Wednesday 29 April 2020

Cultural Learnings of England for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Turkmenistan

Ever since discovering that this blog is more popular in Turkmenistan than in the UK – indeed is currently challenging Norway for the top spot among Nige-following nations – I have been scratching my metaphorical head. What on earth can it mean? Turkmenistan is a sparsely populated central Asian country where only five per cent of the population have access to the internet and where communication with the outside world and its media is firmly discouraged, satellite dishes having been banned in 2015. I would surmise also that most of Turkmenistan's population have little or no English. Still, I extend a cordial welcome to all my readers in that distant Stan – where one of the main cities, I note, is rather charmingly called Mary. Mary was previously called Merv, so that's a great improvement. Once an important oasis on the Silk Road and a 'crossroads of civilisation', Merv – or rather Mary – is now home to the Turkmen State Power Engineering Institute (definitely one for the bucket list) and, er, the world's largest yurt (below). Funny old world.

Tuesday 28 April 2020

An Aurelian's April

As forecast, the weather broke overnight, much rain has fallen, and the temperature has plummeted. But what an April it has been – so many days of unbroken sunshine and warmth, and, as a result, so many butterflies! Surprisingly I have seen more butterfly species this month than in any April I can remember, even beating last April's total. And this has been achieved during the Great Lockdown, all within a radius of a couple of miles from home. There's surely a lesson in this: that there's more on your doorstep than you might think, and that the more closely you look, the more you find. This month I have seen Grizzled Skippers and Green Hairstreaks on land where I would never have thought to look (and, in the case of the Green Hairstreak, in greater numbers than I've seen in any one place) and an early Painted Lady in a most unlikely location. I've also enjoyed the extraordinary abundance of Peacocks, not to mention Brimstones, Holly Blues and Orange Tips – and another sighting of an early Hummingbird Hawk moth. All in all, I have seen so far this year – drum roll, please – 18 butterfly species. Add two day-flying moths that tend to get counted as honorary butterflies (the aforementioned Hummingbird and several Cinnabar moths) and that's a grand total of twenty – what an April!

Monday 27 April 2020

'a continual courtesy between the Heavens and the Earth'

Writing from Teignmouth on this day in 1818, Keats tells John Hamilton Reynolds that
'We are here still enveloped in clouds – I lay awake last night listening to the Rain with a sense of being drown'd and rotted like a grain of wheat. There is a continual courtesy between the Heavens and the Earth. – The Heavens rain down their unwelcomeness and the Earth sends it up again to be returned to morrow.'
  This sounds like the kind of weather we're promised here for tomorrow, but today, happily, it is still dry and relatively warm. Best make the most of it...
  It was also raining hard in Cardiff on this date in 1997 – raining so hard that a one-day cricket match between Glamorgan and Warwickshire had to be abandoned, with Glamorgan still needing 65 runs to win. For the first time ever, a mathematical formula was applied to determine what the result would have been if the game had continued – yes, this was the birthday of the incomprehensible Duckworth-Lewis Method, named for the pair of statisticians who devised it.
  In 2009, Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy and Thomas Walsh of Pugwash got together under the name of the Duckworth Lewis Method and brought out an album described by Hannon as 'a kaleidoscopic musical adventure through the beautiful and rather silly world of cricket'. 'Beautiful and rather silly' also describes the album quite neatly. Towards the more beautiful end of its range is this evocative, wistfully melancholy song, Mason on the Boundary. I am conscious it will mean next to nothing to many of my readers – of whom, according to my stats, I have more in Norway, the U.S. and Turkmenistan (Turkmenistan?!) than in the U.K. – but give it a go...

Saturday 25 April 2020


Ella Fitzgerald – for my money the greatest female singer (non-classical) of the twentieth century – was born on this day in 1917. She was (to quote Leonard Cohen out of context) born with the gift of a golden voice – a voice like no other, with an astonishingly pure tone, almost like some unnamable musical instrument. She put this voice in the service of an extraordinary musical sensitivity that ensured her phrasing and timing were always exactly right for the song she was singing; no one could put a song across with such sensitivity and fidelity as Ella (except perhaps Fred Astaire, but he didn't have the voice). And, as if all that wasn't enough, her enunciation was also perfect. Here she is, demonstrating all these gifts and abilities to the full in a Rodgers and Hart classic from the Great American Songbook – one that has a strange extra resonance in this time of New York lockdown...

