Sunday 29 November 2020


 Just once in a while, something rather wonderful turns up on my Facebook timeline (as I believe it's called), amid all the wildly off-target advertising and other dross. This morning it was a video of the King's Singers performing Thomas Tallis's beautiful setting of the Compline hymn Te lucis ante terminum at St Giles, Cripplegate. It's good to know that this group, originally formed by six choral scholars at my old college, is still going strong. 

Saturday 28 November 2020

Three Years Ago

If Google Photos are to be believed, it was exactly three years ago today that I paid a memorable visit to St Michael's, Church Stowe, in the parish of Stowe Nine Churches in a remote corner of Northamptonshire. The stunning monument there to Lady Elizabeth Carey (previously Danvers, née Neville) convinced me of two things: that Nicholas Stone was a great sculptor, and that the best monuments of the early seventeenth century were among the finest works of art of their time. I wrote something about the redoubtable Lady Elizabeth (and others) here (and, of course, in the book)... 

Bring Up the Body

 Talking of Puritans, here is a poem of that name by Richard Wilbur – 

Sidling upon the river, the white boat
Has volleyed with its cannon all the morning,
Shaken the shore towns like a Judgment warning,
Telling the palsied water its demand
That the crime come to the top again, and float,
That the sunk murder rise to the light and land.

Blam! In the noon’s perfected brilliance burn
Brief blooms of flame, which soil away in smoke;
And down below, where slowed concussion broke
The umber stroll of waters, water-dust
Dreamily powders up, and serves to turn
The river surface to a cloudy rust.

Down from his bridge the river captain cries
To fire again. They make the cannon sound;
But none of them would wish the murder found,
Nor wish in other manner to atone
Than booming at their midnight crime, which lies
Rotting the river, weighted with a stone.

   This poem rests on the folk belief that firing a cannon across a body of water will bring to the surface a corpse lying on the bottom. This was supposed to happen when concussion burst the gall bladder (which doesn't seem to make a lot of sense). Reading the Wilbur poem I remembered a scene in Huckleberry Finn – well, when I say remembered, I mean a hazy image of it formed somewhere in the recesses of my memory.  Huck, in flight from 'sivilization', is hiding out on an island, having covered his tracks with the blood of a pig, thereby giving the impression that he has been murdered: 

Well, I was dozing off again, when I thinks I hears a deep sound of "boom!" away up the river. I rouses up and rests on my elbow and listens; pretty soon I hears it again. I hopped up and went and looked out at a hole in the leaves, and I see a bunch of smoke laying on the water a long ways up–about the area of the ferry. And there was the ferry-boat, full of people, floating along down. I knowed what was the matter now. "Boom!" I see the white smoke squirt out of the ferry-boat’s side. You see, they was firing cannon over the water, trying to make my carcass come to the top.

  Reading that again reminds me of the sheer thrill of discovering Huckleberry Finn; it was one of the most thrilling reading experiences of my boyhood, as was (in its more genial, smoother-edged way) reading Tom Sawyer.
The young Samuel Langhorn Clemens (Mark Twain) also had the experience of hearing the cannon boom to bring his body to the surface. Having jumped off a ferryboat midstream on a stormy day, determined to retrieve his hat, he was quite reasonably thought to have drowned, and cannon were fired over the water to bring his body up. In fact, he had swum after his hat for two or three miles (by his own account) and finally retrieved it, then swam back to the shore. This was one of several close shaves with drowning that young Sam survived. His mother laughed them off by telling him that 'people born to be hanged are safe in the water' – a superstition echoed by the slave Jim in Huckleberry Finn. 

