Wednesday, 22 September 2021


 I've just realised that I haven't posted my latest contribution to the Literary Review (not that I post them all) – a review of a mind-boggling new book by Henry Gee, A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth: 4.6 Billion Years in 12 Chapters. It went out under the apt title 'What Will Survive of Us?' Here it is...

‘Once upon a time…’ The opening words of Henry Gee’s new book give notice that what follows will be a story – and a dazzling, beguiling story it is, told at exhilarating pace. The scale is apparent from the first of a set of mind-boggling timeline graphics: this runs from the birth of the universe at the bottom of the page to ‘Extinction of life on Earth’, near the top, alarmingly close to the dotted line of ‘NOW’. This is a book to give you a new, dizzying perspective on such small matters as human civilisation. ‘Against the backdrop of geological time,’ Gee reminds us, ‘the rise of humanity is of negligible significance.’ We’ll be gone in a while, leaving barely a trace behind . The ‘carbon spike’ we have contributed to, and which causes us so much anxiety, is high but very narrow, ‘perhaps too narrow to be detectable in the very long term’. Besides, taking the long view, ‘life on Earth, with all its drama, all its comings and goings, is governed by just two things. One of them is a slow decline in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The other is the steady increase in the brightness of the Sun.’ Unlike carbon dioxide, oxygen might be thought of as an all-round good thing, essential to life on Earth. And yet it was a sudden surge of free oxygen that caused the Great Oxidation Event, unleashing the first of many mass extinctions that pepper the history of this planet. All that oxygen scrubbed the air of the carbon dioxide and methane that were keeping Earth warm and launched the first and longest ice age – 300 million years during which the planet became ‘Snowball Earth’, covered from pole to pole with ice. ‘And yet,’ observes Gee calmly, ‘the Great Oxidation Event and subsequent Snowball Earth episode were the kind of apocalyptic disasters in which life on Earth has always thrived.’ Eighty million years of ice ages only encouraged life to keep on coming back, sometimes in decidedly strange forms. I must admit I had never heard of Lystrosaurus, an animal with ‘the body of a pig, the uncompromising attitude towards food of a golden retriever, and the head of an electric can opener’ – and yet, for millions of years after the End-Permian mass extinction (yes, another one), nine out of every ten animals on Earth was a Lystrosaurus. Nor had I heard of stromatolites, mounds of slime and sediment that, early in the history of life on Earth, became ‘the most successful and enduring form of life ever to have existed on this planet, the undisputed rulers of the world for three billion years’. Dinosaurs, on the other hand, are animals that every child has heard of. These hugely successful creatures filled every evolutionary niche, leaving little room for much else, including the early mammals, who had to wait until the dinosaurs finally died out before they could ‘burst forth, like a well-aged champagne, shaken beforehand, and inexpertly corked’. A profusion of fast evolving and diversifying mammals took over from the dinosaurs. They included what Gee calls ‘a group of leftovers … an assortment of scrappers that included rats, mice, rabbits and, seemingly almost as an afterthought, the primates’. These small, fast-moving creatures with forward-facing eyes, inclined to curiosity and exploration, would, eventually, give rise to Homo sapiens. But the emergence of modern humans could so easily not have happened. Around 200,000 years ago, the last survivors of the species were confined to an oasis on the edge of what is now the Kalahari desert. And yet, Homo sapiens squeaked through, saved by a period of warming that turned much of the surface of the planet into rich grassland, teeming with game. The author begins the last chapter of this hugely enjoyable page-turner by paraphrasing Tolstoy: ‘All happy, thriving species are the same. Each species facing extinction does so in its own way.’ This chapter contemplates the future – a future that will, of course, not include Homo sapiens. We have already incurred a massive ‘extinction debt’ by damaging our own habitat; our population is likely to start falling by around 2100; and our genetic variation is woefully insufficient. We’ll be gone within the next ‘few thousand to tens of thousands of years’, but life will go on, with more ice ages, more extinctions, until eventually, in maybe a billion years, the story of life on Earth will be over. Viewed in the kind of vertiginous perspectives Gee opens up, our human presence looks vanishingly insignificant. And yet we have huge significance as the first and only species to be aware of itself. We owe it to ourselves, and to our fellow species, to conserve what we have, to make the best of our brief existence. ‘Do not despair,’ the author concludes. ‘The Earth abides, and life is living yet.’