Thursday 23 April 2020

Birthdays and Butterflies

Today, St George's Day, is the putative birthday (in 1564) of William Shakespeare, a poetic and dramatic universe in himself – can anything more be usefully said about him, or asked of him? An awestruck silence is perhaps the most appropriate response – that and continuing to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest his works. As Matthew Arnold put it, 'Others abide our question. Thou art free. / We ask and ask – thou smilest and art still, / Out-topping knowledge.' He dramatises everything and states nothing; he is hardly there.
  As it happens, today is also the birthday (in 1901) of the evolutionary geneticist and lepidopterist E.B. Ford, author of the first of Collins's great New Naturalist series – Butterflies. I've written about Ford – a most extraordinary characterbefore on this blog. Today I use his name as a shameless link to my latest Nature Notes update...
  Yesterday, then, I took my state-sanctioned constitutional on an area of local downland, and had the wonderful surprise of seeing two of the loveliest of spring butterflies – neither of which I expected to find, and neither of which I had seen there before. First, the tiny, moth-like Grizzled Skipper, and then the beautiful Green Hairstreak with its emerald underwing (both are pictured in this post from last year). This has been a very good April for butterflies (and moths – I saw another early Hummingbird Hawk the other day) – and it's not over yet.

Tuesday 21 April 2020


This has been a quite extraordinary spring for peacocks – the butterflies, that is. I can't remember when I last saw so many at this time of year. This morning, strolling on a local common, I must have seen well over fifty in less than an hour, and there were so many basking on the paths that I had to be careful not to tread on any (some of them are getting sluggish now). I recall that there was a big emergence of peacocks quite late last summer, and this springtime abundance must be the result of a successful mass hibernation – and a very beautiful result it is too.
  There had also been a mass emergence of something else this morning – tiny longhorn moths (Adela), with their implausibly long antennae (as pictured above). There were huge numbers of these little beauties dancing about in the sunlight in a wooded part of the common. I had never seen them in such abundance before. And talking of abundance, aren't there a lot of hover flies, bee flies (Bombylius) and all manner of bees, large and small, this spring? Amid all the talk of a catastrophic loss of insect biodiversity, this is very gratifying.

Monday 20 April 2020


That strange artist Odilon Redon was born on this day 180 years ago. He first came to public attention thanks to J.K. Huysmans' decadent classic A Rebours (Against the Grain / Against Nature). In it Huysmans describes a number of mysterious drawings by Redon, concluding 'These drawings defied classification; unheeding, for the most part, of the limitations of painting, they ushered in a very special type of the fantastic, one born of sickness and delirium.'
  Much of Redon's work does indeed defy classification, especially his visionary works Les Noirs, rendered entirely in shades of black. However, from the 1890s he favoured oils and pastels and his works became more accessible – especially his flower paintings. The one above is Bouquet in a Vase. It hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and is characteristic in its strong, contrasting colours massed together non-naturalistically against a subdued, vaguely mysterious background.
  Redon's flower paintings never feel as if they've been painted from life, as if the artist is content to engage with what is before his eyes: rather he is looking through the flowers to something else – that something probably being his own psyche. His aim, he said, was 'to place the logic of the visible at the service of the invisible'. He believed that his works 'place us, as does music, in the ambiguous realm of the undetermined'. This approach stands in complete contrast to that of Edouard Manet (whose flowers last turned up here on Saturday), who was content to show what wonders could be achieved through intense attention to what was present before his eyes, allied to prodigious painterly ability. The mystery of the world, as Oscar Wilde said, is in the visible, not the invisible. For all their mystical aspirations, Redon's flower paintings seem merely decorative when compared with those late masterpieces of Manet. Manet's flowers are emphatically there; Redon's seem more like figments.

Sunday 19 April 2020

Loveliest of Trees...

Well, this makes a welcome change from all those NHS rainbows – A.E. Housman's great poem of springtime (and, of course, death), taped to a bench amid the cherry trees in a local park.

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

When J.L. Carr was headmaster of Highfields Primary School in Kettering, he used to march his pupils through the nearby council estate (home to many of them) in cherry blossom time, declaiming Housman's poem in unison. 
Perhaps I should print something out myself and do my bit for spreading good seasonal poetry... But what?

Saturday 18 April 2020

Lilac Time Again

With so much less noise from cars and almost none from overflying planes, the sounds of nature are coming to the fore in these strange times, and many urban dwellers are noticing birdsong for the first time; some, indeed, seem to be finding it rather startling, especially when the dawn chorus gets going. A milder, but also noticeable, effect is that, with the air that bit sweeter, the scents on nature are also getting more of a chance. Lilac time has never smelt better (at least when the flowers are warmed by the sun). I seem to mark lilac time most years, often with one of Manet's glorious late flower paintings, and I see no reason to stop now, when we need all the beauty we can get. So here is Manet's White Lilacs in a Crystal Vase – a square vase this time. The flowers are magically created from tiny flecks of cream-white touched in on a thin scumble of cool green-white, and you can almost smell them...