Thursday 26 November 2020

Newark Besieged

 On this day in 1645 the third, and by far the longest, siege of Newark began when Scottish troops to the North and English Parliamentarian forces to the South moved to encircle the Royalist stronghold. The garrison, under the leadership of Lord Belasyse, put up a vigorous defence, despite being outnumbered eight to one, but the besiegers gradually tightened their grip, encircling the town with a network of fortifications and attempting to dam the river so that the town's mills would have no water to drive them. By March, Newark was cut off entirely from the outside world. With supplies running dangerously low and plague breaking out in the town, Belasyse stood firm, refusing to surrender. However, the King himself, having fled from Oxford, surrendered his person to the Parliamentarians at Southwell on 5th May, 1646, and the following day he sent an order to the garrison at Newark to surrender. Lord Belasyse is said to have wept when he received this order, but he could only obey. He duly marched out with his depleted garrison and surrendered. 
   When I was first reading about the English Civil War, back in my far-off schooldays, I inclined to see it in the terms pithily outlined in 1066 and All That: the Cavaliers were 'wrong but wromantic', the Roundheads 'right but repulsive'. Nowadays I'd be more inclined to categorise the Royalists as wrong and wromantic, and the Parliamentarians as wrong and repulsive. Charles I was a wrong-headed monarch, also muddle-headed and fatally pig-headed, but the royalist cause seems far more attractive to me now, partly because of my researches into 17th-century English church monuments, the best of which nearly all seem to commemorate members of Royalist families (just as, earlier, many of the best of them were to Recusants). Evidence of the terrible iconoclastic violence inflicted on sacred buildings by the Puritans also counts heavily against them in my book. But, beyond that, there is something in the whole Puritan mindset that I find repulsive indeed, especially as that mindset seems to be indestructible. It is certainly enjoying a resurgence in this age when the Righteous and Justified army of the 'woke' seems to be on a mission to cleanse the world of sinfulness by rooting out 'wrong' thought, demystifying tradition and authority, destroying the past, and starting again from scratch, convinced that this time the result will be an earthly Paradise, a new Jerusalem. The murderous devastation wrought by such thinking over the centuries since the Civil War hardly needs spelling out. 

  But enough of that – it's time to strike the viol. Here is John Jenkyns's wonderful fantasia inspired by the siege of Newark (in particular Prince Rupert's heroic lifting of the second siege) – Newark-Seidge:

Tuesday 24 November 2020

Toulouse-Lautrec's Earthquake

 Born on this day in 1864 was the painter and printmaker Toulouse-Lautrec or, to give him his full name, Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa. He is one of those artists whose work – from sketches through to finished paintings – is so distinctive as to be instantly recognisable. It also lends itself well to reproduction, and, as T-L was a great poster designer, his work is to be seen on walls everywhere, from students' rooms to respectable domestic interiors. With its clean lines, sharp draughtsmanship, bold design and strong colours, it always looks good. 
  Although he was hard-working and productive, Toulouse-Lautrec, a heavy drinker and haunter of brothels, was the classic dissipated artist, and died young of a toxic cocktail of alcoholism and syphilis. And, talking of toxic cocktails, he is credited with the invention of the 'Tremblement de Terre' or Earthquake cocktail: half absinthe, half cognac, served in a wine goblet. Don't try this at home, or indeed anywhere. You don't want to end up like these two...

Monday 23 November 2020

New Iconoclasts

 As England's go-to monument man – this solely on the basis of my book (you know – this book) – I am quite often contacted by hacks writing stories that have some bearing on church monuments. This usually comes to nothing, but with luck might get a mention of my book (you know – this book), so that's fine by me. Lately I'm being asked to comment on the growing threat to church monuments that memorialise historical figures with  connections to the (triangular) slave trade. Justin Welby, the soggy Archbishop of Canterbury, seems to have encouraged this with his statement that 'some [monuments] will have to come down'. Naturally, when asked my views on this, I fulminate, burble incoherently, and follow through with an email that makes slightly more sense.
  I had always thought, or hoped, that church monuments had a different legal status and were more strongly protected than memorials in the public arena – so I was happy to learn, from Charles Moore's column in this week's Spectator, that this is indeed the case. Writing about Jesus College, Cambridge's plan to remove the memorial to its slave-trading benefactor, Tobias Rustat, from its chapel, Moore notes that, to achieve this dubious end, the college will have to get a 'faculty' from the Church of England. This involves enlisting the opinions of a diocesan advisory committee which includes historical, architectural and artistic experts, and works on the presumption that the C of E is against the removal of monuments and that only a rigorous 'statement of need' can justify such a removal. If the diocesan decision is disputed, the case may be heard by a consistory court, and that court's decision can be appealed to a yet higher court, the Court of Arches. All of which suggests that, in practice, the removal of offending monuments, however much desired by the ecclesiastical 'woke', is going to be so difficult as to be all but impossible. Worryingly, however, Welby's Church Buildings Council is pondering the issue and drafting diocesan guidelines, so who knows how safe our church monuments are – especially memorials to saracen-slaying crusaders, anyone who invested in the Royal Africa Company, heroes of empire, or indeed thoroughly evil men such as Richard Rich, whose extraordinary monument in Felsted church happens be to be one of the finest of its time? 

