Monday 31 August 2020


Speaking of Larkin (as we usually are), I was delighted to come across the word 'loblolly' in print the other day – the first time I've seen it anywhere but in Larkin's 'Toads' with its 'Lecturers, lispers, losels, loblolly-men, louts...' –

Why should I let the toad work
  Squat on my life?
Can't I use my wit as a pitchfork
  And drive the brute off?

Six days of the week it soils
  With its sickening poison –
Just for paying a few bills!
  That's out of proportion.

Lots of folk live on their wits:
  Lecturers, lispers,
Losels, loblolly-men, louts –
  They don't end as paupers;

Lots of folk live up lanes
  With fires in a bucket,
Eat windfalls and tinned sardines –
  they seem to like it.

Their nippers have got bare feet,
  Their unspeakable wives
Are skinny as whippets – and yet
  No one actually starves.

Ah, were I courageous enough
  To shout Stuff your pension!
But I know, all too well, that's the stuff
  That dreams are made on:

For something sufficiently toad-like
  Squats in me, too;
Its hunkers are heavy as hard luck,
  And cold as snow,

And will never allow me to blarney
  My way of getting
The fame and the girl and the money
  All at one sitting.

I don't say, one bodies the other
  One's spiritual truth;
But I do say it's hard to lose either,

  When you have both.

I came across 'loblolly' again in something my South African cousin wrote about the early history of Durban. He is telling the story of Henry Francis Fynn, who befriended the Zulu king Shaka Zulu and was given the strip of land that became the city of Durban.
Fynn is about to attempt to cure the wife of an uncle of Shaka's:
'Fynn's prior experience of medicine was as a loblolly boy – a surgeon's attendant – at Christ's Hospital, "when I obtained the smallest particle of knowledge of medicine" [as he writes in his diary].'
He was a resourceful fellow, though, and had read the Hippocratic oath. He effected a cure, and thereby got himself quite a reputation as a healer. 'Lots of folks live on their wits...'

Sunday 30 August 2020

Another Point of View

This morning I tuned in to A Point of View again, in the vague hope that perhaps John Gray had been allowed a second outing. No such luck, of course, but this week it was Adam Gopnik, the New Yorker writer, who is often worth a listen and always amusing. His talk took off from one of the great lines in that great mockumentary Spinal Tap: 'It's such a fine line between clever and stupid.'
  The line is indeed fine: as Orwell didn't say (but nearly did), 'Some ideas are so stupid that only intellectuals believe them.' However, Gopnik's theme is the Covid crisis, or whatever we choose to call this mind-boggling situation we find ourselves in. 'At no time in modern times,' says Gopnik, 'have we endured so much and understood so little.' Indeed – and one of the great unknowns is whether all we have endured, by way of lockdown and its effects, has even been necessary or salutary. How, asks Gopnik, will we explain to our children 'the noise it has made in our heads'? (And in particular, I would add, how do we explain the extremity of our panic reaction to what was essentially an extremely nasty 'care home virus' rather than a serious threat to the population at large.)
  The silver lining, in Gopnik's view, is that, like earlier pandemics – Black Death, Spanish flu – what comes next will not be 'parched austerity and continuing depression' but a period of 'plushness and abandon'. Well, maybe, but those earlier pandemics were far more serious than Covid, and they took place in times when people were much more familiar with death as an everyday event, and therefore not reduced to paralysing terror by pure timor mortis.
  Anyway,  here's the link to Adam Gopnik's talk. Enjoy.