Friday 17 April 2020

'The daily things we do'

Divination by bibliomancy – opening a book at random and extracting some kind of message or wisdom from the first passage you alight on – has a long history. The Sortes Virgilianae made use of the Aeneid, while the Sortes Homericae did the same thing with Homer, and there's a long Christian tradition of opening the Bible at random in hope of enlightenment or prophecy. When I opened my Larkin at random last night I was not in search of either, but the volume happened to fall open at this short poem, one of his last, which seems oddly appropriate for these strange times –

The daily things we do
For money or for fun
Can disappear like dew
Or harden and live on.
Strange reciprocity:
The circumstance we cause
In time gives rise to us,
Becomes our memory.

Then this morning, on Today (which at present might as well be called Groundhog Day), I happened on Martha Kearney reading Yeats's The Lake Isle of Innisfree, a poem of voluntary self-isolation if ever there was one –

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

This is just the kind of exalted, incantatory stuff that (like much of Dylan Thomas) appeals to people who don't know much about poetry but know what it should sound like. Much to Yeats's annoyance, it became in his lifetime his most popular poem with readers and reciters alike. Dylan Thomas, as it happens, mentioned the fate of Innisfree in a radio talk about what poets are remembered by:  'It was Yeats who objected to, I think, a thousand boy-scouts reciting, in unison, in the Albert Hall, The Lake Isle of Innisfree, a poem about a lonely man desiring more loneliness.'
  A thousand boy scouts? It might have been: other accounts say a hundred, others two thousand, yet others a mind-boggling ten thousand. The point is made: it's not something you'd wish to hear. And now here's Larkin again, ruefully contemplating the likely fate of what had become his own poetical albatross, This Be the Verse –
'"They fuck you up" will clearly be my Lake Isle of Innisfree. I fully expect to hear it recited by a thousand Girl Guides before I die.' 
Happily, it never came to that...


Wednesday 15 April 2020

'Walk I definitely must...'

Or we could take a walk with the German-Swiss writer Robert Walser (born on this day in 1878), but it would be a very strange kind of walk, as readers of his best-known book, The Walk, will attest. Walser, sometimes described as the missing link between Kleist and Kafka, was a compulsive walker who spent the last third of his life in a sanatorium, writing 'microtexts' in tiny, barely legible script, following a mental breakdown. He took his last walk on Christmas Day, 1956, collapsed, and was found lying dead in the snow.
  At one point in The Walk, the narrator, a flaneur and writer, has a difficult interview with a tax official. When the official points out that, rather than getting on with his writing, he seems to be out walking all the time, the narrator launches into an impassioned explanation of how important his daily walks are to his business as a writer:

'Walk I definitely must, to invigorate myself and to maintain contact with the living world, without perceiving which I could neither write the half of one more single word, not produce a poem in verse or prose. Without walking, I would be dead, and would long since have been forced to abandon my profession, which I love passionately.'

Though I wouldn't put it quite that strongly myself, I know just what he means.

'lopped Trees – Cow ruminating – ditto Donkey'

What better antidote to lockdown than to take a brisk coach journey with John Keats. Writing to his brothers George and Tom on this date in 1817, he reports that

'I am safe at Southampton – after having ridden three stages outside and the rest in for it began to be very cold. I did not know the Names of any of the Towns I passed through all I can tell you is that sometimes I saw dusty Hedges sometimes Ponds – then nothing – then a little Wood with trees look you like Launce’s Sister “as white as a Lily and as small as a Wand”* – then came houses which died away into a few straggling Barns then came hedge trees aforesaid again. As the Lamp light crept along the following things were discovered. “long heath brown furze”**—Hurdles here and there half a Mile—Park palings when the Windows of a House were always discovered by reflection—One Nymph of Fountain N.B. Stone—lopped Trees—Cow ruminating—ditto Donkey—Man and Woman going gingerly along—William seeing his Sisters over the Heath—John waiting with a Lanthen for his Mistress—Barbers Pole—Doctor’s Shop—However after having had my fill of these I popped my Head out just as it began to Dawn—N.B. this Tuesday Morn saw the Sun rise—of which I shall say nothing at present. I felt rather lonely this Morning at breakfast so I went and unbox’d a Shakspeare—“Here’s my Comfort.”*** I went immediately after Breakfast to the Southampton Water where I enquired for the Boat to the Isle of Wight as I intend seeing that place before I settle—it will go at 3 so shall I after having taken a Chop – I know nothing of this place but that it is long—tolerably broad—has bye streets—two or three Churches—a very respectable old Gate with two Lions to guard it – the Men and Women do not materially differ from those I have been in the Habit of seeing – I forgot to say that from dawn till half-past six I went through a most delightful Country—some open Down but for the most part thickly wooded. What surprised me most was an immense quantity of blooming Furze on each side the road cutting a most rural dash – The Southampton water when I saw it just now was no better than a low Water Water which did no more than answer my expectations—it will have mended its Manners by 3. From the Wharf are seen the Shores on each side stretching to the Isle of Wight. You Haydon, Reynolds, &c have been pushing each other out of my Brain by turns – I have conned over every Head in Haydon’s Picture [Christ's Entry into Jerusalem]—you must warn them not to be afraid should my Ghost visit them on Wednesday—tell Haydon to Kiss his Hand at Betty over the Way for me yea and to spy at her for me – I hope one of you will be competent to take part in a Trio while I am away—you need only aggravate your voices a little and mind not to speak Cues and all**** —when you have said Rum-ti-ti—you must not be rum any more or else another will take up the ti-ti alone and then he might be taken God shield us***** for little better than a Titmouse. By the by talking of Titmouse Remember me particularly to all my Friends—give my Love to the Miss Reynoldses and to Fanny who I hope you will soon see. Write to me soon about them all—and you George particularly how you get on with Wilkinson’s plan. What could I have done without my Plaid? I don’t feel inclined to write any more at present for I feel rather muzzy—you must be content with this fac simile of the rough plan of Aunt Dinah’s Counterpane –

