Betjeman(n)? It denotes the young John Betjemann’s truncating of his too Germanic-sounding surname – one of many impulsive acts that, understandably enough, enraged his deaf, conventional-minded father, Ernest Betjemann, head of a successful ornamental houseware business. Explosive rows between father and son punctuate this unusual and engaging book, and painful they are to read, with both sides flinging vicious insults, while young John’s mother desperately tries to calm things down. It is easy to see in these scenes the roots of the guilt feelings that haunted Betjeman all his life, and of the troubled relationship between him and his own son.
   One of the worst rows, following Betjeman’s journey to Cornwall to break it to his parents that he has been sent down from Oxford, makes the opening scene of Jonathan Smith’s narrative – a narrative that does not begin until 30-odd pages into the book. This is no straightforward biography, nor even a straightforward fictionalised life; it is a highly original treatment of its subject, written by a man with first-hand experience of ‘being Betjeman’. Jonathan Smith is a writer, mostly of novels, with long experience of ‘being’ various people, if only in the sense of imitating their mannerisms: at different times in his life, he has ‘been’, among others, Albert Speer, W.E. Henley, Winston Churchill, August Rodin and Alfred Munnings – and not for writing purposes. Being Betjeman, however, was different: as the author explains in the pages that precede that first dramatised row, ‘it was a much deeper thing than merely taking him off or ventriloquising’. It began when, after years of mild obsession with the poet, he wrote a piece in Betjeman’s voice, ‘and I felt I was, in quite a disturbing way, inhabiting his skin’. And it was while ‘being Betjeman’ that Smith had what can only be a described as a breakdown – one that came on, with frightening suddenness, on a beach in Cornwall (Betjeman country). Then, just as he was beginning to get back on top of things, Smith realised he was developing Parkinson’s, the disease of Betjeman’s old age.
    It was against this background that Smith started writing in earnest about Betjeman (and, yes, as Betjeman). He wrote a pair of excellent radio plays, Mr Betjeman’s Class and Mr Betjeman Regrets, with Benjamin Whitrow playing the older Betjeman (a role that ended up being shared seamlessly with Robert Bathurst after Whitrow’s death). But he still wanted to write more, and differently, and the result is this beguiling, often funny and always readable book, which combines disarmingly frank autobiography with a biography that unfolds partly in dramatised scenes, partly in interior monologue and even prayers, partly in straight third-person narrative, partly in first-person.
   In part two of the three-part narrative, Smith takes us behind the scenes of the making of the radio plays, and treats us to perhaps rather too much green room chat, and a little too much of Ben Whitrow, wonderful actor though he was. Things pick up again in part three, which covers Betjeman’s later years, though the chronology continues to mingle past and present, and the autobiographical strand continues to run in parallel with the biography.
  Along the way there are generous quotations from Betjeman’s poems, mostly from his less famous, darker works. Smith quotes from 'Guilt', one of Betjeman's most self-lacerating poems – 'I haven't hope, I haven't faith. / I live two lives and sometimes three. / The lives I live make life a death / For those who have to live with me.' He was right about that, as his wife, the splendid but wholly incompatible Penelope Chetwode, knew all too well. Smith dramatises painful scenes from the Betjemans' married life – rows as epic as those with his father – and still more painful scenes between the poet and his son Paul, whom he treated cruelly, driven by the demons of his own boyhood. Betjeman, looking back, rightly blames himself for all of this, and more, but Smith's portrait of him is subtle enough to recognise that the poet also took a kind of pleasure, even pride, in his transgressions and shortcomings, and that 'to write he needed the creative juice of frustration. Contentment and comfort was no help to him at all, so being married to The Propellor [his nickname for Penelope] had on that front been a boon.' Frustration and the complications of love probably made him the poet he was, at the expense of personal happiness (and the happiness of others) – and yet he seems to have ended up, in his later years, giving a thoroughly convincing impression of a contented, genial and lovable man. This deeply affectionate portrait comes to something very like a happy ending.
   Like any Betjeman admirer of similar vintage (he is in his late seventies), Smith has met with bafflement and outright hostility when his passion for Betjeman has become known. At Cambridge the mockery was so relentless that he removed his copy of Summoned by Bells from his shelves and hid it away in a drawer. I must admit that, ten years later, with Betjeman laying on the avuncular charm on every TV chat show, I would have been among the mockers. In later years, however, as I read more, particularly of his earlier verse, I realised that Betjeman was a very fine, interesting and complex poet, for all his penchant for jog-along rhythms and simple rhymes. He was also, of course, a very much more interesting, complex and troubled man than the genial laureate, the nation’s teddy bear, who twinkled his way into the country’s affections. Being Betjeman(n) brings alive both the light and the dark in his make-up, and is a book that every Betjeman lover – and, come to that, every Betjeman mocker – should read.