The same could be said of the monument to Sir Richard Clayton in Bletchingley church. This wealthy merchant and philanthropist, who rebuilt St Thomas's hospital, made money from the Royal Africa Company and is therefore, to modern eyes, morally tainted. His statue has already been removed from view at St Thomas's hospital (as has Thomas Guy's at Guy's Hospital). Will Clayton's great monument in Bletchingley church be next? At the very least, I daresay we can look forward to a suitably woke 'interpretation' panel conspicuously placed in front of it, and in front of many another offending monument. Madness...


Sunday 22 November 2020

And Hopkins

 Talking of Henry Purcell, I just came across this extraordinary sonnet by Gerard Manley Hopkins, which I don't remember reading even in the far-off days when I was somewhat obsessed with Hopkins...

Henry Purcell

The poet wishes well to the divine genius of Purcell and praises him that,
whereas other musicians have given utterance to the moods of man's mind,
he has, beyond that, uttered in notes the very make and species of man 
as created both in him and in all men generally.

Have fair fallen, O fair, fair have fallen, so dear
To me, so arch-especial a spirit as heaves in Henry Purcell,
An age is now since passed, since parted; with the reversal
Of the outward sentence low lays him, listed to a heresy, here.

Not mood in him nor meaning, proud fire or sacred fear,
Or love, or pity, or all that sweet notes not his might nursle:
It is the forgèd feature finds me; it is the rehearsal
Of own, of abrupt self there so thrusts on, so throngs the ear.

Let him Oh! with his air of angels then lift me, lay me! only I'll
Have an eye to the sakes of him, quaint moonmarks, to his pelted plumage under
Wings: so some great stormfowl, whenever he has walked his while

The thunder-purple seabeach plumèd purple-of-thunder,
If a wuthering of his palmy snow-pinions scatter a colossal smile
Off him, but meaning motion fans fresh our wits with wonder. 

This is a Petrarchan sonnet, written in Alexandrines (six stresses to the line) and in 'sprung rhythm' – something I never fully understood even in the days when I was studying Hopkins. He does well to find so many rhymes for 'Purcell'.

  The poet himself provides a helpful gloss:
'The sonnet on Purcell means this: 1-4. I hope Purcell is not damned for being a Protestant, because I love his genius. 5-8. And that not so much for gifts he shares, even though it shld be in higher measure, with other musicians as for his own individuality. 9-14. So that while he is aiming only at impressing me his hearer with the meaning in hand I am looking out meanwhile for his specific, his individual markings and mottlings, "the sakes of him".  It is as when a bird thinking only of soaring spreads its wings: a beholder may happen then to have his attention drawn by the act to the plumage displayed ... The thought is that as the seabird opening his wings with a whiff of wind in your face means the whirr of the motion, but also unaware gives you a whiff of knowledge about his plumage, the marking of which stamps his species, that he does not mean, so Purcell, seemingly intent only on the thought or feeling he is to express or call out, incidentally lets you remark the individualising marks of his own genius.'
  Hopkins explains those 'quaint moonmarks': 'By moonmarks I mean crescent-shaped markings of the quill-feathers, either in the colouring of the feathers or made by the overlapping of one on the other.'
I like that, partly because it makes me think of similar moonmarks on the wings of butterflies, though these are usually curved inward towards the body rather than outward to the wing margins. 
  Hopkins adds succinctly, 'My sonnet means "Purcell's music is none of your damned subjective rot" (so to speak)'. Amen to that. 
  Reading this sonnet again reminded me both of why I found Hopkins so fascinating and why I grew to find him insufferably tiresome, though I still greatly admire some of his poems.   

Saturday 21 November 2020

Jan Morris, Henry Purcell

 Today brings sad news of the death of Jan (formerly James) Morris, at the ripe old age of 94, having lived more lives than most of us can dream of – as man and woman, as soldier and journalist, historian and travel writer (or rather 'writer who travels'), husband, father and, latterly, civil partner of his former wife. Of his writings, his classic book on Venice will surely survive, along with his much later book on Trieste, and probably his great historical trilogy Pax Britannica, though it takes an unfashionably positive line on the British Empire. Morris was writing to the end, publishing a final volume of musings, Thinking Again, only this year. The world is a poorer place without her distinctive voice.