Your most affectionate Brother

John Keats.

* Two Gentlemen of Verona
** The Tempest
*** The Tempest
**** Midsummer Night's Dream
***** Midsummer Night's Dream

Tuesday 14 April 2020

Roy Hudd and the Elephant's Bottom

I had meant to write about the great Roy Hudd when I read the sad news of his death last month, but somehow I didn't at the time. He was one of the nicest men in a business (show) that's not exactly abounding in them, and the only one I knew in my reviewing days who would always send a thank-you message (handwritten letter or postcard) whenever I spoke well of him. Which was quite often, as he was a very talented actor, both comic and serious.
  Hudd's first love, of course, was music hall, and I was delighted to hear him talking about this enthusiasm, and his life in general, on last night's Front Row (Radio 4 – an interview from the archives, obviously). Hudd was brought up in wartime by his Gran, in Croydon – the best start in life for any child, he says, as your Gran is 'the softest touch' you'll ever find. His Gran's highest term of praise for any entertainer she found amusing was 'He's a silly bugger', so when Roy achieved the 'silly bugger' accolade for a boyhood stage performance, he was more thrilled than he ever was by any subsequent review.
  Gran also introduced him to a music hall song that was her particular favourite – 'The Hole in the Elephant's Bottom'. I must admit this was a new one to me, so I was soon rooting around on YouTube. The song exists, I discovered, in many forms and at different lengths, but pride of place must surely go to Mr Hudd's own version –

And then there's this curiosity – no less a showbiz luminary than Mr Jeremy Irons delivering a splendidly straight-faced rendition of a slightly different version:

Follow that.

Monday 13 April 2020

Progress Report: The Betrothed

Rather to my surprise, I am acting on my avowed intent to beguile the long hours of lockdown by reading a big, important novel I'd never read before. Having plumped for Alessandro Manzoni's The Betrothed, I am already more than a quarter of the way through – that's quick by my standards – and I'm loving it. It's a huge book (720 pages in the Penguin Classics edition), and I was daunted at first – had I made a big mistake? Is this going to end like my failed attempts (long ago) to read Walter Scott? Is a historical novel set in northern Italy in the 1620s really my kind of thing? It seems it is, in Manzoni's hands.
 The opening of the Foreword is hardly inviting:

'History may truly be defined as a famous War against Time; for she doth take from him the Years that he has made prisoner, or rather utterly slain, and doth call them back into Life, and pass them in Review, and set them again in Order of Battle. But those braw Champions, that in such Lists doth reap the Harvests of Palms and of Laurels, may carry off in their Nief only the most pompous and grandiloquent of their Spoils...'
Etc, etc.

  But this is Manzoni quoting the ancient manuscript from which he is supposedly drawing his story. He has soon decided to abandon his project of transcribing this turgid document and publishing it along with a lengthy historical analysis. Instead, he will lift the story from its original source, and tell it in his own way, and in modern language:

'So we abandoned the idea, for two reasons which the reader will certainly approve: first, that a book written to justify another book (let alone the style of another book) might well seem a somewhat ridiculous undertaking, and secondly that one book at a time is quite enough, and may in fact be too much.'

