Tuesday 31 March 2020

The Music of Heaven

On this day in 1685 was born the composer I would now name as the greatest who ever lived – Johann Sebastian Bach.
I didn't always think that much of him. In my early years I knew him only from the various chorales incorporated into English hymns, from Myra Hess's transcription of Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring, an LP of the Brandenburg Concertos (played in the very un-Baroque style that was then the fashion), and the Two-Part Inventions, some of which I could once just about play. It was only later in life that I discovered the Cello Suites, the St Matthew Passion, the B Minor Mass, the Goldberg Variations, the D Minor Chaconne – each of which is, in a word, sublime. I believe now that Bach's music is the greatest musical tribute ever paid by man to God, and surely the closest to the music of Heaven.
To pick up on yesterday's theme – Musica Serena –  Bach created, among much else, music of wonderful serenity. Take this chorale, transcribed for piano by Busoni and here played by the great Murray Perahia –

And talking of serene music – yes, how about Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring? Here played as an encore by Angela Hewitt –

In this time of lockdown, lists of  'happy music' are appearing online, intended to lift our spirits. One list I saw features this Osanna from the B Minor Mass. Here it is, sung in the pre-fire Notre Dame de Paris – if you have spirits to lift...

Monday 30 March 2020

Musica Serena

'Keep Calm and Carry On' – that tiresomely ubiquitous slogan (I prefer Churchill's wartime motto, KBO, Keep Buggering On) – has inevitably been given a new lease of life by the Current Crisis. I've written before about the Keep Calm phenomenon, which originated in a wartime poster that was intended for publication in the event of Nazi occupation, and so was never released. 
  However, it seems that, poster or no poster, the phrase was in general use during the war. Here is Alan Garner, in his boyhood memoir Where Shall We Run To? (like The Stone Book Quartet a masterclass in the art of paring down), remembering his parents visiting him in hospital in 1941:
[I] kept asking when I was coming home. And they laughed and my father said keep calm and carry on, which everybody used to say...'
There is is: 'keep calm and carry on'. So the government must have been making use of a phrase already in common use, rather than coming up with an inspired and inspiring new slogan – one that, in the event, refused to die.

One of the most effective aids to keeping calm is surely music, the more serene and peaceful the better. Here is Musica Serena, a beautiful piece by the Latvian composer Peteris Vasks. It's best listened to with the eyes closed – but, if you're watching the video, look out for the composer in the audience, listening intently and shedding a quiet tear...

Sunday 29 March 2020

'Where meaning has been found before'

In the current Spectator Douglas Murray ponders a question that he sees hovering, in wait of an answer, behind the lockdown crisis – the question of where we can find purpose and meaning in life, now that we've been thrown back on our own resources.
'I suppose my own answer,' he writes, 'is a doctrine of a kind. Which is that we are most likely to find meaning in the places where meaning has been found before. That what has seen our forebears through, and nourished them, will see us through and nourish us in turn. I don't listen to the news much. If the church is open I will sit in it. I remake my acquaintance with great music. In the evening I read Anna Karenina.'
Yes, it is a doctrine of a kind – a decidedly conservative kind, as delineated by, among others, Michael Oakeshott ('using the resources of a traditional manner of behaviour in order to make a friend of every hostile occasion'). And of course, being truly conservative, it is only 'a doctrine of a kind', not fully fledged dogma or ideology (true conservatism is the least political of political philosophies).
'The places where meaning has been found before' calls to mind the closing stanzas of Larkin's Church Going, which predict that, even after churches have crumbled into ruin and disuse,
                                      '... someone will forever be surprising
                                      A hunger in himself to be more serious,
                                      And gravitating with it to this ground,
                                      Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
                                       If only that so many dead lie round.'

Saturday 28 March 2020

An Old Friend

Taking my morning constitutional in the park today (while it's still legal), I decided to take a couple of photographs of an old friend – this veteran Sweet Chestnut. With its creviced trunk richly encrusted with knobbly burrs, this tree was a beginner's tree for members of the after-school tree-climbing fraternity – one of the first trees to 'learn' after you'd climbed all the easy ones.
  Looking at it now, I wonder how I ever managed to climb it – let alone the other, considerably more challenging trees that I moved on to, with mixed success. I also wonder at the fact that nobody I knew – even the most daring climbers – ever had a serious fall or suffered any significant injury. I guess it was because we began with the 'easy' trees and learnt to climb one tree at a time. Also we didn't climb alone, but with others there to offer help and advice, to guide you down – often harder than getting up – and, in the last resort, break your fall.

Friday 27 March 2020


It's rather cheering that our first line of defence against this new virus is old-fashioned soap and water – good news for retroprogressives everywhere. Also good news for those of us who simply enjoy using soap; it's surely one of life's pleasanter chores to work up a good lather with a pleasingly scented soap and wash your hands with it for the prescribed 20 seconds.
  With soap again in the ascendant, it's only fitting that we should mark the birthday of the French writer Francis Ponge (born on this day in 1899), whose most enduring – or perhaps I should say least forgotten – work was Soap (Le Savon). And soap was, most definitely, its subject. Ponge was for a while associated with the Surrealists, but he drew away from them to plough his own furrow. He was in the French Resistance during the war, and in 1947 (a commendably early date) completed his decoupling from the Surrealists by leaving the Communist party. Believing that 'a mind in search of ideas should first stock up on appearances', he developed an art form all his own, consisting of minutely descriptive prose poems on mundane everyday objects, written in paragraph form, like essays. And the greatest of these was the book-length Soap. I had it, and read it, in my youth, when I was fixated on all things French and avant garde, but I can't say I remember much about it, except that it was all about... soap.
  Here is a representative sample –

