Saturday 29 February 2020

British Baroque

I was curious to see the Tate Britain exhibition British Baroque: Power and Illusion, but I can't say my expectations were very high. (I'm always a little wary of exhibitions with a colon and subtitle after the name.)
  My heart sank when I saw a prominent 'trigger warning' notice outside one room, and found the offending picture adorned with an ultralong caption (the longest in the whole exhibition) expressing moral outrage at 'this shocking and dehumanising image'. The painting in question was a playful composition by Benedetto Gennari, showing the spirited Hortense Mancini, Duchess Mazarin [one of Charles II's lovers] dressed up (or down) as Diana. She is clearly enjoying the fun, as are the four black pageboys (one of them her long-time friend and confidant) who surround her. Shocking? Dehumanising? Really? The Tate has no image of this picture available, but you can have a look at it (in rather murky reproduction) here, and read a more level-headed account of it.
  Anyway, after recovering from this shock in the nearest safe space, I managed to totter around the rest of the exhibition, and my overall impression was very favourable. This is a grand, wide-ranging survey of the High Baroque in Britain, from the Restoration to Queen Anne, taking in not only painting but sculpture, architecture, garden design, interior furnishings, warfare and even the beginnings of party politics. At ten rooms, it's near blockbuster size, but nothing like as crowded or exhausting as most.
  The paintings typically delight in rich colour, sumptuous textures, inviting female flesh, dazzling display, and sometimes ludicrous self-aggrandisement. As we English are not naturally given to the last of these qualities in particular, we had to bring in foreigners – especially Italians – to do it for us, as in Antonio Verrio's preposterous Sea Triumph of Charles II
A more realistic and revealing image of Charles II is provided by a portrait bust by the imperfectly earthed John Bushnell, a sculptor whose name will be familiar to readers of this blog and this book.
Among the numerous swagger portraits of gorgeous, often underdressed ladies and pompous, overdressed men some stand out as something more – especially the portraits by Willem Wissing, a Dutchman who worked with Peter Lely and died sadly young. Here is one of his grander works, a quietly beautiful portrait of Queen Anne, when Princess of Denmark –
There are also a couple of portraits by the brilliant, still underrated John Michael Wright, but the revelation, for me, was Godfrey Kneller – not that I didn't know his work, which is everywhere, but because I didn't appreciate his range, and what a powerful portraitist he could be when he got away from the conventional grand style and painted in a more pared-down way, as in his portrait of Matthew Prior –
That is an image that could be from the turn of the twentieth century, and others of his portraits on display here show him learning a lesson in cool simplicity from Moroni, or painting with the sparkle and brio of Reynolds or Gainsborough.
  British Baroque would be worth seeing for the paintings alone, but it has a good deal more to offer, and I'd recommend a visit – it's running until mid-April, so there's plenty of time.

Friday 28 February 2020

Heart Burial?

A fine day's church crawling in Gloucestershire yesterday (though, after all this rain, many of the tracks and byways were more like mud-fringed rivers than paths). Picturesque stone-built villages, blues skies, early blossom, primroses, snowdrops, violets, celandine, daffodils – and a magical daytime sighting of a barn owl, which one of our number inadvertently flushed from, yes, an old barn. And then there were the churches, one little gem after another. In the first, Holy Rood, Ampney Crucis, was this grand Elizabethan monument.
The Renaissance-classical design is a good deal more sophisticated than the carving of the figures and decorative detail, but the effigies definitely have presence.

It was a detail, though, that particularly struck me. What are George Lloyd (died 1584) and his wife holding between their praying hands? Each of them seems to be holding a human heart...
What can this mean? It's a detail I've never come across before, and, from what I can find out, it's something that was sometimes used in medieval times to denote a 'heart burial' – a burial of the heart separately from the rest of the body. Does this later monument carry that meaning? Did George Lloyd and his wife both elect this strange mode of burial, and if so, why? Or could it be a curiously literal expression of love? I guess we'll never know...

