Friday 30 October 2020

Off Again

 I spent yesterday walking in the countryside immediately outside Bath (to the east) – hilly, mostly pastureland, wonderfully unspoilt, nice villages, characterful little churches, muddy going – and tomorrow I'm off on my Mercian travels for a few days, so there may be a bit of a hiatus. On the other hand, there may not be... Pip pip.

Wednesday 28 October 2020

'She goes on and on...'

 Here is a passage from Kay Ryan's brilliant and utterly disarming prose collection Synthesizing Gravity. She is writing about Marianne Moore –

'... A poet friend of mine recently said, "They should have taken away her library card." God, it's true; she goes on and on. I can barely hold on to a single poem. And at the same time I think she is the Statue of Liberty.
   In "The Ardent Platonist" she writes, "To understand / One is not to find one formidable." She's right; if one is formidable, one is not understood. But how can we not find Marianne Moore formidable since she's so hard to understand? I think we just have to read her until we can contain the complexity that we cannot resolve. That is a bigger kind of understanding. At that point, the poet is no longer "formidable". A word or two becomes sufficient to invoke the complex spirit. We feel, now, an affection, a human affection, and a receptiveness which we could not feel when we were fighting with particulars. But maybe I'm just preaching to myself here, since I am irksomely literal when I read poetry (having a palm tree where my core should be).' 

Reading that, I was thinking of another poet who 'goes on and on' and is 'so hard to understand' – Geoffrey Hill. I reckon Ryan's approach to Marianne Moore's famously 'difficult' work could be applied equally profitably to that of Hill. And, talking of taking away library cards, the lugubrious Geoffrey was a heavy user of the University of Leeds library, where the staff nicknamed him 'Chuckles'. 

Tuesday 27 October 2020

'You have brought about your own cessation'

 Last night I watched a new Who Do You Think You Are? featuring the very talented and likeable Ruth Jones, actress and writer. It was good viewing, as this show often is, and it got especially interesting when Ruth, a native of Porthcawl, was finding out about her paternal grandfather, who died before she was born. He was a central figure in the Medical Aid Societies that thrived in South Wales before the war, providing comprehensive medical care to all, in return for a small subscription. Democratically controlled, mutualist and responsive to their local communities, these were, you might have thought, a model for how the embryonic National Health Service should develop. Ruth's grandfather certainly thought so, and bombarded Nye Bevan (the South Walian health secretary) with ever more urgent pleas to be included in the discussions that were shaping what was to be the NHS – and to be part of that NHS when it was up and running. This got him nowhere, and the Medical Aid Societies were sidelined throughout, and done away with altogether when the NHS took over ('By your very efficiency you have brought about your own cessation,' said Bevan) – a state-owned, state-controlled, socialist monolith, with little or no room for democratic control, mutualism and community responsiveness. The received wisdom is that Bevan did base the new service on the Medical Aid Society model – but the correspondence uncovered in this programme told a very different story.
Things would surely have been better if the emergent NHS had indeed been based more on what was already going on in South Wales and elsewhere, and less on top-down Soviet-style statism. 

Monday 26 October 2020

Swift Resolutions

 Patrick Kurp's post this morning, on growing older, put me in mind (and him too, I'm sure) of Swift's 'Resolutions When I Come to Be Old'.  One of his most direct and straightforwardly human pieces of writing, it dates from 1699, when Swift was only 32 and Gulliver's Travels was 27 years in the future:

-Not to marry a young Woman.
-Not to keep young Company unless they reely desire it.
-Not to be peevish or morose, or suspicious.
-Not to scorn present Ways, or Wits, or Fashions, or Men, or War, &c.
-Not to be fond of Children, or let them come near me hardly.
-Not to tell the same story over and over to the same People.
-Not to be covetous.
-Not to neglect decency, or cleenlyness, for fear of falling into Nastyness.
-Not to be over severe with young People, but give Allowances for their youthfull follyes and weaknesses.
-Not to be influenced by, or give ear to knavish tatling servants, or others.
-Not to be too free of advise, nor trouble any but those that desire it.
-To desire some good Friends to inform me wch of these Resolutions I break, or neglect, and wherein; and reform accordingly.
-Not to talk much, nor of my self.
-Not to boast of my former beauty, or strength, or favor with Ladyes, &c.
-Not to hearken to Flatteryes, nor conceive I can be beloved by a young woman, et eos qui hereditatem captant, odisse ac vitare.
-Not to be positive or opiniative.
-Not to sett up for observing all these Rules; for fear I should observe none.

Number five is a strange kind of resolution, especially as being with children can be one of the great pleasures and consolations of old age. However, other than that, they strike me as pretty sound – especially, perhaps, the last one. Sadly, by the time Swift reached his old age, he was suffering from dementia. 'I shall be like that tree,' he is supposed to have said, pointing to a stag-headed specimen. 'I shall die at the top.'

