Thursday, 15 April 2021


This haunting double portrait is by Arshile Gorky, the Armenian-American painter who is best known as one of the pioneers of abstract expressionism. Gorky was born on this day in 1904, or maybe 1903 or 1902 – he was vague about the year – in a village in Armenia, then part of the Ottoman empire. His father emigrated to America to escape the draft, leaving his family behind, and a few years later, in 1915, Arshile (then known by his birth name, Vostanik Manouog Adolan) and his mother fled the Armenian genocide, escaping into Russian-controlled territory. In the terrible aftermath, his mother died of starvation in Yerevan in 1919.
The double portrait is of The Artist and His Mother. No wonder it is so haunting...

Tuesday, 13 April 2021

Following a Trail

I'm reading, for reasons vaguely connected with something I'm planning to write, The Private Life of Mrs Siddons by Naomi Royde-Smith. Published in 1933, this is a product of that expansive period when (following the example of A.J.A. Symons, among others) biography became something much more than a dutifully exhaustive chronicle of the known facts of a life, and developed into an art form in itself, and a rich and various one for which there was an eager, educated public. 'The plan of this book,' says Miss Royde-Smith at the outset, 'is that of the full-length and ceremonial portraits of the late eighteenth century, the greatest period of English painting till our own day [really?], and the period during which Mrs Siddons lived and was actually painted by Stuart, Hamilton, Romney, Gainsborough, Reynolds, Lawrence and other less important artists.' The author begins by assembling her materials, then painting in the background, then adding some 'cloudy symbols', and finally the sitter herself. 
  Sarah Kemble (Siddons to be) was the granddaughter of John Ward, manager of a troupe of travelling players, whose daughter had married an aspiring actor, Roger Kemble. Sarah's brother, John Philip Kemble, was to become, like her, one of the leading actors of their time. The Kemble family were a big presence in Hereford, where Roger Kemble was born and spent his first 30 years – and it was in Hereford also that another great actor was born: David Garrick (whose father, I learn, was a Huguenot called Garric). His family moved, not long after his birth, to Lichfield, where he attended Lichfield grammar school.
  Where is all this leading, you may ask? Actually it's leading to Bromley, which just goes to show what can happen when you follow a trail of biographical associations.... After leaving the grammar school in Lichfield, David Garrick enrolled at Edial Hall, a small (very small) private school that had been set up by Samuel Johnson, son of a Lichfield bookseller, and his wife Elizabeth ('Tetty'). Elizabeth, some 21 years older than her husband, had invested her dowry of £600 in the school, but it soon failed. Johnson and Garrick, who were now fast friends, headed for London, where Tetty duly followed. Later in life, she was in poor health and seems to have become addicted to alcohol and opiates, but her husband loved her devoutly and grieved for her all his life. 'I tried to compose myself,' he wrote in his diary on an anniversary of her death, 'but slept unquietly. I rose, took tea, and prayed for resolution and perseverance. Thought on Tetty, poor dear Tetty, with my eyes full.' 
  When Mrs Johnson died, she was buried in, of all places, Bromley, at the church of St Peter and St Paul. The old church was nearly destroyed by wartime bombing and was rebuilt in the 1950s – but Elizabeth Johnson's memorial stone, inscribed with her husband's heartfelt Latin epitaph ('formosae, cultae, ingeniosae, piae' etc.) survived, and can still be seen in the church. If I ever find myself in Bromley, I shall seek it out... 

Monday, 12 April 2021

History is wasted on me

 So today is the 60th anniversary of the first manned space flight – the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's single orbit of the Earth. I would have been in my last year of primary school at the time, and I have only the vaguest memory of the event, which I think I found mildly exciting, if, like so much else in life, rather bewildering. History is wasted on me. 
I think I was more excited by Christopher Cockerell's Hovercraft making its first Channel crossing – this was in the hot summer of 1959 when I was on holiday at Bexhill-on-Sea – and by the unveiling, the same year, of Alec Issigonis's Mini car. These, for some reason, had more impact on my boyhood self. What had no impact at all, as far as I can recall, was the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, by which time I was at grammar school and should have been paying more attention. The world may have been holding its breath, crossing its fingers, cowering under tables in expectation of the Big One, but this boy's soul was untroubled by a moment's anxiety, and I can't even remember the grown-ups talking about it. There you are – as a witness to history and chronicler of my times I am entirely useless. I seem to have lived through these moments in a state of what Dr Johnson would call 'stark insensibility'. Hey ho. 

Saturday, 10 April 2021

'Spring has got into the wrong year'

 Another cold grey-white morning, as this stop-start spring continues its latest retreat into winter. Philip Larkin seems to have been having similar weather when he wrote this poem, on today's date in 1970, and it was clearly doing nothing to lift his spirits... 

How high they build hospitals!
Lighted cliffs, against dawns
Of days people will die on. 
I can see one from here.

How cold winter keeps
And long, ignoring 
Our need now for kindness.
Spring has got into the wrong year.

How few people are,
Held apart by acres
Of housing, and children
With their shallow violent eyes.