Betjemania 2

 The December issue of Literary Review contains my review of Being Betjeman(n) by Jonathan Smith. For some mysterious technical reason, I find myself unable to post any version of it here... All the more reason to go out and buy the magazine – it's a bumper edition this month.  

Tuesday 1 December 2020

and Whitman's Butterfly

 In the course of my researches, I came across the phrase 'a butterfly good-time', attributed to Walt Whitman. I wasn't able to source it (anyone?), but while searching online I found this remarkable photograph, which I'd never seen before (though I suspect it might be familiar to American readers). It shows – or purports to show – Walt communing with a butterfly that has settled on his finger. 'The picture is substantially literal,' Whitman told his chronicler Horace Traubel. 'We were good friends: I had quite the in-and-out of taming, or fraternising with, some of the insects, animals.' In the same vein, he told the historian William Roscoe Thayer that 'I've always had the knack of attracting birds and butterflies and other critters.' 
  This was all prime BS, of course, yet another example of Whitman's endless self-mythologising. The butterfly is in fact a die-cut cardboard novelty item, attached to the poet's finger by a ring that is clearly visible in the photograph. The cardboard butterfly turned up many years later among Whitman's notebooks. It is not altogether convincing...

December Butterfly

 Usually by this date, even I am resigned to seeing no more butterflies until the spring awakening – but this morning, as I walked out of the station after a little excursion, I was astonished to see a Red Admiral, flying around in a rather distracted manner. Becoming a little more purposeful, it flew up the slope of the roof and settled to bask in the winter sunlight on the lintel of a dormer window, where it attracted the attention of a crow. Uh oh, I thought momentarily, expecting the worst, but then remembered that the red flash on the admiral's wings is enough to warn predators off. The crow turned away, and I headed home, the happier for this unexpected encounter – surely my last butterfly of the year. Or was it?


 The latest edition of the online magazine British Intelligence is out – highly recommended, as ever – and embedded in its pages is a piece by me about a phase John Betjeman went through. This link should work...

Sunday 29 November 2020


 Just once in a while, something rather wonderful turns up on my Facebook timeline (as I believe it's called), amid all the wildly off-target advertising and other dross. This morning it was a video of the King's Singers performing Thomas Tallis's beautiful setting of the Compline hymn Te lucis ante terminum at St Giles, Cripplegate. It's good to know that this group, originally formed by six choral scholars at my old college, is still going strong. 

Saturday 28 November 2020

Three Years Ago

If Google Photos are to be believed, it was exactly three years ago today that I paid a memorable visit to St Michael's, Church Stowe, in the parish of Stowe Nine Churches in a remote corner of Northamptonshire. The stunning monument there to Lady Elizabeth Carey (previously Danvers, née Neville) convinced me of two things: that Nicholas Stone was a great sculptor, and that the best monuments of the early seventeenth century were among the finest works of art of their time. I wrote something about the redoubtable Lady Elizabeth (and others) here (and, of course, in the book)... 

Bring Up the Body

 Talking of Puritans, here is a poem of that name by Richard Wilbur – 

Sidling upon the river, the white boat
Has volleyed with its cannon all the morning,
Shaken the shore towns like a Judgment warning,
Telling the palsied water its demand
That the crime come to the top again, and float,
That the sunk murder rise to the light and land.

Blam! In the noon’s perfected brilliance burn
Brief blooms of flame, which soil away in smoke;
And down below, where slowed concussion broke
The umber stroll of waters, water-dust
Dreamily powders up, and serves to turn
The river surface to a cloudy rust.

Down from his bridge the river captain cries
To fire again. They make the cannon sound;
But none of them would wish the murder found,
Nor wish in other manner to atone
Than booming at their midnight crime, which lies
Rotting the river, weighted with a stone.

