Thursday 31 December 2020

New Year's Eve

 This time last year I was in transit, somewhere between Singapore and Auckland (remember international travel? Fun, wasn't it?) with no idea what the new year was going to bring. No more have I any idea now, but I shan't be cranking up my progonstickation engine; rather I'll be looking back on 2020, and, this blog being what it is, remembering the high points, upsides and abundant pleasures.  
  2020 was the year in which I largely abandoned Radio 4 – something that would have been unthinkable a few years ago – and made Radio 3 my default network, a musical refuge amid all the madness. It was a good year to do it too, being the great Beethoven anniversary, an occasion to which Radio 3 rose splendidly. I ended the year more thoroughly convinced than ever of Beethoven's staggering musical genius. My greatest musical discovery of the year, though, I owe not to Radio 3 but to a tip-off from an old friend of this blog, Mahlerman: it was Teodor Currentzis's breathtaking Rameau album, The Sound of Light, to which I have become thoroughly addicted. (Beethoven aside, most of my listening and my musical exploration has been in the world of Baroque.) 
  Lockdown 1 – how long ago it seems – brought the welcome sound of silence, and with it birdsong, never before so clear and so welcome. With scarcely any cars on the road, the air became very much sweeter, and being a pedestrian a good deal easier – effects that, sadly, were not replicated in subsequent 'lockdowns'. Meanwhile, with spells of glorious weather recurring throughout the spring and summer, walking in my local bits of countryside was more delightful than ever – and, in terms of butterfly encounters, hugely rewarding. So much so that it sparked the idea of writing a short butterfly-themed book, which I am now engaged in doing, at my customary snail's pace; I'm hoping to have it finished by spring or thereabouts. By which time – here's another piece of 2020 good news – a fifth grandchild will be in the world, and happily near at hand, not in the Antipodes.
  The first lockdown also gave me the impetus and opportunity to go through 'my papers' – making some surprising, mostly pleasant discoveries – to write a brief memoir (not for publication) and read one of those big fat classics I'd never got round to: Alessandro Manzoni's The Betrothed, which I enjoyed very much more than I'd expected. Other highlights of the reading year included another big fat book I'd long been meaning to get round to – Jenny Uglow's excellent The Lunar Men – and A.J.A. Symons's extraordinary 'experiment in biography' The Quest for Corvo. Vikram Seth's An Equal Music was a mixed pleasure, but musically rewarding, and I greatly enjoyed the earlier, more youthful parts of Fanny Burney's diaries, while Elizabeth von Arnim's Vera flabbergasted me, and Kay Ryan's essay collection Synthesizing Gravity stimulated me (and made me laugh). Oddly, despite 'lockdown', this hasn't been a particularly rich book year for me, partly perhaps because I've been reading or rereading so many butterfly books. One of these in particular, Jeremy Thomas's Butterflies of Britain and Ireland (the full-sized edition), beautifully illustrated by Richard Lewington, has given me enormous pleasure.  
  This was also the year in which I finally took out a Netflix subscription. It proved to be worth it for the Coen brothers' astonishing western The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – my most memorable viewing experience in some while. On the art front, there was only one highlight, but what a highlight – the once-in-a-lifetime exhibition of Titian's reunited Poesie at the National Gallery. Simply stunning.
  With so many planned excursions, walks and breaks abandoned, it seems all but miraculous that we managed the traditional short family holiday in Dieppe, returning just days ahead of the latest round of quarantining. The few excursions I did manage in the course of the year are all the more precious for their scarcity, especially my visits to Lincoln, Lichfield, Newark and other Mercian parts. I have high hopes for more travel, both at home and abroad, next year...
  And with that I'll wish all who frequent this corner of the ever shrinking blogscape a very Happy New Year. Here's to better things!