Saturday 29 August 2020

Ora, Lege, Obedi

It seems more and more people are wearing slogans on their T-shirts these days – often quite long ones, intended no doubt as some kind of self-projecting credo. Being a hopeless logophile, the kind who will happily read a cereal packet, I can't help but want to read these T-shirt slogans as they pass – which, if the words happen to run across a young lady's poitrine, can look a little creepy. And, I might add, the effort is seldom worthwhile.
Yesterday, however, I saw a young woman with a succinct and decidedly different motto on her T-shirt: 'Ora, Lege, Obedi' (pray, read, obey). Well, I thought, that makes a welcome change from 'Just Do It' (a slogan that originated with last words of double murderer Gary Gillmore to his executioners). But where does 'Ora, Lege, Obedi' come from? It is, I discovered, the motto of Whitelands College, which is part of the University of Roehampton. Founded in 1841 as a teacher training college aiming 'to produce a superior class of parochial schoolmistresses', it later attracted the attention of John Ruskin and his chums Morris and Burne-Jones, who beautified the college chapel. Ruskin himself (talking of creepy) inaugurated an annual May Day ceremony, in which the young ladies should elect 'the likeablest and lovablest' of their number to be their May Queen. Ruskin loved that sort of thing...
  I'm sure much has changed at Whitelands since those days, but it seems its students are still happy to sport the college motto on their T-shirts, in bold defiance of the prevailing zeitgeist.


Sorry for the hiatus: it was an exceptionally busy week. Happily, however, most of the busyness revolved around family and pleasure.
  Yesterday I was strolling around Newark-on-Trent with my Derbyshire cousin. Newark is one of those quiet, understated, red-brick Mercian towns that always feel like some kind of spiritual home to me, and always persuade me that England is a sounder, saner, friendlier and altogether nicer country than it might seem to those of us who live down South. Like many such towns, it also has some excellent architecture, both domestic and public, a discernible ancient street plan, and, as its focal point, a fine marketplace and a splendid church. There is also, in Newark's case, the battered ruin of a magnificent castle, looking out over the wide river Trent to parkland and meadows beyond.
  The church, St Mary Magdalene, is one of England's great parish churches. Although it was much restored in Victorian times, it is still essentially and authentically an ancient church, a happy mix of Early English (crossing and West tower) and Perpendicular, with a wide, lofty interior, lit by huge 15th-century windows. Luckily we found it open – but most of the nave and South aisle, and all of the North aisle, crossing, transepts and chancel were roped off and could only be admired from a distance and along very limited sight lines. This was, of course, a disappointment, though in these  Covid-crazed times it is quite something to find a church open at all. Chatting to a verger on the way out, I got the impression, not for the first time, that the doughty volunteers doing their best to open their beloved churches are not at all happy with the Church of England hierarchy's extraordinary eagerness to close them down and keep them closed long after the reopening of other places where people gather together, for secular rather than sacred purposes. Let's hope there is enough vitality left in the body of its worshippers to prevent the C of E from accomplishing its own demise just yet.

Tuesday 25 August 2020

'Having renewed his conviction he immediately resolved upon returning home...'

George Stubbs, the greatest painter of horses who ever lived, was born on this day in 1724. Largely self-trained, he learnt the anatomy of the horse the hard way – by long, painstaking dissection of dead horses, in conditions that most men would have found wholly unbearable. But he persevered, published his massive Anatomy of the Horse, and soon found a ready market for horse paintings among an English aristocracy well known for feeling more warmly about horseflesh than humans.
  Stubbs's plunge into equine anatomy followed a visit to Italy, which (he later told Ozias Humphry) he undertook 'to convince himself that nature was and is always superior to art, whether Greek or Roman, and having renewed his conviction he immediately resolved upon returning home'. The greatest of his horse paintings is the stupendous Whistlejacket in the National Gallery, which has to be seen at full scale. But Stubbs was not only a horse painter, and Tate Britain has a lovely pair of pastoral landscapes, Haymakers and Reapers, on display, adorned with a gloriously obtuse caption, about which I've written before. Perhaps this has now been updated to lament the absence of any black haymakers or reapers and speculate about the very probably slave-owning squire...

Monday 24 August 2020

And then...

Having written those words, I walked down to the high street to shop, and, as I was strolling along by the side of the former town hall, down flew a nondescript brown butterfly, which settled on a bush and folded its wings – and, as I drew nearer, I realised that there was nothing nondescript about this one: my friends, it was a Brown Hairstreak! 'Finding an adult Brown Hairstreak is one of the most difficult tasks for a butterfly enthusiast,' writes Ken Wilmott in Butterflies of Surrey Revisited – and he's not wrong. This one was only the third I've seen in my adult life – and in the unlikeliest of locations, far from any blackthorn bushes. It was a bright and vigorous female, and of course she flew off before I could photograph her – but she left me grinning like an idiot for the next hour and more.