Sunday 25 October 2020

A Bit of Sunday Music (and Etymology)

 Once upon a time, the fondly remembered Dabbler blog used to carry a regular feature called Lazy Sunday Afternoon, in which the great Mahlerman would introduce us to some glorious piece or pieces of music that we (I, anyway) had somehow spent all our lives missing.
   Here, in the spirit of Lazy Sunday Afternoon (but without Mahlerman's erudition), is a piece of music I caught on Radio 3 the other day and would like to share. It's a very beautiful (I think) aria from Vivaldi's L'Olimpiade, a musical drama that was premiered in Venice in 1734 – 'Mentre Dormi':

  One of my great pleasures in recent years has been discovering the music of those Baroque composers I never bothered with in my youth, dominated as my listening then was by Beethoven and the Romantic heavy brigade. This ignorance or prejudice (widely shared at the time) has had the happy effect of leaving me with an ever growing number of great composers to discover (or at least to explore their works much more deeply). Vivaldi is just the latest, and I've recently been wallowing in his L'Estro Armonico (having bought the double CD by Fabio Biondi's Europa Galante) – an astonishing collection of violin concertos with an intriguing name.  'Estro' means something like inspiration, or talent, or gift or bent, whim or fancy. Its root meaning, from the Greek 'Oistros', is a gadfly: Socrates used the word to describe himself, irritant that he was. Anglicised as Oestrus, the word then extended its meaning to cover a vehement impulse or frenzy, and thence to sexual arousal and, in biology, the period of sexual receptivity in many female mammals. It is also the root of Oestrogen, the female sex hormone. And to think Vivaldi could have just called his collection 'Twelve Concertoes'. 

Friday 23 October 2020

My Top Picks, etc.

Those nice people at Amazon have sent me my weekly reading list. 
My Top Picks are
Captain Underpants: Three Pant-tastic Novels in One by Dav Pikey
and The Lost Spells by Robert McFarlane (a nature writer I know is a Good Thing but I find in practice unreadable). 
An interesting pairing.
And then come the books specially Recommended for You:
Sweet Sorrow, 'this summer's must-read from the bestselling author of One Day' (er, no thanks),
and Yotam Ottolenghi's Flavour (hmmm).
There we are – another triumph for those all-knowing algorithms.

Meanwhile, down at my local Sainsburys, the Argos concession – which recently declared its proud support of the LGBT+ community with rainbow-coloured bunting – is now using its bunting to declare its equally proud support of Black History Month. Quite what form this support takes, or could possibly take, is hard to imagine – Argos is, after all, nothing more than a retail counter attached to a warehouse. But we should not be surprised by any of this: the Woke agenda has been greedily subsumed into corporate culture and PR (which doesn't make it any less dangerous). It is one of the many ways in which the new managerial elite is reminding us of who is in charge and what attitudes we must strike if we want to get on in this craven new world. 

Thursday 22 October 2020

A virtuoso of self-loathing

I haven't hope. I haven't faith.
I live two lives and sometimes three.
The lives I live make life a death
For those who have to live with me.
Knowing the virtues that I lack,
I pat myself upon the back.

John Betjeman was a virtuoso of self-loathing – and one who was penetrating enough to know that his self-loathing was also a form of self-regard ('I pat myself upon the back'). The stanza above comes from a longer poem, 'Guilt', and I happened upon it in a new book on Betjeman that I'm reading for review (so had better not say much more). 
Here is 'Guilt' in its bleak entirety – 

The clock is frozen in the tower,
The thickening fog with sooty smell
Has blanketed the motor power
Which turns the London streets to hell;
And footsteps with their lonely sound
Intensify the silence round.

I haven't hope. I haven't faith.
I live two lives and sometimes three.
The lives I live make life a death
For those who have to live with me.
Knowing the virtues that I lack,
I pat myself upon the back.

With breastplate of self-righteousness
And shoes of smugness on my feet,
Before the urge in me grows less
I hurry off to make retreat.
For somewhere, somewhere, burns a light
To lead me out into the night.

It glitters icy, thin and plain,
And leads me down to Waterloo –
Into a warm electric train
Which travels sorry Surrey through,
And crystal-hung, the clumps of pine
Stand deadly still beside the line.

'Waterloo' comes as something of a shock, a touch of bathos, and 'sorry Surrey' is a bit tricksy – and unfair on my home county. But 'Guilt' is still a powerful piece of work, and a very long way from the cheery nostalgia and easy charm of Betjeman's more popular poems. He was always a much more complex and interesting poet, and man, than the avuncular teddy bear beloved of the TV chat-show circuit – for which persona, and for his popular success, he also, inevitably, hated himself. 

Tuesday 20 October 2020

One of Norway's Finest

Today, with my loyal Norwegian readership in mind, I mark the birthday of one of Norway's finest 19th-century painters, Frits Thaulow, born on this day in 1847. I've written about him before, mostly in connection with his Dieppe years, and I never tire of Jaques-Emile Blanche's bravura portrait of him with his statuesque wife and children (above). 
   Although Thaulow was Norway born and bred, he spent much of his painting career elsewhere, first in Denmark – where he worked in Skagen before it became famous for the Skagen Painters – and then in France, where Paris didn't suit him, but various lesser towns did, especially Dieppe. His work can be filed under Impressionism, and his strong suit was landscape, especially landscapes with plenty of water in them.  Or indeed watery townscapes: here is one of his Venice paintings, Under the Rialto Bridge

And here is a typical riverside scene from somewhere near Dieppe –

Thaulow also had a penchant for crepuscular mood pieces, as in this Ambiance du Soir. I wonder where it was painted – any guesses?