Monday 28 December 2020

Be More Cat

 Lately I've been reading too many books at once, with the result that (slow reader as I am) I haven't finished one in a while. However, I have now read all 111 pages of John Gray's commendably short and typically brilliant Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life. Like all his work, it makes for a bracing, eye-opening read, and its pages, however few, are, as Dr Johnson would say, 'full of matter'. Never wasting a word, Gray surveys a wide horizon, touching on several religions and the thoughts of various philosophers (beginning with the cat-loving Montaigne). As ever, he coolly undermines all our illusions about ourselves and puts us in our place – our place being in the animal kingdom, from the other inhabitants of which we are distinguished chiefly by a morbid self-consciousness that leads us to fear death, to see our lives as meaningful narratives, and to devote ourselves to such dubious causes as the pursuit of happiness.
  Cats, needless to say, are unaffected by any such concerns and simply get on with living their lives, fulfilling their conatus. In this they are like all other non-human beings, but undeniably cats are a special case: they are the only undomesticated animals with whom we share our lives (or rather the only undomesticated animals who deign to share their lives, in part, with us). Cats were never domesticated; they are using us at least as much as we are using them for our human needs (vermin control, companionship, relaxation, something to care for, a show of affection). Unlike dogs, they never become ingratiating quasi-humans but remain absolutely themselves: even in terms of morphology and genetics, it is difficult to tell wild or 'feral' cats from 'domesticated' ones.
  What can we learn from them? Nothing by precept, of course, but everything by example: they have much to teach us, Gray argues, about how to live, and indeed how to die. As long as they are fed and their equilibrium is not seriously disturbed, cats live fearlessly, contentedly, without anxiety and without ambition. When their time has come, they die quietly, and when they have nothing particular to do, they sleep. One of the 'Ten Feline Hints on How to Live Well' that are listed at the end of the book is 'Sleep for the joy of sleeping – Sleeping so that you can work harder when you wake up is a miserable way to live. Sleep for pleasure, not profit.' Indeed.
  The first of the 'hints' is 'Never try to persuade human beings to be reasonable', and a later one is the almost folksy 'Forget about pursuing happiness, and you may find it'. But these are indeed only 'hints', and the last of them is 'If you cannot learn to live a little more like a cat, return without regret to the human world of diversion'. Which is what most readers will probably do, but, after reading this remarkable book, they will return chastened, stimulated, and even a little wiser. 

Sunday 27 December 2020

The Mask of Virtue

 In the supermarket this morning, I was passed by a woman wearing a 'Biden-Harris' face covering. I returned her glare with a sunny smile, and carried on shopping, wondering why anyone would want to assert their preference in an election that had already happened, and in a country in which we Brits have no franchise. The answer is all too obvious: face masks have, like just about everything else, been enlisted in the great cause of our times – virtue signalling (though one can but marvel at the level of sophistry required to detect virtue in either of those two operators). Perhaps I should strike back with a 'Trump 2024' face mask? No, I don't think so. A MAGA hat is out of the question too, being a baseball cap – but a MAGA trilby, now there's a thought...
 Another first today: on the way back from the supermarket, I looked up at the sky and saw the first red kite I've ever seen in these parts. Best keep an eye on the washing line: as Autolycus warns, 'When the kite builds, look to lesser linen.'

Saturday 26 December 2020


 While I was looking at something entirely unrelated on YouTube, this popped up in the sidebar. It made me laugh, so I'm passing it on in the spirit of Christmas cheer...
It's Jimmy Stewart – of whom, according to some, I am the living spit – telling a joke. Always a joy to hear that distinctive drawl – and the joke's pretty good. (By the way, Stewart was ten years older than I am when this was filmed.)

Thursday 24 December 2020

Happy Christmas

 To all who browse here – I wish you as merry a Christmas as you can get away with, and a happy New Year full of better things than the last one.  
 Here is some beautiful Nativity music in a beautiful setting (filmed in those far-off carefree days before 'social distancing'). 

Wednesday 23 December 2020

Christmas Trees

 Here is a poem called 'Christmas Trees'. You might expect it to be a Christmas poem, or at least a poem about Christmas trees – but the author is Geoffrey Hill, and nothing is that simple with him. The 'Christmas trees' here are the green incandescent flares dropped by Allied bombers to illuminate their target area preparatory to bombing a German city. Those on the ground awaiting the onslaught nicknamed them, with macabre gaiety, 'Christmas trees'. 

Bonhoeffer in his skylit cell
bleached by the flares’ candescent fall,
pacing out his own citadel,
restores the broken themes of praise,
encourages our borrowed days,
by logic of his sacrifice.
Against wild reasons of the state
his words are quiet but not too quiet.
We hear too late or not too late.