Wednesday 26 February 2020

From Mercia

This rare survival from Anglo-Saxon Mercia is displayed on the wall of St Mary's, Wirksworth, one of Derbyshire's finest churches. It's a stone coffin lid, dated with a broad brush at 700-900, and (perhaps wishfully) associated with Betti, one of four missionary priests who came into Mercia from Northumbria in 653.
The coffin slab was found, plain side up, below the surface of the chancel pavement when work was being done to the church in 1820. The carving is a little crude but it packs in a lot of story – eight more-or-less complete scenes, portraying, among other things, the Crucifixion, the Death of the Virgin, the Descent into Hell and the Ascension of Christ. What is striking about the Crucifixion is that it is not Christ in human form being crucified, but a lamb, the literally represented Lamb of God. This style of representation was banned by the Council of Constantinople in 692, which decreed that Christ should be portrayed as a crucified man, 'so that all may understand by means of it, the depth of the humiliation of the Word of God, and that we may recall to our memory His conversation in the flesh, his Passion and salutary Death, his Redemption which was wrought for the whole world'. Quite so.
After this, the Lamb went off in a different iconographic direction, represented supremely in Van Eyck's great Adoration of the Mystic Lamb in Ghent. The most recent restoration of this masterpiece caused something of a sensation, when the 'alarmingly humanoid' lamb was revealed in all its glory. You can read about the brouhaha here...
It would have been a whole lot worse if the lamb was on a cross.

Monday 24 February 2020

One Year Ago

'This early spring / warm spring / warm spell has been a joy. For several days now, the early afternoon sun has warmed things up to such an extent that I've even been reduced to shirtsleeves. And it has brought the early butterflies out: in the three days around mid-month I saw a Red Admiral, a first Brimstone, a Peacock and a Tortoiseshell, all without straying from my usual haunts. There have been many Brimstones since – and today, walking on Ashtead common, I happened on a Comma, basking in the unseasonal sunshine. That's five species – and it's still February! '

That's me, writing on this blog, on this date last year. It makes poignant reading now, as we near the end of this relentlessly soggy February, with the rain still falling, the muddy ground saturated, low-lying fields more water than land, and the cold winds still blowing.
'The fold stands empty in the drown
รจd field,
And crows are fattened with the murrain flock.
The nine-men's-morris is fill'd up with mud,
And the quaint mazes in the wanton green
For lack of tread are undistinguishable...'

On the other hand, I did see two butterflies – both Peacocks – very early this year, on the 5th and 6th of February, when the sun briefly shone, belying what was to come. It had better be a good March after all this...

Thursday 20 February 2020

Radio 4: Signs of Hope??

I see that Radio 4 is planning a shake-up of its content, one that will 'bring joy and optimism to our audience'. Producers have been urged to give 'a platform to exciting new thinkers' and 'widen the range of people whose thinking we take seriously', rather then relying on a familiar 'ideas establishment'. This does, on the face of it, seem to show some dawning awareness of what's wrong with Radio 4, and why so many who, like me, used to love the network now find much of its relentlessly 'woke' output quite unlistenable. Is Radio 4 actually thinking of letting voices from the broadly-defined 'right' become a normal feature of everyday discourse rather than token presences and aunt sallies? Does it mean that the BBC's notorious editorial policy on 'climate change' will be scrapped? Will Woman's Hour cease to be a radio version of the Guardian women's page? Will 'gender issues' and such preoccupations slide down the agenda? Don't hold your breath.
 The trouble is that the BBC, an elite institution with a built-in metropolitan left-liberal bias, cannot perceive its own bias, because it cannot consider it possible that any sane or civilised person could  hold views divergent from the left-liberal consensus (despite the evidence of successive general elections, the Brexit vote, Trump's victory, etc.). This is not the ideal position from which to start 'widening the range of people whose thinking we take seriously'.  However, we must live in hope – and there are hopeful signs in other elements of the planned Radio 4 shake-up: it seems they don't want any more programme ideas involving impressionists, improvised comedy, spoofs or parodies of broadcast shows, 'satire', panel games or chat shows. They've also decided that it's a good idea to do classic dramatisations 'straight'. Amen to that.