   This poem rests on the folk belief that firing a cannon across a body of water will bring to the surface a corpse lying on the bottom. This was supposed to happen when concussion burst the gall bladder (which doesn't seem to make a lot of sense). Reading the Wilbur poem I remembered a scene in Huckleberry Finn – well, when I say remembered, I mean a hazy image of it formed somewhere in the recesses of my memory.  Huck, in flight from 'sivilization', is hiding out on an island, having covered his tracks with the blood of a pig, thereby giving the impression that he has been murdered: 

Well, I was dozing off again, when I thinks I hears a deep sound of "boom!" away up the river. I rouses up and rests on my elbow and listens; pretty soon I hears it again. I hopped up and went and looked out at a hole in the leaves, and I see a bunch of smoke laying on the water a long ways up–about the area of the ferry. And there was the ferry-boat, full of people, floating along down. I knowed what was the matter now. "Boom!" I see the white smoke squirt out of the ferry-boat’s side. You see, they was firing cannon over the water, trying to make my carcass come to the top.

  Reading that again reminds me of the sheer thrill of discovering Huckleberry Finn; it was one of the most thrilling reading experiences of my boyhood, as was (in its more genial, smoother-edged way) reading Tom Sawyer.
The young Samuel Langhorn Clemens (Mark Twain) also had the experience of hearing the cannon boom to bring his body to the surface. Having jumped off a ferryboat midstream on a stormy day, determined to retrieve his hat, he was quite reasonably thought to have drowned, and cannon were fired over the water to bring his body up. In fact, he had swum after his hat for two or three miles (by his own account) and finally retrieved it, then swam back to the shore. This was one of several close shaves with drowning that young Sam survived. His mother laughed them off by telling him that 'people born to be hanged are safe in the water' – a superstition echoed by the slave Jim in Huckleberry Finn. 

Thursday 26 November 2020

Newark Besieged

 On this day in 1645 the third, and by far the longest, siege of Newark began when Scottish troops to the North and English Parliamentarian forces to the South moved to encircle the Royalist stronghold. The garrison, under the leadership of Lord Belasyse, put up a vigorous defence, despite being outnumbered eight to one, but the besiegers gradually tightened their grip, encircling the town with a network of fortifications and attempting to dam the river so that the town's mills would have no water to drive them. By March, Newark was cut off entirely from the outside world. With supplies running dangerously low and plague breaking out in the town, Belasyse stood firm, refusing to surrender. However, the King himself, having fled from Oxford, surrendered his person to the Parliamentarians at Southwell on 5th May, 1646, and the following day he sent an order to the garrison at Newark to surrender. Lord Belasyse is said to have wept when he received this order, but he could only obey. He duly marched out with his depleted garrison and surrendered. 
   When I was first reading about the English Civil War, back in my far-off schooldays, I inclined to see it in the terms pithily outlined in 1066 and All That: the Cavaliers were 'wrong but wromantic', the Roundheads 'right but repulsive'. Nowadays I'd be more inclined to categorise the Royalists as wrong and wromantic, and the Parliamentarians as wrong and repulsive. Charles I was a wrong-headed monarch, also muddle-headed and fatally pig-headed, but the royalist cause seems far more attractive to me now, partly because of my researches into 17th-century English church monuments, the best of which nearly all seem to commemorate members of Royalist families (just as, earlier, many of the best of them were to Recusants). Evidence of the terrible iconoclastic violence inflicted on sacred buildings by the Puritans also counts heavily against them in my book. But, beyond that, there is something in the whole Puritan mindset that I find repulsive indeed, especially as that mindset seems to be indestructible. It is certainly enjoying a resurgence in this age when the Righteous and Justified army of the 'woke' seems to be on a mission to cleanse the world of sinfulness by rooting out 'wrong' thought, demystifying tradition and authority, destroying the past, and starting again from scratch, convinced that this time the result will be an earthly Paradise, a new Jerusalem. The murderous devastation wrought by such thinking over the centuries since the Civil War hardly needs spelling out. 

  But enough of that – it's time to strike the viol. Here is John Jenkyns's wonderful fantasia inspired by the siege of Newark (in particular Prince Rupert's heroic lifting of the second siege) – Newark-Seidge:

Tuesday 24 November 2020

Toulouse-Lautrec's Earthquake

 Born on this day in 1864 was the painter and printmaker Toulouse-Lautrec or, to give him his full name, Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa. He is one of those artists whose work – from sketches through to finished paintings – is so distinctive as to be instantly recognisable. It also lends itself well to reproduction, and, as T-L was a great poster designer, his work is to be seen on walls everywhere, from students' rooms to respectable domestic interiors. With its clean lines, sharp draughtsmanship, bold design and strong colours, it always looks good. 
  Although he was hard-working and productive, Toulouse-Lautrec, a heavy drinker and haunter of brothels, was the classic dissipated artist, and died young of a toxic cocktail of alcoholism and syphilis. And, talking of toxic cocktails, he is credited with the invention of the 'Tremblement de Terre' or Earthquake cocktail: half absinthe, half cognac, served in a wine goblet. Don't try this at home, or indeed anywhere. You don't want to end up like these two...

