Tuesday 29 September 2020

Record Low?

 As I come to the end of what was probably the best butterfly season of my life, I discover, courtesy of Butterfly Conservation and their Big Butterfly Count, that butterfly numbers this summer were down to the lowest levels recorded since the Count began in 2010 – lower even than the notorious wash-out summer of 2012. Hmm.
   This Guardian report has the figures, or some of them, and dismal reading they make. To its credit, the report does mention a couple of the factors that might make these figures questionable – notably the glorious spring weather that accelerated many butterflies' life cycles, leading to a lull in activity at high summer when the count was conducted. (As it happened, this lull was followed by another burgeoning in late summer and early autumn, again driven by warm sunny weather.) The Count's findings might be fairly reliable as a snapshot, but no more: the year as a whole was very far indeed from being the worst since 2010. And the figures for individual species quoted in the report are mostly way out of kilter with my own experience of this butterfly year: I have seldom seen more Peacocks than I saw this spring and early summer, the Small White has been vastly more abundant than the Large, and I'd have said Gatekeepers, Commas and Tortoiseshells were more than holding their own, and Meadow Browns well up on last year. Hopefully, when Butterfly Conversation's more detailed figures for the whole year come out, they will paint a very different, more hopeful picture from the Big Butterfly Count snapshot. 

   Meanwhile, according to The Guardian, we have but '36 days to save the Earth', so we'd better get to it...

'All are limitory...'

 On this day in 1973, W.H. Auden died in a hotel room in Vienna, at the age of 66 – not a great age, but with his prodigious intake of alcohol and amphetamines, he was perhaps lucky to live as long as he did. By dying before decrepitude set in, Auden avoided ending his days in an old people's home, like the one he describes in this clear-eyed, touching poem, which I only came across today:

Old People's Home

All are limitory, but each has her own
nuance of damage.  The elite can dress and decent themselves,
    are ambulant with a single stick, adroit
to read a book all through, or play the slow movements of
    easy sonatas. (Yet, perhaps their very
carnal freedom is their spirit's bane: intelligent
    of what has happened and why, they are obnoxious
to a glum beyond tears.)  Then come those on wheels, the average
    majority, who endure TV and, led by
lenient therapists, do community-singing, then
    the loners, muttering in Limbo, and last
the terminally incompetent, as improvident,
    unspeakable, impeccable as the plants
they parody. (Plants may sweat profusely but never
    sully themselves.)  One tie, though, unites them: all
appeared when the world, though much was awry there, was more
    spacious, more comely to look at, its Old Ones
with an audience and secular station.  Then a child,
    in dismay with Mamma, could refuge with Gran
to be revalued and told a story.  As of now,
    we all know what to expect, but their generation
is the first to fade like this, not at home but assigned
    to a numbered frequent ward, stowed out of conscience
as unpopular luggage.
                                       As I ride the subway
    to spend half-an-hour with one, I revisage
who she was in the pomp and sumpture of her heyday,
    when weekend visits were a presumptive joy,
not a good work.  Am I cold to wish for a speedy
    painless dormition, pray, as I know she prays,
that God or Nature will abrupt her earthly function?

It's interesting to compare this with Larkin's 'The Old Fools', a poem on essentially the same theme, but so much harsher and bleaker, suffused by that crippling terror of extinction that the Christian Auden was armed against. I don't recommend reading it on top of the Auden, but here's a link...

Monday 28 September 2020

From Hock and Soda to 'the present puddle of the intellectual artistic so-called "world"'

 With a double hat-tip to Dave Lull and Frank Wilson, I pass on this piece from a blog I hadn't come across before, called Idlings. Although there is much else in the post, it was the title that first attracted me – 'Hock and Soda-Water.' It rang a bell – a post-Byronic poetical bell... Yes, of course – John Betjeman's poem, one of his best, 'The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel':

He sipped at a weak hock and seltzer
As he gazed at the London skies
Through the Nottingham lace of the curtains
Or was it his bees-winged eyes?

To the right and before him Pont Street
Did tower in her new built red,
As hard as the morning gaslight
That shone on his unmade bed,

“I want some more hock in my seltzer,
And Robbie, please give me your hand —
Is this the end or beginning?
How can I understand?

“So you’ve brought me the latest Yellow Book:
And Buchan has got in it now:
Approval of what is approved of
Is as false as a well-kept vow.

“More hock, Robbie — where is the seltzer?
Dear boy, pull again at the bell!
They are all little better than cretins,
Though this is the Cadogan Hotel.