The term 'Christmas trees' probably originated with the bombing of Würzburg, a town which, in proportion to its size, suffered more death and destruction than even Dresden. A few weeks after the bombing of Würzburg, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged for his unflinching Christian opposition to Hitler and all his works; and a few weeks after that, victory over Hitler was finally achieved. 
Bonhoeffer has another beautiful poetical tribute in Auden's 'Friday's Child' (In memory of Dietrich Bonhoeffer):

He told us we were free to choose
But, children as we were, we thought—
“Paternal Love will only use
Force in the last resort

On those too bumptious to repent.”
Accustomed to religious dread,
It never crossed our minds He meant
Exactly what He said.

Perhaps He frowns, perhaps He grieves,
But it seems idle to discuss
If anger or compassion leaves
The bigger bangs to us.

What reverence is rightly paid
To a Divinity so odd
He lets the Adam whom He made
Perform the Acts of God?

It might be jolly if we felt
Awe at this Universal Man
(When kings were local, people knelt);
Some try to, but who can?

The self-observed observing Mind
We meet when we observe at all
Is not alarming or unkind
But utterly banal.

Though instruments at Its command
Make wish and counterwish come true,
It clearly cannot understand
What It can clearly do.

Since the analogies are rot
Our senses based belief upon,
We have no means of learning what
Is really going on,

And must put up with having learned
All proofs or disproofs that we tender
Of His existence are returned
Unopened to the sender.

Now, did He really break the seal
And rise again? We dare not say;
But conscious unbelievers feel
Quite sure of Judgement Day.

Meanwhile, a silence on the cross,
As dead as we shall ever be,
Speaks of some total gain or loss,
And you and I are free

To guess from the insulted face
Just what Appearances He saves
By suffering in a public place
A death reserved for slaves.

Tuesday 22 December 2020

'Any colour, so long as it's grey'

 Samuel Beckett died on this day in 1989. He was 83 years old and the cause of death was emphysema, the legacy of a lifetime's smoking. A few months earlier, his wife Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil, had also died, and they are buried together in the Montparnasse cemetery, underneath a granite slab. Beckett had decreed that his gravestone should be 'any colour, so long as it's grey'. In the photograph above, the grave is garnished with a broken cross, a couple of messages on scraps of paper, and a scattering of small stones...

'I took advantage of being at the seaside to lay in a store of sucking-stones. They were pebbles but I call them stones. Yes, on this occasion I laid in a considerable store. I distributed them equally between my four pockets, and sucked them turn and turn about. This raised a problem which I first solved in the following way. I had say sixteen stones, four in each of my four pockets, these being the two pockets of my trousers and the two pockets of my greatcoat. Taking a stone from the right pocket of my greatcoat, and putting it in my mouth, I replaced it in the right pocket of my greatcoat by a stone from the right pocket of my trousers, which I replaced by a stone from the left pocket of my trousers, which I replaced by a stone from the left pocket of my greatcoat, which I replaced by the stone which was in my mouth, as soon as I had finished sucking it. Thus there were still four stones in each of my four pockets, but not quite the same stones. And when the desire to suck took hold of me again, I drew again on the right pocket of my greatcoat, certain of not taking the same stone as the last time. And while I sucked it I rearranged the other stones in the way I have just described. And so on. But this solution did not satisfy me fully. For it did not escape me that, by an extraordinary hazard, the four stones circulating thus might always be the same four. In which case, far from sucking the sixteen stones turn and turn about, I was really only sucking four, always the same, turn and turn about. But I shuffled them well in my pockets, before I began to suck, and again, while I sucked, before transferring them, in the hope of obtaining a more general circulation of the stones from pocket to pocket. But this was only a makeshift that could not long content a man like me. So I began to look for something else...'

Sunday 20 December 2020


 It got even better this evening, when my walk took me down a road that is almost traffic-free and where many young families live. Here every house has put on a bravura display of Christmas lights (as so many have, by way of cheering things up), and this evening every family was out on its doorstep or strolling up and down the road, admiring each others' lights, chatting amiably and generally having a good time. The children were happy and excited, and passers-by too were enjoying the spectacle and the festive atmosphere. It was like a kind of benign version of the Halloween festivities, and had the feeling of a new Christmas tradition in the making; I rather hope it is.
Sweet are the uses of adversity. 