Meanwhile, I'm off to Mercia again for a few days...

Wednesday 19 February 2020

Margaret Fuller: A lady 'at once splendid and ridiculous'

Edith Sitwell's English Eccentrics, which I'm dipping into from time to time 'when I'm so dispoged', is a strangely erratic book, veering in tone from the drily compendious (the book is, I believe, heavily reliant on John Timbs's two-volume English Eccentrics and Eccentricities) to the downright brilliant. To the latter category belongs the chapter titled 'Portrait of a Learned Lady'.
  The learned lady in question is not English, but she has a fair claim to being 'eccentric', and she certainly brings out the best in Sitwell, who is in this chapter fully engaged and at her sharpest. Margaret Fuller – 'this chaste, passionate and high-principled woman, at once splendid and ridiculous' – was an American intellectual, journalist, transcendentalist and advocate of women's rights, famous as the author of Woman in the Nineteenth Century. We first see her at a dinner party at Carlyle's house in Chelsea, a house 'filled always with a shaggy Highland-cattle-like odour of homespun materials and by a Scotch mist of tobacco smoke'. Here Miss Fuller, like so many of Carlyle's guests, sat waiting in ever fading hope for the opportunity to interrupt her host's torrential monologue – and this was a woman used to having the floor to herself in the salons of New England. 'The worst of hearing Carlyle,' she reported, 'is that you cannot interrupt him. I understand his habit of haranguing has increased very much upon him, so that you are a perfect prisoner when he has once got hold of you. To interrupt him is a physical impossibility.'
  Margaret Fuller, Sitwell supposes, 'was glad to be in Europe because her life in Boston must remind her of the imaginary being, clothed in actual flesh, whom she had lost'. This was one James Nathan, a work-shy young man of a most romantic aspect, with whom Miss Fuller had fallen head-over-heels in love two years earlier. The feeling was not reciprocated – and no wonder, if we are to believe Emerson's description of Margaret Fuller: 'Her extreme plainness, a trick of incessantly opening and shutting her eyelids, the nasal tone of her voice, all repelled.... Margaret made a disagreeable first impression on most people ... to such an extent that they did not wish to stay in the same room as her.' However, Nathan was happy to spin her along, extracting money whenever he could and hanging on to her effusive love letters, before eventually marrying a younger woman.
  Before the deplorable Nathan, Miss Fuller had developed a similar hopeless pash for the equally unsuitable Mr Samuel Ward, whom she bombarded daily with bouquets of flowers. 'As a not unnatural result of this habit, Miss Fuller was rewarded by the sound of scampering feet, disappearing into the far distance.' Sitwell notes drily that this kind of thing showed 'that European culture, the Romance of the Middle Ages, and the Rights of Women, as inculcated by such teachers as Mary Wollstonecraft and the trousered and volatile George Sand, had wrought equal havoc with her life.' (Rather surprisingly, Margaret Fuller did eventually find happiness with a younger Italian husband and a  baby – only to die with them both in a shipwreck off Fire Island, New York.)
  'It is impossible not to feel an embarrassed sympathy, and a kind of affection for her,' Sitwell writes, 'since the whole record of her life leaves us with the impression of a certain nobility and uprightness, blurred over by an over-heated nervous sensibility masquerading as imagination.  She had a certain non-productive intellect, and considerable rectitude, but these qualities were balanced, to some degree, by her almost incomparable silliness.' A nice summing-up, as is this very fair estimate: 'She lived, indeed, a life full of noble ideals, Backfisch nonsense and moonshine, silly cloying over-emotionalised friendships and repressed loves ... extreme mental and moral courage, and magnificent loyalty to her ideals, friends, and loves.' 'Backfisch' – a new one on me – is a word for an immature adolescent girl.
  Carlyle, on a later occasion, spent some hours in rebuking Miss Fuller and her friend Mazzini for their 'rose-water imbecilities'.  This leads Sitwell into a splendid peroration: 'Scholars have, it seems, always despised this quality; but they are notoriously difficult to please; stupidity and flippancy in women, learning in women, all these offences may, at different times, prove equally unpalatable to them, though the last offence is usually the most unforgivable – largely, I imagine, because it is sometimes a little too readily assumed that heaven deems the charms of the mind to be sufficient of an endowment, and therefore bestows no other.'