“One astrakhan coat is at Willis’s —
Another one’s at the Savoy:
Do fetch my morocco portmanteau,
And bring them on later, dear boy.”

A thump, and a murmur of voices —
(”Oh why must they make such a din?”)
As the door of the bedroom swung open

“Mr. Woilde, we ‘ave come for tew take yew
Where felons and criminals dwell:
We must ask yew tew leave with us quoietly
For this is the Cadogan Hotel.”

He rose, and he put down The Yellow Book.
He staggered — and, terrible-eyed,
He brushed past the plants on the staircase
And was helped to a hansom outside.

Wilde, with the 'bees-winged eyes' of the heavy drinker, is clearly taking Byron's hint and attacking his hangover with weak hock and soda, or 'hock and seltzer', which comes to the same thing; 'seltzer' is still, I believe, the preferred usage in America. The French equivalent is 'eau de seltz' – which brings me to a baffling phrase that lodged itself in my memory years ago and has stubbornly stayed there. In those far-off days before the internet, I was unable to work out what on earth Samuel Beckett was talking about in the Foreword to Proust,  a brilliant essay in which the young author is guilty of a good deal of intellectual showing-off. His essay, be declares in the Foreword, makes no allusion to 'the legendary life and death of Marcel Proust, nor to the garrulous old dowager of the Letters, nor to the poet, nor to the author of the Essays, nor to the Eau de Selzian correlative of Carlyle's "beautiful bottle of soda-water'". 
   Only now have I finally teased out the meaning of this cryptic allusion: what Beckett means is that his essay will ignore Proust's devotion to Ruskin. He will not present Proust as the French Ruskin. For the 'beautiful bottle of soda-water' is none other than John Ruskin, as described by Thomas Carlyle. 
  'Ruskin was here the other night,' wrote Carlyle to his brother in November 1855, 'a bottle of beautiful soda-water, something like Rait of old times [a reference that is completely lost on me – anyone?], only with an intellect of tenfold vivacity. He is very pleasant company now and then. A singular element, very curious to look upon, in the present puddle of the intellectual artistic so-called "world" in these parts at this date.'
   'What can you say of Carlyle but that he was born in the clouds and struck by lightning?' said Ruskin to the historian and Carlyle biographer Froude. 'Not meant for happiness,' adds Froude, 'but for other ends; a stern fate which nevertheless in the modern world, as in the ancient, is the portion dealt out to some individuals on whom the heavens have been pleased to set their mark.' 
  You don't hear that kind of talk in 'the intellectual artistic so-called "world"' of today. 

Saturday 26 September 2020

'I gave him my promise, and, very heavily indeed, I left him'

 As mentioned the other day, I am reading The Diary of Fanny Burney – and I'm finding it thoroughly enjoyable. It's hugely readable (though there are some passages that can be skipped with no great loss), written with unforced wit and sparkle, and full of brilliant dialogue and pin-sharp, but never malicious, character sketches. One of the chief pleasures for a Johnsonian are the young Fanny Burney's frequent meetings with the Doctor. It is clear that, once she had got over the shock of his physical appearance – his 'almost perpetual convulsive movements, either of his hands, lips, feet or knees, and sometimes all together' – she swiftly came to love him, and he, already enchanted by Evelina (Burney's first novel), soon grew to love her. 
   The most touching of Fanny Burney's encounters with Johnson is the last, on November 25th, 1784. She goes to visit the ailing Doctor at home in Bolt Court: 

'He was in rather better spirits than I have lately seen him: but he told me he was going to see what sleeping out of town might do for him.
   "I remember," said he, "that my wife, when she was near her end, poor woman, was also advised to sleep out of town; and when she was carried to the lodgings that had been prepared for her, she complained that the staircase was in very bad condition – for the plaster was beaten off the walls in many places: 'Oh,' said the man of the house, 'that's nothing but the knocks against it of the coffins of the poor souls who have died in the lodgings!'"
   He laughed, though not without apparent secret anguish, in telling me this...'