Cheerful Things

 As the Southeast of England wakes to find itself in the cheerless pre-Christmas wasteland of Tier 4, I remind myself that this blog is a 'hedonic resource', and look about me for reasons to be cheerful. 
  One presented itself last night when Bill Bailey, a far from svelte 55-year-old novice who had previously had no idea he could dance at all, emerged as the winner of Strictly Come Dancing. This was a triumph of both learning and teaching (Bill's mentor, Oti Mabuse, won last year too) and was a wonderful surprise: not long ago you could have got 66 to1 on Bill Bailey winning. 
  This morning was sunny and bright (after much rain) and I walked out to see how things were looking. They looked, I am happy to report, much as they have looked on any recent Sunday morning – a lot of traffic on the roads, the parks full of people mingling freely and enjoying themselves, a pretty relaxed life-goes-on atmosphere. Clearly the order to stay at home and only meet with a maximum of one person, outdoors, has not gained much traction round here. 
  Also, the redwings have arrived in numbers – always a cheering sight – so we might yet have some proper winter weather, which would be a good thing for the natural world, if not so great for us humans (though it might make it easier for us to huddle at home, in compliance with government orders). 
  Tier 4, as a far as I can make out, is pretty much identical to full lockdown, except that church worship is being allowed this time (subject to rigid hygiene precautions, distancing, etc.) – which is something. And, whatever the situation and the regulations, the one sure thing is that Christmas Day will come on the appointed date. Talking of which, here is a chorus from Bach's Christmas oratorio – a reason to be cheerful, if ever there was one. Enjoy!


Friday 18 December 2020


 As a long-standing lover of trees and enemy of the fashionable delusion that we can never have too many of them, I was delighted to find this piece by John Lewis-Stempel in the excellent online magazine Unherd. It deploys a range of strong, I would say unanswerable, arguments against the absurd programmes of mass tree planting and 'rewilding' that are being proposed and enacted at an accelerating rate, driven by mistaken ideas about 'climate change' and the nature of the countryside – not to mention that curious phenomenon, wildwood nostalgia. I wrote (more sketchily and less eloquently than J.L-S.) about all this last year, when an earlier wave of insane proposals threatened to engulf the land in billions of densely planted trees. As Lewis-Stempel makes clear, this (or anything like it) would be an environmental catastrophe, only worsening all the problems it purports to solve – and creating quite a few others too, not least for farmers. It would also be extremely bad news for butterflies, which need open, carefully managed woodland, treeless downs and heaths, open grassland and flower meadows – land, that is, exposed to the sun, not shaded over with impenetrable plantations of trees. 

Wednesday 16 December 2020

The Carshalton Sound

 Some time around 1980, in an Arena documentary, John Waters (not the actor – John Peel's producer) reported on a dubious musical phenomenon that became known, very briefly indeed, as the 'Carshalton Beeches sound'. This was a minor subset of a rather more real phenomenon, the 'sound of the suburbs'. Carshalton Beeches, the drearily affluent part of Carshalton (containing not a single pub), is still a byword for suburban respectability – as, for a long time, was Carshalton itself.  Those familiar with the quasi-paradisal delights of Carshalton proper will, of course, laugh at such a notion. 
  As it happened, there really was a 'Carshalton sound' – and I was reminded of it when, last night, I found myself torpidly slumped in front of an old TOTP2 Christmas special. On came the vaguely 'glam rock' band Mud, fronted by Les Gray, who was crooning his very creditable cover of Elvis's 'Lonely This Christmas', the festive Number One of 1974. I used to see Les Gray quite often, drinking at Carshalton's once legendary pub, The Greyhound. He was a local lad, I knew, one of our little band of local celebs (the others included Windsor Davies, Nicholas Smith (the big-eared one from Are You Being Served?) and, down the road in Wallington, Jeff Beck). What I didn't know, until I had a look on Wikipedia last night, was that Mud was very much a Carshalton band: four of its five members were Carshalton born and bred (and one, drummer Dave Mount, even died in Carshalton). Les Gray, a fun-loving type who (as they say) liked a drink, and smoked 50 cigs a day, moved to the Algarve in the 1990s and died there, of a heart attack, in 2006. 
  Here are Mud in their pomp, performing the glorious 'Tiger Feet', which was the best-selling single of 1974. This is the sound of Carshalton...