It was also on this day that England lost one of its greatest composers. Henry Purcell died on this date in 1695, at the age of just 36. The glorious music he had composed for the funeral of Queen Mary the previous years was performed at his funeral too, and he was buried in the North aisle of Westminster Abbey. His epitaph reads, 'Here lyes Henry Purcell Esq., who left this life and is gone to that Blessed Place where only his harmony can be exceeded.' 
It's tempting at this point to reach for the Queen Mary funeral music, or Dido's Lament ('When I am laid in earth'), but I'm going for this beautiful, impassioned piece for countertenor voice, which he wrote in the year before his death –

Wednesday 18 November 2020

Platonic Toast

 I see the lovely Nigella Lawson is in the headlines again – this time for devoting a five-minute segment of her latest series to, er, buttering toast. Unsurprisingly this has led to much mockery, something that I'm sure the serene Nigella will rise above. Her critics don't seem to have quite twigged what Nigella's TV series are – not programmes of cookery instruction but demonstrations of the sheer carnal pleasure of eating, filmed in an intimate, high-gloss style that, along with the entirely unreal settings, is suggestive more of high-end pornography than cookery. Nigella takes an almost indecent delight in her food – and who could deny that there is delight to be had from eating hot-buttered toast? Correction: hot-buttered then cool-buttered then sprinkled with sea salt. I wish I could try it myself (though I would use sourdough in preference to the sandwich loaf), but I have to avoid dairy these days, thanks to the lingering effects of a Hong Kong virus I picked up four years ago – but that's another story...  Nigella describes her twice-buttered toast as 'the Platonic ideal of toast'. You've got to love her for that. Speaking for myself, I've been in thrall to Nigella ever since the morning, some years ago, when I saw her emerging from a lift and she turned her melting smile on me. That did it. 

Tuesday 17 November 2020

Cook and Waugh: The Comic Sense of Life

 Two of the greatest English humorists of the postwar 20th century were born on the same day – today – albeit two years apart. Peter Cook would have been 83 today, in the wildly unlikely event that he'd lived so long (in fact he did well to make it to 58), and Auberon Waugh, had he lived, would have been 81 – which again was never going to happen, given the various legacies of his near-fatal (accidentally self-inflicted) war wound and his heroic smoking and drinking. 
  Peter Cook achieved legendary status remarkably early in life – something that probably encouraged his innate idleness. He was a naturally funny man, one of those who could barely open his mouth without at least seeming to be funny. His TV work with Dudley Moore in Not Only But Also is widely regarded as classic, though the more you see of the original shows the more laboured they seem: they shine bright in the memory because the actually funny bits (mostly the Dagenham Dialogues) are indeed so gloriously funny. The general view on Cook is that, after his initial blaze of glory, he never turned his prodigious talent to something worthy of it. This is probably true, but we'll never know, and it doesn't really matter: it was his talent to do what he wanted with, and he did enough to establish himself as one of the funniest men of his time, which is more than most of us can say.
  As for Waugh, he was, in contrast to Cook, an extremely hard-working hack, turning out vast amounts of copy, all of it in lucid and elegant prose, most of it worth reading, and much of it extremely funny. The best of his work is to be found, I think, in his glorious memoir, Will This Do?, and in his Diaries (of which I've written before). His novels, too, are good fun and deserve to be better known – in fact that reminds me, I must get on and finish my project of reading them all (see Nigeness passim)... He was a tireless scourge of the humourless, the pompous and the self-important, and, in person, a good-humoured and generous man – which is by no means always the case with humorists (or hacks).
  What Waugh and Cook had in common was the sense they gave that very little in life needed to be taken seriously, and very little couldn't be turned into comedy. They had the genuine comic sense of life – a rare thing, and becoming rarer in our over-serious times.  