   Later, Burney touches on the sensitive subject of Hester Thrale Piozzi (who had apparently severed all communications with the Doctor – and, indeed, Fanny) and has to make a swift retreat.  She duly steers the conversation on to Ann Yearsley, a Bristol milkmaid with no formal education who had produced a volume of poems, despite having read nothing but a little Shakespeare, Milton and Young (Night Thoughts). Pondering this, Johnson declares that "there is nothing so little comprehended among mankind as what is genius. They give it to all, when it can be but a part. Genius is nothing more than knowing the use of tools; but there must be tools for it to use: a man who has spent all his life in this room will give a very poor account of what is contained in the next."
   I saw him growing worse, and offered to go, which, for the first time I ever remember, he did not oppose; but, most kindly pressing both my hands:
   "Be not," he said, in a voice of even tenderness, "be not longer in coming again for my letting you go now."
   I assured him I would be the sooner, and was running off, but he called me back, in a solemn voice, and, in a manner the most energetic, said: 
   "Remember me in your prayers!"
   I longed to ask him to remember me, but did not dare. I gave him my promise, and, very heavily indeed, I left him.'

   Fanny Burney never saw Johnson again, and a few weeks later he was dead.

Friday 25 September 2020

The Rightful Queen

 I was walking along the high street this morning, minding my own business, when I was accosted by a woman with henna'd hair, alarming pink lipstick and a glint in her eye. She was pulling along a small suitcase on wheels, but stopped to engage my attention.
  'They don't know what to do with me,' she declared.
  Before I could ask for elucidation, she embarked on her story. She is, it turns out, the rightful Queen of England. She knows this because she was told it by an eminent Irish lawyer after Mass at Westminster Cathedral, as they took the train together back to Thornton Heath. He had leaned over to her and whispered, 'You don't know this but you are the rightful Queen of England, and so was your mother before you.'
   She was also given the same surprising news by Bernadette Devlin, the firebrand Irish MP, who was subsequently the target of an assassination attempt, and by Airey Neave, MP, who was promptly blown up outside the Houses of Parliament. And, if that's not enough corroboration, she was told the same thing by Seventies singing sensations The Osmonds (who have so far survived). The vocal combo knew because the extent of her rightful realm takes in not only Britain and Ireland but also the whole of the United States. She has been pressing her (and her mother's) claim tirelessly, bombarding in particular David Cameron, but of course she has got nowhere: the conspiracy to suppress her story involves the entire British establishment as well as, obviously, the Royal Family. 
   To my surprise, having outlined her story to me, she stopped, thanked me for listening, and went on her way, pulling her little suitcase behind her. I wished her good luck. 

Wednesday 23 September 2020

Rooney Day

Today is a momentous day – the centenary of the birth of that titan of showbiz Mickey Rooney, who, against all expectation, died six years ago. I celebrated his 90th birthday with this post, and also pondered the mystery of the diminutive goblin-like Rooney's sexual allure in this post
As a reminder of Rooney's versatility and cultural sensitivity, here's a picture of him playing Mr Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany's...

And here he is in blackface, with Judy Garland in Meet Me in St Louis...

Surely this day deserved a Google doodle.

Tuesday 22 September 2020

At the Barbers' Again

 The mood down at the barbers' this morning was restive bordering on rebellious, with a deep distrust of 'experts' to the fore. As one of the barbers put it, in his distinctive Greek-Cypriot accent: 'Believe the barber – don't believe the [expletive deleted] experts.' On the evidence of the 'experts'' performance in recent years – and his own impressive record – he has a point. 
 The particular 'experts' they had in mind today were the two grim-faced doomsters to whom the government has handed over the running of the country. As the notorious graph they unveiled for the occasion is transparent nonsense (see, for example, this), I'm hoping they might finally get called out. No, I'm not, not really: this madness will go on.

Meanwhile, the National Trust has helpfully unveiled a list of 93 properties with links to colonialism and slavery. This will come in handy when I plan the itinerary for my 'Let's Celebrate Colonialism and Slavery' tour of Britain next year. Thanks, National Trust.

'how loves seeps up and retakes the earth'

I missed Kay Ryan's 75th birthday yesterday – incredible that she's reached her three-quarter century, but I guess her fame came relatively late. Not a birthday to let go unmarked, so I thought I'd post one of her poems – better late than never (which sounds like one of her poem titles) – but which one? I decided to rely on the Sortes Ryanae, opening The Best of It: New and Selected Poems at random and seeing what it fell open at.
It was this – a beautiful evocation of a state of mind, namely 'Relief'...

We know it is close
to something lofty.
Simply getting over being sick
or finding lost property
has in it the leap,
the purge, the quick humility
of witnessing a birth—
how love seeps up
and retakes the earth.
There is a dreamy
wading feeling to your walk
inside the current
of restored riches,
clocks set back,
disasters averted.

America is lucky to have a poet still living who has something of greatness about her. I don't think we in England (since the death of Geoffrey Hill) can say as much. 