Tuesday 15 December 2020

This is getting ridiculous...

 That December Butterfly of mine turned out not to be the last, after all. This morning – sunny but very far from warm – I was astonished to see yet another Red Admiral, sprawled wearily on a sheltered ivy flower, taking what nectar it could. It was a faded specimen (and no wonder) and had a rueful fin de saison air, as if already having second thoughts about taking to the wing on a mid-December morning. A quarter of an hour later clouds rolled in and it started raining heavily. I hope the poor Admiral had taken shelter by then. 

Ida Haendel

 The legendary violinist and teacher Ida Haendel would have been 92 today, had she not sadly died in July. She had a quite extraordinary career, giving a prize-winning performance of the Beethoven concerto at the age of five, and at seven competing on equal terms with the likes of David Oistrakh. She studied in Paris under Carl Flesch and George Enescu, played in Myra Hess's wartime National Gallery concerts, and became a much-loved fixture at the Proms. She made her recording debut in 1940 and went on to record all the great Romantic concertos, as well as, late in her career, the Bach sonatas and partitas. 
This delightful footage shows her in her mid-seventies, on stage with her dog Decca, performing the great Bach chaconne. She is past her peak, and it's far from a great performance, but it does the heart good to see her – and the Chaconne is an inexhaustibly wonderful piece of music...

Sunday 13 December 2020


 Sorry to hear of the death of Charley Pride, the hugely successful country singer who, being black, was something of a rarity in that world. Born to poor share-croppers, he took a little while to find his musical vocation, but once he did, there was no stopping him. Pride was a middle-of-the-country-road artist, with a classic smooth country voice and a penchant for slightly schmalzy ballads, but he could certainly deliver the goods. My favourite song of his is this one – a lovely simple piece, and a demonstration of the poetical and musical power of American place names. As the Likely Lads once remarked, we Brits just don't have the place names for this sort of thing – Twenty-Four Hours from Cleethorpes, By the Time I Get to Peebles...  

Saturday 12 December 2020

Shakespeare's Flowers

Yesterday, after an excellent lunch at Locanda Locatelli (I wasn't paying), I strolled, Jeffrey Archer-like, down to Piccadilly and penetrated the Royal Academy shop. This was no easy undertaking: they point the temperature gun at you and send you to queue for an entry pass, which is only issued after you have given your name, address and email. Masks mandatory, of course. There was another queue (mercifully quite short) at the shop, but once in, I had the usual enjoyable browse. One of the cards I bought was this one. It's by Philip Sutton, an artist who is still working at the age of 92 (down at West Bay in Dorset). With its vivid coloration and dashing draughtsmanship, it could almost be a Dufy, but its subject is very English – 'Shakespeare's Flowers'. 
  Shakespeare's works include mentions of 175 varieties of plants (and not a single butterfly), and many 'Shakespeare gardens', containing some or all of these plants, have been created on both sides of the Atlantic. Most are quite approximate in their approach, aiming more at a vaguely Elizabethan and Shakespearean feel, perhaps concentrating on but one aspect of Shakespeare's flora. One such garden turns up in E.F. Benson's Mapp and Lucia, in which we find Lucia sitting in her 'Perdita's Garden'. Benson describes it thus:

'It was a charming little square plot in front of the timbered façade of the Hurst, surrounded by yew-hedges and intersected with paths of crazy pavement, carefully smothered in stone-crop, which led to the Elizabethan sundial from Wardour Street in the centre. It was gay in spring with those flowers (and no others) on which Perdita doted. There were 'violets dim', and primroses and daffodils, which came before the swallow dared and took the winds (usually of April) with beauty.

But now in June the swallow had dared long ago, and when spring and the daffodils were over, Lucia always allowed Perdita's garden a wider, though still strictly Shakespearian scope. There was eglantine (Penzance briar) in full flower now, and honeysuckle and gillyflowers and plenty of pansies for thoughts, and yards of rue (more than usual this year), and so Perdita's garden was gay all the summer.

Here then, this morning, Lucia seated herself by the sundial, all in black, on a stone bench on which was carved the motto 'Come thou north wind, and blow thou south, that my garden spices may flow forth.' Sitting there with Pepino's poems and The Times she obscured about one-third of this text, and fat little Daisy would obscure the rest...'