Monday 23 November 2020

New Iconoclasts

 As England's go-to monument man – this solely on the basis of my book (you know – this book) – I am quite often contacted by hacks writing stories that have some bearing on church monuments. This usually comes to nothing, but with luck might get a mention of my book (you know – this book), so that's fine by me. Lately I'm being asked to comment on the growing threat to church monuments that memorialise historical figures with  connections to the (triangular) slave trade. Justin Welby, the soggy Archbishop of Canterbury, seems to have encouraged this with his statement that 'some [monuments] will have to come down'. Naturally, when asked my views on this, I fulminate, burble incoherently, and follow through with an email that makes slightly more sense.
  I had always thought, or hoped, that church monuments had a different legal status and were more strongly protected than memorials in the public arena – so I was happy to learn, from Charles Moore's column in this week's Spectator, that this is indeed the case. Writing about Jesus College, Cambridge's plan to remove the memorial to its slave-trading benefactor, Tobias Rustat, from its chapel, Moore notes that, to achieve this dubious end, the college will have to get a 'faculty' from the Church of England. This involves enlisting the opinions of a diocesan advisory committee which includes historical, architectural and artistic experts, and works on the presumption that the C of E is against the removal of monuments and that only a rigorous 'statement of need' can justify such a removal. If the diocesan decision is disputed, the case may be heard by a consistory court, and that court's decision can be appealed to a yet higher court, the Court of Arches. All of which suggests that, in practice, the removal of offending monuments, however much desired by the ecclesiastical 'woke', is going to be so difficult as to be all but impossible. Worryingly, however, Welby's Church Buildings Council is pondering the issue and drafting diocesan guidelines, so who knows how safe our church monuments are – especially memorials to saracen-slaying crusaders, anyone who invested in the Royal Africa Company, heroes of empire, or indeed thoroughly evil men such as Richard Rich, whose extraordinary monument in Felsted church happens be to be one of the finest of its time? 

The same could be said of the monument to Sir Richard Clayton in Bletchingley church. This wealthy merchant and philanthropist, who rebuilt St Thomas's hospital, made money from the Royal Africa Company and is therefore, to modern eyes, morally tainted. His statue has already been removed from view at St Thomas's hospital (as has Thomas Guy's at Guy's Hospital). Will Clayton's great monument in Bletchingley church be next? At the very least, I daresay we can look forward to a suitably woke 'interpretation' panel conspicuously placed in front of it, and in front of many another offending monument. Madness...


Sunday 22 November 2020

And Hopkins

 Talking of Henry Purcell, I just came across this extraordinary sonnet by Gerard Manley Hopkins, which I don't remember reading even in the far-off days when I was somewhat obsessed with Hopkins...

Henry Purcell

The poet wishes well to the divine genius of Purcell and praises him that,
whereas other musicians have given utterance to the moods of man's mind,
he has, beyond that, uttered in notes the very make and species of man 
as created both in him and in all men generally.

Have fair fallen, O fair, fair have fallen, so dear
To me, so arch-especial a spirit as heaves in Henry Purcell,
An age is now since passed, since parted; with the reversal
Of the outward sentence low lays him, listed to a heresy, here.

Not mood in him nor meaning, proud fire or sacred fear,
Or love, or pity, or all that sweet notes not his might nursle:
It is the forgèd feature finds me; it is the rehearsal
Of own, of abrupt self there so thrusts on, so throngs the ear.

Let him Oh! with his air of angels then lift me, lay me! only I'll
Have an eye to the sakes of him, quaint moonmarks, to his pelted plumage under
Wings: so some great stormfowl, whenever he has walked his while

The thunder-purple seabeach plumèd purple-of-thunder,
If a wuthering of his palmy snow-pinions scatter a colossal smile
Off him, but meaning motion fans fresh our wits with wonder. 

This is a Petrarchan sonnet, written in Alexandrines (six stresses to the line) and in 'sprung rhythm' – something I never fully understood even in the days when I was studying Hopkins. He does well to find so many rhymes for 'Purcell'.