And this one carries the title Kveltstemning, Dieppe – which my Norwegian readers will know means Evening Mood, Dieppe. However, I'm pretty sure that is not Dieppe: neither of Dieppe's old churches looks at all like the one looming through the murk here, nor do those gabled houses look right for Dieppe  

Anyway, happy 173rd birthday to a good painter and, by all accounts, an excellent man. 

Sunday 18 October 2020

Experts and Tags

'I don't know much about science, but I know what I like.' 
That line was quoted by Val MacDermid on Radio 4's Broadcasting House this morning. Apparently it's from Martin Amis's The Rachel Papers
   It does seem remarkably apposite in these Covid-deranged times, when every man and woman is his/her own expert in fields of science whose very existence he/she probably never suspected until recently. We pick, of course, the bits of 'the science' that match our preformed view of what's going on, the research findings that seem to prove us right.  It's open season for confirmation bias – and no wonder in times like these, when there is so much information out there and yet no one really knows what the heck is going on. 
   Addicted as I am to Latin tags (the sure sign of a man who has otherwise forgotten all the Latin he ever learnt), the phrase 'Experto crede' has been rolling around in my head for some while. With 'experts' as thick on the ground as the autumn leaves, that's hardly surprising. Experto crede – believe the expert, right? Well, yes, except that this is 'expert' in its older sense of one who has experienced (it's the same root, obvs): not one who has mastered a body of knowledge but one who has actual experience of what he's talking about – which, of course, rules out whole swathes of present-day expertise. I shall return 'experto crede' to the ragbag of tags (the tagbag) and move on. Claudite iam rivos, pueri – sat prata biberunt...

Saturday 17 October 2020

A Year in the Life of a Book

 It was on this day last year that I announced to a startled world that my book, The Mother of Beauty, was finally available to buy
   What happened next? Well, I was delighted that the book got a warm reception from many individuals whose opinions I value, and pleased that it seemed to be selling steadily, if at low volume, on Amazon. I sent out a few copies for review, more in hope than expectation – among them, belatedly, one addressed to the books editor of the Daily Mail, who I did not expect to show the slightest interest. In fact she responded very positively, so I got some extra copies printed in case of need, then headed off to New Zealand for a month with the family there. Next thing I knew there was a rave Book of the Week review in the Mail – and, as a result, all available copies sold out in two days, leaving me to organise a hasty reprint by remote control from Wellington. This lost me three weeks of sales (so much for 'hasty'!) and led to some desperation among readers anxious to buy the book. An American publisher that happened to have the same imprint (but published books on unorthodox sexual relationships) was so bombarded with inquiries that it had to put up a big disclaimer on its website. 
  Hey ho. A few more reviews followed, my book got a mention in the Church Times (and, I gather, a sniffy review in the Church Monuments Society gazette – I haven't seen it). Things gradually settled down, and now sales seem to be close to flatlining – which is unfortunate, as a belated (too late!) extra reprint has left me with three or four boxes of The Mother of Beauty on my hands. If anyone would care to relieve me of a copy or two, you can do so either by way of Amazon, or, if you'd prefer not to further enrich Jeff Bezos, direct from me at Remember – Christmas is coming...

Friday 16 October 2020

'A florid grim music broken by grunts and shrieks'

 On the day in 1396 was born William de la Pole, 1st Duke of Suffolk, statesman and military commander. A favourite of the ineffectual king Henry VI, he features in literature as a character in Shakespeare's Henry VI, parts 1 and 2 – and as one of the three subjects of Geoffrey Hill's  extraordinary sonnet sequence 'Funeral Music':

    William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk: beheaded 1450
    John Tiptoft, earl of Worcester: beheaded 1470
    Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers: beheaded 1483

Actually, as Hill makes clear in the short essay he wrote to illuminate 'Funeral Music', William de al Pole was 'butchered across the gunwale of a skiff' by an angry mob, rather than judicially beheaded. Tiptoft was a nobleman and scholar who, as Lord High Constable, presided over executions (of Lancastrians) of such gratuitous brutality that he became known as 'the Butcher of England'. At his own beheading, he asked the executioner to strike three times 'in honour of the Trinity'. Woodville was also a scholar, whose translation from the French of the Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers was one of the very first books printed in England (by William Caxton). He fell foul of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and was beheaded at Pontefract (Pomfret) castle. 
   In 'Funeral Music', Hill writes, 'I was attempting a florid grim music broken by grunts and shrieks' – an appropriate enough soundtrack for the Wars of the Roses. The battle of Towton, mentioned in the second sonnet, was probably the largest and bloodiest ever fought in England. The grim, relentless slaughter was enacted in a snowstorm, and when the caked snow thawed after the battle, the furrows and ditches ran red with blood for two or three miles around.
'Funeral Music' is a pretty shattering poem – brace yourself...