'Soap has much to say. May it say it with volubility, enthusiasm. When it has finished saying it, it no longer is.
Soap was made by man for his body’s use, yet it does not willingly attend him. This inert stone is nearly as hard to hold as a fish. See it slip from me and like a frog dive into the basin again … emitting also at its own expense a blue cloud of evanescence, of confusion.
For a piece of soap the principal virtues are enthusiasm and volubility. At any rate ease of elocution. This, which is excessively simple, has nonetheless never been said. Even by the specialist in commercial publicity. And what do the soap-manufacturers offer me—not a penny! They have never even thought of it! Yet soap and I will show them what we can do...' 
Soap owed its inspiration to the war years, when soap of any kind was hard to find, and people began to appreciates its value – none more so, surely, than Francis Ponge.

Oddly enough, the great American writer Stanley Elkin (author of The Dick Gibson Show, The Franchiser, etc) was also a lover of soap, compulsively collecting pieces of it wherever he went. He did this partly in homage to his father, a travelling salesman who also picked up soap wherever he found it. In the title essay of his collection Pieces of Soap, Elkin describes his compulsion, identifying it as a form of 'anal greed' and, like all compulsive collecting, a symbolic way of staving off death. At the time of writing the essay, he had amassed a collection of more than 5,000 pieces of soap, picked up on his travels and hoarded away against... what? Perhaps, like many hoarders, he had a feeling they'd come in handy some time. And it turns out he was right in the end.

Thursday 26 March 2020


This particular clump of local blackthorn is always one of the last to come into flower, but it's getting there now, and at the right sort of time. We haven't had a 'blackthorn winter' this year – the spell of bitter cold that is traditionally associated with the blackthorn flowering – though there has been a little frost from time to time, once the rains and winds had died down.
  Cobbett was a great fan of the blackthorn, especially its fruit (sloes), the pulp of which he used to eat as a boy, gummy and astringent though it is. 'The juice expressed from this pulp,' he declares, 'mixed with water, in which a due proportion of logwood has been steeped, receiving, in addition, a sufficient proportion of cheap French brandy, makes the finest Port wine in the world.' A large claim, but to Cobbett it was no doubt self-evident that a home-made English concoction would be superior to anything Oporto could produce. For myself, I think I'll stick to sloe gin – but if anyone's tried sloe Port I'd be interested to hear from them... Maybe the dauntless drinkers over at Sediment?

Wednesday 25 March 2020

Painted Lady at the Old Bank, plus Schubert

This morning, as I was passing a town-centre pub called The Old Bank – which was indeed a bank, back in the days when every high street had half a dozen or more, often in very grand buildings – I noticed a bit of butterfly activity around the trough of colourful flowers above the pub's main windows. Looking up, I was surprised and delighted to see that it was a Painted Lady – very much my first of the year, and probably the earliest PL I've ever spotted. I guess it flew in on the southerlies that have been blowing these past few days.
I've no idea how this butterfly season is going to develop, but if the trains are still running I hope I'll be finding my way to my usual haunts.

Meanwhile, here is today's dose of beauty – a Spring song by Schubert. I love this video of an informal performance by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Sviatoslav Richter – particularly the way the camera lingers so long on Richter before Fischer-Dieskau appears. And the way the video ends...

Tuesday 24 March 2020

Scenes from the Lockdown

Well, last night's Address to the Nation doesn't seem to have cut an awful lot of ice round here. I ventured out this morning expecting to find the streets deserted but for roaming hygiene police snatch squads in full hazchem gear – no, I didn't really; I expected to find things looking much the same today as they did yesterday. And so it proved. More things closed of course – but not the parks, thank heavens – and rather more 'social distancing' being observed by some (though two young couples meeting up greeted each other with such extravagant embraces you'd think one of them had just returned from the dead). There were as many people out and about, enjoying the weather, as there were yesterday, and – far from a climate of fear – the atmosphere was cheerful and friendly. People are exchanging nods and smiles and greetings with strangers far more than is usual round here, and that is good to see, and to do. 
It occurred to me, as I wandered in the warm spring sunshine, with Brimstones and Peacocks flying everywhere, that if the stormy weather of early March had come later in the month it might have delayed this latest lockdown – people would have been effectively locked down by the weather. Not that I'd wish this glorious sunshine away...

If you're self-isolating and looking for amusement and edification, you could always read this book, if you haven't already  – but here's another idea: have a good wander around this extraordinary website, devoted to the paintings of Van Eyck and, in particular, the restoration of the great Ghent altarpiece. The quality of the images, and the degree of magnification possible, is quite extraordinary.

Monday 23 March 2020

Two Things...

for today: a perfect – and seasonal – short poem by Edward Thomas –


It was a perfect day For sowing; just As sweet and dry was the ground As tobacco-dust. I tasted deep the hour Between the far Owl's chuckling first soft cry And the first star. A long stretched hour it was; Nothing undone Remained; the early seeds All safely sown. And now, hark at the rain, Windless and light, Half a kiss, half a tear, Saying good-night.