Tuesday, 21 September 2021

Kay Day

 This blog is not going to let Kay Ryan's birthday pass unmarked. Incredibly, she is 76 today – long may she live and write yet. Here, again, is the first poem of hers I posted (back in 2010) – one that I think displays her unique gift perfectly: wise, succinct, beautifully crafted and utterly distinctive...

Carrying a Ladder

We are always
really carrying
a ladder, but it’s
invisible. We
only know
the matter:
something precious
crashes; easy doors
prove impassable.
Or, in the body,
there’s too much
swing or off-
center gravity.
And, in the mind,
a drunken capacity,
access to out-of-range
apples. As though
one had a way to climb
out of the damage
and apology.

Saturday, 18 September 2021

Ending on a High

 Well, my butterfly season – which, for various reasons, has been a rather patchy one – ended today with a glorious surprise. I was taking a stroll on Epsom downs, with no particular end in mind but enjoying the autumn sunshine, when, in one of the scruffy spinneys that line the fairways of the golf course that has, deplorably, taken over so much of the downland, I spotted a butterfly settling about ten feet up in a large dogwood bush. At first glimpse, I thought it was a Speckled Wood (there are lots of them around this autumn, after a thin summer). Then, as I drew nearer, I saw orange patches on the forewings – a belated Gatekeeper? No, the orange was too bright, and the brown ground colour too rich. Could it be...?
  Oh yes, it could. It was a female Brown Hairstreak! Excuse my exclamation mark, but this is one highly elusive butterfly, notoriously hard to find. This fine specimen – so late in the year – was in tiptop condition, and spent several minutes cruising from one sunny perch to another in the leafy undergrowth, showing off its hairstreaked golden underwings, before flying up and away through the trees. I watched in a state of aurelian ecstasy, failing as ever to get a photograph – but who cares? The Brown Hairstreak – as usual appearing from nowhere and in a wholly unlikely location – had delivered me another grand surprise, another glorious end-of-season gift. 

'Here is a brave boy'

 Samuel Johnson was born in Lichfield on this day in 1709 (in the New Style, which he adopted himself in 1753). He entered the world by way of his father's bookshop on the corner of Breadmarket Street, the building that is now the Samuel Johnson Museum – and bookshop. 'My mother had a very difficult and dangerous labour,' Johnson wrote in a posthumously published memoir. 'I was born almost dead, and could not cry for some time. When [the man-midwife] had me in his arms, he said, "Here is a brave boy."' Johnson's father was that year Sheriff of Lichfield, and due to ride the Circuit of the County, a ceremonial occasion of great pomp. To celebrate his son's birth, 'he feasted the citizens with uncommon magnificence'.
  Soon after this, the baby Samuel was, 'by my father's persuasion', put out to a wet-nurse 'to be nursed in George Lane, where I used to call when I was a bigger boy, and eat fruit in the garden, which was full of trees'. Clearly his mother was not happy that Sam had been put out to nurse: 
'My mother visited me every day, and used to go different ways, that her assiduity might not expose her to ridicule; and often left her fan or glove behind her, that she might have a pretence to come back unexpected; but she never discovered any token of neglect. Dr Swinfen* told me, that the scrofulous sores which afflicted me proceeded from the bad humours of the nurse, whose son had the same distemper, and was likewise short-sighted, but in a less degree. My mother thought my diseases derived from her family.
  In ten weeks I was taken home, a poor, diseased infant, almost blind.
  I remember my aunt Nath. Ford told me when I was about ... years old, that she would not have picked such a poor creature up in the street.'
  And yet this 'poor creature', 'this poor, diseased infant, almost blind' grew up to become one of our greatest writers, a ground-breaking lexicographer, a brilliant conversationalist and, taken all in all, one of the finest Englishmen who ever lived. 
  My second youngest grandson, the incomparable William, now attends a 'preschool' on George Lane, the street where Johnson was put out to nurse. 