Processionals in the exemplary cave,
Benediction of shadows. Pomfret. London.
The voice fragrant with mannered humility,
With an equable contempt for this world,
‘In honorem Trinitatis’. Crash. The head
Struck down into a meaty conduit of blood.
So these dispose themselves to receive each
Pentecostal blow from axe or seraph,
Spattering block-straw with mortal residue.
Psalteries whine through the empyrean. Fire
Flares in the pit, ghosting upon stone
Creatures of such rampant state, vacuous
Ceremony of possession, restless
Habitation, no man’s dwelling-place.


For whom do we scrape our tribute of pain—
For none but the ritual king? We meditate
A rueful mystery; we are dying
To satisfy fat Caritas, those
Wiped jaws of stone. (Suppose all reconciled
By silent music; imagine the future
Flashed back at us, like steel against sun,
Ultimate recompense.) Recall the cold
Of Towton on Palm Sunday before dawn,
Wakefield, Tewkesbury: fastidious trumpets
Shrilling into the ruck; some trampled
Acres, parched, sodden or blanched by sleet,
Stuck with strange-postured dead. Recall the wind’s
Flurrying, darkness over the human mire.


They bespoke doomsday and they meant it by
God, their curved metal rimming the low ridge.
But few appearances are like this. Once
Every five hundred years a comet’s
Over-riding stillness might reveal men
In such array, livid and featureless,
With England crouched beastwise beneath it all.
‘Oh, that old northern business …’ A field
After battle utters its own sound
Which is like nothing on earth, but is earth.
Blindly the questing snail, vulnerable
Mole emerge, blindly we lie down, blindly
Among carnage the most delicate souls
Tup in their marriage-blood, gasping ‘Jesus’.


Let mind be more precious than soul; it will not
Endure. Soul grasps its price, begs its own peace,
Settles with tears and sweat, is possibly
Indestructible. That I can believe.
Though I would scorn the mere instinct of faith,
Expediency of assent, if I dared,
What I dare not is a waste history
Or void rule. Averroes, old heathen,
If only you had been right, if Intellect
Itself were absolute law, sufficient grace,
Our lives could be a myth of captivity
Which we might enter: an unpeopled region
Of ever new-fallen snow, a palace blazing
With perpetual silence as with torches.


As with torches we go, at wild Christmas,
When we revel in our atonement
Through thirty feasts of unction and slaughter,
What is that but the soul’s winter sleep?
So many things rest under consummate
Justice as though trumpets purified law,
Spikenard were the real essence of remorse.
The sky gathers up darkness. When we chant
‘Ora, ora pro nobis’ it is not
Seraphs who descend to pity but ourselves.
Those righteously-accused those vengeful
Racked on articulate looms indulge us
With lingering shows of pain, a flagrant
Tenderness of the damned for their own flesh:


My little son, when you could command marvels
Without mercy, outstare the wearisome
Dragon of sleep, I rejoiced above all—
A stranger well-received in your kingdom.
On those pristine fields I saw humankind
As it was named by the Father; fabulous
Beasts rearing in stillness to be blessed.
The world’s real cries reached there, turbulence
From remote storms, rumour of solitudes,
A composed mystery. And so it ends.
Some parch for what they were; others are made
Blind to all but one vision, their necessity
To be reconciled. I believe in my
Abandonment, since it is what I have.


‘Prowess, vanity, mutual regard,
It seemed I stared at them, they at me.
That was the gorgon’s true and mortal gaze:
Averted conscience turned against itself.’
A hawk and a hawk-shadow. ‘At noon,
As the armies met, each mirrored the other;
Neither was outshone. So they flashed and vanished
And all that survived them was the stark ground
Of this pain. I made no sound, but once
I stiffened as though a remote cry
Had heralded my name. It was nothing …’
Reddish ice tinged the reeds; dislodged, a few
Feathers drifted across; carrion birds
Strutted upon the armour of the dead.


Not as we are but as we must appear,
Contractual ghosts of pity; not as we
Desire life but as they would have us live,
Set apart in timeless colloquy.
So it is required; so we bear witness,
Despite ourselves, to what is beyond us,
Each distant sphere of harmony forever
Poised, unanswerable. If it is without
Consequence when we vaunt and suffer, or
If it is not, all echoes are the same
In such eternity. Then tell me, love,
How that should comfort us—or anyone
Dragged half-unnerved out of this worldly place,
Crying to the end ‘I have not finished’.