  The poet himself provides a helpful gloss:
'The sonnet on Purcell means this: 1-4. I hope Purcell is not damned for being a Protestant, because I love his genius. 5-8. And that not so much for gifts he shares, even though it shld be in higher measure, with other musicians as for his own individuality. 9-14. So that while he is aiming only at impressing me his hearer with the meaning in hand I am looking out meanwhile for his specific, his individual markings and mottlings, "the sakes of him".  It is as when a bird thinking only of soaring spreads its wings: a beholder may happen then to have his attention drawn by the act to the plumage displayed ... The thought is that as the seabird opening his wings with a whiff of wind in your face means the whirr of the motion, but also unaware gives you a whiff of knowledge about his plumage, the marking of which stamps his species, that he does not mean, so Purcell, seemingly intent only on the thought or feeling he is to express or call out, incidentally lets you remark the individualising marks of his own genius.'
  Hopkins explains those 'quaint moonmarks': 'By moonmarks I mean crescent-shaped markings of the quill-feathers, either in the colouring of the feathers or made by the overlapping of one on the other.'
I like that, partly because it makes me think of similar moonmarks on the wings of butterflies, though these are usually curved inward towards the body rather than outward to the wing margins. 
  Hopkins adds succinctly, 'My sonnet means "Purcell's music is none of your damned subjective rot" (so to speak)'. Amen to that. 
  Reading this sonnet again reminded me both of why I found Hopkins so fascinating and why I grew to find him insufferably tiresome, though I still greatly admire some of his poems.   

Saturday 21 November 2020

Jan Morris, Henry Purcell

 Today brings sad news of the death of Jan (formerly James) Morris, at the ripe old age of 94, having lived more lives than most of us can dream of – as man and woman, as soldier and journalist, historian and travel writer (or rather 'writer who travels'), husband, father and, latterly, civil partner of his former wife. Of his writings, his classic book on Venice will surely survive, along with his much later book on Trieste, and probably his great historical trilogy Pax Britannica, though it takes an unfashionably positive line on the British Empire. Morris was writing to the end, publishing a final volume of musings, Thinking Again, only this year. The world is a poorer place without her distinctive voice.

It was also on this day that England lost one of its greatest composers. Henry Purcell died on this date in 1695, at the age of just 36. The glorious music he had composed for the funeral of Queen Mary the previous years was performed at his funeral too, and he was buried in the North aisle of Westminster Abbey. His epitaph reads, 'Here lyes Henry Purcell Esq., who left this life and is gone to that Blessed Place where only his harmony can be exceeded.' 
It's tempting at this point to reach for the Queen Mary funeral music, or Dido's Lament ('When I am laid in earth'), but I'm going for this beautiful, impassioned piece for countertenor voice, which he wrote in the year before his death –

Wednesday 18 November 2020

Platonic Toast

 I see the lovely Nigella Lawson is in the headlines again – this time for devoting a five-minute segment of her latest series to, er, buttering toast. Unsurprisingly this has led to much mockery, something that I'm sure the serene Nigella will rise above. Her critics don't seem to have quite twigged what Nigella's TV series are – not programmes of cookery instruction but demonstrations of the sheer carnal pleasure of eating, filmed in an intimate, high-gloss style that, along with the entirely unreal settings, is suggestive more of high-end pornography than cookery. Nigella takes an almost indecent delight in her food – and who could deny that there is delight to be had from eating hot-buttered toast? Correction: hot-buttered then cool-buttered then sprinkled with sea salt. I wish I could try it myself (though I would use sourdough in preference to the sandwich loaf), but I have to avoid dairy these days, thanks to the lingering effects of a Hong Kong virus I picked up four years ago – but that's another story...  Nigella describes her twice-buttered toast as 'the Platonic ideal of toast'. You've got to love her for that. Speaking for myself, I've been in thrall to Nigella ever since the morning, some years ago, when I saw her emerging from a lift and she turned her melting smile on me. That did it. 