Sunday 20 September 2020


Recently I was in Chester with my brother and two cousins, paying a farewell visit to my late (and last) uncle and aunt's house, and scanning the well stocked bookshelves for a few mementoes. I took several slimmish volumes, including Fanny Burney's diaries, which I'm reading now and will no doubt write about in due course. Among those I did not take at the time was a Virago Modern Classics edition of a novel called Vera by Elizabeth von Arnim. This one my Derbyshire cousin rescued, read, was hooked and flabbergasted by, and passed it on to me. Now I have read it and been hooked and flabbergasted in my turn. 
   It's an extraordinary book, and the more flabbergasting for the knowledge that it was based on Elizabeth von Arnim's own experiences during her short, disastrous second marriage to 'Frank' Russell, brother of Bertrand. Elizabeth (who often styled herself by her Christian name alone) was a cousin of Katherine Mansfield, and had a huge success with her semi-autobiogaphical novel Elizabeth and Her German Garden, but is perhaps better known now for The Enchanted April. I had never read her before I opened Vera, but I fancy I might well be reading more of her now.
   Vera is an unsparing account of what would now be termed 'coercive control' in a marriage. The control is exerted by one Everard Wemyss (the perfect name for him), a pompous and arrogant oaf with plenty of money, a town house and a treasured – and perfectly ghastly – country house, The Willows, by the Thames. Wemyss's default state is one of high indignation, and his response to the slightest thwarting of his minutely detailed, entirely self-centred plans is to throw himself into an almighty silent sulk. Clearly not ideal husband material, then – a fact made all the more evident by the fact that his wife (the Vera of the title) has apparently committed suicide by jumping from a high window at The Willows. When we first meet Wemyss, he is in a state of towering indignation because the inquest jury impudently returned an open verdict rather than one of misadventure, and as a result there has been something of a scandal. He has escaped to Devon to sit it out, seething with indignation and wallowing in self-pity. While there, he chances upon his victim to be – an unworldly young girl called Lucy Entwistle, whose father, with whom she has always lived, has just died. She is in a dazed and vulnerable state, and Wemyss sees his opportunity.   
   What follows, and what unfolds from then on, is like a slow-motion car crash. Everyone but Lucy, though they try to think well of Wemyss, can see him for the monster he is, but they can only look on helplessly as Lucy succumbs to his glutinous wooing and, despite all the evidence of his entire, callous selfishness, continues to adore him, or to try to – though it becomes increasingly difficult. Lucy soon comes to know all too well that she is powerless, that nothing less than total servitude will satisfy Wemyss, and that there is no escape. 
   All this is told quite sparely (it is not a long novel) and with such skill that the story is instantly and powerfully gripping: once you start, it's impossible not to read on. As a novel, Vera could perhaps be criticised for being rather thin: there is little there but the single narrative and the principal characters – Wemyss, Lucy and the maiden aunt who does her best to protect her niece (and pays the price) – though The Willows, the terrible house by the river, is such a strong presence that it almost amounts to another character. Thin or not, Vera makes for a gripping, often hair-raising read. Middleton Murry characterised it as 'Wuthering Heights written by Jane Austen'. Elizabeth von Arnim regarded it as her 'high-water mark', and even Katherine Mansfield approved. 

Saturday 19 September 2020

A Monument and a Mineral

Yes, a church monument! This is like old times... I came across this one in the church of St Nicholas, Chiswick, an old church largely rebuilt by Pearson in the 1880s, with the low broad aisles and ornate screens of a West Country church. For a wonder, it was (partly) open, and there, in the South chapel, was this fine alabaster monument, to one Sir Thomas Challoner, who died in 1615. What struck me about it was the curious combination of an old-fashioned central composition – man and wife facing each other in prayer – and the decidedly Baroque drama of the framing, with curtains swept back from a semi-circular canopy (Doric, with a pyramidal top) and, especially, the dashing figures of the two armed servants holding back those curtains. These figures are full of life, and carved with brio. Indeed, even the kneeling figures are very much livelier than most (and Sir Thomas's lady has her hair swept high in fashionable style). This monument, which has benefited from a recent restoration, seems to be the work of someone who really knew what they were doing – was it a foreign monument maker, or one of our own? Sadly, no one knows.
   What we know about Sir Thomas is that, as well as being a successful courtier, he introduced the manufacture of (potassium) alum to England, thereby ending the nation's dependence on the Papal States and Spain for this versatile mineral, widely used in tanning, dyeing and medicine. Sir Thomas had a cousin, also called Thomas, who, while prospecting for minerals in Ireland, recognised that certain plants grew where the minerals required for alum were present – and that those same plants grew on Sir Thomas's estate at Guisborough (the former priory lands, gifted to Sir Thomas's father). Challoner picked up on the hint, and so was born the English alum industry. It was to devastate the landscape of Northeast Yorkshire for years to come, as cliffs were quarried, forests felled for charcoal, and the land polluted by sulphuric acid and toxic ash. There's always a down side...