Monday 16 November 2020

The Election that Matters

 After an election marred by voter fraud, a clear winner has emerged. Yes, it's the Kakapo, the world's bulkiest parrot, which has just been named New Zealand's Bird of the Year 2020. A flightless bird which thinks it can escape predators by pretending to be a shrub, and has a habit of climbing up trees and falling out of them, it is self-destructively prone to making bad choices (rather like the New Zealand government, which seems happy to destroy its economy and cut itself off from the whole world in response to Covid). 
The Kakapo is perhaps best known from the much-viewed footage of a male becoming sexually aroused by the sight of a human head (no Biden gags here, please). This is the second time the really rather cute Kakapo has won New Zealand's ultimate avian accolade. Fair play to it, but if I had the vote, I'd definitely have gone for my old favourite, the irrepressible Tui

Saturday 14 November 2020

Monet 180 Giverny 10

 Born 180 years ago today was the great Impressionist painter Claude Monet (christened Oscar-Claude). For myself I find a little Monet goes a long way, but on a dank and dismal day like today it's cheering to recall the visit I made to the famous gardens at Giverny ten years ago. It was something I did not expect to enjoy very much, but in the event it surprised me. To quote myself: 

'The next day (in company with my brother and the others) I did something I never thought I'd do – visit Monet's house and garden at Giverny. I continued to think I'd never do it when we descended from the hills, having climbed up from the valley and walked through miles of misty woods, into a village swarming with visitors, taking photographs of everything as they strolled along the (very picturesque) street and forming long queues to get in to the house, their numbers augmented by the arrival of an endless stream of coach parties. We retreated to take an early lunch, after which – by a double miracle – the sun had pierced the morning mists and was shining gloriously, and the queues had temporarily gone. Seizing our chance, we went in...
I have to report that, though the place was still fairly overrun, it was ravishing. The garden on a sunny autumn day is just the kind of garden I love most - richly, abundantly planted, full of colour and interest, artifice and nature beautifully blended. The immense profusion of michaelmas daisies naturally had me looking out for butterflies, and, as well as plentiful whites, I spotted several red admirals, a brimstone and a couple of speckled woods. As for the house – yes, rather on the ravishing side too, with an abundance of fascinating and beautiful Japanese prints that I wasn't expecting. Yes, Giverny can feel like Monetworld, international HQ of MonetCorp - and yes, I'm not a huge fan of Monet overall – but that house and garden somehow retain something enchanting despite the visiting hordes (who were back in force by the end of our visit). If Monet had planned the whole thing – if he'd envisaged his own global megapopularity and the pulling power of Giverny – he could hardly have got it righter. It works.'

(Nigeness, October 10th, 2010 – a post that also contains an account of getting locked out of a Norman provincial hotel.)

Friday 13 November 2020

Robes and Noses

 I have received an email from an American company selling clerical vestments, informing me of their pre-Thanksgiving sale and showing me what they have on offer. Stiffly posed models do their best to look natural in, among other outfits, Senior Fluted Trinity Choir Robes, White Baptismal Robe with Dove, the Cassock with Band Cincture Package (a little 'High' for me), Clergy Alb with Cotton Cincture, and the Premium Square Neckline Surplice (which looks more my style).  If by any chance I get a sudden late-life vocation, I'll know where to go.
Actually I've always rather fancied sitting down at my study desk (if I had one) writing a weekly sermon, but I gather there's rather more to the job these days. Maybe I could beguile the weeks of lockdown by sitting around in a Premium Square Neckline Surplice writing sermons...
This offer, I suppose, is the sort of thing that turns up when you cheerfully 'accept all cookies' as you roam about the internet, though I cannot imagine how this particular company could have got wind of my existence. 
Talking of roaming about the internet, here's something very odd – and funny – I came across on YouTube. Enjoy... 

Thursday 12 November 2020

Vanessa and Atalanta

 I've written before about the surprising origins of the name Vanessa – invented by Jonathan Swift, no less – but I hadn't fully realised the Swiftian origins of the Latin name for the Red Admiral until I read about it in Peter Marren's excellent Rainbow Dust: Three Centuries of Delight in British Butterflies
It was not the Swede Linnaeus but the Dane Johann Christian Fabricius who gave the Red Admiral its grand binomial, Vanessa atalanta. He clearly took 'Vanessa' from Swift's poem 'Cadenus and Vanessa', which Marren describes pithily as 'an autobiographical love poem dressed up as a fairy story of nymphs and shepherds'. ('Cadenus' is an anagram of Decanus, a Dean, Swift's ecclesiastical rank.) But what of Atalanta? She is a figure from Greek mythology, a formidable virgin huntress and athlete who was notably reluctant to marry – and her name appears once with Vanessa's in 'Cadenus and Vanessa' – 
'When lo! Vanessa in her bloom
Advanced, like Atalanta's star.'
Surely Fabricius happened on those lines and had his inspiration – there was Vanessa atalanta, ready-made.
Handel wrote an opera Atalanta. Here is a rather lovely aria from it : 'Care Selve' (dear woods) –