The image above is a painting by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema ('Alma-Tad of the Royal Acad' – about whom I've written before). Titled Ninety Four Degrees in the Shade, it shows a young Herbert Thompson – later to become a distinguished Egyptologist – out butterflying on a hot summer day in the 1870s: note the topee-like sun hat, the long-handled net and the butterfly book, optimistically open at (I think) the Camberwell Beauty. Those were the days, long gone, when people knew how to dress for a country jaunt.
  This has been a memorable and unusually intense butterfly season for me, much of it having taken place during 'lockdown', and many of its best moments being gifted me in unfamiliar and unexpected places. In the course of it, my butterfly obsession reached such a pitch that I decided I really must write a book about it all – especially as I'd suddenly (while butterfly watching on a favourite patch of downland) seen an 'angle' that would make it different from all the other butterfly books of recent years. It will be short and no doubt, like my previous effort, 'odd'. If nothing else, writing it will ease me through the butterflyless months ahead.
  And now I guess I'd better get on and write it – though there are surely a few more butterfly days left. The Chalkhill Blues are still flying (and in places where I've never seen them before), and the Adonis... And, who knows, a Brown Hairstreak?

Sunday 23 August 2020

An Overdue Return

It's not often that Radio 4 delivers a welcome surprise these days: usually what's on that ever more 'woke' network is neither surprising nor welcome. This morning, however, I was delighted to find that John Gray has returned to A Point of View. After a seemingly interminable run of speakers dealing only in predictable metroliberal banalities – the likes of Howard Jacobson, Will Self, A.L. Kennedy and Sarah Dunant – I was beginning to wonder if Gray would ever return. Return he has, though, with a typically cool, lucid and incisive account of the sad demise of tolerance as a popular virtue, and the dire effects of the new quasi-religion he calls 'illiberal liberalism' (he's also called it 'ultraliberalism' – liberalism that overshoots to the point where it becomes the very opposite of classical liberalism). I'd only take issue with him over his endorsement of 'hate speech' as something to be proscribed (I don't think 'hate' should come into it – only incitement to violence). Anyway, here's the link – enjoy...

Friday 21 August 2020

Larkin in August

There seems to have been something about August, the traditional holiday month, that got Philip Larkin reaching for his bleakest, most cynical and philistine personas. On yesterday's date in 1960, he signed off on 'A Study of Reading Habits', a study in (studied) disenchantment that ends with one of those Larkin 'statements' that is all too liable to snatched from its context and presented as the poet's 'opinion' (e.g. 'They fuck you up...', 'What will survive of us...'). Happily this one has escaped that fate, perhaps because it would be especially hard to impute to a career librarian...

When getting my nose in a book
Cured most things short of school,
It was worth ruining my eyes
To know I could still keep cool,
And deal out the old right hook
To dirty dogs twice my size.

Later, with inch-thick specs,
Evil was just my lark:
Me and my coat and fangs
Had ripping times in the dark.
The women I clubbed with sex!
I broke them up like meringues.

Don't read much now: the dude
Who lets the girl down before
The hero arrives, the chap
Who's yellow and keeps the store
Seem far too familiar. Get stewed:
Books are a load of crap.

On today's date in 1962, Larkin signed off on another exquisitely constructed essay in disenchantment, 'Send No Money', in which Time is presented as a booming, aldermanic figure with a fob chain across his waistcoated belly, and Truth as a 'trite untransferable truss-advertisement'. This last image refers to something that used to be a familiar feature of newspapers and men's magazines: adverts for surgical trusses (one, I remember, bore the slogan 'Ruptured – but on Top of the World!'). These devices could be seen, along with other equally alarming paraphernalia, in the windows of 'surgical goods' shops, which also sold what were known alluringly as 'prophylactic sheaths'...