(This was actually written earlier in March – on the 3rd – but the ground would have been far from 'sweet and dry' on that date this year.)
And here is some cheering spring music – an old chestnut, but it comes up fresh and bright (and properly Baroque) in the hands of these guys...

Sunday 22 March 2020

From Good Whisky to the Ancient M

A few days ago, Partick Kurp came across the word 'scunner' for the first time – 'scunner' used as a noun. By chance, just now I came across the same word used as a verb, in the Envoi to Norman MacCaig's 'Ballade of Good Whisky'. This is a poetical toast to his friend and fellow boozer Hugh MacDiarmid (English name Christopher Grieve) and celebrates, in no uncertain terms, the pleasures of whisky.
Here is the Envoi

'Chris! (whether perpendicular or flat
Or moving rather horribly aslant)
Here is a toast that you won't scunner at –
Glenfiddich, Bruichladdich and Glengrant!'

And here is the first stanza (of three, all on the same simple theme)  –

'You, whose ambition is to swim the Minch
Or write a drum concerto in B flat
Or run like Bannister or box like Lynch
Or find the Ark wrecked on Mt Ararat –
No special training's needed: thin or fat,
You'll do it if you never once supplant
As basis of your commissariat
Glenfiddich, Bruichladdich and Glengrant.'

Well, it's certainly energetic, and uses the ballade stanza well – and those of us who love whisky would heartily endorse the sentiment, especially (in my case) after 9 at night.
MacCaig's ballade seems to be a response to another poem on a similar theme – The Impossible Ballade of Whisky and Soda by one H.S. Mackintosh:

'Sublime beverage, supreme tipple,
The slick nectar (but the Haig's slicker!)
Which gods drew from a divine nipple
And thick nights became a lot thicker.
I'm Pict-Scot, which means a good picker,
I thus drank, and through my veins flowed a
Benign magic, yes, the true ichor
A large whisky and a small soda.

A full double, or perhaps triple,
Descends slowly - feel the sparks flicker
('Twould cure wholly a complete cripple)
And warm the cockles of the tired 'ticker'.
The world's sick and will be still sicker
Of Krupp, Vickers and the Czech, Skoda,
So serve quickly, lest the thugs bicker,
A large whisky and a small soda.

In dark Russia, by the Don's ripple
They like vodka - the effect's quicker
But bring Walker and a wee sip'll
Convert Malenkov, that dull sticker,
And dour Molotov, his side-kicker;
From Kamchatka to the wide Oder,
O let's wish them, with a slight snicker,
A large whisky and a small soda.


Beware, Lady, of the dear Vicar,
He's just waiting for the rhyme's coda,
He likes ladies and he loves liquor -
A large whisky and a small soda.

Note how Mackintosh manages to get through the whole thing without a single male line ending.
Here is another specimen of his comic verse – this one written as a monologue. It's called 'The Busy Man's Ancient Mariner' –

'It is the Ancient Mariner, he stoppeth one of three . . .
A devastating 'Raconteur' and Travel-Bore was he;
His victim was a Wedding-Guest who listened while he told
A story that went on for hours and never did unfold.
The A.M.'s tale described a trip around Cape Horn and back:
He worked aboard a sailing ship (I think he got the sack);
With nothing but a crossbow-shaft he killed an albatross,
His shipmates did not praise this feat, but were extremely cross;
They hung the bird around his neck (which must have been unpleasant,
For when an albatross gets 'high' it's not like grouse or pheasant).
The Ancient M. went off his head, had sunstroke or D.T.s,
A guilt-complex afflicted him which nothing could appease,
He saw the sun and moon behave most oddly in the sky,
He thought he saw the ship break up and all his shipmates die;
Thirst, heat and cold, dead men and ghosts beset the luckless ship
And every kind of contretemps combined to spoil the trip.
How he got home he can't recall (on foot? by boat? by carriage?).
The Wedding-Guest who heard all this was stunned and missed the marriage.

Don't let yourself be buttonholed when you have got a date;
Don't travel in a sailing ship (they're nearly always late);
Avoid Old Salts, especially those who have a glittering eye;
Above all don't shoot albatross (or is it albatri?).

(The 'Ancient M' is far too good for usages so vile,
And if you read the whole damn thing
You'll find it well worth while.)'

It's probably best after a few whiskies.

Saturday 21 March 2020

Dining in the Last Chance Restaurant

Yesterday evening, as every last locus of conviviality – pubs, restaurants, cafes, clubs, leisure centres, libraries – prepared to close down on government orders, Mrs N and I determined to have one last meal out. Disappointingly, the arts centre bar that has become our local had already shut down, as had the best dining-out pub in the vicinity, so we took a train (at least they're still running) one stop to see what we'd find. Happily the best local restaurant was still open, so in we went. Two jolly ladies were drinking in the bar front of house, but we had the large dining area to ourselves for some while. Eventually another (much younger) couple turned up, then a table of four (younger again) and one more couple – and that was it. It all felt extremely strange, like the last days of... What? England as we know it, I suppose, at least for a while – a while that might be long and wearisome.
  Whatever the health arguments, is it really wise to close things down on this kind of scale? The effects will be profound. To quote R.R. Reno's editorial in First Things:

Earlier generations understood that institutions anchor our lives. That’s why German children went to school throughout World War II, even when their cities were being reduced to rubble. That’s why Boy Scouts conducted activities during the Spanish flu pandemic and churches were open. We’ve lost this wisdom. In this time of crisis, when our need for these anchors is all the greater, our leaders have deliberately atomized millions of people. 
Society is a living organism, not a machine that can be stopped and started at our convenience. A person who is hospitalized and must lie in bed loses function rapidly, which is why nurses push patients to get up and walk as soon as possible after sicknesses and operations. The same holds true for societies. If the shutdown continues for too long, we will lose social function
I hope he's wrong.
  On last night's news, just to add insult to injury, there was Fergal 'make 'em cry' Keane in the Derbyshire village of Eyam, telling the oft-told story of how the villagers quarantined themselves to save others from the plague. Obviously we were being invited to draw lessons from this, and – absurdly – to equate Covid-19 with bubonic plague. I'm glad to say Fergal didn't manage to draw a tear from the doughty locals.