Thursday 10 December 2020

Mistaken Identity

Many years ago I reviewed a new biography of the incomparable children's author E(dith) Nesbit for a national newspaper. When the review was printed, I discovered that it bore a picture of a very different E. Nesbit – the once notorious Evelyn Nesbit (happily it was not this precise picture). Described by Wikipedia as an 'American artists' model, chorus girl and actress', Evelyn Nesbit was also a pin-up girl, dancer, fashion model and silent film starlet – and, most famously, she was involved in the 'trial of the century' after her husband, a mentally unstable multi-millionaire called Harry Kendall Thaw, shot dead the architect Stanford White at Madison Square Garden. Both men were obsessed with Nesbit, and Thaw believed, probably rightly, that White, who was nearly three times her age, had raped the young Evelyn while she was unconscious. There were two trials, both conducted against a background of press-driven hysteria (to counter this, the jury was sequestered for the second trial – the first time that had been done in America). Endless legal manoeuvrings followed, with Thaw claiming insanity, then sanity, making a break from a lunatic asylum, getting charged with another violent crime, etc. Thaw was even seen by some as a chivalrous hero figure defending womanly innocence. However, no one came out of this at all well – least of all Evelyn, who never managed to outlive her reputation as the 'lethal beauty' in the 'trial of the century', and whose career fizzled out in obscurity. How very different from the life of our own E. Nesbit.  

Tuesday 8 December 2020

From Another Age

 When I made my Happy Find the other day, I also picked up this little booklet containing a few Christmas carols and songs, with the words in full, and fairly simple piano arrangements. I liked the look of the artwork and thought it might be fun to bash my way through some old favourites over the festive season. Then I took a closer look at the booklet and realised that it was produced by the Esso company, to be given away at petrol stations. 
On the inside of the back cover is 'Call at the Esso Sign' ('The Esso sign means happy motoring – Call at the Esso sign'), a song I remember all too clearly from my boyhood. As it says under the words and music, 'No doubt you have seen the Esso Petrol Advertisements on Commercial Television and you may remember the catchy little song [I do, I do]. Here are the words and music, try them yourself and [trigger warning here] see if you can imitate the accents used by the singing Esso petrol pump globes.' Said globes are depicted at the foot of the page – a fine range of cheery racial stereotypes. Truly England in 1960 (the year of this publication) was another country – one in which there was still such a thing as 'community singing': opposite the Esso song is a page of Community Songs – 'Old Macdonald had a farm', 'Landlord fill the flowing bowl', 'Rolling home', and a couple of rather surprising items, 'John Brown's Body' (chorus and refrain only, to be repeated seven times, omitting the last word of the first line each time) and the lovely 'Drink to me only', with words by Ben Jonson ('To Celia'). 
Wishing you Happy Motoring for 1960.

Monday 7 December 2020


 Today Tom Waits and I celebrated our 71st birthday – and, in a startling development, Bob Dylan sold his entire publishing catalogue. Coincidence – or something more? (No.) 

Sunday 6 December 2020

Young Osbert

 Born on this day in 1892 was the prolific writer, connoisseur and one-time avant-gardiste Osbert Sitwell. At the age of seven, he had the good fortune to be immortalised by John Singer Sargent in the grand family portrait above, painted in 1900. Osbert, in a sailor suit, is at bottom right, with his younger brother Sacheverell still in his long-clothes and curls. The dog is the family pug, who spent much of the long sitting trying to bite the children. Standing to the left, with her father, Sir George, is Edith, in a red dress, and in white, entirely dominating the pictorial space, is her mother, Lady Ida. 
  Everything about this picture (as Edith delighted in pointing out) is faked. The setting is not the Sitwells' ancestral seat, but Sargent's large studio on Tite Street, Chelsea. The carefully chosen props were brought down from Renishaw Hall in Derbyshire, the family home, and arranged in the studio to give the desired effect. Sir George was no horseman, and the riding boots are intended to give the impression of the country squire. Lady Ida is shown, as Edith recalled, 'arranging, with one prettily shaped, flaccid, entirely useless hand, red anemones in a silver bowl (she never arranged flowers and in any case it would have been a curious occupation for one wearing a ball-dress, even if, at the same time, she wore a hat) ... I was white with fury and contempt, and indignant that my father held me in what he thought was a tender paternal embrace.' Happy families.
  Lady Ida was famous for her straight-nosed Grecian profile, whereas Edith's nose was slightly bent. Sir George, a man not famous for his tact or sensitivity, pointed this out to Sargent, who – having already had more than enough of Sir George's endless interventions – responded by painting Edith's nose straight and introducing a slight kink to Sir George's. 