Standing under the fobbed
Impendent belly of Time
Tell me the truth, I said,
Teach me the way things go.
All the other lads there
Were itching to have a bash,
But I thought wanting unfair:
It and finding out clash.
So he patted my head, booming Boy,
There’s no green in your eye:
Sit here and watch the hail
Of occurrence clobber life out
To a shape no one sees –
Dare you look at that straight?
Oh thank you, I said, Oh yes please,
And sat down to wait.
Half life is over now,
And I meet full face on dark mornings
The bestial visor, bent in
By the blows of what happened to happen.
What does it prove? Sod all.
In this way I spent youth,
Tracing the trite untransferable
Truss-advertisement, truth.
A later August poem, dated 8 August 1974, is thematically similar, presenting life as a struggle between 'your wants, the world's for you, and (worse) the unbeatable slow machine that brings you what you'll get'...

The Life with a Hole in It

When I throw back my head and howl
People (women mostly) say
But you've always done what you want,
You always get your own way

– A perfectly vile and foul
Inversion of all that's been.
What the old ratbags mean
Is I've never done what I don't.

So the shit in the shuttered chateau
Who does his five hundred words
Then parts out the rest of the day
Between bathing and booze and birds
Is far off as ever, but so
Is that spectacled schoolteaching sod
(Six kids, and the wife in pod,
And her parents coming to stay) . . .

Life is an immobile, locked,
Three-handed struggle between
Your wants, the world's for you, and (worse)
The unbeatable slow machine
That brings what you'll get. Blocked,
They strain round a hollow stasis
Of havings-to, fear, faces.
Days sift down it constantly. Years.

Though written in August, this was published in the Poetry Book Society Christmas Supplement, bringing seasonal good cheer to its readers. 'The shit in the shuttered chateau' is a brilliant image; it always makes me think of Somerset Maugham – which is no doubt unfair.

Wednesday 19 August 2020

'As you look southwards from Box Hill...'

Yesterday I spotted this attractive little volume – number 37 in the King Penguin series – in one of my regular charity shops. It was priced keenly enough at £1.99, but the man at the till sold it to me for just 40p, as that was the price on the flyleaf and it had not been crossed out. This, he said, was to teach the staff 'a lesson'. Fair enough, I did not demur.
  Wild Flowers of the Chalk has 16 colour plates by Irene Hawkins. Here are her renderings of Horseshoe Vetch and the gloriously named Squinancywort (from squinancia, a medieval Latin word for quinsy, an unpleasant complication of tonsilitis) –
The cover design is by William Grimmond, who designed several King Penguins, and the text is by John Gilmour, an eminent botanist who was, among other things, director of the Cambridge University Botanic Garden. Although he was a standard-issue atheist, Gilmour teamed up with Father Hugh Maycock of Little Saint Mary's to found an excellent charity for the homeless, Cambridge Cyrenians.
  He begins the short (28-page) introductory text of Wild Flowers of the Chalk with a lovely image of the topography and extent of the English chalkland:
'As you look southwards from Box Hill, forty miles across the wealden woods, the line of the South Downs forms an elusive horizon. Immediately to the west the spurs of the North Downs fade away to the Hog's Back. To the east, the steep slope of the escarpment continues through suburban London and Kent to the cliffs of the North Foreland. These two ranges, the North and South Downs, meet in the neighbourhood of Selborne, and from Gilbert White's 'vast hill' the mind's eye can follow the white trail of chalk across England...'
  Next time I enjoy that view, I'll have a better idea of what I'm looking at, and how the English chalkland fits together. Later, Gilmour explains the differences between 'characteristic' and 'non-characteristic', 'exclusive' and 'constant' species by giving the analysis a human application:
'In a seaside resort, for instance, among the characteristic inhabitants, landladies are constant but not exclusive, bathing-hut attendants are both constant and exclusive, while business men, though seasonally not uncommon, cannot even be called characteristic, as they are in Birmingham.'
  Gilmour gives a brief account of the flowers to be found on downland, on cliffs and chalkpits, in beech hangers, and by roadsides and hedgerows, and he devotes a section to the endlessly fascinating chalk orchids, with their unpredictable habits, their weirdly mimetic appearance and curious ways of getting pollinated (the Bee Orchid, by the way, has largely reverted to self-pollination despite having gone to all the trouble of evolving a convincingly bee-like flower).
  This is a lovely little book, beautifully designed and well made (it barely shows its 73 years). The King Penguins were a great series (edited by Nikolaus Pevsner and inspired by the small-format books published by Insel-Verlag in Germany), and it's tempting to suggest reviving it and adding more titles, but I doubt if – modern tastes and modern publishers being what they are – they would get it right. Any new volumes almost certainly wouldn't be, as the originals were, made and printed entirely in England (or, as this volume is, set in Monotype Bembo).
   The back board of Wild Flowers of the Chalk is decorated with this little vignette of Stonehenge, on Salisbury Plain, from which the four main spokes of the English chalkland radiate out over the country...