As it happens, I saw a handsome Red Admiral this morning, in a local byway that in my boyhood was known (for no good reason) as Murder Alley. The Admiral was taking a quick hit of nectar from a very late bramble flower before flying off and away. It might be my last butterfly of the year – but I've already thought that about a Peacock in Derbyshire and a local Small White, so who knows?


Tuesday 10 November 2020

We Are All Guilty (or not)

 A harrowing night's television last night, with My Family, The Holocaust and Me with Robert Rinder on BBC1, swiftly followed by Berlin 1945 on BBC4. Both programmes, unsurprisingly, got me thinking about questions of historical guilt... 
  At present the area of historical guilt that is being most vigorously agitated is slavery – by which is meant the relatively short-lived triangular trade that was suppressed a couple of centuries ago. It seems to me that whenever historical guilt for slavery is discussed, a small troop of elephants is milling about in the room. Chief among them – because it is the one form of slavery that we might conceivably be able to do something about – is present-day slavery in all its forms. This, it seems, may be safely ignored in favour of the perceived sins of the British and Americans of several centuries ago. Another large elephant is the long (and continuing) history of slavery in the Islamic world. And then there is Belgium, whose turn-of-the-(20th)-century wealth was built on slave labour in the Congo. And, in the 20th century, slave labour in Germany, Japan and the Soviet Union. Slave labour in Japan during World War II is perhaps a special case, as it was enslavement of prisoners of war (in total defiance of the Geneva conventions, etc.). The German use of slave labour in that war was another matter, involving the enslavement of its own (ex-)citizens, and it permeated the German economy to a quite extraordinary extent: there is barely a German brand you can name that doesn't have a history of using slave labour – from ThyssenKrupp right down to Dr Oetker. As for the Soviet Union, its economy was dependent on slave labour in the gulag system for decades – and that had nothing to do with the war. 
  Of course you could argue, quite reasonably, that present-day Belgians, Germans, Japanese, Russians etc. cannot be held accountable for what happened in the past, in different times and different circumstances and under different regimes. And yet this forgive-and-forget attitude does not, it seems, extend to the much more historically distant triangular trade. Present-day British and Americans, uniquely, must be held accountable for the sins of their great great great great great etc. grandfathers, in very different times and circumstances and under very different regimes. Maybe I'm missing something here, but this doesn't seem to me to make much sense (except perhaps as another episode in the long slow suicide of the West)...

Sunday 8 November 2020


 Watching today's remembrance ceremony from Whitehall was a weird experience: no public, a handful of veterans, the few participants all standing two metres apart, even the ranks of the military bands drastically thinned. Such are these strange times. I couldn't help wondering what the wartime generations would have made of a nation brought to its knees by a virus that, er, kills old people. If Covid had appeared during either war, would anyone even have noticed? (They noticed the postwar Spanish flu all right, but that was vastly more serious and killed young adults on a huge scale.)
  This year marks the centenary of the erection of the permanent cenotaph on Whitehall, and of the interment of the Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey – both brilliantly creative ways of commemorating the war dead and focusing the nation's grief. Lutyens's beautifully understated cenotaph is an almost abstract construction, essentially a blank monolith onto which memories and grief can be projected – no figurative sculpture, no triumphalism, no flamboyant display of emotion. Lloyd George had envisaged a 'catafalque', but Lutyens's final structure is more eloquent – an 'empty tomb' (the literal meaning of 'cenotaph').
  Curiously, Lutyens first came across the 'cenotaph' idea when he was working on Gertrude Jekyll's garden at Munstead Wood. He had designed a garden seat there in the form of a single block of elm set on a stone, and Charles Liddell, a friend of both Lutyens and Jekyll (and a librarian at the British Museum, and a cousin of Alice Liddell, Lewis Carroll's Alice), christened it the 'Cenotaph of Sigismunda'. That was back in the 1890s, but clearly the word had lodged in Lutyens's memory. The Whitehall cenotaph that he brought into being years later was a direct response to his experience of the devastation wrought by the war in France, which Lutyens visited in 1917. This convinced him that a new kind of war memorial was needed, one that eschewed naturalism and expressionism in favour of an eloquent reticence. He was so right. 