Thursday 17 September 2020

Larkin's Afternoons

Here's a suitably seasonal poem by our old friend, Mr Larkin. Published in The Whitsun Weddings (1964), it dates from 1959, and is vintage Larkin: beautifully crafted, simple but inventive in language, vividly present and intensely sad. 


Summer is fading:
The leaves fall in ones and twos
From trees bordering
The new recreation ground.
In the hollows of afternoons
Young mothers assemble
At swing and sandpit
Setting free their children.

Behind them, at intervals,
Stand husbands in skilled trades,
An estateful of washing,
And the albums, lettered
Our Wedding, lying
Near the television:
Before them, the wind
Is ruining their courting-places

That are still courting-places
(But the lovers are all in school),
And their children, so intent on
Finding more unripe acorns,
Expect to be taken home.
Their beauty has thickened.
Something is pushing them
To the side of their own lives.

The daring enjambment and near-repetition that leads the poem into its final stanza is a brilliant touch (he pulls the same trick, to different effect, with every stanza of 'High Windows'). 
  As parent and then grandparent, I have spent many hours 'at swing and sandpit', attending my children and grandchildren, and always too absorbed in the experience (in all its joy and, it must be admitted, boredom) to take a detached view. Larkin, childless and wifeless, and always one of the unconsoled, has an outsider's perspective – but there is truth in it, sadly. 

Talking of poetry, I have decided, on Patrick Kurp's recommendation (see Anecdotal Evidence passim), to  take a look at the American poet Turner Cassity. Having got my hands on a copy of his collection Between the Chains (1991), I opened it and found this epigraph:

'"We are too used to the idea of work to realise its meaning," said Hugo. "I had early suspicions of it, and dared to act on them."
"What a comment on life," said Lavinia, "that to be out of work is held to be sad and wrong!"
"Satan lies in wait for idle hands," said Selina.
"But only Satan, Grandma. And he is hardly seen as a model of behaviour."

Yes, it's Ivy Compton-Burnett, from The Mighty and Their Fall. I think I'm going to enjoy Turner Cassity.


Tuesday 15 September 2020

Magic or Miracle

This is getting ridiculous. There I was this morning, with Mrs N, having coffee in the garden – their garden – with a couple of local friends when I noticed a small-to-middling pale brownish butterfly fluttering about near the top of a tall shrub, then settling right in my eye line, but too far away to be identified. I got up and walked over to take a closer look, and... But you're probably ahead of me already – yes indeed, it was another Brown Hairstreak! That's two, of the four I've seen in my whole adult life, both spotted in the past few weeks (see 'And Then...') and both coming as a total surprise, the last thing I expected to see. This was another female, quite faded – and no wonder, this late in the season – and less lively. She spent a while investigating the leaves she was on, then flew away rather sedately. Two Brown Hairstreaks, both quite out of the blue – what a summer this has been...
   I have been reading (in Jeremy Thomas and Richard Lewington's beautiful and authoritative Butterflies of Britain and Ireland) about the life cycle of the Brown Hairstreak, which is – as with so many butterflies – quite a story. When the caterpillars, which look like tiny green slugs, come down from the trees to pupate, the chrysalids that they become are looked after by ants, which respond to a chirruping call made by the chrysalis (how?). Some Blue butterflies, which have all kinds of complicated relationships with ants, also produce chirruping chrysalids. Despite their attendant ants (Myrmidons, you might call them), the Brown Hairstreak chrysalids are vulnerable to predators, including mice and shrews. Thomas vividly describes this predation:
 'Once [a chrysalis] is unearthed, a shrew pounces on it in a frenzy of excitement and squealing, tearing and scattering the case into tiny fragments, while gobbling up the sticky contents. A mouse is more restrained. It sits up on its hindquarters holding the chrysalis in both hands, as a squirrel might a nut. It neatly nibbles the chrysalis until not even the hard cuticle remains.' 
  The 'sticky contents' are the undifferentiated goo into which the caterpillar dissolves before re-forming, as if by magic or miracle, into a butterfly. Astonishingly, experiments have shown that adult moths (which go through exactly the same metamorphosis) can retain memory of what they 'learnt' as caterpillars. e.g. avoidance of a particular odour – this after a near-total dissolution of the tissues and the nervous system. How can that be? 