Tuesday 18 August 2020


Yesterday was my adorable granddaughter's seventh birthday. As we celebrated in the garden, a lone belated swift flew over, at summer's pace [v Larkin 'Cut Grass']. Was it the last of the year? Very probably, but I'm still scanning the skies, just in case. The day before, I had spotted one – a full fortnight after the general exodus – and thought that too must be the last...

Edward Thomas seemed to know when he was seeing the last swift of summer –

How at once should I know,
When stretched in the harvest blue
I saw the swift's black bow,
That I would not have that view
Another day
Until next May
Again it is due?

The same year after year –
But with the swift alone.
With other things I but fear
That they will be over and done
And I only see
Them to know them gone.

That last phrase, and its sentiment, chime with the title of another of Thomas's poems – 'First Known When Lost' – which in turn gave its name to Stephen Pentz's endlessly rewarding blog

Sunday 16 August 2020


Good to see that 'Mat' (as in something that gets trodden on) Hancock has taken my advice and, in headline language, 'axed' the worse than useless quango misnamed Public Health England. This, combined with a long overdue adjustment of the Covid death figures that shaved 5,000 off the still inflated total, looks almost hopeful. Will the UK now pull out of the WHO and disband that other misnamed quango, Sage? I'm not holding my breath...
Meanwhile, taking a look at my blog stats, I note that Turkmenistan has for some reason lost all interest in Nigeness, but Russia has suddenly risen from the lower ranks to take the coveted top spot, with more page views than the next four nations (US, UK, good old Norway, and Japan) added together. I wonder what is going on?

Saturday 15 August 2020

'He lives while music lives'

I learned recently that the composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor is buried in Bandon Hill Cemetery, which is just a couple of miles from my home. As it's his birthday today (born 1875), I thought I'd go and see if I could find his grave.
  Coleridge-Taylor's family background was complex, 'multi-racial' and far from privileged, and he was unmistakably black in appearance. And yet, despite being in a minority of approximately one in the world of classical music, he achieved early and quite dramatic success, gaining a scholarship to the Royal College of Music at the age of 15, studying composition under Stanford and becoming a professional violinist and conductor. Helped and encouraged by (racist imperialist) Edward Elgar, he achieved early success as a composer, and found fame with three hugely popular oratorios based on Longfellow's Hiawatha. Touring America, he was hailed as the 'African Mahler' and received by (racist imperialist) Theodore Roosevelt.
  He died at the age of just 37 at his home in Croydon, having collapsed on West Croydon station (an ignominious fate for anyone). After his death, Hiawatha's Wedding Feast became as popular as Handel's Messiah or Mendelssohn's Elijah. The sheet music was on everyone's piano, and between 1928 and 1939 Malcolm Sargent conducted ten sold-out seasons of a spectacular staging of Hiawatha, involving hundreds of choristers, at the Royal Albert Hall. Sadly, neither Coleridge-Taylor nor his family received any royalties from Hiawatha, as the composer had sold the rights for a one-off payment.
  So, to Bandon Hill I went, hoping that perhaps there would be a plan of the cemetery, or even a discreet sign, to help me to find Coleridge-Taylor's grave – but no such luck. After paying a visit to the grave of my old English master (who's been mentioned here before, and in my book*), I wandered at large among the ranks of headstones and sculpted angels, finding no sign of Coleridge-Taylor, for twenty minutes and more, until I finally happened on it. 'Erected by his wife and other lovers of the man and his music', it is quite good of its kind, with the tree behind the conventional angel perhaps hinting at the composer's exotic heritage. Some of the lettering is becoming hard to make out; a little light restoration would be no bad thing.
 'He lives while music lives. Too young to die – his great simplicity, His happy courage in an alien world, His gentleness, Made all that know him love him,' declares the epitaph.
It continues:
'Sleep, crowned with fame, fearless of change or time.
Sleep, like remembered music in the soul,
Silent, immortal: while our discords climb
To that great chord which shall resolve the whole.
Silent, with Mozart, on that solemn shore:
Secure, where neither waves nor hearts can break.
Sleep, till the master of the world once more
Touch the remembered strings, and bid thee wake,
Touch the remembered strings, and bid thee wake.'