* A young doctor lodging with the Johnsons at the time of Samuel's birth. He was Sam's godfather, and diagnosed his scrofula – 'the King's Evil', for which Johnson was touched by Queen Anne in 1712, one of the last to be so treated.

Friday, 17 September 2021

'To re-enchant the view'

I've been reading (on the recommendation of a blog follower) Roger Scruton's Our Church. Published in 2012, it expands on themes enunciated in the wonderful England: An Elegy, particularly the chapter on The English Religion.  Essentially a historical and philosophical study of the Church of England, it also includes a penetrative and necessary account of what religion in general is, and what it is not. Scruton is surely right to regard the hard-won Anglican Settlement, and the Church that emerged from it, as one of the greatest achievements of this or any nation. Could any other country have gone from the impassioned religious strife and slaughter of the Civil War to the social tranquility and religious indifference that settled on England barely half a century later? Surely no such peace would have been possible without the great creation that is (or was) the broad, tolerant, benign, ever compromising Church of England, with its Book of Common Prayer, its King James Bible, and its great body of hymns and sacred music.
  One of the themes of Scruton's short but dense book, as it is of England: An Elegy, is 'enchantment'. For a people with a reputation for prosaic common sense, the English, he argues, have been peculiarly prone to investing the most commonplace realities with an air of magic, mystique, enchantment. In An Elegy, Scruton speaks frequently of 'the enchantment that lay over England' (note past tense). In Our Church, he described how, for example, the burgeoning of neo-Gothic architecture in Victorian times performed 'one of the essential functions of the Anglican settlement, which is to re-enchant the view'. The Gothic revival spread 'an evangelism of enchantment' over the land – surely the best, and the most English, form of evangelism.  
   And when that enchantment fails, when the view is dis-enchanted, stripped of its magic – what happens then, to the Church and the country? That, I fear, is what we are finding out now, as the Church of England sets about destroying itself with ever increasing managerialism and an evangelism not of enchantment but of prosaic literalism. It is perhaps a mercy that Scruton did not live to see his beloved Church's pusillanimous response to the Covid panic, withdrawing entirely from the life of the nation as if to confirm that it no longer had any role to play, that its uniquely accommodating and accessible greatness was now firmly a thing of the past. 

Wednesday, 15 September 2021

Quote of the Day

'I lately took my friend Boswell and showed him genuine civilised life in a provincial town. I turned him loose at Lichfield.' – Sam: Johnson. 

(The picture shows Percy Hetherington Fitzgerald's jaunty statue of Boswell, which stands in Lichfield marketplace.)

Sunday, 12 September 2021

'The one True Thomas'

 After happening upon Peter Porter's Adlestrop poem, I decided to seek out Anne Harvey's anthology Elected Friends: Poems for and about Edward Thomas – and there I found another surprising poetical hommage. Gavin Ewart – who's had a few mentions on this blog before – was a poet quite unlike Edward Thomas in just about every way. And yet Thomas had played a part in Ewart's literary development, as this poem makes clear...

Edward Thomas
(for the ghost of Giles Romilly)

Some poets are for ever linked
with special times or places,
like epithets (the hedger's 'swink'd'),
but, oftenest, with faces...

My copy has some Love from you
inscribed on early pages,
sixteen in 1932.
The teens are passionate ages,

and adolescent à quoi bon?
is mix'd with what's romantic;
young highbrows with our own haut ton,
we were quite mid-Atlantic – 

in that we loved the Sacred Wood
where Eliot was camping.
Thomas's concern seemed good,
for soldiers dully tramping.

The sadness and the wistfulness,
the 'Lights Out' feeling, chimed
well with our awkward, young distress.
The whole thing was well-timed.

If often what teenagers like
can turn out to be kitsch
and nonsenseful as the Third Reich,
with soppy tone and pitch,

this never happens in his verse – 
he is the one True Thomas
(young Dylan had the Bardic curse,
though, down to the last commas,

the tourist-wise Professors push
his vowel-rhyming sagas 
as higher than the Hindu Kush
to bigots bashing lagers).