That pay-off line is unduly harsh (and not even accurate – how many children do you know with shallow violent eyes?). However, the middle stanza is fine and, as it happens, a perfect evocation of how things feel as this lockdown drags on and on, 'ignoring our need now for kindness'.
The image of the hospital building as a cliff was to be reused in Larkin's much more substantial poem of 1972, 'The Building' – 'This clean-sliced cliff'. 

More cheeringly, nature, whatever the weather, carries on as near regardless as it can. The trees are coming into leaf ('Like something almost being said'),  blossom abounds, and, in rare moments of sunshine in the past few days, the odd butterfly has ventured forth. I've seen a Holly Blue, a Speckled Wood, a few Small Whites – and, best of all, Orange Tips, the cheeriest of spring butterflies. The male of this species, with his orange-tipped wings, is also among the most amorous. In a vivid passage in his Butterflies of Britain & Ireland, Jeremy Thomas writes: 
'For as long as the sun shines, the male Orange-Tip flutters along hedges, shrubs and bushes in search of a mate. His initial approach is not discriminating, as he investigates any white object, including the Green-Veined Whites that emerge in abundance on most Orange-Tip sites ... Little will stop a young male once he has recognised a young female of his own species, especially if she is a virgin, whereas older females are examined for no more than three seconds. But once a fresh female is detected, he will force his way through the densest foliage, whereupon she, if receptive, signals her readiness by raising her abdomen at right angles for about four seconds, and mating begins. Curiously, the same posture is adopted by older females in an attempt to deter males that are pestering them.'

Thursday, 8 April 2021

William Herbert

 Born on this day in 1580 was William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke, one of the numerous Herbert clan, which included the poet George (on a collateral branch) and, centuries later, very distantly and obliquely, the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert – or so he believed. William was one of those Interesting Elizabethans, a man of many parts – nobleman, courtier and politician, founder of Pembroke College, Oxford, holder of a wide range of public offices and honours, and dedicatee of the First Folio, along with his brother Philip, that 'incomparable pair of brethren'. He is also believed by some to be the 'fair youth' of the Sonnets and the 'Mr W.H.', the 'onlie begetter of these sonnets'. One of his lovers, Mary Fitton, has also been suggested as the original of the 'dark lady'. William had an affair with Mary Fitton when he was 20, got her pregnant, admitted paternity but refused to marry her, and was sent to the Fleet prison for a while, where he passed the time writing verse. More interestingly from my particular point of view, he had earlier been urged to marry Elizabeth Carey, granddaughter of the Lord Chamberlain Henry Carey, patron of Shakespeare's company of players. He refused to do so (he seems to have been decidedly averse to matrimony, though he did have one regular marriage, to Mary Talbot, daughter of the Earl of Shrewsbury). This Elizabeth Carey is the remarkable woman whose beautiful monument by Nicholas Stone is in St Dunstan's church, Cranford. I have written about her and her monument on this blog, and also, of course, in this book.   

Wednesday, 7 April 2021


 Sad to hear that the actor Paul Ritter has died, and at the early age of 54. He was one of those versatile, accomplished performers who do great work on stage and screen but never become stars – he probably wouldn't have wanted to be one anyway. He was a brilliant Pistol in The Hollow Crown, the BBC's adaptation of (some of) Shakespeare's history plays. I think he would have made a great Beckett actor had he lived a little longer. As it was, he found fame in the unlikely setting of a TV sitcom, Robert Popper's Friday Night Dinner, where his performance as Martin Goodman, the imperfectly earthed father of the family, was comedy gold, and will long outlive him. There are a couple of compilations of his greatest Friday Night Dinner moments on YouTube, but you need to watch whole episodes to fully appreciate his characterisation. I believe they can be found on All4 and Netflix.

Tuesday, 6 April 2021

Over My Shoulder

 Here's a little something to bring good cheer (and a reminder of live music) in these trying times – Max Raabe and the Pallast Orchester performing 'Over My Shoulder':

The original, performed by Jessie Matthews in the musical Evergreen, is, er, something else...

Monday, 5 April 2021

Gertrude Käsebier

 This image caught my browsing eye this morning. I love the lighting, and particularly the energy and movement in it – unusual for photographs of its period (turn of the last century) – and its feeling of intimacy and spontaneity. It's called 'Dancing School' or 'The Dance' and it's a gum bichromate print by Gertrude Käsebier, who was America's leading woman photographer in her day. She was one of the first to earn money by photography, and she encouraged other women to do the same. The emphasis Käsebier, who had a husband and family to support, put on the commercial side of photography led to a falling-out with her former mentor Alfred Stieglitz (who, according to Edward Dahlberg, 'had genius, but he was not a good man'). Below is Käsebier's portrait of Stieglitz, a photograph that looks like an Expressionist painting –

Gertrude Käsebier was known for her domestic interiors and mother-and-child compositions, her striking images of Native Americans, and her portraits. Among her many subjects was an old friend of this blog, the notorious Evelyn Nesbit – 

Sunday, 4 April 2021


 As a change from my favourite painting of the resurrected Christ – Rembrandt's Christ and Mary Magdalen at the Tomb (see past Easters passim) – here is something very different, an austerely beautiful, decidedly Hellenistic take on the subject by Perugino.
   A happy Easter to all who browse here. 