It's a disarming foreword, and reading it made me confident that I was going to enjoy the company of this author as he unfolded his tale, however long it might be. He has a wonderfully light touch,  unlike so many 19th-century writers of historical novels (George Eliot's Romola, anyone?), and a mild, easygoing irony and quiet humour infuse his language, even when the action is going at full pelt. He never once mounts the pulpit or stands in the margin of his text with a pointer to ensure we get the message. If indeed there is a message. Manzoni certainly pulls no punches in depicting the brutal and arbitrary rule of 'noble' families in northern Italy (and the futility of legal decrees aimed at curbing their excesses), but this is not a political novel. It is, at heart, the simple human story of two young lovers, Renzo and Lucia, who are prevented from marrying by the local tyrant, who wants Lucia for himself. They are forced to flee their home, and The Betrothed chronicles their subsequent adventures, creating along the way a vivid panorama of Italian life in the early seventeenth century. It is almost what used to be called a 'rattling good yarn'; Manzoni's skilful unfolding of the tale keeps you hanging on and wanting to know what happens next. Or at least it has with me so far, and I have every faith I'm going to make it to the end of this whopping book.

Sunday 12 April 2020

Easter Day

Wishing a happy Easter, even in these strange, atomised times, to all who browse here. May we soon be reunited with those we are currently cut off from.

Saturday 11 April 2020

Planted Together

It was Nigel Lawson who remarked that 'the NHS is the closest thing the English people have to a religion'. Recent events have proved him right in ways he could scarcely have foreseen. With our churches closed and locked – even at Easter, even for private prayer – we have no communal religion to bind us together in these trying times. In its place we have the secular cult of the NHS, which has developed its own symbolism – the ubiquitous rainbows and hearts – and its own regular eucharistic observance, the clapping and banging that signal our devotion to 'our' NHS. I know – what most people are applauding is the front-line work force of that system, rather than the system itself, but it all feeds into reinforcing the sacrosanct status of one particular way of supplying a population's medical needs (and other developed countries that don't have our system don't seem to be doing spectacularly worse than us, given that we had longer to prepare than some). The untouchable 'sacred cow' status of the NHS looks certain to be more secure than ever when all this dies down.
  To its credit, my own parish church – like many others, I'm sure – had initially announced its intention to stay open for private prayer. Then, in short order, came the decree from the top that all churches were to be locked up and closed to all for the duration. But at least the churchyard – which is also something of a nature reserve – is still open, and I stroll there on most fine days, enjoying the butterflies, the flowers, the birdsong, and the magnificent old trees coming into leaf. I also enjoy reading the headstones, where they are still legible (they include this little masterpiece). This morning my eye was caught by a Victorian stone bearing a quotation from Paul's epistle to the Romans:

'For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death,
We shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection.'

This is the language of the King James Bible – other versions prefer 'united' or 'identified' to 'planted together' – but how apt that word 'planted' is in the context of a churchyard where so many trees grow. And, of course, how apt for Easter, and for these times.

Thursday 9 April 2020


Here are Donald O'Connor (my grandson Ethan's favourite dancer) and Gene Kelly, sitting on nothing...

And here is Richard Wilbur's poem Grace – a technical tour de force, inspired by a passage in Gerard Manley Hopkins' notebooks which was itself inspired by Wordsworth (it's that man again):

'"The young lambs bound As to the tabor's sound." They toss and toss; it is as if it were the earth that flung them, not themselves. It is the pitch of graceful agility when we think that.'

So active they seem passive, little sheep
Please, and Nijinsky's out-the-window leap
And marvellous midair pause please too
A taste for blithe brute reflex; flesh made word
Is grace's revenue.

One is tickled, again, by the dining-car waiter's absurd
Acrobacy – tipfingered tray like a wind-nesting bird
Plumblines his swinging shoes, the sole things sure
In the shaken train; but this is all done for food,
Is habitude, if not pure

Hebetude. It is a graph of a theme that flings
The dancer, kneeling on nothing, into the wings,
And Nijinsky hadn't the words to make the laws
For learning to loiter in air; he 'merely' said,
'I merely leap and pause.'

Lambs are constrained to bound. Consider instead
The intricate neural grace in Hamlet's head;
A grace not barbarous implies a choice
Of course, not in a lingo of leaps-in-air
But in such a waiting voice

As one would expect to hear in the talk of Flaubert.
Piety makes for awkwardness, and where
Balance is not urgent, what one utters
May be puzzled and perfect, and we respect
Some scholars' stutters.

Even fraction-of-a-second action is not wrecked
By a graceful still reserve. To be unchecked
Is needful then: choose, challenge, jump, poise, run ...
Nevertheless, the praiseful, graceful soldier
Shouldn't be fired by his gun.

['Hebetude' – dullness, lethargy, absence of affect.]

Wednesday 8 April 2020

That Moon

I didn't even know there was such a thing as a 'pink moon' until it came up recently as an answer in that impenetrable TV quiz programme Only Connect. But now, after last night's magnificent 'super pink moon', everyone's talking about it. It wasn't pink, of course; the name, as every American reader will know, comes from the ground phlox, a pink-flowered plant that has somehow got associated with this kind of spring super moon.
  Gazing at last night's spectacle, I also noticed that Venus was quite startlingly bright in the West – so bright I thought it must be an oncoming plane, but these are now, happily, a rare sight in our skies. It was Venus, and I've never seen it brighter.