Tuesday 18 February 2020

Charles Portis RIP

There seem to have been too many deaths lately. The latest to leave us is Charles Portis, 86, author of at least two classics – the western True Grit and the comedy Masters of Atlantis, for my money one of the funniest novels of the 20th century.  He published relatively little – but all of it worth looking out – and shunned publicity, preferring to live a quiet life in Litte Rock, Arkansas. His name will surely live on – and meanwhile the Coen brothers should surely make a film of Masters of Atlantis...

Sunday 16 February 2020

Parish Notices

I'm pleased to see that there's a nice review of The Book in the new issue of The Oldie magazine.

Saturday 15 February 2020


I have now finished reading Jayne Anne Phillips's Quiet Dell, and I'm happy to report that the light I had hoped for was indeed shining, with steadily increasing radiance, in its darkness. The horror and evil at the core of the novel are balanced by love and goodness, and the misery by a hard-won happiness – happiness that proverbially 'writes white'*, but here writes in rich colours. [Spoiler alert] The journalist, Emily, and the banker, William, entirely believably fall in love – the moment when it happens is quite electrifying – and Emily, having already adopted the murdered family's dog, then adopts a homeless boy off the streets, and gives him a new life. And she and William, we can be pretty sure, live happily ever after, not quite married (there are complications) but as good as. And there are happy endings too for Charles, the murdered children's surrogate uncle, and Eric, Emily's charming colleague.
All this may sound as if Phillips ends her novel in a mist of Dickensian sentimentality, but in the context of what these happy events are counterbalancing, it is necessary and it works. As one reviewer wrote, 'There is evil in the world, but there are some who will stand in its way', and, in the end, somehow, goodness will prevail. The light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not.

* Actually it derives from Henry de Montherland: 'Happiness writes in white ink on white paper.'

Friday 14 February 2020

A Trip to the Theatre – and a New Word

Last night I did something I very rarely do – I went to the theatre (here's what happened last time I tried it). And, for a wonder, I actually enjoyed the show (despite the seats).
It was a one-man adaptation of Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat, performed with gusto by one Giles Shenton, who is the very model of a portly Edwardian gent. He plays 'J' in his middle years, looking back fondly on this riverine escapade of his younger self (with his travelling companions George, Harris and Montmorency the dog). Three Men in a Boat (unlike most late Victorian humorous fiction) is still funny enough to afford good comic entertainment to a modern audience, especially when stripped down to the humorous stuff, with little of nothing of the lyrical and topographical passages that weigh down the book. Shenton gave it his all, the audience laughed and applauded, everyone had a good time, and I think we all (even I) left the theatre in a state of good cheer. 
Talking of good cheer, I should explain my ulterior motive in going to this theatre. It's a little local operation, doubling as an arts centre – and, more to the point, it has a brilliant bar attached, with a welcoming atmosphere, comfortable seating, nice people behind and in front of the bar, and a terrific range of drinks. I will do everything in my power to keep that bar open, even if it means attending the theatre from time to time.

And last night I learnt a word that was new to me. At one point in J's monologue, he refers to a crowd of 'gongoozlers' standing by and watching as the three men in their boat extricate themselves from some watery scrape. The word is, I gather, much used by people who, for reasons best known to themselves, like to spend time on canal boats. Gongoozlers are people who enjoy standing around watching (and no doubt commenting on) activity on the canals. The word could be more widely applied to all forms of idle bystander, but the endless longueurs of canal 'activity' must afford by far the greatest scope for gongoozling.