The voice is level (read 'The Owl').
That War's across the Channel.
It's not a strident Ginsberg howl
of fluting, flat – or flannel!

This is the genuine rustic sound
we later found in Hardy – 
the countryman sure of his ground,
not brash, or bold, or bardy,

so good, a critic might say 'great'
that world need unemployment),
and wonderful for weightless weight
and actual enjoyment!

A fine summing-up of Edward Thomas, I think (and an equally fine dismissal of Dylan). Weightless weight is indeed what you get with Thomas at his best – and actual enjoyment.
The 'swink'd hedger', by the way, is in Milton's 'Comus'.

'Read "The Owl"' says Ewart, rightly – it's one of Thomas's best: 

Downhill I came, hungry, and yet not starved;
Cold, yet had heat within me that was proof
Against the North wind; tired, yet so that rest
Had seemed the sweetest thing under a roof.

Then at the inn I had food, fire, and rest,
Knowing how hungry, cold, and tired was I.
All of the night was quite barred out except
An owl’s cry, a most melancholy cry

Shaken out long and clear upon the hill,
No merry note, nor cause of merriment,
But one telling me plain what I escaped
And others could not, that night, as in I went.

And salted was my food, and my repose,
Salted and sobered, too, by the bird’s voice
Speaking for all who lay under the stars,
Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice.

Gavin Ewart was himself the subject of a poetic tribute – by Philip Larkin, in one of the last poems he wrote:

Good for You, Gavin

It's easy to write when you've nothing to write about
   (That is, when you are young),
The heart-shaped hypnotics the press is polite about
   Rise from an unriven tongue.

Later on, attic'd with the all-too-familiar
   Tea chests of truth-sodden grief,
The pages you scrap sound like school songs, or sillier,
   Banal beyond belief.

So good for you, Gavin, for having stayed sprightly
   While keeping your eye on the ball;
Your riotous road-show's like Glenlivet nightly,
   A warming to us all.

'Sprightly' is the word for Ewart's poetry, and his 'Edward Thomas' shows off his sprightliness. Like much of Ewart, it reads almost like conversational prose, its crafted poetical structure only fleetingly apparent. 'Edward Thomas' turns out, on inspection, to be written in common metre (alternating four-stress and three-stress lines, as in many a hymn) and rhymed AbAb (or, in a couple of stanzas, ABAB). A master of the art of concealing art, Ewart was indeed 'a warming to us all'. 

Saturday, 11 September 2021

RIP Michael Chapman

 News came this morning of the death of Michael Chapman, a singer about whom I have written before. The news was sad, but it was a pleasant surprise to hear it reported on a Radio 4 news bulletin – clearly Chapman was not a forgotten figure from the Sixties/Seventies folk scene – and it was good to hear them play his best-known song, Postcards of Scarborough (see – or hear – below). By the way, the 'Paradise' referred to in the song is, or was, a street in Scarborough Old Town, which may or may not have been paved and turned into a parking lot – any Scarborough readers out there?

A Great Broadcast

On this morning 20 years ago, Alistair Cooke, then 92, was at home in New York, looking forward to a pleasant autumn day... What happened next inspired one of his greatest broadcasts. It's well worth another listen on this melancholy anniversary.
Cooke's talk ends on a hopeful note, concluding that America may be 'down', but is not 'on the ground'. It would be harder to reach that conclusion today, twenty years on, in the aftermath of recent events in Afghanistan. 
Here's a link to Cooke's broadcast, America's Day of Terror –


Friday, 10 September 2021

'A dim capacity for Wings'

 Guy Walker, via Facebook, has drawn my attention to one of Emily Dickinson's butterfly poems – this one:

My Cocoon tightens — Colors teaze — 
I’m feeling for the Air — 
A dim capacity for Wings
Demeans the Dress I wear — 

A power of Butterfly must be — 
The Aptitude to fly
Meadows of Majesty concedes
And easy Sweeps of Sky — 

So I must baffle at the Hint
And cipher at the Sign
And make much blunder, if  at last
I take the clue divine.