Tuesday 17 November 2020

Cook and Waugh: The Comic Sense of Life

 Two of the greatest English humorists of the postwar 20th century were born on the same day – today – albeit two years apart. Peter Cook would have been 83 today, in the wildly unlikely event that he'd lived so long (in fact he did well to make it to 58), and Auberon Waugh, had he lived, would have been 81 – which again was never going to happen, given the various legacies of his near-fatal (accidentally self-inflicted) war wound and his heroic smoking and drinking. 
  Peter Cook achieved legendary status remarkably early in life – something that probably encouraged his innate idleness. He was a naturally funny man, one of those who could barely open his mouth without at least seeming to be funny. His TV work with Dudley Moore in Not Only But Also is widely regarded as classic, though the more you see of the original shows the more laboured they seem: they shine bright in the memory because the actually funny bits (mostly the Dagenham Dialogues) are indeed so gloriously funny. The general view on Cook is that, after his initial blaze of glory, he never turned his prodigious talent to something worthy of it. This is probably true, but we'll never know, and it doesn't really matter: it was his talent to do what he wanted with, and he did enough to establish himself as one of the funniest men of his time, which is more than most of us can say.
  As for Waugh, he was, in contrast to Cook, an extremely hard-working hack, turning out vast amounts of copy, all of it in lucid and elegant prose, most of it worth reading, and much of it extremely funny. The best of his work is to be found, I think, in his glorious memoir, Will This Do?, and in his Diaries (of which I've written before). His novels, too, are good fun and deserve to be better known – in fact that reminds me, I must get on and finish my project of reading them all (see Nigeness passim)... He was a tireless scourge of the humourless, the pompous and the self-important, and, in person, a good-humoured and generous man – which is by no means always the case with humorists (or hacks).
  What Waugh and Cook had in common was the sense they gave that very little in life needed to be taken seriously, and very little couldn't be turned into comedy. They had the genuine comic sense of life – a rare thing, and becoming rarer in our over-serious times.  

Monday 16 November 2020

The Election that Matters

 After an election marred by voter fraud, a clear winner has emerged. Yes, it's the Kakapo, the world's bulkiest parrot, which has just been named New Zealand's Bird of the Year 2020. A flightless bird which thinks it can escape predators by pretending to be a shrub, and has a habit of climbing up trees and falling out of them, it is self-destructively prone to making bad choices (rather like the New Zealand government, which seems happy to destroy its economy and cut itself off from the whole world in response to Covid). 
The Kakapo is perhaps best known from the much-viewed footage of a male becoming sexually aroused by the sight of a human head (no Biden gags here, please). This is the second time the really rather cute Kakapo has won New Zealand's ultimate avian accolade. Fair play to it, but if I had the vote, I'd definitely have gone for my old favourite, the irrepressible Tui

Saturday 14 November 2020

Monet 180 Giverny 10

 Born 180 years ago today was the great Impressionist painter Claude Monet (christened Oscar-Claude). For myself I find a little Monet goes a long way, but on a dank and dismal day like today it's cheering to recall the visit I made to the famous gardens at Giverny ten years ago. It was something I did not expect to enjoy very much, but in the event it surprised me. To quote myself: 

'The next day (in company with my brother and the others) I did something I never thought I'd do – visit Monet's house and garden at Giverny. I continued to think I'd never do it when we descended from the hills, having climbed up from the valley and walked through miles of misty woods, into a village swarming with visitors, taking photographs of everything as they strolled along the (very picturesque) street and forming long queues to get in to the house, their numbers augmented by the arrival of an endless stream of coach parties. We retreated to take an early lunch, after which – by a double miracle – the sun had pierced the morning mists and was shining gloriously, and the queues had temporarily gone. Seizing our chance, we went in...
I have to report that, though the place was still fairly overrun, it was ravishing. The garden on a sunny autumn day is just the kind of garden I love most - richly, abundantly planted, full of colour and interest, artifice and nature beautifully blended. The immense profusion of michaelmas daisies naturally had me looking out for butterflies, and, as well as plentiful whites, I spotted several red admirals, a brimstone and a couple of speckled woods. As for the house – yes, rather on the ravishing side too, with an abundance of fascinating and beautiful Japanese prints that I wasn't expecting. Yes, Giverny can feel like Monetworld, international HQ of MonetCorp - and yes, I'm not a huge fan of Monet overall – but that house and garden somehow retain something enchanting despite the visiting hordes (who were back in force by the end of our visit). If Monet had planned the whole thing – if he'd envisaged his own global megapopularity and the pulling power of Giverny – he could hardly have got it righter. It works.'

(Nigeness, October 10th, 2010 – a post that also contains an account of getting locked out of a Norman provincial hotel.)

Friday 13 November 2020

Robes and Noses

 I have received an email from an American company selling clerical vestments, informing me of their pre-Thanksgiving sale and showing me what they have on offer. Stiffly posed models do their best to look natural in, among other outfits, Senior Fluted Trinity Choir Robes, White Baptismal Robe with Dove, the Cassock with Band Cincture Package (a little 'High' for me), Clergy Alb with Cotton Cincture, and the Premium Square Neckline Surplice (which looks more my style).  If by any chance I get a sudden late-life vocation, I'll know where to go.
Actually I've always rather fancied sitting down at my study desk (if I had one) writing a weekly sermon, but I gather there's rather more to the job these days. Maybe I could beguile the weeks of lockdown by sitting around in a Premium Square Neckline Surplice writing sermons...
This offer, I suppose, is the sort of thing that turns up when you cheerfully 'accept all cookies' as you roam about the internet, though I cannot imagine how this particular company could have got wind of my existence. 
Talking of roaming about the internet, here's something very odd – and funny – I came across on YouTube. Enjoy... 