'From where she lies she sees Venus rise. On. From where she lies when the skies are clear she sees Venus rise followed by the sun. Then she rails at the source of all life. On. At evening when the skies are clear she savours its star's revenge.'  –– Samuel Beckett Ill Seen Ill Said.

The light of the moon has inspired much music, from the 'Moonlight' Sonata to Clair de Lune – and this lovely song by Schumann, Mondnacht, performed here by the incomparable Hans Hotter and the equally incomparable Gerald Moore. Debussy must have had this in his head when he wrote Clair de Lune...

Tuesday 7 April 2020

The Anniversary

The seventh of April, 2020 – I guess it's a date we can't pass over, as William Wordsworth was born (not in utter nakedness, but trailing clouds of glory) on this day 250 years ago. Radio 4 has been celebrating the anniversary year in various ways, including just recently a week of Ian McKellen reading from The Prelude. Listening to this was a reminder both of Wordsworth's greatness and of something very nearly comical about his most ambitious poetical projects: that massive self-importance, the relentlessly heroic tone that often makes such an awkward fit with the material, the complete humourlessness and occasional tin ear (an affliction that worsened as he grew older). More than once I found myself almost laughing – and this reading was of the best bits, not the dreary connective tissue between them.
  And yet, and yet... Of course there are also the great odes, and a substantial number of sonnets and shorter poems that are as good as it gets and fully deserve their place in the anthologies, and in the nation's affections. Even Daffodils. This hoariest of chestnuts, a feature of every anthology and many an examination syllabus, deserves its fame: it's a damned good, even perfect poem, and always a simple pleasure to read...

'I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
and twinkle on the Milky Way,
They stretched in never-ending line
along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not be but gay,
in such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
what wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.'

What's not to like?
  It's well known that the poem had its origins in a walk that Wordsworth took with his sister Dorothy beside Ullswater. As Dorothy wrote in her journal,

'When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow park we saw a few daffodils close to the water side, we fancied that the lake had floated the seed ashore and that the little colony had so sprung up – But as we went along there were more and yet more and at last under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road. I never saw daffodils so beautiful they grew among the mossy stones about and about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness and the rest tossed and reeled and danced and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the Lake, they looked so gay ever glancing ever changing. This wind blew directly over the lake to them. There was here and there a little knot and a few stragglers a few yards higher up but they were so few as not to disturb the simplicity and unity and life of that one busy highway – '

And  of course, Wordsworth being Wordsworth – his mind forever on two things, Himself and the Universe (as Hazlitt remarked, more or less) – the poem makes no mention of Dorothy, but presents the poet as a lonely wanderer. However, Wordsworth did acknowledge that it was his wife, Mary, who contributed what he thought the two best lines in the poem: 'They flash upon that inward eye/Which is the bliss of solitude'. Coleridge, as ever hard to please, did not agree, characterising those and other lines as 'mental bombast'. Unfair, surely, but elsewhere Wordsworth was, especially in his later years, no stranger to mental bombast. The best of him, however, will surely last another 250 years.

Monday 6 April 2020

'a dock for every nettle'

You might think that, in the circumstances, I'd be getting down to some serious reading now – as many, I believe, are. In fact, leaving aside my 'dipping into' activities, I have read only two volumes in recent weeks, both notably slim, both by Alan Garner. These are The Stone Book Quartet (four vignettes of moments in his family's life across four generations, each centred on a child) and the less well known memoir of his own early boyhood, Where Shall We Run To?
  The Stone Book stories are extraordinary pieces of writing, startlingly vivid, pared down to the bone (or the stone) and written, in short sentences, in a highly distinctive language, rich in Cheshire dialect words.  Much the same can be said of Where Shall We Run To?, a memoir written entirely from inside the young Alan's head: this is not a case of the adult Garner looking back on his boyhood, but rather re-entering his boyhood sensibility in an act of total immersion made possible only by his remarkably sharp and retentive memory. Reviewing it, Rowan Williams described it as 'a really astonishing re-creation of a child's sensibility in its depth and narrowness and almost unbearable vividness'. Which is exactly right, but the memoir is also skilfully and subtly crafted.
  As with the Stone Book stories, the sense of place, of being ensconced in a particular place, its past and present, its language and lore, is the strongest force at work. Garner deliberately cuts his own story off at the point where his young self gains a scholarship to Manchester Grammar School, because that marks the end of a life embedded in the community of his home village (Alderley Edge, where his family has lived for centuries) and his departure for what is in effect another world. The disjunction is almost brutal, though young Alan doesn't realise it at first:

'... my mother was waiting for me as the end of School Lane when lessons were over. She told me I'd won a scholarship.
  That evening, the Gang were playing round the sand patch. It was Ticky-on-Wood. Harold's mother came out of the house. Her face was different. "Well, Alan," she said, "you won't want to speak to us any more."
   I didn't understand. I felt something go and not come back.'