I thought it was new to me, but that just shows how fallible my memory is: it features in an essay by Kay Ryan, 'Specks', which I have read in her brilliant collection, Synthesizing Gravity.
Ryan doesn't think much of the second stanza – 'essentially some Dickinson boilerplate to say, Butterflies fly'. A harsh judgment, but Ryan is surely right that 'Dickinson terrain is hard on the brain suspension. In any poem of more than one stanza, one stanza is likely to bottom out.' This is refreshing, as admirers of Dickinson often tend towards a kind of cultic worship, as if their heroine could do no wrong: of course she could – and that doesn't make her any less of a poetic genius (think of Wordsworth's lapses, or Keats's, or Tennyson's). Ryan loves the third stanza – 'such a strange capsule of a stanza', with its heavy emphasis on clumsiness, 'the exhilarating unworkability of it: one can only blunder into the light, or whatever the "clue divine" is.' Her reaction to the first stanza is wonderfully complicated, and she traces its contours precisely, as always: Ryan's criticism is the closest thing there is to the actual experience of reading and honestly, spontaneously responding to what is on the page. 'So far the picture's funny and ill fitting and, well, let's just say so, ravishing: it takes massive poetic wings to think of "A dim capacity for Wings".' Of course things can be at once funny and ravishing – especially, perhaps, in Dickinson's poems – but it's hard to imagine anyone but Kay Ryan pointing this out.

Wednesday, 8 September 2021

Barefoot Fox

 There are several plaques on the wall of St Mary's church in Lichfield, overlooking the market place. They commemorate various unfortunates burnt at the stake in that place under Mary and Elizabeth, and the last man to be burnt alive for heresy in England (1612). And then there's this one, commemorating George Fox's denunciation of Lichfield.
It's a curious tale, and seems to suggest that Fox, recently released from a spell in Derby jail (punishment for blasphemy), was somewhat out of his mind at the time. He and a band of followers, heading south from Derby, came upon Lichfield. Fox had to ask his friends what city this was, and, on hearing it was Lichfield, he immediately experienced a visitation from the Lord, who told him to remove his shoes. Even though it was a bitter cold day, Fox complied, handing his shoes to some bemused bystanders. Striding barefoot into the city, Fox was then instructed by the Lord to cry out, 'Woe to the bloody city of Lichfield!' And so he passed through the streets and the market place, vehemently denouncing this city of which he knew nothing. Fortunately the locals took it in good part, finding the spectacle more comic than threatening. 
Fox went on to found the Religious Society of Friends, and Lichfield experienced no particular woe as a result of his visit. 

Sunday, 5 September 2021

The Key

Well, here I am in Mercia. And the other day my cousin and I were church crawling in a corner of Lincolnshire, with the particular aim of revisiting one of England's greatest and least-known 17th-century monuments – to Sir Adrian Scrope, almost certainly by the mysterious Epiphanius Evesham. It is in the church of St Leonard, South Cockerington, in an area quite close to the middle of nowhere. The last time we visited, the church was open – but this time no such luck. This was a decisively closed church, the door plastered with deeply depressing Covid-related notices about the impossibility of leaving it open, or doing anything much else that might smack of normal life. I spent a while roundly cursing the pusillanimous Church of England and all its works, and, having despaired of seeing this great monument, we resigned ourselves to moving on. 
  Just then an elderly woman – the only human being we had so far seen in this remote parish – came slowly into view, carrying a bunch of yellow dahlias in a bag. 'You're not after getting into the church, are you?' she asked. We answered firmly in the affirmative. 'You're in luck then,' she replied, and, from the depths of her bag, she produced a magnificent large, heavy key of old-fashioned design, and handed it to me... I could have fallen on her neck and kissed her, and the key, and the ground we stood on.
  We saw our monument, and it never looked better. And when we left there was no sign of the lady who had let us in – who was she? Why was she there? We never knew – but that mighty key was still in the door, proof that this wildly improbable turn of events had indeed happened. It was one of the best moments of all my church-crawling life. 