This heartfelt epitaph is by (racist imperialist) Alfred Noyes, who also wrote another impassioned farewell to the composer.
  Under the epitaph are carved four bars from Coleridge-Taylor's Hiawatha, setting the words 'Thus departed Hiawatha, Hiawatha the beloved.'

* The Mother of Beauty: On the Golden Age of English Church Monuments, and Other Matters of Life and Death, available on Amazon or from the author.

Thursday 13 August 2020

An Equal Music

I've been reading Vikram Seth's An Equal Music, the novel he published in 1999, six years after A Suitable Boy. It has been described as 'the finest novel about music ever written in English', and it might well be: there's probably no more convincing account in fiction of the life of a professional musician, nor any more informed, lucid and passionate writing about music. As the music the novel revolves around is by the likes of Bach, Schubert and Vivaldi, I greatly enjoyed this aspect of the book, and I kept turning the pages happily, led on by Seth's skilful pacing and ordering of the narrative. It's a first-person story, the action seen entirely through the eyes (and heard through the ears) of violinist Michael, owner of a borrowed Tononi and member of the mildly successful Maggiore quartet. We are stuck with Michael, his emotions and attitudes, his musical loves and hates, and, above all, the ruling obsession of his life: his love for fellow musician Julia, whom he abandoned, for reasons never entirely clear, in Vienna more than a decade before the narrative begins. When, by chance, she crosses his path again, in London (where most of the action is set, with Vienna again later on, then a climactic sojourn in Venice), Michael is fired to renew his pursuit of her, despite the fact that she is married – to all appearances happily – and has a son. And there's something else about her he doesn't know...
  No plot spoilers here: suffice to say that, as Michael's obsessive pursuit of Julia proceeds, he becomes less and less agreeable company. As he himself admits near the end of the book, 'I'm a selfish, self-centred man.' He is indeed, as his behaviour towards Julia increasingly reveals – also self-absorbed, self-lacerating, self-indulgent, self-serving and the rest. This wouldn't matter (think of Lolita) if the great love affair between him and Julia was anywhere near as convincing as the music-related elements of the book, or if the character of Julia came alive as effectively as the other members of the Maggiore quartet, all of whom are deftly brought to life. Julia remains the Love Object and little more; it is hard to see what all the fuss is about, or why Michael is punishing himself – and, far more cruelly, her – in the cause of this rather thin and unconvincing love affair. For all its virtues – and there are wonderful passages in this book (nearly all of them music-related) – the weakness of this core element of the novel makes An Equal Music a noble failure.
  It's still worth reading for the music, though – and I've just discovered that you can buy a 2-CD album of the pieces featured in the book, including (in addition to the three composers mentioned above) music by Haydn, Mozart and Vaughan Williams, and the world premiere recording of Beethoven's obscure String Quintet in C Minor, Op.104. I've just ordered it.