Saturday, 3 April 2021

The Answer?

 This morning I noticed a piece of paper stuck to a lamp post, bearing this simple message, hand-written: 'Humility is the answer.' To which the cynic might respond, 'What's the question?' But if one word, one quality, is to be deemed 'the answer', humility will, I think, serve very well, better than Faith or Hope or even Love. Faith can degenerate into fanaticism, Hope can become blind optimism, and Love – well, all manner of things can go wrong with Love. It is impossible, however, to overdo humility: if you do, it ceases to be humility and becomes something else altogether, as in the 'very 'umble' Uriah Heep.
Humility (usually translated as 'meekness', a word that has unfortunately changed its meaning) is surely central to Jesus's teaching and the example of His life.  From an everyday perspective, humility is an honest assessment of our worth and our place in the scheme of things, a perspective that corrects arrogance, and helps us to realise that we are not the centre of the universe. Marianne Moore recommended as her three cardinal virtues Humility, Concentration (i.e. paying proper attention) and Gusto (i.e. enjoying what is to be enjoyed). Those three together probably are 'the answer', if anything is. And the question is 'What do we most need to live well in the world?' Also, in Miss Moore's view, 'What do we need to write well?'

Friday, 2 April 2021

Good Friday

The Crucifixion is a subject that was in every visual artist's repertoire for centuries. Visually, it's a gift – the image (much sanitised) of the crucified man rising, dead centre, above the carefully composed scene, his suffering transformed already into triumph, his angled head irradiated by a halo, his arms spread as if to embrace all the world and all time to come. Such images of the Crucifixion are painted from the perspective of Easter and Resurrection, not from that of Good Friday, when what was on show was the cruel and humiliating punishment of a criminal, a supposed prophet whose career had ended in the most abject failure. 
  For poets, even the great religious poets, Good Friday has generally been a subject best avoided, or conflated with Easter (one exception is George Herbert's 'The Sacrifice'). But in the 20th century, in the stark light of that century's terrible events, it perhaps became possible to address the Crucifixion in a different way, and Good Friday occasioned one of the Auden's finest poems: 'Nones' from Horae Canonicae . It's quite a long read, but it is well worth the effort...

What we know to be not possible,
    Though time after time foretold
    By wild hermits, by shaman and sybil
    Gibbering in their trances,
    Or revealed to a child in some chance rhyme
    Like will and kill, comes to pass
    Before we realise it: we are surprised
    At the ease and speed of our deed
    And uneasy: It is barely three,
    Mid-afternoon, yet the blood
    Of our sacrifice is already
    Dry on the grass; we are not prepared
    For silence so sudden and so soon;
    The day is too hot, too bright, too still,
    Too ever, the dead remains too nothing.
    What shall we do till nightfall?

    The wind has dropped and we have lost our public.
    The faceless many who always
    Collect when any world is to be wrecked,
    Blown up, burnt down, cracked open,
    Felled, sawn in two, hacked through, torn apart,
    Have all melted away: not one
    Of these who in the shade of walls and trees
    Lie sprawled now, calmly sleeping,
    Harmless as sheep, can remember why
    He shouted or what about
    So loudly in the sunshine this morning;
    All if challenged would reply
    'It was a monster with one red eye,
    A crowd that saw him die, not I.'
    The hangman has gone to wash, the soldiers to eat;
    We are left alone with our feat.

    The Madonna with the green woodpecker,
    The Madonna of the fig-tree,
    The Madonna beside the yellow dam,
    Turn their kind faces from us
    And our projects under construction,
    Look only in one direction,
    Fix their gaze on our completed work:
    Pile-driver, concrete-mixer,
    Crane and pick-axe wait to be used again,
    But how can we repeat this?
    Outliving our act, we stand where we are,
    As disregarded as some
    Discarded artifact of our own,
    Like torn gloves, rusted kettles,
    Abandoned branch-lines, worn lop-sided
    Grindstones buried in nettles.

    This mutilated flesh, our victim,
    Explains too nakedly, too well,
    The spell of the asparagus garden,
    The aim of our chalk-pit game; stamps,
    Birds' eggs are not the same, behind the wonder
    Of tow-paths and sunken lanes,
    Behind the rapture on the spiral stair,
    We shall always now be aware
    Of the deed into which they lead, under
    The mock chase and mock capture,
    The racing and tussling and splashing,
    The panting and the laughter,
    Be listening for the cry and stillness
    To follow after: wherever
    The sun shines, brooks run, books are written,
    There will also be this death.

    Soon cool tramontana will stir the leaves,
    The shops will re-open at four,
    The empty blue bus in the empty pink square
    Fill up and depart: we have time
    To misrepresent, excuse, deny,
    Mythify, use this event
    While, under a hotel bed, in prison,
    Down wrong turnings, its meaning
    Waits for our lives: sooner than we would choose
    Bread will melt, water will burn,
    And the great quell begin, Abaddon
    Set up his triple gallows
    At our seven gates, fat Belial make
    Our wives waltz naked; meanwhile
    It would be best to go home, if we have a home,
    In any case good to rest.