Monday 14 September 2020

Fire and Plague

 On this day in 1666, the Great Fire of London was still raging, two days after it began, and scenes of devastation lay all around. 'London was, but it is no more,' wrote John Evelyn, summing up the destruction. Thirteen thousand houses, 87 churches, 50 livery halls, the Guildhall and four bridges had been destroyed, and a hundred thousand people made homeless, by the time it burnt itself out. 
  London rose from the ashes, of course, renewed and rebuilt as a Baroque city of brick and stone. And among the other good things that, paradoxically, came of the Great Fire was an end to the Plague that had been scything its way through the population ever since the previous summer. The death toll, in recorded deaths, was nearly 70,000; actual deaths might well have numbered 100,000 – this out of a total population of around half a million. So around fifteen to twenty per cent of London's population had died.  Today that figure would be somewhere around a million and a half to two million deaths.
  How does our current 'plague', Covid-19, compare? The figure for deaths in London is below 7,000, which is around 0.08 per cent (and that's the number of deaths from any cause within 28 days of testing positive, so the real figure is probably a good deal lower). That's the kind of statistic that puts things in perspective. Or should do. 

Saturday 12 September 2020

Remembering Rameau

 The great French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau died on this day in 1764 – which gives me the perfect pretext for paying a return visit to Teodor Currentzis's astonishing album of his music, The Sound Of Light...
Within a generation of his death, Rameau's music was wholly out of fashion and all but forgotten. It was well into the 19th century before there was even a flicker of a revival.  When, in response to the humiliation of the Franco-Prussian War, the French began revisiting the glories of their cultural past, Rameau was one of the beneficiaries, and his works began to be performed again in the 1890s. Debussy was one of those who sat up and took notice, recognising in Rameau a kindred spirit, one who, like him, was a great keyboard composer who went on to create entirely new sound worlds. One of the works that particularly impressed him was Rameau's lyric tragedy Castor et Pollux, revived in 1903. Much earlier, Berlioz had also studied Castor et Pollux, and had been particularly struck by the 'air accompagné' Tristes Apprêts – a piece that could hardly be more appropriate on the day of Rameau's death. Currentzis takes it daringly slow and, with the wonderful soprano Nadine Koutcher, creates something of almost unearthly beauty. 

Friday 11 September 2020

The Death of J.G. Farrell

 The BBC News website has provided this blog with a good deal of innocent fun over the years – see, for example, this and this – so it's only fair to pass on the good news when something worth reading appears there. Today's 'news' included a strangely popular item on the recycling challenge posed by the Pringles carton (and, I might add, many single malt whiskies – nightmare!), but we're going to pass that one by in tactful silence, my point being that today there was also an item worth reading. It was a well made piece on an author I've written about here more than once – J.G. Farrell – and it includes an interesting and terribly sad account of the circumstances of his death.   'He looked at me. And then he turned round and looked at the children...'
I do not recommend following the link to a confected 'outcry' over the forthcoming ITV dramatisation of The Singapore Grip, to which I look forward, not without a degree of trepidation – trepidation that would be rather greater, of course, if it was going out on the BBC. 

Wednesday 9 September 2020


'Oh, why is the mind minimifidian, even to its own ends?'