Tuesday 11 August 2020

Auden Again: Baltering, Soodling, Sossing

Yet another sweltering day of our canicule anglaise, and I reach for Auden again. Surely nothing could be more appropriate for these dog days than this, one of the masterpieces of his postwar years:

Under Sirius

Yes, these are the dog days, Fortunatus:
The heather lies limp and dead
On the mountain, the baltering torrent
Shrunk to a soodling thread;
Rusty the spears of the legion, unshaven its captain,
Vacant the scholar’s brain
Under his great hat,
Drug though She may, the Sybil utters
A gush of table-chat.

And you yourself with a head-cold and upset stomach,
Lying in bed till noon,
Your bills unpaid, your much advertised
Epic not yet begun,
Are a sufferer too. All day, you tell us, you wish
Some earthquake would astonish,
Or the wind of the Comforter’s wing
Unlock the prisons and translate
The slipshod gathering.

And last night, you say, you dreamed of that bright blue morning,
The hawthorn hedges in bloom,
When, serene in their ivory vessels,
The three wise Maries come,
Sossing through seamless waters, piloted in
By sea-horse and fluent dolphin:
Ah! how the cannons roar,
How jocular the bells as They
Indulge the peccant shore.

It is natural to hope and pious, of course, to believe
That all in the end shall be well,
But first of all, remember,
So the Sacred Books foretell,
The rotten fruit shall be shaken. Would your hope make sense
If today were that moment of silence,
Before it break and drown,
When the insurrected eagre hangs
Over the sleeping town?

How will you look and what will you do when the basalt
Tombs of the sorcerers shatter
And their guardian megalopods
Come after you pitter-patter?
How will you answer when from their qualming spring
The immortal nymphs fly shrieking,
And out of the open sky
The pantocratic riddle breaks –
"Who are you and why?"

For when in a carol under the apple-trees
The reborn featly dance,
There will also, Fortunatus,
Be those who refused their chance,
Now pottering shades, querulous beside the salt-pits,
And mawkish in their wits,
To whom these dull dog-days
Between event seemed crowned with olive
And golden with self-praise. 

This is virtuoso stuff. Even Randall Jarrell, habitually snooty about Auden (as about so much else), was so bowled over by this one that he could only respond with 'Well, back to my greeting cards.' 

Fortunatus was a sixth-century poet of the Merovingian court, who wrote in Latin and became a Christian bishop (and was venerated after his death).
'Soodling' means dawdling, 'baltering' tumbling along.
The 'three wise Maries' are three variously identified Maries from the Gospels who, according to medieval legend, made landfall in Provence after travelling from the Holy Land. 'Sossing' is simply onomatopoeic.
An 'eagre' is a kind of tidal wave, commonly known as a 'bore' – which would not have sounded quite as good: 'the insurrected bore'!