    That our dreaming wills may seem to escape
    This dead calm, wander instead
    On knife edges, on black and white squares,
    Across moss, baize, velvet, boards,
    Over cracks and hillocks, in mazes
    Of string and penitent cones,
    Down granite ramps and damp passages,
    Through gates that will not relatch
    And doors marked Private, pursued by Moors
    And watched by latent robbers,
    To hostile villages at the heads of fjords,
    To dark chateaux where wind sobs
    In the pine-trees and telephones ring,
    Inviting trouble, to a room,
    Lit by one weak bulb, where our Double sits
    Writing and does not look up.

    That, while we are thus away, our own wronged flesh
    May work undisturbed, restoring
    The order we try to destroy, the rhythm
    We spoil out of spite: valves close
    And open exactly, glands secrete,
    Vessels contract and expand
    At the right moment, essential fluids
    Flow to renew exhausted cells,
    Not knowing quite what has happened, but awed
    By death like all the creatures
    Now watching this spot, like the hawk looking down
    Without blinking, the smug hens
    Passing close by in their pecking order,
    The bug whose view is balked by grass.
    Or the deer who shyly from afar
    Peer through chinks in the forest.

For something shorter, knottier and harsher (if you can take any more), there's this – Geoffrey Hill's 'Canticle for Good Friday' –

The cross staggered him. At the cliff-top
Thomas, beneath its burden, stood
While the dulled wood
Spat on the stones each drop
Of deliberate blood.

A clamping, cold-figured day
Thomas (not transfigured) stamped, crouched,
Smelt vinegar and blood. He,
As yet unsearched, unscratched,

And suffered to remain
At such near distance
(A slight miracle might cleanse
His brain
Of all attachments, claw-roots of sense)

In unaccountable darkness moved away,
The strange flesh untouched, carrion-sustenance
Of staunchest love, choicest defiance,
Creation's issue congealing (and one woman's).

(The best thing to do on Good Friday, though, is simply to listen to Bach's St Matthew Passion.)

Thursday, 1 April 2021


 April at last – blossom time – and here are two seasonal images of the suburban demiparadise. Both are by the excellent pastel artist Neal Vaughan, and I have a print of the one below on my staircase. It shows All Saints' church viewed across the East pond. 

Wednesday, 31 March 2021

The Garden

 To mark the 400th anniversary of Andrew Marvell's birth – and the suddenly garden-friendly weather – what more appropriate than one of his greatest poems, The Garden? (See also today's Anecdotal Evidence.)

How vainly men themselves amaze
To win the palm, the oak, or bays,
And their uncessant labours see
Crown’d from some single herb or tree,
Whose short and narrow verged shade
Does prudently their toils upbraid;
While all flow’rs and all trees do close
To weave the garlands of repose.

Fair Quiet, have I found thee here,
And Innocence, thy sister dear!
Mistaken long, I sought you then
In busy companies of men;
Your sacred plants, if here below,
Only among the plants will grow.
Society is all but rude,
To this delicious solitude.

No white nor red was ever seen
So am’rous as this lovely green.
Fond lovers, cruel as their flame,
Cut in these trees their mistress’ name;
Little, alas, they know or heed
How far these beauties hers exceed!
Fair trees! wheres’e’er your barks I wound,
No name shall but your own be found.

When we have run our passion’s heat,
Love hither makes his best retreat.
The gods, that mortal beauty chase,
Still in a tree did end their race:
Apollo hunted Daphne so,
Only that she might laurel grow;
And Pan did after Syrinx speed,
Not as a nymph, but for a reed.

What wond’rous life in this I lead!
Ripe apples drop about my head;
The luscious clusters of the vine
Upon my mouth do crush their wine;
The nectarine and curious peach
Into my hands themselves do reach;
Stumbling on melons as I pass,
Ensnar’d with flow’rs, I fall on grass.

Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness;
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find,
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas;
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade.

Here at the fountain’s sliding foot,
Or at some fruit tree’s mossy root,
Casting the body’s vest aside,
My soul into the boughs does glide;
There like a bird it sits and sings,
Then whets, and combs its silver wings;
And, till prepar’d for longer flight,
Waves in its plumes the various light.

Such was that happy garden-state,
While man there walk’d without a mate;
After a place so pure and sweet,
What other help could yet be meet!
But ’twas beyond a mortal’s share
To wander solitary there:
Two paradises ’twere in one
To live in paradise alone.

How well the skillful gard’ner drew
Of flow’rs and herbs this dial new,
Where from above the milder sun
Does through a fragrant zodiac run;
And as it works, th’ industrious bee
Computes its time as well as we.
How could such sweet and wholesome hours
Be reckon’d but with herbs and flow’rs!

Monday, 29 March 2021

Freedom Day

 Here's a suitable image for  'freedom day', showing what it might have looked like in more decorous, better dressed times – Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, surely one of the great paintings of the 19th century. Seurat died on this day 130 years ago, at the age of just 31. What wonders might he have achieved had he lived longer?