Meanwhile, as I discovered this morning, panic buying has now reached the point that not a toilet roll is to be found on sale for miles around. Some people seem already to have lost social function.

Friday 20 March 2020

Talking of Church Music...

Here are a couple of beautiful things for today.

by George Herbert
Sweetest of sweets, I thank you: when displeasure
          Did through my bodie wound my minde,
 You took me thence, and in your house of pleasure
          A daintie lodging me assign’d.

 Now I in you without a bodie move,
          Rising and falling with your wings:
 We both together sweetly live and love,
          Yet say sometimes, God help poore Kings.

 Comfort, I’le die; for if you poste from me,
          Sure I shall do so, and much more:
 But if I travell in your companie,
          You know the way to heavens doore.

And here is the choral group Voces 8 singing two of Byrd's Jerusalem Motets as beautifully (surely) as they have ever been sung...

Thursday 19 March 2020

But to the Ophicleide...

'After tea, Father went to see Mother. They talked, and he played his ophicleide to her. He played gentle tunes, not the ones for Sunday.'
  He played his what to her?
  Reading the above passage in Alan Garner's The Stone Book, my eye was snagged by 'ophicleide', a word that sounds like an obscure saint's name – blessed be St Ophicleide... I had a vague memory that it was a more or less obsolete musical instrument (it probably featured in the Observer's Book of Music of my boyhood). And that is pretty much what it is – a kind of keyed serpent, the serpent being a still more obsolete wind instrument of serpentine shape that was played in church ensembles before the pipe organ conquered all.
  Father – the little girl Mary's father – plays his ophicleide in chapel.
  '"Why are we Chapel?" said Mary.
   "We're buried Church," said Father.
   "But why?"
   'There's more call on music in Chapel," said Father.
   "Because people aren't content with raunging themselves to death from Monday to Saturday, but they must go bawling and praying and fasting on Sundays too."'
  'Raunging'? Another strange one – probably Cheshire dialect. 'Raunge' is an obsolete form of 'range', which might be the root. Ranging about.
  Father, a stonemason, is a man of few words, but well chosen. When he and Mary have descended from the church tower in the great opening scene of The Stone Book, he slaps the stone of the church and says: 'She'll do ... Yet she'll never do.'
  'Why?' said Mary.
  'She's no church, and she'll not be. You want a few dead uns against the wall for it to be a church.'
  'They'll come.'
  'Not here,' said Father. 'There's to be no burial ground. Just grass. And without you've some dead uns, it's more like Chapel than Church. Empty.'
  Was ever the difference between Church and Chapel more pithily expressed?
  But to the ophicleide (that's the kind of sentence that only comes round once in a lifetime). This forerunner of the tuba was invented in 1817, and in the mid-19th century was widely used in the operatic repertoire – and it featured in Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, along with its parent, the serpent (nowadays they are usually replaced by two tubas). And the ophicleide can sound rather lovely, as when this brave fellow tackles Fauré's Après un rêve...

And here is the Sydney Ophicleide Quartet – what do you mean, you didn't know Sydney had an ophicleide quartet?

Wednesday 18 March 2020


It's remarkable how much the CV scare has altered the soundscape in this corner of suburbia – for the better. The background hum of traffic has died down almost to silence; overflying planes are few and far between; and, with fewer people out and about, the level of human hubbub is way down, almost to nothing. This is what the world sounded like in my boyhood, except that back then there was a good deal more of the human hubbub, as more people were out and about, walking rather than driving. Walking, talking, and indeed whistling, that now rare suburban sound.
  This return to an unfamiliar level of peace and quiet is very welcome. And, for those of us under orders to 'self-isolate', there are undoubted compensations in being obliged to spend more time at home and less out and about and socialising. Our 'to do' lists should dwindle as we finally get down to long deferred tasks, and for anyone who loves reading – and writing – this extra time is a boon, a chance to catch up on both, with fewer distractions. The same goes for listening to music – and, thanks to digital technology, we have all the music (and, if you can bear reading online, books) we could ever want, available to us at virtually no expense of effort or money. If we're going to be housebound, we live in the best possible times for such an ordeal.
  Outside, there's an encouraging sense that all this is to some extent building community spirit and a new awareness of the needs of our neighbours. Let's hope that will continue to develop. Meanwhile, however, the panic buyers seem only to be gaining strength. My local Sainsbury's this morning resembled a Soviet-era supermarket, with little left on the shelves. The toilet-paper hoarders are back in action, and, having stripped the shelves of tinned, packeted and frozen foods, the panickers have moved on to breakfast cereal (all gone) and even fresh fruit and vegetables. The madness continues – and I fear the supermarket's new policy of opening early especially for the over-70s has only made matters worse. Oldsters can be formidable shelf-strippers. One thing's for sure: I'm not going to be hauling myself out of bed at 6 in the morning to join them in their endeavours.
  Today's butterfly first: a Comma, basking sleepily by a (suburban) footpath.