'Minimifidian' was a new one to me. I discover that it means having or requiring little faith. The sentence above comes from a letter that A.J.A. Symons wrote, late in his short life, to his brother Julian. The word 'minimifidian' is probably one that Symons picked up from Frederick Rolfe, the subject of his classic biography, The Quest for Corvo. Julian quotes the letter in his biography of his brother, A.J.A. Symons: His Life and Speculations. The speculations, by the way, were more financial (or quasi financial) than philosophical.
  Julian's biography of 'A.J.', as he liked to style himself (he understandably hated his first name, Alphonse, and adopted Alroy as a substitute), is a fascinating study of a fascinating man, a true one-off, who died (in 1941, at the age of 41) with much of his potential unfulfilled – though whether it would in fact have been fulfilled is an open question: A.J. was one of those writers who would rather do anything than get down to writing, and he spent much of his life engaged in agreeable displacement activities. Many of these enabled him to rise in society to a level he found congenial. As a young man, he founded the First Edition Club – a kind of lavish London club for rich and convivial bibliophiles (there were such things in those days) – and later, with André Simon, the Wine and Food Society, another way of enjoying himself while, theoretically, making money. Only when both these went into decline did A.J. turn seriously to writing, publishing his masterpiece The Quest for Corvo. His later endeavours, including a very promising biography of Oscar Wilde, were left unfinished at his death.
  Apparently born out of his time, A.J. was fascinated by the literary scene of the 1890s – then quite out of fashion – and became a serious scholar and bibliophile in that field. From boyhood, he was obsessed with certain types of games, developing a fantastically complex Race Game based on horse racing. Later he became fascinated by Victoriana – again unfashionable – collecting music boxes and other such toys, building a 'nationally important' collection of the latter. This could all be taken as so much time wasting by a man who should have been devoting himself to writing, but it was all of a piece with his singular character. His brother makes it clear that he was a man of immense charm and great conversational gifts – also an elegant dandy, who insisted on wearing the double-breasted waistcoat long after it had passed out of fashion – but it seems Julian did not always find him sympathetic, especially in his younger years, and it is easy enough to imagine how infuriating A.J. must sometimes have been. His biography (which I read on the recommendation of Stephen Pentz, having written here about The Quest for Corvo) is sympathetic but balanced and, as John Betjeman said of it, 'a very clever book'. Fittingly, the author has a quotation from his brother as one if its epigraphs:
'To say nothing but good of the dead is a pious convention which has reduced biography to the level of memorial sculpture. I had no wish to add to the number of literary tombstones reciting in favourable phrases the virtues of their subjects.'
No more did Julian. I think A.J. would have been impressed by his younger brother's effort.

Tuesday 8 September 2020

Falling Again

'I took a terrible toss in the garden,' declared my piano teacher, explaining why his arm was in a sling. He must have wondered why I found this news so amusing. He – an avuncular, tweed-waistcoated figure in the Vaughan Williams mould – was an innocent; I was a dirty-minded schoolboy, desperately trying to stem the tsunami of mirth unleashed by the word 'toss'. I know, pathetic. I blush to recall it...
  Every time I take a toss myself (fnar fnar), I think of my old piano teacher and his infelicitous phrase. My occasional falls have become something of a leitmotif of this otherwise perpendicular blog, so I feel I must record the latest. It happened yesterday, as I neared the end of an enjoyable walk on Box Hill. Having made my way down from the famous escarpment along the dip slope, I turned onto a narrow path beside and a little above the road leading to the Burford Bridge hotel (where Keats once stayed). One moment I was striding along happily, the next I was flat out and face down on the path – the victim, yet again, of a tree root, in this case an inconspicuous dogwood root perfectly formed to bring down the unwary pedestrian.
  As I pondered the best way to raise myself from this undignified position, I heard a voice inquiring if I was all right. A couple who had been driving past had seen me fall and, alarmed by the sight, leapt out of their car to come to my aid – which was very nice of them, though in the event I could answer honestly that actually, yes, I was all right. No cuts, bruises, grazes, nothing but some grubby earth stains on my chinos. I thanked the couple, rose easily to my feet, and went on my way. It was only later that I discovered I had, without realising it or even feeling it, bruised my breastbone. The pain came on slowly over the next few hours, and has proved rather tiresome ever since – I never realised how many little everyday movements and actions involve the muscles that come together at the sternum. However, it's not much of a pain, as pains go, and perfectly manageable. What puzzles me is how I could have come down on my sternum with such a thump and not realised at the time. Better than coming down on my face, though.

Monday 7 September 2020


In the course of my short unhappy visit to the library the other day, I did find time to read, as I always do, a couple of pages of the book of remembrance from the 1939-45 war. This beautifully produced volume chronicles all the civilians killed in the borough during those years as a result of enemy action, i.e. bombing. It makes desperately sad reading, especially the entries that list entire families killed by a single strike. And the addresses are streets that I know, streets that look now as if nothing ever happened on them.
  It was on this day 80 years ago that the first Blitz on London began, and it went on until October. Many of the deaths recorded in the book of remembrance date from the summer and autumn of 1940, but I noticed also a spate of deaths from summer 1944, when a desperate Hitler sent flying bombs and rocket bombs our way. Having survived the blanket bombing of 1940, and having been given hope that the war was as good as over, London (and environs) faced something even more terrible than the first Blitz, in the shape of these unmanned weapons, wholly dehumanised, wholly inhuman, terrifyingly destructive. And we think we live in hard times today...