Thursday 12 November 2020

Vanessa and Atalanta

 I've written before about the surprising origins of the name Vanessa – invented by Jonathan Swift, no less – but I hadn't fully realised the Swiftian origins of the Latin name for the Red Admiral until I read about it in Peter Marren's excellent Rainbow Dust: Three Centuries of Delight in British Butterflies
It was not the Swede Linnaeus but the Dane Johann Christian Fabricius who gave the Red Admiral its grand binomial, Vanessa atalanta. He clearly took 'Vanessa' from Swift's poem 'Cadenus and Vanessa', which Marren describes pithily as 'an autobiographical love poem dressed up as a fairy story of nymphs and shepherds'. ('Cadenus' is an anagram of Decanus, a Dean, Swift's ecclesiastical rank.) But what of Atalanta? She is a figure from Greek mythology, a formidable virgin huntress and athlete who was notably reluctant to marry – and her name appears once with Vanessa's in 'Cadenus and Vanessa' – 
'When lo! Vanessa in her bloom
Advanced, like Atalanta's star.'
Surely Fabricius happened on those lines and had his inspiration – there was Vanessa atalanta, ready-made.
Handel wrote an opera Atalanta. Here is a rather lovely aria from it : 'Care Selve' (dear woods) –

As it happens, I saw a handsome Red Admiral this morning, in a local byway that in my boyhood was known (for no good reason) as Murder Alley. The Admiral was taking a quick hit of nectar from a very late bramble flower before flying off and away. It might be my last butterfly of the year – but I've already thought that about a Peacock in Derbyshire and a local Small White, so who knows?


Tuesday 10 November 2020

We Are All Guilty (or not)

 A harrowing night's television last night, with My Family, The Holocaust and Me with Robert Rinder on BBC1, swiftly followed by Berlin 1945 on BBC4. Both programmes, unsurprisingly, got me thinking about questions of historical guilt... 
  At present the area of historical guilt that is being most vigorously agitated is slavery – by which is meant the relatively short-lived triangular trade that was suppressed a couple of centuries ago. It seems to me that whenever historical guilt for slavery is discussed, a small troop of elephants is milling about in the room. Chief among them – because it is the one form of slavery that we might conceivably be able to do something about – is present-day slavery in all its forms. This, it seems, may be safely ignored in favour of the perceived sins of the British and Americans of several centuries ago. Another large elephant is the long (and continuing) history of slavery in the Islamic world. And then there is Belgium, whose turn-of-the-(20th)-century wealth was built on slave labour in the Congo. And, in the 20th century, slave labour in Germany, Japan and the Soviet Union. Slave labour in Japan during World War II is perhaps a special case, as it was enslavement of prisoners of war (in total defiance of the Geneva conventions, etc.). The German use of slave labour in that war was another matter, involving the enslavement of its own (ex-)citizens, and it permeated the German economy to a quite extraordinary extent: there is barely a German brand you can name that doesn't have a history of using slave labour – from ThyssenKrupp right down to Dr Oetker. As for the Soviet Union, its economy was dependent on slave labour in the gulag system for decades – and that had nothing to do with the war. 
  Of course you could argue, quite reasonably, that present-day Belgians, Germans, Japanese, Russians etc. cannot be held accountable for what happened in the past, in different times and different circumstances and under different regimes. And yet this forgive-and-forget attitude does not, it seems, extend to the much more historically distant triangular trade. Present-day British and Americans, uniquely, must be held accountable for the sins of their great great great great great etc. grandfathers, in very different times and circumstances and under very different regimes. Maybe I'm missing something here, but this doesn't seem to me to make much sense (except perhaps as another episode in the long slow suicide of the West)...