Monday 16 March 2020

Inner Alfred

At times like these, we must reach for our inner Alfred E. Neuman – which is not a very long reach for me: he has long been among my comic heroes and role models (along with Henry Pooter, Monsieur Hulot and of course Nigel Molesworth, the Curse of St Custard's). 'What, Me Worry?' is a serviceable byword in times when worry runs riot, with consequences that affect us all, worried or not.
  My visit to the supermarket this morning was a depressing experience. With panic buying apparently accelerating, the place was heaving, and many shelves – almost entire aisles indeed – were bare. Virtually no tinned or frozen food left, complete sell-outs of all manner of items, and no sign of it dying down (though the heat seems to be off toilet paper – so last week).
  Never mind. My inner Alfred notes that today, at last, the sun is shining and the sky is blue, the Brimstones are flying – and I saw my first Tortoiseshell of the the year, nectaring on a dandelion on a patch of waste ground. A sight to lift the heart in any year.
 Oh, and the new escapist Sunday-night drama – Julian Fellowes' Belgravia (Downton meets Vanity Fair) – turns out to be rather good, with terrific performances (especially from the actresses) and a decent script. Another reason to be cheerful.

Talking of Alfred E. Neuman, readers of Kingsley Amis's One Fat Englishman might recall that, at a climactic point in the novel, Roger Micheldene, the worse for drink and about to deliver his Big Lecture on the condition of publishing, open his briefcase and discovers, grinning out at him, the face of Alfred. Roger's script has been mischievously replaced by a copy of Mad magazine. He is not pleased...

Saturday 14 March 2020

Keats in Quarantine

Quarantine is much in the news just now, for obvious reasons. The latest country to impose quarantine on arriving visitors is New Zealand (which might have family implications for me), and it joins an ever lengthening list.
  In the days of sail, quarantine was an ordeal routinely endured by travellers arriving at foreign ports. Little Dorrit begins with a vivid description of Arthur Clennam and his fellow travellers detained on board ship, in sweltering conditions, awaiting clearance to land at Marseilles. In real life, poor John Keats, travelling to Italy in 1820 in the vain hope of restoring his health, had to endure ten days of quarantine in the bay of Naples. The outward voyage from London had taken 34 days, the first ten of them spent in the Channel, battling violent storms, waiting for a change of wind and, from time to time, putting to shore.
  Off Yarmouth, Keats wrote to Charles Brown, unburdening his feelings in one of his most painfully moving letters ('The thought of leaving Miss Brawne is beyond everything horrible – I eternally see her figure eternally vanishing...'). But he was outwardly often in good spirits, and from time to time on the voyage, as Joseph Severn (his travelling companion) reported, 'like his former self'.
  In the bay of Naples, the passengers – who were all five accommodated in one cabin – and crew were joined by an officer and six seamen who had been sent from a nearby man-of-war to ask for their ship's name and status, but had thoughtlessly come on board and so found themselves detained for ten days. Their presence helped to alleviate the tedium – as did gifts of fruit and flowers from the brother of one of the passengers, a young woman still further gone in consumption than Keats. The poet, Severn recalled, 'was never tired of admiring (not to speak of eating) the beautiful clusters of grapes and other fruits, and was scarce less enthusiastic over the autumn flowers, though I remember his saying once that he would gladly give them all for a wayside dogrose bush covered with pink blooms.'  With the man-of-war's men of the company – and the Neapolitan boatmen in the bay adding their own vocal contributions – there was a surprising amount of merriment on board, with singing, laughter and jokes. According to Severn, Keats 'declared afterwards that he had made more puns in the course of those ten days than in any whole year of his life beside'. But, under all this, the agony endured – the agony of being apart from Fanny and knowing he would never see her again. Writing to Mrs Brawne on the fourth day of quarantine, he tried to describe something of his state of mind and body: 
  'The sea air has been beneficial to me about to as great extent as squally weather and bad accommodations and provisions has done harm. So I am about as I was. Give my love to Fanny and tell her, if I were well there is enough in this Port of Naples to fill a quire of Paper – but it looks like a dream – every man who can row his boat and walk and talk seems a different being from myself. I do not feel in the world. It is impossible to describe exactly in what state of health I am – at this moment I am suffering from indigestion very much, which makes such stuff of this Letter. I would always wish you to think me a little worse than I really am; not being of a sanguine disposition I am likely to succeed. If I do not recover your regret will be softened – if I do your pleasure will be doubled. I dare not fix my Mind upon Fanny, I have not dared to think of her. The only comfort I have had that way has been in thinking for hours together of having the knife she gave me put in a silver case – the hair in a Locket – and the Pocket Book in a gold net. Show her this. I dare say no more...' 
  This is the letter that ends with the heartbreaking footnote, 'Good bye Fanny! God bless you'

Friday 13 March 2020

What Is It?

Here's another arresting sight from yesterday's walk. I came across this peculiarly ugly bench on a section of the North Downs Way, and stared at it for some while, trying to work out what, if anything, it is supposed to represent – some kind of science-fiction creature perhaps? In the end I concluded, tentatively, that it's meant to be an orchid – the North Downs are justly famed for their wild orchids – but it looks like no English orchid I know of. If that is indeed what it's meant to be, it graphically demonstrates two things: that orchids don't scale up at all well (nor do butterflies: elsewhere on the North Downs Way there's a dreadful giant Adonis Blue), and that there's something about long-distance footpaths that brings out the worst in woodcarvers.