'A kind of giddiness indistinguishable from the impulse to laugh'

 The first essay in Kay Ryan's recently published Synthesizing Gravity: Selected Prose begins with the arresting sentence, 'I have always felt that much of the best poetry was funny.' She's not talking about comic verse; indeed the first example she gives is Hopkins's far from funny 'The Windhover': 'Who can read [it] and not feel welling up inside a kind of giddiness indistinguishable from the impulse to laugh?'
   Well, I'm glad it's not just me. I often feel exactly this impulse in the face of poetry, paintings, or indeed anything in art or nature that is conspicuously beautiful. Ryan likens the reaction to 'one of those involuntary ha!s that jump out when you've witnessed a wonderful magic trick', and I am much given to those ha!s when reading really good poetry, looking at great paintings (as at the National Gallery the other day) or witnessing some fine instance of nature's 'useless beauty' (my butterfly watching is punctuated by many a ha!). 'Maybe that ha!,' Ryan suggests, 'is the body's natural response to perfection: a perfect trick (one has been utterly deceived) or a perfect poem (one has been utterly deceived).'
   She goes on to examine a short, perfect poem by Robert Frost, 'Nothing Gold Can Stay' – 

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

– and to quote a passage from T.S. Eliot's The Sacred Wood on poetry as 'a superior amusement'. 'I love two things about Eliot's definition,' she says. 'First, the bedrock, indefensible truth of it: that poetry is a superior amusement. Second, Eliot's mess of an attempt to explain what he means. I am heartened in my own efforts when I see his bluster. I am reminded by him that though we cannot be exactly precise or complete, there is no reason not to make gigantic statements, for there is great enjoyment in gigantic statements.'
  And I am clearly going to find great enjoyment in this wonderfully straight-talking collection. 

Tuesday 13 October 2020

The Joy of Paint

 This morning I took my place in the queue outside the National Gallery and shuffled towards the entrance and my appointment (pre-booked, of course) with Titian: Love, Desire, Death – Titian's seven Ovid-inspired Poesie ('poetries') together in one place for the first time in more than 400 years. I had heard that the National is not a place to go maskless and unchallenged, so for once I masked up: if Paris was worth a mass, Titian is surely worth a mask. 
   It was so good, so deeply cheering to be back in the National. Approaching through the galleries leading to the exhibition room, it was hard not to stop and linger, and as I passed through a grin of aesthetic joy was already spreading over my face. It stayed firmly in place as I relished the spectacle of Titian's great masterpieces – 'the most beautiful paintings in the world' in Lucian Freud's view (and I wouldn't argue) – all gathered together. Three were already familiar, being in the National's collection (or shared with the National Gallery of Scotland) and two are resident elsewhere in London (the Wallace Collection and Apsley House), but The Rape of Europa had come all the way from Boston, and Venus and Adonis from the Prado. Though they were painted across two decades and show Titian's development of an ever more daringly 'loose' style, all display almost superhuman technical virtuosity, and all are intensely sensual and immensely 'painterly'. Indeed they are some of the most painterly paintings ever executed – lush, juicy, sensuous – and to see them is to revel in the sheer joy of paint. If ever there was an exhibition that has to be seen in the flesh – and the word couldn't be more appropriate – it is this one. These are pictures that have to be seen full scale, examined closely and from a distance; reproductions give little or no idea of their stunning impact. Wearing a mask was a small price to pay for this experience, and, it has to be said, the crowd management measures in force mean that the room where the Poesie are reunited is not overcrowded. It is easy to stand undisturbed, and look and look, and give these astonishing pictures their due.  
  Staggering from the gallery in an aesthetic daze  – this had been my first exhibition since February – I went and had a spot of lunch before making my way to my next appointment with art: Robert Dukes's new exhibition at Browse & Darby. Here too was a 'painterly' painter, and here too was the sheer joy of paint. His glorious little still-lifes of fruit – lemons, oranges, quinces, an artichoke in flower – sing like nobody else's, and make me wish intensely that I could afford to have one hanging on my wall. In this exhibition Dukes also continues his exploration of other painters' works, with compositions 'after' Veronese, Caravaggio, Morandi, Rembrandt, and a particularly striking set  painted 'after Balthus' (and a 'homage to' Michael Andrews). As with the Titians, reproduction is wholly inadequate, but here are some oranges and quinces...

Robert Dukes's exhibition is on until the 6th of November (see the Browse & Darby website for details), and Titian: Love, Desire, Death until the 17th of January. 

Monday 12 October 2020

'Great Uncle Charles thinks it took longer...'

 On this day in 1872, Ralph Vaughan Williams – the greatest English composer since Purcell (in my book anyway) – was born at Down Ampney in Gloucestershire, where his father was Vicar. When Ralph was only two, his father died, and his mother, one of the gifted Wedgwood-Darwin clan, took him and his siblings to live at her family home, Leith Hill Place in Surrey. While there, the young RVW started playing piano – and composing – at the age of five, and, at eight, took a correspondence course in music with Edinburgh University and passed the exams. 
  Ralph's mother was a niece of Charles Darwin, and the latter's theories expounded in The Origin of Species perplexed the young RVW, who asked his mother how they could be reconciled with Scripture. 'Well,' she explained, 'the Bible says God made the world in six days. Great Uncle Charles thinks it took longer – but we need not worry about it, for it is equally wonderful either way.' Which is true enough, if not the most penetrating reading of Darwin's theory. 
  Vaughan Williams grew up to become the most Christian of Christian agnostics, and to write some of our finest hymns – including this one, a perfect blending of words and music, to which he gave the name of his natal village: Down Ampney... 