But leaving junior school behind was also a liberation (in particular from a brutal teacher known as Twiggy). Where Shall We Run To? ends on a joyful note:

'... we went out of the door into the playground for the last time.
  Between the school gateposts there was a strip of brass let into the ground; and this was our plan.
  While we were on the playground side of the strip we were still at school. We would not have left until we had crossed it. We would cross; but Twiggy couldn't. He never could.
  John and I held hands and ran. We ran from the playground, jumped over the brass, and were out; out under the sky and the white fluffy clouds with the gold and the glint of the weathercock burning to the wind.'

That weathercock, atop the spire of St Philip's church in Alderley Edge, is a leitmotif of The Stone Book Quartet.
  Appended to Where Shall We Run To? are three short pieces, each returning to a theme from the body of the book: the finding of a bomb, the presence of evacuee children in the village, and an incident from early in the book, The Nettling of Harold. This describes an experiment conducted by the endlessly curious Alan on his hapless friend Harold.

'Next to the air-raid shelter there was a great clump of nettles, Roman nettles, purple-stemmed, the worst.
  I was standing by the clump with Harold, and I thought of the pain of one nettle. Here there were ever so many, hundreds. How much pain would that be? Would rubbing dock leaves on be enough to cure it? If one nettle made me cry, what would these do? It was a big question; a scientific question. I must find the answer.
  I moved behind Harold, put both hands between his shoulders, and pushed him in...'

  Fifty years later, quite out of the blue, Garner meets Harold again. He has followed a very different, non-academic, path in life, but has developed a passion for history and has a detailed, intimate knowledge of Alderley Edge, having never left it. Garner recommends him for a committee on which he is sitting, the Alderley Edge Landscape Project, and Harold drives the project forward vigorously, extending it beyond its initial remit. The Project's report was published in due course:

'On publication, the editor named Harold as a driving force of the Project. And at Harold's funeral, one of the academics thanked me for having urged his cause.
 There is a dock for every nettle.'

  These are two wonderful short books, but I feel it is time I tackled something big now, some chunky masterpiece I've never read before. To this end, I shall soon be embarking on Alessandro Manzoni's The Betrothed, a novel I've been meaning to read for years. This might be a big mistake. We'll see...

Sunday 5 April 2020

Celandine, Blackthorn, Blackcap

This morning I took the train – an otherwise empty train – to one of my nearby country haunts. It was there that I took the above photo of a drift of Lesser Celandine, a springtime flower now at its glorious best (in this part of the world anyway). This favourite of Wordsworth's inspired the Bard of Grasmere to write not one, not two, but three poems about it, none of which, alas, could be classed among his better efforts. This stanza, from his 1802 celandine poem, is representative:

Ere a leaf in on a bush,
In the time before the thrush
Has a thought about her nest
Thou wilt come with half a call,
Spreading out thy glossy breast
Like a careless Prodigal;
Telling tales about the sun,
When we've little warmth, or none.

That final couplet always springs unbidden into my mind when I see the first celandines. I rather wish it wouldn't.
  This morning's weather, though, was not a case of 'little warmth, or none'. It was warm enough for me to walk jacketless and in a short-sleeved shirt. There were some people about, but all were assiduously keeping their social distance, and most of the time I had the common, like the train, to myself. Visually the chief glory of the morning was not the celandines but the great dazzling blazes of snow-white blackthorn blossom. Even without a 'blackthorn winter', they seem to be having an amazing year.

I was hoping to find the air filled with birdsong – warbling in particular – but there was surprisingly little activity on that front, apart from Chiffchaffs announcing their name repeatedly. I guess it's still a little early. However, on my way back, much nearer home, I caught my first Blackcap performance – and very wonderful it was, fully living up to Gilbert White's description of the Blackcap's song as 'full, sweet, deep, loud and wild'.
Here's a Blackcap (not my one) in full flow...

Saturday 4 April 2020

Spring: Butterflies and Beethoven

Spring at last! With the wind now a soft southerly and the sun shining, the butterflies are out and flying happily – among them the Orange Tips, whose appearance I always count as the true beginning of spring. My morning walk was enlivened not only by my first Orange Tips of the year, but my first Holly Blues and Speckled Woods, a few more Commas and another surge of Peacocks and Brimstones. And a Chiffchaff was singing, in full view...
  This means it's time for some more spring music. Here, in one of his best-loved sonatas, is Beethoven, whose 250th anniversary it is this year. His 'Spring' Sonata (No 5 in F Major, Op. 24) finds him in  a sunny, relaxed mood (well, nearly all the time) and is wonderfully melodic. It's played here by Anne Sophie Mutter and Lambert Orkis.