Saturday 5 December 2020

A Happy Find

Seurat's Les Poseuses is perhaps his most enigmatic work, and I've long been fascinated by it. I have a postcard-sized reproduction of it on my bedroom wall, and only last night was looking at it, wishing I had a larger image. So I was delighted when I walked into a local charity shop this morning and straight away spotted a considerably larger reproduction, evidently purchased at the centenary exhibition in Paris in 1991, but in pristine condition. There was a similar reproduction of one of Seurat's paintings of Port-en-Bessin with it, so I bought them both. 
  Les Poseuses shows the same model in three poses, which are not really 'poses'; she is off duty, sitting with her back to us, partly draped in a white robe, standing naturally with her weight on one hip and her head slightly tilted, and sitting down, pulling off (or on?) green stockings. And behind her is a part of Seurat's recently completed magnum opus, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, the painting for which this model posed. The subject is the model herself, the nature of her work – not what she is posing as. Les Poseuses, like some medieval painting, shows three different moments in time – and, unlike almost any other painting, relates them directly to another work of art. Seurat painted it in response to critics who thought him incapable of convincingly portraying real, living human beings. I think it's safe to say he proved them wrong... The picture exists in two versions: one, the more 'granular' and obviously pointilliste, is on loan from our own National Gallery to Berlin's, and the other, more smoothly finished, hangs in the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.

Thursday 3 December 2020


 Scrub that. Here it is, more or less...

Being Betjeman(n) By Jonathan Smith (Galileo Publishers) 

  Why the bracketed second ‘n’ in Betjeman(n)? It denotes the young John Betjemann’s truncating of his too Germanic-sounding surname – one of many impulsive acts that, understandably enough, enraged his deaf, conventional-minded father, Ernest Betjemann, head of a successful ornamental houseware business. Explosive rows between father and son punctuate this unusual and engaging book, and painful they are to read, with both sides flinging vicious insults, while young John’s mother desperately tries to calm things down. It is easy to see in these scenes the roots of the guilt feelings that haunted Betjeman all his life, and of the troubled relationship between him and his own son.
   One of the worst rows, following Betjeman’s journey to Cornwall to break it to his parents that he has been sent down from Oxford, makes the opening scene of Jonathan Smith’s narrative – a narrative that does not begin until 30-odd pages into the book. This is no straightforward biography, nor even a straightforward fictionalised life; it is a highly original treatment of its subject, written by a man with first-hand experience of ‘being Betjeman’. Jonathan Smith is a writer, mostly of novels, with long experience of ‘being’ various people, if only in the sense of imitating their mannerisms: at different times in his life, he has ‘been’, among others, Albert Speer, W.E. Henley, Winston Churchill, August Rodin and Alfred Munnings – and not for writing purposes. Being Betjeman, however, was different: as the author explains in the pages that precede that first dramatised row, ‘it was a much deeper thing than merely taking him off or ventriloquising’. It began when, after years of mild obsession with the poet, he wrote a piece in Betjeman’s voice, ‘and I felt I was, in quite a disturbing way, inhabiting his skin’. And it was while ‘being Betjeman’ that Smith had what can only be a described as a breakdown – one that came on, with frightening suddenness, on a beach in Cornwall (Betjeman country). Then, just as he was beginning to get back on top of things, Smith realised he was developing Parkinson’s, the disease of Betjeman’s old age.
    It was against this background that Smith started writing in earnest about Betjeman (and, yes, as Betjeman). He wrote a pair of excellent radio plays, Mr Betjeman’s Class and Mr Betjeman Regrets, with Benjamin Whitrow playing the older Betjeman (a role that ended up being shared seamlessly with Robert Bathurst after Whitrow’s death). But he still wanted to write more, and differently, and the result is this beguiling, often funny and always readable book, which combines disarmingly frank autobiography with a biography that unfolds partly in dramatised scenes, partly in interior monologue and even prayers, partly in straight third-person narrative, partly in first-person.
   In part two of the three-part narrative, Smith takes us behind the scenes of the making of the radio plays, and treats us to perhaps rather too much green room chat, and a little too much of Ben Whitrow, wonderful actor though he was. Things pick up again in part three, which covers Betjeman’s later years, though the chronology continues to mingle past and present, and the autobiographical strand continues to run in parallel with the biography.
  Along the way there are generous quotations from Betjeman’s poems, mostly from his less famous, darker works. Smith quotes from 'Guilt', one of Betjeman's most self-lacerating poems – '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.' He was right about that, as his wife, the splendid but wholly incompatible Penelope Chetwode, knew all too well. Smith dramatises painful scenes from the Betjemans' married life – rows as epic as those with his father – and still more painful scenes between the poet and his son Paul, whom he treated cruelly, driven by the demons of his own boyhood. Betjeman, looking back, rightly blames himself for all of this, and more, but Smith's portrait of him is subtle enough to recognise that the poet also took a kind of pleasure, even pride, in his transgressions and shortcomings, and that 'to write he needed the creative juice of frustration. Contentment and comfort was no help to him at all, so being married to The Propellor [his nickname for Penelope] had on that front been a boon.' Frustration and the complications of love probably made him the poet he was, at the expense of personal happiness (and the happiness of others) – and yet he seems to have ended up, in his later years, giving a thoroughly convincing impression of a contented, genial and lovable man. This deeply affectionate portrait comes to something very like a happy ending.
   Like any Betjeman admirer of similar vintage (he is in his late seventies), Smith has met with bafflement and outright hostility when his passion for Betjeman has become known. At Cambridge the mockery was so relentless that he removed his copy of Summoned by Bells from his shelves and hid it away in a drawer. I must admit that, ten years later, with Betjeman laying on the avuncular charm on every TV chat show, I would have been among the mockers. In later years, however, as I read more, particularly of his earlier verse, I realised that Betjeman was a very fine, interesting and complex poet, for all his penchant for jog-along rhythms and simple rhymes. He was also, of course, a very much more interesting, complex and troubled man than the genial laureate, the nation’s teddy bear, who twinkled his way into the country’s affections. Being Betjeman(n) brings alive both the light and the dark in his make-up, and is a book that every Betjeman lover – and, come to that, every Betjeman mocker – should read.