For myself, I have been out and about most of the day, enjoying the sunshine and the (you guessed!) butterflies – Peacocks and Brimstones were out in numbers, and I saw my first Comma and Tortoiseshell of the year. The butterfly season is under way – let's hope the same applies to the journey back to normal human life.   

Sunday, 28 March 2021

Anarchy in Suburbia?

 Much excited talk on the radio this morning about the heady new freedoms that are to be granted to us by the Committee of Public Safety from tomorrow – outdoor gatherings (including in private gardens!) of up to 6 people or 2 households, outdoor sports facilities reopening, the 'stay at home' rule withdrawn.
Hmm. I don't know if I live in a particularly anarchic corner of suburbia, but when I'm out and about, these rules seem to have been more honoured in the breach than the observance (a cliché, but with real meaning – some rules are more honourably breached than observed. As Junius put it, 'The subject who is truly loyal to the Chief Magistrate will neither advise nor submit to arbitrary measures.'). I suspect that tomorrow things will look much as they have done for several weeks around here. 
This morning I noticed that several posters along these lines [below] have gone up in the neighbourhood – maybe this is indeed a particularly anarchic corner of suburbia...

Anyway, let's look forward to freedom and outdoor pleasures, as so beautifully evoked in Keats's sonnet (published in his Poems of 1817) –

To one who has been long in city pent,
         'Tis very sweet to look into the fair
         And open face of heaven,—to breathe a prayer
Full in the smile of the blue firmament.
Who is more happy, when, with heart's content,
         Fatigued he sinks into some pleasant lair
         Of wavy grass, and reads a debonair
And gentle tale of love and languishment?
Returning home at evening, with an ear
         Catching the notes of Philomel,—an eye
Watching the sailing cloudlet's bright career,
         He mourns that day so soon has glided by:
E'en like the passage of an angel's tear
         That falls through the clear ether silently.

Keats takes his cue from lines in Paradise Lost (book IX) –

'As one who, long in populous city pent,
Where houses thick and sewers annoy the air,
Forth issuing on a summer’s morn, to breathe
Among the villages and farms

Adjoined, from each thing met conceives delight,
The smell of grain, or tedded grass, or kine, 

Or dairy, each rural sight, each rural sound...'

Now all we need is some suitably balmy weather, such as we had around this time last year, when All This had only just begun... 

Friday, 26 March 2021

Corn-Fed Girls

 Further to the previous post, the one and only Dave Lull has been at work looking for 'milk-fed girls' in Wodehouse and has drawn a blank – and if a blank is drawn by Dave Lull, a blank it is. It seems I misremembered, for what he did come up with was this passage from Carry On, Jeeves (1927) referring to 'largish, corn-fed girls'. It's a nice bit of vintage Wodehouse, so I pass it on in the interests of spreading some good cheer – 

'That Aunt Dahlia had not exaggerated the perilous nature of the situation was made clear to me on the following afternoon. Jeeves and I drove down to Bleaching in the two-seater, and we were tooling along about half-way between the village and the Court when suddenly there appeared ahead of us a sea of dogs and in the middle of it young Tuppy frisking round one of those largish, corn-fed girls. He was bending towards her in a devout sort of way, and even at a considerable distance I could see that his ears were pink. His attitude, in short, was unmistakably that of man endeavouring to push a good thing along; and when I came closer and noted that the girl wore tailor-made tweeds and thick boots, I had no further doubts.' 

Young Tuppy Glossop had a decidedly Betjemanian taste in girls. 

Wednesday, 24 March 2021

Sporty Gels

 On this day 100 years ago, the first Women's Olympiad got under way in the gardens of the Monte Carlo Casino. A hundred ladies from France, the United Kingdom, Italy, Norway and Switzerland took part in a range of running and jumping events, javelin and shot put. There were demonstration events too, including rhythmic gymnastics and, rather wonderfully, pushball, a variant of football in which a 50lb, six-foot-diameter ball is pushed by two teams towards each other's goals. The Olympiad sounds like a charming occasion, and the participants bore little resemblance to today's female athletes. They were fine, milk-fed girls*, decorously dressed, with full bosoms, sturdy legs and not a six-pack or a five o-clock shadow in sight. They were, indeed, the kind of sporty gels who appealed to Betjeman, who even wrote a poem titled 'The Olympic Girl' (not one of his better efforts) –

The sort of girl I like to see
Smiles down from her great height at me.
She stands in strong, athletic pose
And wrinkles her retroussé nose.
Is it distaste that makes her frown,
So furious and freckled, down
On an unhealthy worm like me?
Or am I what she likes to see?
I do not know, though much I care,
xxxxxxxx.....would I were
(Forgive me, shade of Rupert Brooke)
An object fit to claim her look.
Oh! would I were her racket press'd
With hard excitement to her breast
And swished into the sunlit air
Arm-high above her tousled hair,
And banged against the bounding ball
"Oh! Plung!" my tauten'd strings would call,
"Oh! Plung! my darling, break my strings
For you I will do brilliant things."
And when the match is over, I
Would flop beside you, hear you sigh;
And then with what supreme caress,
You'd tuck me up into my press.
Fair tigress of the tennis courts,
So short in sleeve and strong in shorts,
Little, alas, to you I mean,
For I am bald and old and green.