Monday 10 August 2020

And Back

On the face of it, little seemed to have changed in Dieppe – though the statue of le grand Duquesne (above) now sports a necklace of scallop shells and holds a fishing rod in his hand. Nothing obvious had closed down in the fallout from le Covid-19 (which sounds like a French aperitif, come to think), the steady smartening up of the old town had not slowed down, and the shops and restaurants were doing a roaring trade – indeed more than roaring, as the place was absolutely rammed. I have never seen so many people in Dieppe – not even in August, not even with the vast, cacophonous funfair in full swing and a blazing canicule under way. For the first time I can remember, the beach was as crowded as in those photos from Dieppe's golden age, though alas the bathers no longer wear those delightful blue-and-white-hooped one-pieces that were once de rigueur. The crowds too were overwhelmingly French, presumably sampling what is on their doorstep rather than jetting off to some foreign beach resort.
  As for le Covid, the Dieppois have embraced mask wearing with surprising enthusiasm: there were many more mask wearers on the street than you see in England, notices declaring that le port de masque est obligatoire were everywhere, all shops seemed to be enforcing the mandate, and restaurants were insisting on customers masking up at their coming in and their going out. I grudgingly went along with this, being in a foreign country and under an alien jurisdiction. 'Social distancing', however, was very much less in evidence and, with the number of people milling about, would have been impossible anyway. Notices vainly requested distancing of 2 metres, 1.5 metres or 1 metre, au choix. Despite all these regulations, business was booming in the cafés, bars and restaurants, to the point where getting a table was often a real problem. Dieppe, it seems, has bounced back and is having quite a summer.
 It is, however, increasingly difficult to visit the place as a foot passenger on the ferry. In the good old days, of course (the days of the ten-franc pound), the ferry sailed merrily into the centre of town and you could step straight off it and into a restaurant. Then a fine new terminal was built a little way out of town, but still a pretty easy walk – and then, mystifyingly, that was abandoned in favour of a much less fine terminal further out of town, into and out of which sail just one day and one night ferry. Now the bus timetable is no longer co-ordinated with ferry arrivals, and there is never a taxi waiting – and, as we discovered the hard way, there is no bus on Sunday and it can be all but impossible to get a taxi. To think that in the 1890s, you could get to the centre of Dieppe in little more than half the time it takes today, and you could make the journey at practically any time of the day or night...
 On the boat over, we were handed a sheet of paper telling us that, to be allowed back into the UK, we would have to fill in an online form that could be found on a '' website. I tried to forget about this, but there was a stern reminder as we boarded the homebound boat, so we set to filling the damned thing in. Even the younger members of the party found it a fiendishly difficult, laborious and clunky form, and it took an awfully long time – at the end of which you had, at the expense of much effort and frustration, given '' a lot of information that it either already had or could easily have got off the shipping company. The aim of this exercise was of course to enable you to be traced and placed under house arrest if anyone on the crossing was found to have Covid-19. Still, it that was to be the price of being readmitted to the UK without further ado, then we had no choice but to comply.
 You might by now have guessed what happened next. On our arrival at Newhaven, no one so much as mentioned the form, let alone asked to see it, and we were waved through with only the usual passport checks. Like so much of this flailing government's activity, this was a futile exercise in being seen to be doing something. Still, at least we got back before they decide to quarantine everyone coming back from la belle France
 Here is Sickert's crepuscular take on the Duquesne statue –

Monday 3 August 2020


Tomorrow, at an ungodly hour, I'm heading for a certain French port (unsubtle clues above) for the now traditional holiday with the English branch of the family. I'm not quite sure what to expect (apart from pleasure) but will no doubt report back in due course... A bientôt!

Sunday 2 August 2020

Before and After Summer

'Ah, that's good,' I thought, as I heard the scream of swifts flying past my bedroom window. 'They're still here.' I was lying half asleep this morning, with Radio 3 playing softly, and... And at this point I realised the swifts were not outside, but on Radio 3, as part of its beguiling Sunday morning mix of birdsong and music, Sounds of the Earth.
  This morning's mix included a song (I'm not sure which one; I was half asleep) from Gerald Finzi's collection of Thomas Hardy settings, 'Before and After Summer'. This is the title poem –

Looking forward to the spring
One puts up with anything.
On this February day,
Though the winds leap down the street,
Wintry scourgings seem but play,
And these later shafts of sleet
– Sharper pointed than the first –
And these later snows – the worst –
Are as a half-transparent blind
Riddled by rays from sun behind.

Shadows of the October pine
Reach into this room of mine:
On the pine there stands a bird;
He is shadowed with the tree.
Mutely perched he bills no word;
Blank as I am even is he.
For those happy suns are past,
Fore-discerned in winter last.
When went by their pleasure, then?
I, alas, perceived not when.

Cheery stuff, isn't it? It also demonstrates – as does so much of Hardy's poetry and prose – how it is possible to write very badly, or at best awkwardly, yet still have something of greatness about your work. 'Looking forward to the spring/One puts up with anything' – really? And yet there is genuine expressive power, especially in the second stanza. That familiar rhetorical question 'Where did the summer go?' – one moment it was all ahead, the next it was all behind – finds pungent, if typically bleak, expression here.
  As for the swifts, they were certainly still around yesterday evening, half a dozen or or so circling quietly, after several days of mad, screaming flypasts. I hope they are back this evening, even if it is for the last time...

Saturday 1 August 2020


May I commend to your attention the August edition of the online magazine British Intelligence, out today. Much food for thought and sustenance for the soul – and a piece by me about churchyards, etc.