Saturday 5 September 2020

No Popping In

Yesterday, having 20 minutes to kill and being in the vicinity, I thought I'd pop in to the notorious 'award-winning central library' about which I have written before (e.g. here).
Alas, I soon discovered that 'popping in' is no longer an option. As I strode past the reception desk, deftly sidestepping the hand sanitisers, I was loudly called back with the ominous words 'Can I help you?' and interrogated as to my identity and the purpose of my visit (which, actually, was to avail myself of the facilities, and perhaps sit and read for a little while). Having told the (perfectly pleasant) woman at the desk that I wanted to go upstairs and consult a reference book, I was told there is no longer a reference library as such (which I know all too well) and allowed to proceed – but, I was told firmly, I must not stay longer than 15 minutes, and I must at all times follow the one-way system through the building.
These precautions, I must say, seemed a tad unnecessary, as the bleak wide open spaces of what was once a well-stocked library were wider open than ever, presumably to enforce 'social distancing', and it was a long while before I spotted another human being. All was eerily quiet, and by the time I had used up my 15 minutes of library time I had seen precisely four fellow humans in this large multi-level library. Forlorn figures they cut too, as no doubt did I. It will be some while before I try 'popping in' again.

Friday 4 September 2020

A Masterpiece

I knew there must be a good reason why I recently became a Netflix subscriber (and no, it wasn't the prospect of Harry and Meghan's stimulating contributions). The immediate reason was to watch Unorthodox, which proved a bit of a disappointment, and since then I've watched a few other things. But then, the other evening, in a flash of revelation, it came back to me, the good reason – it was to watch The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the Coen brothers' western anthology film, available only (I believe) on Netflix.
  I expected it to be good – it's the Coen brothers after all, and they rarely slip up – but I had no idea this collection of short films was going to be so good, so good it left me reeling. It's a masterpiece of storytelling and myth-making, cinematography, casting, production design, music, everything – and all infused with the Coens' characteristic blend of pungent comedy and dark drama. It is also at times intensely and unexpectedly moving. There are six films, each one taking off from an old-style illustration in a (fictional) book of western stories, and it's a tribute to the strength of these tales that I, with my sieve-like memory for narrative, vividly remember each one and could even provide a synopsis if required. I'm not going to do that here (they're handily summarised in Wikipedia, where the cast for each film is also listed). What I'll do is join in the critics' game of ranking the six films. So here's my ranking, for what it's worth – and even the least of the six is, in my estimation, way above virtually anything else I've seen in recent years:

1. The Gal Who Got Rattled.
2. The Mortal Remains.
3. Meal Ticket.
4. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.
5. Near Algodones.
6. All Gold Canyon.

Thursday 3 September 2020

Real City

Michael Portillo's seemingly endless series of railway journeys – in which the unfailingly dapper and charming ex-politician travels the world by train – always make for pleasing, relaxing, and often informative, viewing. He began his peregrinations in Britain, and the TV channel called Yesterday is currently rerunning these British journeys every evening. Yesterday (not the channel, the day before today) he was exploring London by underground train, emerging at intervals to look about him and chat to all and sundry. His travels took him to the West End and Soho, to Covent Garden and the Strand, to Theatreland and the National Gallery, and to the thronged streets, buzzing with human energy.
And it was like looking at something from another world, from a past already becoming remote – a past when the city was heaving with humanity in all its maskless variety, crowds of people close-up and hugger-mugger, face to face, without fear of their fellow human beings or a perceived plague walking among them. This was the city as it should be – a frenetic, teeming, human city, not the anonymised, atomised, nervous ghost town that we see today. And only a few months ago we would have taken these scenes completely for granted: that was the ways cities are, were and always would be. Who knew that it could all be undone so fast and so fatally?

Wednesday 2 September 2020


Naturally, at this time of year, I am always on the lookout for Brown Hairstreak butterflies, and nearly always failing to see one – except that this year I did! And then today I happened on this picture of the oldest specimen of the Brown Hairstreak (and one of the oldest of any species) to have survived. It once belonged to James Petiver, the 'father of British entomology', and was caught near Croydon – just down the road from me – on the last day of August in 1702. A quite astonishing survival and an astonishing link with one of the very first butterfly men, this antique specimen now lives in the Natural History Museum.

Tuesday 1 September 2020


Any excuse for a picture of Dieppe, especially if it's by Sickert – and today's excuse is a piece by me on Oscar Wilde (and others) in Dieppe that's in the September issue of the excellent online magazine British Intelligence, out today.