Well, quite...  Above, in the bloomers, is the United Kingdom's Mary Lines, who won several running medals and the long jump. At the top, wearing a fetching headband and a saucy look, is French high jumper Frédérique Kussel, and below, sporting a stylish beret and necklace, is her compatriot, runner Lucie Bréard.  

* I'm sure the phrase 'fine, milk-fed girl' occurs somewhere in Wodehouse, but I can't trace it. One for you, Dave Lull...?


Tuesday, 23 March 2021

'A game of intricate enchantment and deception'

  I have seen several Peacock butterflies so far this year (along with rather more Brimstones and one Comma). They are always a delight to see, and they also offer food for thought – why such a spectacular, hyperreal simulation of four 'eyes'? Can it really be just a case of protective mimicry? Surely it goes way beyond any possible usefulness. And look what happens when you turn the Peacock upside down – suddenly it's an owl! This is surely not protective mimicry: apart from anything else, the butterfly's predators typically attack from behind rather than in front. Is a predator going to think, 'Aha, here's a nice juicy butterfly. I think I'll just take a look round the front and... Oh my Lord, it's not a butterfly – it's an owl! I'm off.'? Hardly likely. 

  As Nabokov wrote (in Speak, Memory) on the extraordinary exuberance of butterfly mimicry, 'nor could one appeal to the theory of "struggle for life" when a protective device was carried to the point of mimetic subtlety, exuberance, and luxury far in excess of a predator's power of appreciation. I discovered in nature the non-utilitarian delights that I sought in art. Both were a form of magic, both were a game of intricate enchantment and deception.' 

Monday, 22 March 2021

They Might Be Related

 Earlier today, for some reason, I was looking online for a painting by John Linnell. In the course of my search, I discovered that another, later John Linnell was and is half of the creative core of They Might Be Giants (with John Flansburgh). Naturally this chance discovery led me to play again that fine song Birdhouse in Your Soul – which I am now putting up here too, to bring a little good cheer to a locked-down nation. Enjoy...


Sunday, 21 March 2021

A Musical Centenary

 Today is the centenary of the birth of the Belgian violinist Arthur Grumiaux, one of the 20th century's best. I have his classic set of Bach's partitas and sonatas, and was pleased to discover that a sample of Grumiaux's Bach found its way on to the Voyager Golden Record, that extraordinary disc that was launched into space in 1977 to give any receptive extraterrestrials an idea of what we humans are like. The Voyager will pass within 1.6 light years of the star Gliese 445 in 40,000 years or so – exciting times! Here, from the Golden Record, is Grumiaux playing the Gavotte en Rondeaux from Bach's Partita number 3 –

Lately I've been enjoying some of the Budapest String Quarter's recordings of Beethoven, and was again pleased to discover that they also are represented on the Golden Record, playing the glorious Cavatina from the B flat Quartet – which Beethoven himself thought was the most beautiful melody he ever wrote. Here it is – simply sublime music...

Friday, 19 March 2021


 Talking of nostalgia, it's a feeling I'm getting all too much of when I look back over recent times as recorded in my blog. The root meaning of nostalgia is home-pain, i.e. homesickness (something Odysseus's men, for all their machismo, were very prone to, I seem to recall). The home I feel pain for is the world I felt at home in, the one we all took for granted and thought would just carry on, pretty much unchanged – and then it was lost in the great convulsion of the Covid response. It was normal human life, with all its little social amenities – and I miss it and wonder when, or even if, it's going to come back.
  A year ago at this time, Mrs N and I were seizing the chance to dine out on the final evening before Lockdown 1.0. It was to be a long while till either of us saw the inside of a restaurant again.
  Two years ago, the world still had nearly a year of normal to go, and I was out and about as usual, taking in, among other things, a fine exhibition at the Pallant Gallery in Chichester (ah, the lost joy of wandering around a gallery, maskless and unimpeded). On that day I also wandered at liberty around the cathedral (another joy largely lost as the Church of England withdraws from the world to gaze into its 'institutionally racist' navel), and a couple of days later I was taking a look around Soane's Pitzhanger Manor in Ealing – what a mad whirl it seems from here...
  Three years ago, I was enjoying a walk on and under the Sussex downs, in Gill Country (walking with my walker friends is another pleasure lost since last summer). And four years ago – ah, four years ago, I was In Deepest England (well, the Nottinghamshire Wolds), in those happy days when I was touring the obscure monuments of Platonic England for the purposes of writing this book. Had I been trying to write it now, I would have had to give up months ago – as, indeed, I have had to give up researching my next projected book. At least I was able to write my little butterfly book in the interim. I'll let you know when and if that one sees the light of day.