One more thing: there was another one-man production of Three Men in a Boat that was toured for some years by the late great Rodney Bewes (fondly remembered as Tom Courtenay's pal Arthur in Billy Liar, Bob in The Likely Lads, and Basil Brush's 'Mr Rodney'). Bewes cannily wrote his own adaptation of the book, so that he could pocket the writer's, producer's and performers' slice of the takings. His obituary in The Guardian (he died in 2017) had to be amended when the newspaper learned that his Three Men in a Boat had not, as he'd claimed, won the 'Stella Artois prize' at Edinburgh. 'I make things up all the time,' Bewes confessed in another interview. 'I claim to have won the Stella Artois prize at the Edinburgh fringe, but there's no such thing.' Excellent.

Wednesday 12 February 2020

High Windows

On this day in 1967, a few months before the supposed 'Summer of Love', Philip Larkin signed off on the poem that was to give its title to his last collection, High Windows...

When I see a couple of kids
And guess he’s fucking her and she’s   
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,   
I know this is paradise

Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives—   
Bonds and gestures pushed to one side
Like an outdated combine harvester,
And everyone young going down the long slide

To happiness, endlessly. I wonder if   
Anyone looked at me, forty years back,   
And thought, That’ll be the life;
No God any more, or sweating in the dark

About hell and that, or having to hide   
What you think of the priest. He
And his lot will all go down the long slide   
Like free bloody birds. And immediately

Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:   
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

It's a poem that epitomises, almost to the point of parody, Larkin's late style (or one of them): a pungent blend of the plainest of plain speaking and strictly formal poetic structure, beginning blokishly (like This Be the Verse and Sad Steps) with a four-letter word and, in the course of a few stanzas, arriving in a wholly different imaginative world with that beautiful, mysterious closing image. Such endings are very often what raise Larkin's poems to greatness, and that is certainly the case here. As for the formal structure, that is, as ever with Larkin in this mood, artfully disguised as matter-of-fact prose. The four-line stanzas are rhymed (or half-rhymed) ABAB, except for the first two, where the most jarring words in the poem – 'diaphragm' and 'combine harvester' – deliberately break the pattern. The last line of every stanza carries over into the next: the enjambment at the end of the first stanza is the boldest, but that at the end of the fourth stanza makes the bridge for the poem to cross from the banal to the sublime, aided by the internal rhyme that links 'free bloody birds' (birds on a slide?) to 'rather than words'.
And those mysterious high windows? I visualise them as the windows of a tall modern building (on campus perhaps), but was Larkin thinking of church windows, I wonder? Larkin himself, perhaps fearing he was becoming too high-toned, scrawled a pencil addition to those beautiful last lines in their first draft: 'and fucking piss'. Incorrigible, wasn't he...

Saturday 8 February 2020

Quiet Dell

Before I left Wellington, I came across yet one more book that was unknown to me, despite my admiration for the author. It was Quiet Dell by Jayne Anne Phillips, whose brilliant first novel Machine Dreams (1984) I found intensely moving on first reading and on several subsequent rereadings. Quiet Dell was published, unnoticed by me, in 2013, and there it was, in this bookshop in Wellington, as if by appointment. As it manifested itself in the form of a large, heavy hardback – and at full New Zealand price – I didn't buy it there and then, but waited till I got back to England and bought the paperback edition online.  Ever since then I have, as they say, had my nose buried in it (a nose that takes some burying) and have found it hard to tear myself away, let alone get on with any other reading.
 Quiet Dell (as all the world but me might know; it seems to have attracted a lot of attention, rave reviews and accolades on publication) is a gripping imaginative re-creation of a real-life murder case from 1931 – the murder of a widow and her three children by a psychopathic con man. The dedication page reads 'for Annabel Eicher' – Annabel, the youngest of the three murdered children, an imaginative, dreamy and talented child. It is in her voice that the novel begins, and her voice and presence recur from time to time, colouring and heightening the atmosphere of the novel. Phillips imaginatively enters the world of the Eicher children, their mother and grandmother and the surrogate uncle/father figure who rooms with them, rounding out their characters until we know and care about them all. As a result, when mother and children go, all unknowing, to meet their terrible end, the effect is heartbreaking.
 Equally convincingly Phillips fleshes out the characters who will propel the narrative after the grisly deed is done, giving them depth and inner lives – notably the woman journalist determined to understand what happened, and the local banker who knew the family and is equally determined to get to the truth and ensure that at least the killer faces justice. Documentary elements – photographs, press reports, verbatim statements – enhance the verisimilitude, but there is really no need. This is no ordinary true-crime fictionalisation but an utterly compelling journey into darkness – a darkness in which, I trust, a light is somewhere shining. And so I read on...