Friday 3 April 2020

Tyler and Hockney

I can't imagine why I was looking on the BBC News website – perhaps I was hoping to strike comedy gold? It's happened before – but at present of course it's wall to wall Covid-19, like everywhere else. However, I struck gold of another kind, in the shape of this lovely interview with Anne Tyler.
  Like most writers, she's not finding her life much changed by the quarantine restrictions. 'I need to be alone,' she says. 'I feel worn out if I'm in a group for a long time.' That, I suddenly realised, is exactly how I've felt for some while – it's not that I don't like spending time in company; it's just so tiring.
  I like what she says further down, apropos writing essentially the same novel every time: 'I always say when I'm starting a book, "This one's gonna be different. About halfway through, I say, "Oh darn, it's the same book over again."'
  Also on the BBC News site (hat tip here to Frank Wilson) was David Hockney's letter, from lockdown in Normandy, to – argh – Will Gompertz. The pictures are pretty awful but immensely cheering, and the words contain a few nuggets of Hockney wisdom, including the splendid summing-up, 'This will in time be over, and then what? What have we learned? I am 83 years old, I will die. The cause of death is birth.'
  'The only real things in life,' he concludes, 'are food and love in that order [really, in that order? Well, he is 83] ... I really believe this, and the source of art is love. I love life.' Agreed there. I think.


Thursday 2 April 2020

Birdsong and Runners

Waking reluctantly at 6 this morning, I had the pleasure of hearing a quite magnificent dawn chorus in full flow – and with no background sounds of traffic and overflying planes. This has been one of the undoubted gains of the Great Lockdown – birdsong has never (in recent years and in these parts) been so gloriously audible, and at this time of year it's building up beautifully. I've yet to hear a blackcap though; I might have to go and find one. 'What is the purpose of your journey, sir?' 'I need to hear a blackcap.' It might not quite cut it as a 'necessary journey'...
  Talking of which, there has been little or no evidence of the hygiene police in action round here, I'm glad to say. Nearly everybody is behaving perfectly sensibly in their absence. However, if they do decide to show themselves, I wish they would target a particular menace that has vexed me on my blameless local strolls – runners who pound along at speed, paying scant attention to 'social distancing' and coating everyone they pass with a fine spray of sweat, saliva and testosterone. These are the same would-be alpha males who in normal times would be squeezing into skintight Spandex, mounting their racing bikes and hurtling along the streets, scattering pedestrians left and right. There is probably no stopping them, but they'd certainly make a far more deserving target than solitary walkers in the Peak District.
   There are many recordings of the dawn chorus to be found online. This, one of the shorter ones, comes from a garden in West Sussex. Enjoy...

Wednesday 1 April 2020

April: Love and Mulligrubs

April at last, after a very long March. To celebrate the new month, here is that fine Pre-Raphaelite painting, April Love by Arthur Hughes (never a member of the Brotherhood but painting very much in their spirit). In today's parlance it might be called a break-up painting; this is clearly a painful lovers' parting. (You can just about make out the male lover as a dark, despairing shape behind and to the right of the female figure.) The flowers, as always in Victorian paintings, carry their own meanings: the ivy on the wall denotes everlasting life, the roses signify love, and their strewn petals the end of love. In the lower right-hand corner there are a couple of tiny florets of forget-me-not, no more than an ironic commentary now.
  Beyond the shadows of the Gothic window, the colours are, even by PRB standards, vivid. Those rich blues, purples and lilac tints and almost acidic greens were to become Hughes's trademark. Going to see the painting for the first time, Ford Madox Brown wrote in his diary (9th September 1855):  'Last night I had the mulligrubs & went for the first time to Munnros & saw Hughes picture of the Lovers quarrel – it is very beautiful indeed. the girl is lovely, draperies & all, but the greens of his foliage were so acid that made my mulligrubs worse I do think.' ('The mulligrubs'? A depression of spirits, sullenness or attack of spleen, the dictionary says.) Ruskin, however, was completely smitten, describing April Love as 'exquisite in every way; lovely in colour, most subtle in the quivering expression of the lips, and sweetness of the tender face, shaken, like a leaf by winds upon its dew, and hesitating back into peace'. The model for that 'tender face' was most likely Hughes's wife, Tryphema Foord.
  In 1880, Hughes moved with Tryphema and their growing family to a large and very handsome house, Wandle Bank, that is just a short walk from my own humble abode. Here is a picture of it as it is today, remarkably unspoilt...