Wednesday, 17 March 2021

Justice's Nostalgia

 Well, those two Donald Justice poems seemed to go down very well, so let's have a couple more. Justice is one of the great poets of nostalgia, which is perhaps why his works seem so resonant now, in this strange time when we are all painfully nostalgic for those simple amenities of life that we used to take for granted: dropping in to the pub, sitting in cafés, eating in restaurants, weekends away, holidays, open churches, going where we wanted with whomever we wanted to go with... Justice's nostalgia, particularly for his Miami boyhood, is a potent force in his work, setting the happy-sad emotional climate of many of his best poems. Sometimes it is more sad than happy, as in this late poem, titled 'Sadness' (though there is happiness there as well, as in stanza 5) – 

Dear ghosts, dear presences, O my dear parents, 
Why were you so sad on porches, whispering? 
What great melancholies were loosed among our swings! 
As before a storm one hears the leaves whispering 
And marks each small change in the atmosphere, 
So was it then to overhear and to fear. 

But all things then were oracle and secret. 
Remember the night when, lost, returning, we turned back 
Confused, and our headlights singled out the fox? 
Our thoughts went with it then, turning and turning back 
With the same terror, into the deep thicket 
Beside the highway, at home in the dark thicket. 

I say the wood within is the dark wood, 
Or wound no torn shirt can entirely bandage, 
But the sad hand returns to it in secret 
Repeatedly, encouraging the bandage 
To speak of that other world we might have borne, 
The lost world buried before it could be born. 

Burchfield describes the pinched white souls of violets 
Frothing the mouth of a derelict old mine 
Just as an evil August night comes down, 
All umber, but for one smudge of dusky carmine. 
It is the sky of a peculiar sadness— 
The other side perhaps of some rare gladness. 

What is it to be happy, after all? Think 
Of the first small joys. Think of how our parents 
Would whistle as they packed for the long summers, 
Or, busy about the usual tasks of parents, 
Smile down at us suddenly for some secret reason, 
Or simply smile, not needing any reason. 

But even in the summers we remember 
The forest had its eyes, the sea its voices, 
And there were roads no map would ever master, 
Lost roads and moonless nights and ancient voices— 
And night crept down with an awful slowness toward the water; 
And there were lanterns once, doubled in the water. 

Sadness has its own beauty, of course. Toward dusk, 
Let us say, the river darkens and look bruised, 
And we stand looking out at it through rain. 
It is as if life itself were somehow bruised 
And tender at this hour; and a few tears commence. 
Not that they are but that they feel immense. 

 Sadness has its own beauty indeed... The 'Burchfield' reference in stanza 4 is to the American watercolorist Charles Burchfield, an artist more famous in his native land than over here (as is Justice, though even in America he is regarded as a 'poet's poet'). Burchfield painted violets at the mouth of an abandoned mine at least twice, and those images top and tail this section. 

 And here is another fine Justice poem, one where nostalgia finds its way into the title – 'Nostalgia of the Lakefronts' 

Cities burn behind us; the lake glitters.
A tall loudspeaker is announcing prizes;
Another, by the lake, the times of cruises.
Childhood, once vast with terrors and surprises,
Is fading to a landscape deep with distance—
And always the sad piano in the distance,

Faintly in the distance, a ghostly tinkling
(O indecipherable blurred harmonies)
Or some far horn repeating over water
Its high lost note, cut loose from all harmonies.
At such times, wakeful, a child will dream the world,
And this is the world we run to from the world.

Or the two worlds come together and are one
On dark, sweet afternoons of storm and of rain,
And stereopticons brought out and dusted,
Stacks of old Geographics, or, through the rain,
A mad wet dash to the local movie palace
And the shriek, perhaps, of Kane’s white cockatoo.
(Would this have been summer, 1942?)

By June the city always seems neurotic.
But lakes are good all summer for reflection,
And ours is famed among painters for its blues,
Yet not entirely sad, upon reflection.
Why sad at all? Is their wish so unique—
To anthropomorphise the inanimate
With a love that masquerades as pure technique?

O art and the child were innocent together!
But landscapes grow abstract, like ageing parents.
Soon now the war will shutter the grand hotels,
And we, when we come back, will come as parents.
There are no lanterns now strung between pines—
Only, like history, the stark bare northern pines.

And after a time the lakefront disappears
Into the stubborn verses of its exiles
Or a few gifted sketches of old piers.
It rains perhaps on the other side of the heart;
Then we remember, whether we would or no.
—Nostalgia comes with the smell of rain, you know.


Monday, 15 March 2021


I've just been revisiting this Donald Justice poem – his last – and finding it even more beautiful than I remembered, so...

There is a gold light in certain old paintings
That represents a diffusion of sunlight.
It is like happiness, when we are happy.
It comes from everywhere and nowhere at once, this light,
And the poor soldiers sprawled at the foot of the cross
Share in its charity equally with the cross.
Orpheus hesitated beside the black river.
With so much to look forward to he looked back.
We think he sang then, but the song is lost.
At least he had seen once more the beloved back.
I say the song went this way: O prolong
Now the sorrow if that is all there is to prolong.
The world is very dusty, uncle. Let us work.
One day the sickness shall pass from the earth for good.
The orchard will bloom; someone will play the guitar.
Our work will be seen as strong and clean and good.
And all that we suffered through having existed
Shall be forgotten as though it had never existed.