Thursday 6 February 2020

Partridge, a Kiwi Great

Born on this day in 1894 was the great lexicographer Eric Partridge, one of New Zealand's many gifts to the wider world. The son of a grazier, he was born in the Waimata valley, near Gisborne, on North Island. When he was 14, he moved with his family to Queensland, and from there, after serving in the Australian Imperial Force in the Kaiser war and taking a belated degree at the University of Queensland, he came to Oxford to work on both an M.A. and a B.Litt. By 1923, he had ensconced himself at desk K1 in the British Museum reading room (as it then was), his 'second home', where he spent the next half century researching and writing.
  Partridge's greatest achievement was his Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, originally published in 1937, but he wrote much else, including the ground-breaking Shakespeare's Bawdy, a volume that gave me much pleasure in my dirty-minded schoolboy days.  Originally published in 1947 in an expensive limited edition, Shakespeare's Bawdy explored an aspect of Shakespeare's endlessly rich and inventive language that had long been glossed over – the presence, not far below the surface, of a world of exuberant rudery. Partridge teased out double meanings, nuances and innuendos that would have been readily apparent to Shakespeare's audience, but had since drifted out of view. The book has its limits, resorting to Latin to gloss some of Shakespeare's more eye-popping bawdy, but it was pioneering work, opening up a new field of Shakespeare studies, and, more importantly, widening appreciation of just how 'universal-spirited', 'catholic-emotioned' a man Shakespeare was, and how far his language roamed, both high and low.
  Partridge somehow concluded, from his researches, that Shakespeare was 'an exceedingly knowledgeable amorist, a versatile connoisseur, and highly artistic, and ingeniously skilful, practitioner of love-making, who could have taught Ovid rather more than that facile doctrinaire could have taught him; he evidently knew of, and probably he practised, an artifice accessible to few – one that I cannot becomingly mention here, though I felt it obligatory to touch on it, very briefly, in the Glossary'. What on earth does Partridge mean? He might have given us a clue, if only in Latin... As it is, the mind boggles.

Wednesday 5 February 2020


I hadn't expected my butterfly year to start this soon – my English one, that is: Wellington abounded, as ever, in Monarchs and Yellow Admirals – but, walking down the road just now, I glanced into a garden and there, on a laurel hedge, was a basking Peacock, wings spread wide, soaking up what energy it could from the weak winter sun. A gloriously unexpected sight on a day when frost had been on the ground just hours earlier.

My Taste of Steiner

I was sorry to hear of the death of the eminent critic George Steiner, who has died at the ripe age of 90, at home in Cambridge.
It was at Cambridge that I first encountered him. The university seems to have regarded him with suspicion – he was a always a controversial figure, something of a maverick – and held him at arm's length. However, I was once lucky enough to hear him speak, and it was one of the few wholly positive educational experiences of my Cambridge years. I'm not sure if it was a lecture or a talk to the English Society – I forget – but what I do remember is that Steiner's subjects were Beckett, Borges and Nabokov, and he spoke with such eloquent passion that I was fired up with enthusiasm and determined to read as much as I could find of these three (Beckett I has already discovered, but the other two were little more than names to me). This one lecture opened up my literary world in a way almost nothing else in the academic line had done. It was truly inspiring, in a certain sense life-changing, and I'll always be grateful for that taste of Steiner at his best.