Thursday 12 March 2020

What the...?

So there I was, taking a walk in the west Surrey countryside – south of Farnham, since you ask – when, on a quiet byway outside the picturesque village of Tilford, I came across this sign.
'By the beard of the Prophet!' I exclaimed. 'What is this?' I have a tendency to get lost on walks, but surely not this lost? The sign stood adjacent to a manned security gate, which slightly took the edge off the 'Welcome' bit, and beyond it, a long way back from the road, was a cluster of low, ordinary-looking modern buildings. Between them and the road lay a large open space that appeared to have been levelled ready for construction. What was all this doing here, in the wilds of west Surrey?
Sometimes I do wonder what the blinkin' flip is going on in this country.

Wednesday 11 March 2020


The panic buying of toilet paper goes on, and the shelves where late it stood remain sadly denuded. Bread flour and bread mixes are the latest items to disappear from the shelves into the panickers' ever growing hoards – which I suppose makes a certain amount of sense, though I doubt much of it will ever get baked into bread. Today's hot-ticket item, though, appeared to be bottled water: I've never seen so much of the stuff being wheeled to the checkout, in huge multi-packs of plastic bottles and giant plastic nebuchadnezzar-sized flagons – and all of it 'spring water', which is little more than a euphemism for tap water. Are these people seriously expecting the domestic water supply to collapse? Or are they just getting into this whole apocalyptic survivalist thing, and rather enjoying it? What will it be next? Perhaps I'd better stock up on Marmite...

On a brighter note, this morning I at last saw my first butterfly since those two Peacocks way back in early February. As was only fitting, it was a Brimstone – a lively male, busily checking out the ivy-grown railway embankment. Spring is here – or soon will be, weather permitting.

J.L. Carr, Headmaster

Apologies for the longer than usual silence: I haven't been felled by the dreaded virus, but have been suffering from one of those protracted 'colds' that drain a person of energy. And this coincided with a string of unusually busy days (mostly family stuff), so there was little time or energy for blogging. I have, however, been reading – among other things, re-reading, for purposes of research and pleasure (my favourite combination), Byron Rogers' wonderful biography of J.L. Carr, The Last Englishman.
  Whether or not Carr was 'the last Englishman', he was surely the last – perhaps the only – primary school headmaster to lead his pupils through the streets every cherry blossom time chanting Housman's  'Loveliest of trees, the cherry now Is hung with bloom along the bough'. Despite the best efforts of officialdom, he enjoyed a quite extraordinary degree of autonomy as head of Highfields primary school, in a socially  'mixed' area of Kettering – and he got quite extraordinary results: having resolved that no child would leave his school at 11 a non-reader, he succeeded, across his 15-year career, with every pupil bar one – a boy whose negative achievement so impressed Carr that he kept the school photograph in which the lad appeared, adding the caption, 'He's the one who resisted the charms of reading!' Carr also insisted that all his pupils, boys and girls alike, be taught to cook competently. Reading and cooking – what more do you need for a good life?
  When neglected children turned up at school unusually filthy, Carr would deal with the matter by washing them himself – imagine how that would go down now! – and returning them to their parents with a note and, often, some item of clothing or a pair of shoes. Still more unbelievably, Carr decided to keep the school playground open at night, so that children could play there. 'Evidence of great activity around the school each evening, especially roof climbing,' he noted calmly in his headmaster's log. There seem to have been remarkably few accidents. As for teaching, Carr's methods were highly individual. History was his delight: as a colleague recalled, 'He'd take that himself, when he'd have the whole school in the hall listening to stories of armies and fighting. He'd recite Horatius, he had the whole thing by heart [as did my father], and would march up and down. It was very dramatic, the children loved it.' Carr was also liable to pluck the children out of their classrooms and take them off, with little or no notice, on outings to local places of interest – outings they never forgot. Nor did anyone who came across him, as pupil or colleague, ever forget J.L. Carr, schoolmaster.
  And then, as impetuously as he'd decide on a school outing, he gave up teaching for the life of a writer and publisher. But that's another story...

Saturday 7 March 2020

More from the Mad World

In the supermarket this morning, it was clear that panic buying has already set in. The shelves that once displayed roll after squidgy roll, pack after shiny pack of toilet paper were entirely bare. Bemused shoppers, unused to such Soviet-style retail experiences, were standing around marvelling at the sight. Actually, they were less bemused than amused at this latest specimen of human folly – especially the older ones, who were joking cheerily about going back to the good old days of squares of newspaper on a nail in the outside privy.
  No doubt this is just the beginning: once panic buying gets going, it creates a chain reaction, making panic buyers of us all, thanks to a few idiots acting selfishly. Even I, I must admit, when I later noticed a nine-pack on the shelves of another, smaller shop, bought it – which I wouldn't normally have done. That's how it works.
 Some panic buyers, however, seem to have the right idea: I noticed that half the shelves devoted to whisky were bare. Whisky will get you through better than a garage full of toilet rolls.