Wednesday, 1 September 2021


 I'm off on my Mercian travels again tomorrow, so there might be a bit of a hiatus. Or not.

Kersh in Tarsus

 Gerald Kersh could justifiably be classified as a forgotten writer – too forgotten even to make it into Christopher Fowler's Book of Forgotten Authors – but in fact Kersh has a small cult following, mostly on the strength of his novels of London low life, and a few of his many titles have been reissued in recent years. As well as these low-life tales, Kersh, like many a hack writer of his day, could turn his hand to virtually any genre, and had an early success with the twice-filmed thriller Night and the City. He led a rackety life – one that gave him much material for his fiction – and the classic combination of drink, women and unpaid income tax ensured that he had to keep on churning out the stories and novels just to stay afloat. 
  My father enjoyed his books, and the paperback library that was housed in the lavatory of my boyhood home contained several of Kersh's titles, all of which I eagerly read, despite being too young and inexperienced to appreciate them. I have forgotten almost all, but one – an untypical historical novel called The Implacable Hunter – did leave some impression, and the other day I decided I might seek it out and reread it. Happily I found a reasonably priced copy (it's long out of print) and am reading it now. It comes highly praised by Anthony Burgess (not necessarily a recommendation) – 'This is a masterly book, full of live people and a live age, live language too...'  It tells the story of Paulus (Saint Paul to be) and how he was sent to persecute the Nazarenes (Christians). The narrator is one Diomed, a Roman colonial officer in Tarsus, keeping the peace as best he can, fraternising with the more patrician of the natives and enjoying their hospitality and conversation. He is educated, urbane, borderline cynical, and an adroit diplomat – as he has to be in a community as divided and easily inflamed as first-century Tarsus. 
  The story is told in the first person, and almost entirely in dialogue, so there is little or none of the scene-setting, exposition and local colour that mar so many historical novels; we experience Diomed's world from the inside. This makes for an exhilarating read, and so far I am enjoying it greatly: this does seem like a novel that should be much better known. And, as Burgess says, it is written in 'live language', robust and colourful, with nothing mealy-mouthed or self-consciously 'historical' about it. At one point a friend of Diomed's describes being present at the crucifixion of Jesus, of which he gives a decidedly prosaic, unimpressed account. Summing up, he concludes 
'And there is all I can tell you about the individual who influenced history to this extent – that now, hundreds of miles away, an orthodox Jew spits in the beard of an unorthodox one for kindling fire to cook his porridge on the Jewish sabbath; whereupon, in the name of Peace, the dissenter throws boiling porridge into the orthodox one's face; and Diomed, coming with soldiers to keep the Peace of Rome, is hit in the eye with a rotten fig hurled by a child still raw from his circumcision. And somebody sends a report to Rome. (a) Diomed is keeping the peace. (b) Diomed is persecuting the Jews.'
And here is an equally robust passage, narrated by Diomed, describing his visit to the house of a Jewish money lender:
'He was one of the sackcloth-and-ashes school, and when he saw the glint of the sunlight on Sergius's armour, and caught sight of me, he fell into the irritatingly equivocal attitude of body and expression of face which says at the same time "That's right – murder me because I am a Jew! But why do you want to murder me just because I am a Jew? It is a Jew's honour and privilege to be murdered because he is a Jew. I shall be delighted to be murdered because I am a Jew, this being part of my proud heritage. But why should a fine young fellow like you want to risk the wrath of the Almighty by murdering an abject old wretch like me, just because I am a Jew? Murder me by all means, but first let us talk things over..."'
   Kersh was himself Jewish, and his first novel, Jews without Jehovah, was based on his own impoverished early years – indeed based rather too closely, as it had to be quickly withdrawn when members of his own family threatened to sue for libel. Not the most auspicious beginning for a literary career – but four years later came Night and the City, and Kersh was launched.  