Saturday 7 November 2020

Alan Garner!

 With a big tip of the hat to Chris Hale, I pass on this astonishing image of the author of The Stone Book Quartet. I guess he must have needed the money (and was clearly no whisky drinker if he liked it with ginger ale – but did he really? We'll never know). 
I found Garner's endorsement even more improbable than this more famous one, featuring dear Kingsley and the long-suffering Elizabeth Jane Howard in their well appointed drawing room – 

What a shame Philip Larkin never did an ad for Gordon's gin. 'Very Philip Larkin, very drunk'?

Friday 6 November 2020

Lockdown 2.0

 Well, this is a funny lockdown. The Committee for Public Safety might have decreed (on the usual fraudulent prospectus) that the nation must lock down again to prevent a medical catastrophe, but things seem to be going on pretty much as normal out there. True, the 'hospitality sector' is, to varying degrees, closed down, despite having been sedulously Covid-compliant and having already been punished with the ludicrous 10pm curfew. Similarly, the almost absurdly Covid-compliant churches have been ordered – apparently as an afterthought – to close their doors again. 'Non-essential' (to whom?) businesses, many of them already on their knees, have been shut down, and various other healthy communal activities have been curtailed. And yet, out on the street, this really doesn't feel like a lockdown – not the way the last one did, when people were genuinely anxious and afraid, and fear and uncertainty were in the air, along with a kind of unifying wartime spirit, a sense that we were 'all in this together.' Then, the high street was all but deserted, people were crossing the road to avoid contact with another human being, supermarket queues snaked round the block, and every week the besieged population would emerge, blinking, to applaud 'our NHS'. Now, it seems, 'our NHS' is going to be unable to cope even with a limited resurgence of Covid-19, so the nation must be closed down again to protect them (or rather to save their face). Has the NHS learnt nothing from the first wave? It would seem so – unlike the supermarkets, who faced colossal difficulties last time round but had got on top of most of them in about ten days, and who are now so well prepared that there are few queues and no shortages: toilet paper is piled as high as the towers of Ilium, and hand sanitiser to plentiful they're practically giving it away. It's arguable that the supermarkets and their under-appreciated workers were the true heroes of the epidemic: imagine the chaos and deprivation if those stores were being run by the state. 
  What is also striking about Lockdown 2.0 is that there are so many more dissenting voices. Last time around, I rarely came across anyone (at least in the early weeks) who had serious doubts about the government's approach. This time, I have yet to talk to anyone who is buying it, and it is obvious just from walking the streets how much more relaxed people are, and how much readier to bend or break the rules. This time, I think, lockdown won't wash, and the government will have to lift it on or before the appointed date, whatever The Science might be saying by then. 


Wednesday 4 November 2020

'Roughly speaking'

On my Mercian travels, I revisited Lincoln Cathedral to marvel anew at its sheer scale and breathtaking beauty. This, in my humble opinion, is the greatest building in England. And so it was in the rather less humble opinion of John Ruskin, who declared that 'I have always held and proposed against all comers to maintain that the Cathedral of Lincoln is out and out the most precious piece of architecture in the British Isles and roughly speaking worth any two other cathedrals we have.' 
I love that 'roughly speaking', as if Lincoln might be worth only one and three quarters other cathedrals, or perhaps two and a quarter – far be it from Ruskin to lay down the law.

Tuesday 3 November 2020

Old Nige Prognostickates

Election day already. I guess Old Nige had better prognostickate...
So, I'm calling it for Trump, but it will be messy.
Message ends.

Sunday 1 November 2020


'Anyone who picks up a Compton-Burnett finds it very hard not to put it down.'
There's an essay by me on the one and only Ivy Compton-Burnett in the new edition of the excellent online magazine British Intelligence