Monday 3 February 2020

The Brexit Comma, among other things

I was blearily waking up in a Singapore hotel, en route back to Blighty, when Brexit happened, so I missed all the fun. Before that, in my long sojourn in New Zealand, I'd missed most of the news from Britain (and was not sorry) – but one story that did reach me was the hooha over the Brexit coin and its missing comma. When this unlovely 50p coin (can anything seven-sided be beautiful?) was issued, Philip Pullman, writer, Europhile and Oxford man, urged a boycott – on grammatical grounds. 'The Brexit 50p coin is missing an Oxford comma,' he tweeted, 'and should be boycotted by all literate people.' Stephen 'Stig' Abell, editor of the TLS, joined in, claiming that 'the lack of a comma after "prosperity" is killing me'. Really?
  The legend on the coin reads 'Peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations' – the meaning of which is perfectly clear, especially when seen laid out on the coin. However, there should, strictly speaking, be a comma between 'prosperity' and 'and friendship', as the phrase 'with all nations' applies only to 'friendship', not to 'peace' or 'prosperity'. This missing comma is not, however, an 'Oxford' (or 'Harvard' or 'serial') comma. I am myself no friend of the Oxford comma, but I would (in such a formal context) happily insert a comma.
  The true Oxford comma is a comma between the penultimate and last items in any list, e.g. 'Tom, Dick, and Harry'. This, it seems to me, is jarring and unnecessary, and narrows the scope for shades of meaning. Sounding what we are reading in our heads, we naturally read a comma as a short (the shortest) break between words, and there is obviously no audible break between 'Dick' and 'and'. The comma has the effect of isolating 'Harry' – which can be useful if we want to say something about Harry and not the other two, e.g. 'Tom, Dick, and Harry who had decided to lunch by himself'. The ability to make this distinction is lost when the Oxford comma is applied automatically to all lists. And the comma used as above – and as with the 50p coin – is not an Oxford comma; it's a useful and sensible comma, as against a pedantic one. English English wisely purged itself of its excess of commas some years back, leaving them to the comma-loving Americans. Now, thanks to the ever widening reach of American English, it seems we're getting many of them back. But some of us – in fact quite a lot of us – are still resisting the Oxford comma.

Towards the end of my New Zealand stay, I ran out of reading material, so I had another scout around Wellington's second-hand bookshops. Once again I found a book I'd never seen before and didn't know existed. Called The Elsewhere Community, it's the text of Hugh Kenner's 1998 Massey Lectures, described on the back cover as a 'grand tour of books, writers and places both physical and of the mind'. It argues that western culture has an enduring need to find stimulation 'elsewhere', whether on the 18th-century Grand Tour or, in the case of the 20th-century modernists, in self-imposed exile – or, in more recent times, in the disembodied, interconnected world of the internet. This theme is woven in with that of mentorship, a thread that Kenner follows through his own encounters with, among others, Ezra Pound, Samuel Beckett and T.S. Eliot (a very amusing account of an awkward dinner at the Garrick). The Elsewhere Community is essentially an amiable, slightly repetitive ramble around some of Kenner's preoccupations – an old man's book (he was 75 at the time) – but it's thoroughly enjoyable in its relaxed, effortlessly elegant way, and of course anything Kenner wrote is worth reading.
  The Elsewhere Community is also very short, and I had finished it long before the endless flight home ended. Having exhausted the delights of the available in-flight entertainment – finally watching Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia (a masterpiece) and enjoying Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood much more than I expected to – I was reduced to rereading my own book, in which I discovered yet one more typo. Said book gets a cool and wonderfully patronising review from Simon Heffer in this month's Literary Review. Still, it's a full page, with an eye-catching picture, so I'm not complaining...