Sunday 11 October 2020

Then and Now

 A piece in Apollo magazine recalls the great unbroken series of wartime concerts given in the Barry Rooms of the National Gallery, and advertises four videos of recent concerts in the same venue by musicians from the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Unlike the performances given by Myra Hess and others every day, regardless of all the perils of war – including falling and unexploded bombs – the LPO's recitals were played to an empty room. What the Blitz couldn't do, Covid has achieved.   
Here is Dame Myra playing her wonderful arrangement of Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring – and a fine bit of Scarlatti...

Saturday 10 October 2020

Further Technical Note

 Despite my introducing word recognition, the pest with the tiny penis got through again. If anyone's got more suggestions for stopping this kind of thing, I'd be glad to hear from them...

Monty Don and Henry Vaughan

 For a while last night, misled by a deceptive headline, I thought Monty Don was about to quite Gardeners' World. As this would be, for me, about on a par with the sky falling or the Queen dying (God save her), I was alarmed, and lost no time in establishing that, happily, Monty was not about to leave Gardeners' World. Despite all that's going on in this mad world, so long as Monty's in situ it feels as if things can't be all that bad... 
In the course of my Monty researches, I came across a perhaps surprising fact: when he was on Desert Island Discs, he chose as his book (in addition to the Bible and Shakespeare) the Collected Poems of Henry Vaughan. This shows excellent taste: Vaughan is one of our finest devotional poets, and his works are replete with beautiful lines and images – 

'I saw Eternity the other night,
Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
All calm, as it was bright…'

'There is in God, some say,
A deep but dazzling darkness…'

'They are all gone into the world of light, 
And I alone sit ling'ring here…'

'Happy those early days when I
Shined in my Angel-infancy…'

'The Sun doth shake light from his locks, and all the way
Breathing perfumes, does spice the day…'

And a poem like this one – 'Retirement' – would surely find an echo in Monty's heart –

Fresh fields and woods! the Earth's fair face,
God's foot-stool, and man's dwelling-place.
I ask not why the first Believer
Did love to be a country liver?
Who to secure pious content
Did pitch by groves and wells his tent;
Where he might view the boundless sky,
And all those glorious lights on high;
With flying meteors, mists and show'rs,
Subjected hills, trees, meads and flow'rs;
And ev'ry minute bless the King
And wise Creator of each thing.
I ask not why he did remove
To happy Mamre's holy grove,
Leaving the cities of the plain
To Lot and his successless train?
All various lusts in cities still
Are found; they are the thrones of ill;
The dismal sinks, where blood is spill'd,
Cages with much uncleanness fill'd.
But rural shades are the sweet fense
Of piety and innocence.
They are the Meek's calm region, where
Angels descend and rule the sphere,
Where heaven lies leaguer, and the dove
Duly as dew, comes from above.
If Eden be on Earth at all,
'Tis that, which we the country call.

Thursday 8 October 2020

Technical Note

 Having suffered a bombardment of spam in Comments lately – the recent revelations about penis enlargement (triggered by 'Chubby Checker'?) were the last straw – I've had to introduce word recognition as a line of defence. As far as I can make out, it wasn't there before? If it was, I guess it's back to the drawing board, and I'd be grateful for any suggestions of what more I could do...

Johnny Nash Was Right

 'There are more questions than answers' sang Johnny Nash, whose death was announced yesterday. I always liked his songs, with their mellow pop-reggae sound, but they were not generally repositories of wisdom. However, he was dead right about there being 'more questions than answers' (and also right that 'The more I find out, the less I know' – as any seeker after knowledge will attest, each new piece of knowledge is liable to exposes new areas of ignorance, just as each answer will, or should, generate new questions). 
  We live, sadly, in times when there are more answers than questions, more assertion than interrogation – a sad imbalance greatly increased by the internet and social media. The deadly alliance of the executive and The Science that is now running this country seems to believe it has the answers to how to deal with Covid, and it's not listening to even the most pressing questions – questions such as Does lockdown work? Does it save lives or, in the longer term, increase the death toll? Is Covid-19 a threat to the entire population or only to certain vulnerable categories? How much of the apparent increase in 'cases' is a function of increased testing, and what does it actually signify? Is there a better way to deal with this (ex-)epidemic, as increasing numbers of scientists are suggesting, amid mounting evidence that the government's approach is not working? It's an encouraging sign that the leader of Her Majesty's loyal opposition is asking what is the scientific basis for the latest proposed round of lockdowns in the Midlands and North – and encouraging too that those parts of the country are becoming increasingly restive as their economies face destruction. But will the government/The Science take any notice?
   That's a long string of questions, and no answer yet. 