Elsewhere in the mad world, the Extinction Rebellion house, around the corner from me, has become even more of an eyesore and affront. The council, needless to say, has yet to send in the JCBs...
 The XR mob were milling around on the high street this morning, clearly mustering for some kind of event. I was looking forward to the opportunity of throwing orange peel at them, but they'd melted away when I came out of the denuded supermarket, musing on the state of things. What a world, as Rufus Wainwright puts it, What a world we're living in...

Friday 6 March 2020

To the Barbers

Having delivered myself of the post below, I did what I always do at times of national crisis: I went to have a haircut and see what my barbers made of it all.
I think it's safe to say that they – a pair of brothers of Greek-Cypriot origin and robustly reactionary views – are not unduly concerned about the impending pandemic. They seem to regard it as but the latest in the long succession of public idiocies they have witnessed in their forty-plus years of barbering, and would prefer it if attention was directed to more pressing concerns, such as violent crime (and the proliferation of speed cameras, which they regard as engines of extortion). The brothers take a dim view of the idiots who are panic buying and stripping the supermarket shelves, and suspect (as they usually do) that someone is making money out of all this – and it's certainly not barbers.

An Excursion into the Topical

As the death toll mounts to a terrifying total of, er, 1, the nation stands braced for the greatest threat to life and health since the bubonic plague...
  Don't you sometimes – no, make that practically all the time – feel that things are getting a little out of proportion (and not only with Coronavirus)? In the ceaseless babble about Covid-19, the measures being taken (or not), the measures that will have to be taken (or not), our media and government seem to have lost sight of what kind of disease this latest Chinese export is: highly infectious, yes, but in terms of seriousness closer to flu than to Ebola. If you catch it, you might (or might not) get ill, but, unless you're old (or, it seems, Chinese) or your health is already compromised, you're very unlikely to die of it. Every winter, flu viruses infect and kill people on a much larger scale. Since October, there have been more than 70 confirmed flu deaths in England alone – and this has been an easy year. Last winter, there were more than 300 deaths from flu, plus another 1,700 that were flu-related (despite all those vaccinations). Covid-19 might be new, but it seems unlikely to pose any more of a threat than what we're already used to, and deal with, winter after winter, without treating it as a national emergency. And, unlike flu, this Coronavirus will not be with us year after year. 
  In the midst of all the noise and panic, the government seems to have managed to get one simple message across – wash your hands more frequently, with soap and water. This is always sound advice, especially in the germy British winter. The trouble is that, these days, when people hear the word 'soap', they don't think of solid, pleasantly scented bars; they think of chemically-'fragranced' gunk that comes in plastic bottles with pumps that often don't work and are always unrecyclable (a great contribution to the environment) – or they think in terms of biocidal sanitising gels (more plastic, more waste). The latter are, I gather, selling out as fast as the manufacturers can make them. Meanwhile, soap (as in bars of soap) seems to be as available as ever – if you can find it amid all the plastic bottles of chemical gunk. Pharmacists are usually the best pace to get soap; they often have good old-fashioned scented bars, with fragrances that will lift your spirits – even in these dark days when the nation stands braced, etc, etc.

Thursday 5 March 2020

Silent Mansions

In this month's Literary Review, I write about Jean Sprackland's These Silent Mansions: A Life in Graveyards. I pass this on purely because I enjoyed the book so much, and I think many readers of this blog might also enjoy it. And, of course, to encourage everyone to read the excellent Literary Review. Here's a link to the website – and here's the full text of the review...