Betjemania 2

 The December issue of Literary Review contains my review of Being Betjeman(n) by Jonathan Smith. For some mysterious technical reason, I find myself unable to post any version of it here... All the more reason to go out and buy the magazine – it's a bumper edition this month.  

Tuesday 1 December 2020

and Whitman's Butterfly

 In the course of my researches, I came across the phrase 'a butterfly good-time', attributed to Walt Whitman. I wasn't able to source it (anyone?), but while searching online I found this remarkable photograph, which I'd never seen before (though I suspect it might be familiar to American readers). It shows – or purports to show – Walt communing with a butterfly that has settled on his finger. 'The picture is substantially literal,' Whitman told his chronicler Horace Traubel. 'We were good friends: I had quite the in-and-out of taming, or fraternising with, some of the insects, animals.' In the same vein, he told the historian William Roscoe Thayer that 'I've always had the knack of attracting birds and butterflies and other critters.' 
  This was all prime BS, of course, yet another example of Whitman's endless self-mythologising. The butterfly is in fact a die-cut cardboard novelty item, attached to the poet's finger by a ring that is clearly visible in the photograph. The cardboard butterfly turned up many years later among Whitman's notebooks. It is not altogether convincing...

December Butterfly

 Usually by this date, even I am resigned to seeing no more butterflies until the spring awakening – but this morning, as I walked out of the station after a little excursion, I was astonished to see a Red Admiral, flying around in a rather distracted manner. Becoming a little more purposeful, it flew up the slope of the roof and settled to bask in the winter sunlight on the lintel of a dormer window, where it attracted the attention of a crow. Uh oh, I thought momentarily, expecting the worst, but then remembered that the red flash on the admiral's wings is enough to warn predators off. The crow turned away, and I headed home, the happier for this unexpected encounter – surely my last butterfly of the year. Or was it?


 The latest edition of the online magazine British Intelligence is out – highly recommended, as ever – and embedded in its pages is a piece by me about a phase John Betjeman went through. This link should work...