Tuesday 6 October 2020

Enter the Hogweed

 I am indebted to my friend Susan in New York for alerting me to a piece in the New York Times – headlined 'A Toxic Alien is Taking Over Russia' – that contains the glorious sentence 'Enter the hogweed'. This conjures up startling images of the giant hogweed yomping over the steppe in the manner of John Wyndham's mobile, carnivorous Triffids. And indeed, when the giant hogweed started getting noticed in England around 1970, it was likened to a Triffid in many a newspaper headline. 
  'It had been growing in Britain for more than 150 years,' writes Richard Mabey in Flora Britannica, 'an awesome but apparently well-mannered curiosity of Victorian shrubberies and ornamental lakesides, with no more than a hint of troll-like mischief in its huge, looming umbels ... Then, in 1970, it broke cover.'
   I first noticed it, probably in that year, growing by the water along the Cambridge 'backs', and an impressive sight it was. The thing grows to 12ft and more, with a thick, speckled stem and cartwheel-sized flowerheads. It is not a pretty sight, though undeniably sculptural, and it is not only invasive but toxic, direct contact with the plant causing an unpleasant rash.
   Our giant hogweed, Heracleum mantegazzianum, is a different species from the Russian menace (Heracleum sosnowskyi), but they are close relatives, and all giant hogweeds are good for a little public panic from time to time, and the odd newspaper headline. 
  One of Mabey's Flora Britannica contributors writes of giant hogweed growing along the river Kent in Cumbria. 'Occasionally it escapes onto the roadside verge and causes a frisson of anxiety in the local newspapers, which describe the dangers of handling it ... When gas pipes were being laid across the A6 nearby, a warning notice, 'Danger, Heavy Plant Crossing', was displayed at the foot of one of these escapees.'

Monday 5 October 2020

Real, Classic Poetry on Radio 4!

 Yesterday afternoon Radio 4 broadcast a drama, written by Michael Simmons Roberts, about Milton's Lycidas. What's more, there's a second one coming, about Tennyson's In Memoriam A.H.H. Yes, real poetry – and by dead white European males – on Radio 4! Can such things be? it seems they can, and I'm delighted.
   The Milton drama told the background story of the composition of Lycidas pretty well, with plentiful quotation from the poem. Young Milton was perhaps a little miscast, coming over as too lightweight and, indeed, modern-sounding – but who's quibbling? This was a welcome foray into real, classic poetry on a network whose output on that front is largely banal and/or crashingly 'woke' and 'diverse'.
   For myself, I've never warmed to Lycidas, which, for all its technical brilliance, seems to be a textbook demonstration of how the strictly correct classical elegy doesn't work in English: our best elegies are warmer and looser, far less 'classical' – notably Gray's great Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, and indeed In Memoriam. Samuel Johnson was no fan of Lycidas, distrusting its artificiality, and opining that 'it is not to be considered as the effusion of real passion; for passion runs not after remote allusions and obscure opinions. Passion plucks no berries from the myrtle and ivy, nor calls upon Arethuse and Mincius, nor tells of rough satyrs and fauns with cloven heel. Where there is leisure for fiction there is little grief.' A sweeping judgment, as so often with the good Doctor, but there is truth in it.
   Anyway, I'm looking forward to In Memoriam

Sunday 4 October 2020

'We have seen him long enough upon stilts...'

 In 1786, Fanny Burney was offered a position she would have been wise to refuse, but could hardly have done so at the time – to join the Court of George III as assistant Keeper of the Robes to his Queen, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strellitz. She endured four years in this surprisingly demanding and severely constraining role before falling ill and securing her release. Her diaries of this period are of great interest to historians, as Burney had a ringside seat during some very turbulent times at Court, but they are often painful to read, as she is so clearly in the wrong place and suffering decidedly shabby treatment. 
   Towards the end of her time at Court, she has an unexpected encounter, outside St George's Chapel at Windsor, with James Boswell, who loses no time in urging her to escape and resume her old life. 'His comic-serious face and manner have lost nothing of their wonted singularity,' Burney notes, 'nor yet have his mind and language.' To move the subject away from herself, she asks after 'Mr Burke's book' (Reflections on the Revolution in France). 
   '"Oh," cried he, "it will come out next week: 'tis the first book in the world, except my own, and that's coming out also very soon; only I want your help ... you must give me some of your choice little notes of the Doctor's; we have seen him long enough upon stilts; I want to show him in a new light. Grave Sam, and great Sam, and solemn Sam, and learned Sam – all these he has appeared over and over. Now I want to entwine a wreath of the graces across his brow; I want to show him as gay Sam, agreeable Sam, pleasant Sam: so you must help me with some of his beautiful billets to yourself."'
   This is Boswell as irresistible force of nature, but Fanny manages to sidestep his demands again, and he returns to the charge on the other front, exhorting her to retire immediately from the Court. And then it's back to Sam, as Boswell produces a proof sheet of his Life of Dr Johnson from his pocket to show her. When he realises she cannot admit him to her apartment, he insists on reading it to her there and then. 
   'There was no refusing this; and he began, with a letter of Dr Johnson to himself. He read it in strong imitation of the Doctor's manner, very well, and not caricature. But Mrs Schwellenberg [Fanny's tyrannical supervisor] was at her window, a crowd was gathering to stand round the rails, and the King and Queen and Royal Family now approached from the Terrace. I made a rather quick apology, and, with a step as quick as my now weakened limbs had left in my power, I hurried to my apartment.'
   Though Boswell renewed his pleas for Johnson's letters to her the next day, Burney held firm, regarding them as 'sacred' and not to be published. As a result there are but two references to Fanny in Boswell's Life of Dr Johnson – a sad lack.   