‘I can remember my life by the graveyards I have known,’ writes the poet Jean Sprackland in the preface to this, her second work of non-fiction prose (following the deservedly successful Strands). Graveyards for her have always been ‘the otherworlds which have helped make sense of this world’. And she finds their mute appeal irresistible: ‘At the church door after a wedding or a funeral, I look for an excuse to detach myself and wander off among the stones I’ve glimpsed over the shoulders of my fellow guests or mourners.’ Other graveyard wanderers – myself included – will smile with recognition at that.
  While Sprackland’s remembered life forms the structural spine of this book, it is only to a limited extent autobiographical. Her graveyard journey opens out into a wide-ranging, unpredictable and refreshingly original meditation on a huge but widely ignored subject – the relationship between the living and the dead. Wandering in a graveyard offers a salutary perspective on life, showing, as the author puts it, ‘how I and everyone around me is part of the inescapable repeating pattern so explicitly demonstrated here.  Born… Departed this life. Touching the stones and reading the chiselled names of the dead keeps me acquainted with reality’.
  In the course of the book, the author visits unexpected, even obscure burial places, such as the Harkirk, an all but obliterated recusant graveyard hidden away in the grounds of Crosby Hall, on the outskirts of Liverpool. Her account of the persecution of recusants (Catholics in protestant England) brings home just how important it was, in pre-industrial times, to be buried among your own dead, in you own abiding community. To be disqualified from churchyard burial was far more traumatic than we can understand today: it was indeed, as Sprackland says, ‘a dispossession’.
  At Rapparee in Devon, Sprackland uncovers a shameful tale of a cargo of slaves hurriedly buried after a shipwreck, and subsequently forgotten in an act of willed amnesia, until the facts became undeniable. In the nonconformist graveyard known as The Rosary, in Norwich, Sprackland finds the grave of the steam circus proprietor John Barker, and takes us on a fascinating journey into the Victorian world of travelling showmen. Some of her most memorable stories, however, are heartbreakingly sad. The churchyard (now a garden) of St Ebbe’s in Oxford is the starting point for a harrowing account of how the bodies of the late-Victorian poor – men, women and children – were considered the property of the state, to be sold to anatomists to recoup some of the cost of poor relief. In the registers of the Radcliffe Infirmary, Sprackland finds the terrible fate of these destitute people scrupulously recorded.
  At Blean in Canterbury, she uncovers the story of Agnes Gibbs, an abnormally tiny child who caught the eye of the Duchess of Kent and, exhibited as the ‘Fairy Queen’, became a sensation in London society – or so local legend has it. The truth turns out to be rather different, and sadder – as is also the case in another story, this time from one of Sprackland’s childhood homes, Tutbury in Staffordshire. Here she investigates the story of a boy drowned in 1936 while saving his friend, and is astonished to find that the rescued boy, now a man in his 90s, is still alive – and that his version of events differs widely from the heroic tale everybody wanted to hear.   
  For all these sad stories – hardly avoidable in a book about graveyards – this is not at all a gloomy book but an exhilarating one, not least because of the author’s evident love of her subject, and her ready response to the abundant animal and plant life to be found among the ‘silent mansions of the dead’. She writes vividly of the beauty and endless variety of lichens and wild flowers, of those snake-like lizards we call slow-worms, of yew trees, foxes and other graveyard survivors. To my delight, I found a whole short chapter devoted to the graveyard-haunting holly blue butterfly. Sprackland even marvels at the revolting substance known as ‘nostoc’, a kind of translucent goo with a habit of appearing in quantity overnight on patios or garden paths, or indeed tomb slabs. Its folk names include ‘star rot, troll’s butter and astral jelly’. Ugh.
  The author, as attentive to the wildlife around her as to the human life and death, celebrates the graveyard’s modern function as a nature reserve, though she has some qualms about the current fashion of ‘natural’ burial, especially when no marker is involved. Burial grounds of this kind no longer serve as ‘repositories of individual stories, places of random discovery. You wouldn’t come to them to study the past; here the past is consigned to the earth, and the earth is allowed to forget.’ If this is to be the future of burial, we should cherish our older graveyards all the more, as precious spaces where the living and the dead can silently commune.
  This is a lovely book: beautifully written, never lapsing into self-conscious ‘poet’s prose’, always a joy to read. I wish I had written it myself.

Monday 2 March 2020

Geoffrey Grigson

Born on this day in 1905 was the indefatigable Geoffrey Grigson – poet, critic, literary journalist, exhibition curator, anthologist, editor and naturalist, who published some 80-odd volumes in his lifetime. He was one of seven brothers, of whom five died in the two world wars and a sixth in a plane crash in 1948, leaving Geoffrey as the sole survivor.
  Grigson first got noticed as a poet, then, in the Thirties, as editor of New Verse, a magazine very much under the spell of Auden and deeply hostile to, among many others, Edith Sitwell, Bloomsbury, the Book Society, most Georgians, academics, middle-brow pundits and neo-romantics. Against all these and other enemies, Grigson was happy to lead the charge, but, looking back on it all in his autobiography, he explained that his tirades were in response to attacks on young poets, which 'were an irritant to reply in kind, to slash with the billhook, which was far too much my weapon and which I endeavoured to keep sharp, wiping off the blood from time to time – when it happened, that is, to catch someone in whom any blood was flowing. But the tactic was wrong ... The tactic was too uncharitable ... I could no longer, now, billhook my victim and sit on his corpse enjoying a glass full of blood.'
  I take the above quotation from John Gross's classic The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters. Gross devotes a couple of pages to Grigson and New Verse, taking a dim view of the magazine's feverish violence of attack and 'death-dealing rhetoric'. 'But,' he concludes drily, 'it would be Grigsonian not to add that New Verse, chiefly through the Auden connection, stood for much that was liberating and positive as well; that it was prepared to publish writers whom it had savaged ... that the majority of its attacks had at least a grain of justification; and that Grigson himself, when he isn't drinking his glass of blood, sometimes writes excellent and enlivening criticism.' [Gross was writing while Grigson was still very much alive.]
 I have several of Grigson's numerous anthologies dotted about on my shelves, and – a volume I particularly value – his The Englishman's Flora (1957), a precursor to Richard Mabey's mighty Flora Britannica, but with woodcuts from old herbals for illustrations, and with rather more of classical mythology and literature than Mabey's flora. Every flower-loving home should have one.

Sunday 1 March 2020


St David's Day, the first of March, and, for a wonder, sunshine. Unfortunately a stiff cool breeze was knocking about ten degrees off what should have been a quite balmy temperature, and deterring the butterflies from flying (still nothing since those two precocious Peacocks in early February).
Down at the local nature reserve, they've been felling and clearing quite dramatically – a bit of a shock to the eye at first, but it's all to the good: they're getting rid of a lot of non-native trees and bushes, and replacing them with more 'sustainable' native species. And, in doing all this clearing, they're letting in more light, which is always good news for butterflies, in these days when so much woodland is overgrown and under-managed, and so many people are apparently convinced that you simply cannot plant too many trees, what with the planet needing to be saved, etc.
  All the signs of imminent spring were in evidence this morning – birdsong, early blossom, daffodils, crocuses, anemones, swelling buds on the trees, the blackthorn bursting to flower – and, in the shallows of the pond, frogs diligently copulating and churning out industrial quantities of spawn.
I have high hopes of March; it surely won't be long till the winds drop and we have one of those glorious warm sunny days when everything wakes up and spring comes alive – butterflies and all.