Sunday 8 November 2020


 Watching today's remembrance ceremony from Whitehall was a weird experience: no public, a handful of veterans, the few participants all standing two metres apart, even the ranks of the military bands drastically thinned. Such are these strange times. I couldn't help wondering what the wartime generations would have made of a nation brought to its knees by a virus that, er, kills old people. If Covid had appeared during either war, would anyone even have noticed? (They noticed the postwar Spanish flu all right, but that was vastly more serious and killed young adults on a huge scale.)
  This year marks the centenary of the erection of the permanent cenotaph on Whitehall, and of the interment of the Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey – both brilliantly creative ways of commemorating the war dead and focusing the nation's grief. Lutyens's beautifully understated cenotaph is an almost abstract construction, essentially a blank monolith onto which memories and grief can be projected – no figurative sculpture, no triumphalism, no flamboyant display of emotion. Lloyd George had envisaged a 'catafalque', but Lutyens's final structure is more eloquent – an 'empty tomb' (the literal meaning of 'cenotaph').
  Curiously, Lutyens first came across the 'cenotaph' idea when he was working on Gertrude Jekyll's garden at Munstead Wood. He had designed a garden seat there in the form of a single block of elm set on a stone, and Charles Liddell, a friend of both Lutyens and Jekyll (and a librarian at the British Museum, and a cousin of Alice Liddell, Lewis Carroll's Alice), christened it the 'Cenotaph of Sigismunda'. That was back in the 1890s, but clearly the word had lodged in Lutyens's memory. The Whitehall cenotaph that he brought into being years later was a direct response to his experience of the devastation wrought by the war in France, which Lutyens visited in 1917. This convinced him that a new kind of war memorial was needed, one that eschewed naturalism and expressionism in favour of an eloquent reticence. He was so right. 

Saturday 7 November 2020

Alan Garner!

 With a big tip of the hat to Chris Hale, I pass on this astonishing image of the author of The Stone Book Quartet. I guess he must have needed the money (and was clearly no whisky drinker if he liked it with ginger ale – but did he really? We'll never know). 
I found Garner's endorsement even more improbable than this more famous one, featuring dear Kingsley and the long-suffering Elizabeth Jane Howard in their well appointed drawing room – 

What a shame Philip Larkin never did an ad for Gordon's gin. 'Very Philip Larkin, very drunk'?

Friday 6 November 2020

Lockdown 2.0

 Well, this is a funny lockdown. The Committee for Public Safety might have decreed (on the usual fraudulent prospectus) that the nation must lock down again to prevent a medical catastrophe, but things seem to be going on pretty much as normal out there. True, the 'hospitality sector' is, to varying degrees, closed down, despite having been sedulously Covid-compliant and having already been punished with the ludicrous 10pm curfew. Similarly, the almost absurdly Covid-compliant churches have been ordered – apparently as an afterthought – to close their doors again. 'Non-essential' (to whom?) businesses, many of them already on their knees, have been shut down, and various other healthy communal activities have been curtailed. And yet, out on the street, this really doesn't feel like a lockdown – not the way the last one did, when people were genuinely anxious and afraid, and fear and uncertainty were in the air, along with a kind of unifying wartime spirit, a sense that we were 'all in this together.' Then, the high street was all but deserted, people were crossing the road to avoid contact with another human being, supermarket queues snaked round the block, and every week the besieged population would emerge, blinking, to applaud 'our NHS'. Now, it seems, 'our NHS' is going to be unable to cope even with a limited resurgence of Covid-19, so the nation must be closed down again to protect them (or rather to save their face). Has the NHS learnt nothing from the first wave? It would seem so – unlike the supermarkets, who faced colossal difficulties last time round but had got on top of most of them in about ten days, and who are now so well prepared that there are few queues and no shortages: toilet paper is piled as high as the towers of Ilium, and hand sanitiser to plentiful they're practically giving it away. It's arguable that the supermarkets and their under-appreciated workers were the true heroes of the epidemic: imagine the chaos and deprivation if those stores were being run by the state. 
  What is also striking about Lockdown 2.0 is that there are so many more dissenting voices. Last time around, I rarely came across anyone (at least in the early weeks) who had serious doubts about the government's approach. This time, I have yet to talk to anyone who is buying it, and it is obvious just from walking the streets how much more relaxed people are, and how much readier to bend or break the rules. This time, I think, lockdown won't wash, and the government will have to lift it on or before the appointed date, whatever The Science might be saying by then. 


Wednesday 4 November 2020

'Roughly speaking'

On my Mercian travels, I revisited Lincoln Cathedral to marvel anew at its sheer scale and breathtaking beauty. This, in my humble opinion, is the greatest building in England. And so it was in the rather less humble opinion of John Ruskin, who declared that 'I have always held and proposed against all comers to maintain that the Cathedral of Lincoln is out and out the most precious piece of architecture in the British Isles and roughly speaking worth any two other cathedrals we have.' 
I love that 'roughly speaking', as if Lincoln might be worth only one and three quarters other cathedrals, or perhaps two and a quarter – far be it from Ruskin to lay down the law.