Dismal Reflections – and a Poem

 This time last year there were long queues outside every supermarket, and inside hordes of people – none wearing masks – fighting for the last toilet roll/ packet of pasta/rice/ bag of flour.  To see those scenes now would be a shock, not least because we've become so inured to mask-wearing that even the mask-sceptics among us would find it odd. (Of course, back then the appalling WHO was advising strongly against face-coverings, and indeed any checks on incomers at airports.) After all these months, we are taking for granted a state of affairs that we could never even have contemplated before 2020 – a wholesale confiscation of basic liberties and rights, and the suspension of most of what makes life liveable and worth living, all in the name of Public Safety (shades of the revolutionaryTerror) and all on the basis of 'science' that was far from rock-solid. And now it seems normal. What has become of us? Even I am feeling my spirits sinking these days, as this drags on and on.
  What is also striking about that peep into the past is how brief that period of consumer chaos was. Within a very short time, the supermarkets regained control, re-established supply lines and restored order. Their workers, along with the bin men, postal workers, delivery drivers, transport workers, small shopkeepers, cab drivers and all those doing the real and necessary work carried on without missing a beat – and with precious little thanks for their efforts. As someone has said, the Covid response proved to be a great opportunity for the managerial class to make their work-life balance more agreeable, while the 'little people' carried on toiling away, servicing their needs. And it's those 'little people' who will be paying the price for all this, overwhelmingly. 

  But enough of that. Here's a poem – we all need poems – by Donald Justice, which seems somehow relevant, and is anyway beautiful:

Bus Stop

Lights are burning 
In quiet rooms 
Where lives go on 
Resembling ours. 

The quiet lives 
That follow us— 
These lives we lead 
But do not own— 

Stand in the rain 
So quietly 
When we are gone, 
So quietly . . . 
And the last bus 
Comes letting dark 
Umbrellas out— 
Black flowers, black flowers. 

And lives go on. 
And lives go on 
Like sudden lights 
At street corners 

Or like the lights 
In quiet rooms 
Left on for hours, 
Burning, burning.

Sunday, 14 March 2021

Cutter Sees the Future

 Born on this day in 1837 was one of America's greatest librarians, Charles Ammi Cutter. He it was who created the first public card catalogue in America (at Harvard College), revolutionised the cataloguing of the Boston Athenaeum, and devised the pioneering Cutter Expansive Classification. His Wikipedia entry makes wonderfully restful reading. 
  The Cutter Expansive Classification ('an avant-garde and divergent system') had the great advantage that, unlike 'Melvil' Dewey's ultimately triumphant system, it could be easily adapted to the needs of different kinds and sizes of library. The basic version, for very small libraries, had just seven categories for non-fiction subjects, one of which (A) was for reference books. History was lumped together with Geography and Travels in F, whereas Social Sciences (H) and Biography (E) had each their own exclusive category. More problematically, Natural Sciences and Arts were crammed into one category (L) – that was surely never going to work. Even in more expanded versions of the classification, Science and Arts remain locked in an unlikely embrace... Wake up at the back there!
  But here's a funny thing: in 1883 Cutter wrote a piece for the Library Journal in which he envisaged the Buffalo Public Library 100 years on, in 1983. 'The desks ,' he writes, 'had a little keyboard at each, connected by a wire. The reader had only to find the mark of his book in the catalog, touch a few lettered or numbered keys, and [the book] appeared after an astonishingly short interval.' Uncanny, eh?

Thursday, 11 March 2021

Larkin on Success/Failure

 On this day in 1954, Philip Larkin wrote a curious poem about success, or rather failure –

Success Story

To fail (transitive and intransitive)
I find to mean be missing, disappoint,
Or not succeed in the attainment of
(As in this case, f. to do what I want);
They trace it from the Latin to deceive...

Yes. But it wasn't that I played unfair:
Under fourteen, I sent in six words
My Chief Ambition to the Editor
With the signed promise about afterwards –
I undertake rigidly to forswear

The diet of this world, all rich game
And fat forbidding fruit, go by the board
Until –
But that until has never come,
And I am starving where I always did.
Time to fall to, I fancy: long past time.

The explanation goes like this, in daylight:
To be ambitious is to fall in love
With a particular life you haven't got
And (since love picks your opposite) won't achieve.
That's clear as day. But come back late at night,

You'll hear a curious counter-whispering:
Success, it says, you've scored a great success.
Your wish has flowered, you've dodged the dirty feeding,
Clean past it now at hardly any price – 
Just some pretence about the other thing. 

Those quintains are cunningly structured – ababa, but all in half-rhymes. The theme of success/failure was to be a persistent one in Larkin's mature verse (though not as persistent as death, of course) and his relationship to it/them was never straightforward. It started early: here is a sonnet written five years before 'Success Story', and already failure is there at the young poet's elbow –

To Failure

You do not come dramatically, with dragons
That rear up with my life between their paws
And dash me butchered down beside the wagons,
The horses panicking; nor as a clause
Clearly set out to warn what can be lost,
What out-of-pocket charges must be borne,
Expenses met; nor as a draughty ghost
That's seen, some mornings, running down a lawn. 

It is these sunless afternoons, I find,
Instal you at my elbow like a bore.
The chestnut trees are caked with silence. I'm
Aware these days pass quicker than before,
Smell staler too. And once they fall behind,
They look like ruin. You have been here some time.