Saturday 3 October 2020

Chubby Checker

Today is the 79th birthday of Chubby Checker (born Ernest Evans), singer and dance craze specialist. His breakthrough hit in the States was The Twist (cover version, fact fans, of a song by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters), but it was the following year (1961) that he took Britain by storm with Let's Twist Again. I was there to see it, and I can tell you the effects were dire: suddenly our parents' generation were gamely trying out this crazy new dance, shakin' their booties like there was no tomorrow – though the impression was more of someone awkwardly trying to towel the small of their back with an invisible bath towel. It was terrible to behold, and the madness spread throughout our normally staid population, as far even as the racier members of the royal family. It was a foretaste, I suppose, of our own age, in which many seem content to retain the tastes, dress and attitudes of teenagers well into their middle years. It was certainly, like so many things in the middle-class England of my younger years, excruciatingly embarrassing.  
   Chubby, bless him, went on to popularise the Limbo, the Hucklebuck, the Pony, the Fly, que sais-j' encore. Then, in 2013, his name was suddenly back in the news when he successfully sued Hewlett-Packard over a WebOS application. It claimed to estimate penis size from shoe size, and it was called – yes – the Chubby Checker. 

Thursday 1 October 2020

Nashe's Terrors

 Bedtime reading should, ideally, be engaging but restful (an adjective that was Ronald Firbank's highest term of praise for any work of art), not over-stimulating and never seriously disturbing. So I don't know how The Terrors of the Night ended up on my bedside pile; it could hardly be more unsuitable. This is a short work from 1594 by Thomas Nashe, republished as a Penguin Little Black Classic. Here's a taster:

The night is the devil's Black Book, wherein he recordeth all our transgressions. Even as, when a condemned man is put into a dark dungeon, secluded from all comfort of light or company, he doth nothing but despairfully call to mind his graceless former life, and the brutish outrages and misdemeanours that have thrown him into that desolate horror; so when night in her rusty dungeon hath imprisoned our eyesight, and that we are shut separately in our chambers from resort, the devil keepeth his audit in our sin-guilty consciences, no sense but surrenders to our memory a true bill of parcels of his detestable impieties. The table of our hearts is turned to an index of iniquities, and all our thoughts are nothing but texts to condemn us. 
  The rest we take in our beds is such another kind of rest as the weary traveller taketh in the cool soft grass of summer, who thinking there to lie at ease and refresh his tired limbs, layeth his fainting head unawares on a loathsome nest of snakes.

  Nashe's prose is lively stuff, even by Elizabethan standards, and always makes exhilarating reading, though perhaps best taken in relatively small doses. He wrote a rollicking proto-novel called The Unfortunate Traveller (which I read and enjoyed years ago) and a wide range of polemical pamphlets and other short works, with names such as An Almond for a Parrot, Have with You to Saffron-Walden and Pierce Penniless, His Supplication to the Divell. He also wrote a pornographic poem called A Choise of Valentines, otherwise known as Nashe's Dildo. Here are a few choice lines, voiced by a woman who has discovered a more than satisfactory substitute for her lover:

My little dildo shall suplye their kind,
A knave that moves as light as leaves by winde;
That bendeth not, nor fouldeth anie deale,
But stands as stiff as he were made of steele,
And plays at peacock twixt my leggs right blythe.

   However, Nashe was also capable of something closer to the sublime, as in his most famous poem, the 'Litany in Time of Plague', which reads like a tolling bell –

Adieu, farewell earth’s bliss,
This world uncertain is;
Fond are life’s lustful joys,
Death proves them all but toys,
None from his darts can fly.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Rich men, trust not in wealth,
Gold cannot buy you health;
Physic himself must fade,
All things to end are made.
The plague full swift goes by.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Beauty is but a flower
Which wrinkes will devour;
Brightness falls from the air,
Queens have died young and fair,
Dust hath closed Helen’s eye.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Strength stoops unto the grave,
Worms feed on Hector brave,
Swords may not fight with fate,
Earth still holds ope her gate.
Come! come! the bells do cry.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Wit with his wantonness
Tasteth death’s bitterness;
Hell’s executioner
Hath no ears for to hear
What vain art can reply.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Haste, therefore, each degree
To welcome destiny.
Heaven is our heritage,
Earth but a player’s stage;
Mount we unto the sky.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us! 

  The beautiful line 'Brightness falls from the air' – the line that obsesses the young Stephen Dedalus in Joyce's Portait of the Artist and that Eliot dilated upon – is thought by some to be a transcription error for 'Brightness falls from the hair', which in the context does indeed make rather more sense. Could it be that one of the great lines in all of Elizabethan poetry came about by mistake? It's an intriguing thought – but who would want the 'correct' reading now?