Tuesday, 31 August 2021

The Hero's Return

 I love this picture of Jimmy Stewart, my supposed double (I wish), on a visit to the family hardware store in Indiana, Pa. The year was 1945 and Stewart had just returned from the war. He is phoning an old friend to arrange a fishing trip. 
Jimmy Stewart joined up as a private in the Air Corps in 1941, despite being well into his 30s and having already been rejected once as underweight(!). Being too old for aviation cadet training, he applied successfully for a commission, and in 1943, anxious not to have special treatment because of his celebrity status, he got himself sent to England as part of the 445th Bombardment Group, piloting a B-24 Liberator. Flying several successful bombing raids over Nazi Europe, Stewart rose through the ranks to become a full colonel, and ended the war with the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Croix de Guerre with palm, and many other honours. Like most of his generation, he seldom spoke about his wartime experiences.
And there he is, fresh back from the war, cheerful as ever, in his dad's hardware store, where his Oscar (won in 1940 for The Philadelphia Story) was on display in the window. That's it in the picture below, where Stewart is chewing the fat with the store's oldest employee.

It hardly needs saying that they don't make film stars like Jimmy Stewart today.

Monday, 30 August 2021


Hilarious anecdote re Praed [pronounced 'Prade'] –

A man goes into a bookshop and asks 'Have you Browning?'
'No' says the bookseller. 'We can't sell him. People say they can't understand him.'
'Have you Praed?' asks the customer.
'Yes, we've prayed, and we still can't understand him.'

Boom boom.

Normal Service

 Thinking of poets remembered for only one poem, my mind turned to Winthrop Mackworth Praed, who is perhaps not remembered at all these days – but if he is, I think it will be for one poem, 'Good-Night to the Season'. It's certainly the only one of his that I know, but I've remembered it ever since I first came across it  (in an anthology, of course) and I like it a lot. It's a joy to read, one of those poems that jogs along and brings a smile to the face. I really should read more of him...
  Praed was a bit of a star at Eton, had a less than glittering political career, and died at the age of 36 (in 1839), but his witty and ironic poems secured such fame as he had. A poet's poet, he surely influenced Browning, and was admired by Auden, who sagely remarked that his 'serious poems are as trivial as his vers de société are profound',  and Betjeman, who could easily be seen as Praed's poetical heir.
  Here is Praed's 'one poem', the cheerily jaundiced, nimbly anapestic valedictory 'Good-Night to the Season' – 

Good-night to the Season! 'tis over!
Gay dwellings no longer are gay;
The courtier, the gambler, the lover,
Are scatter'd like swallows away:
There's nobody left to invite one,
Except my good uncle and spouse;
My mistress is bathing at Brighton,
My patron is sailing at Cowes:
For want of a better employment,
Till Ponto and Don can get out,
I'll cultivate rural enjoyment,
And angle immensely for trout.

Good-night to the Season! – the lobbies,
Their changes, and rumours of change,
Which startled the rustic Sir Bobbies,
And made all the Bishops look strange:
The breaches, and battles, and blunders,
Perform'd by the Commons and Peers;
The Marquis's eloquent thunders,
The Baronet's eloquent ears:
Denouncings of Papists and treasons,
Of foreign dominion and oats;
Misrepresentations of reasons,
And misunderstandings of notes.

Good-night to the Season! – the buildings
Enough to make Inigo sick;
The paintings, and plasterings, and gildings
Of stucco, and marble, and brick;
The orders deliciously blended,
From love of effect, into one;
The club-houses only intended,
The palaces only begun;
The hell where the fiend, in his glory,
Sits staring at putty and stones,
And scrambles from story to story,
To rattle at midnight his bones.

Good-night to the Season! – the dances,
The fillings of hot little rooms,
The glancings of rapturous glances,
The fancyings of fancy costumes;
The pleasures which Fashion makes duties,
The praisings of fiddles and flutes,
The luxury of looking at beauties,
The tedium of talking to mutes;
The female diplomatists, planners
Of matches for Laura and Jane,
The ice of her Ladyship's manners,
The ice of his Lordship's champagne.

Good-night to the Season! – the rages
Led off by the chiefs of the throng,
The Lady Matilda's new pages,
The Lady Eliza's new song;
Miss Fennel's macaw, which at Boodle's
Is held to have something to say;
Mrs Splenetic's musical poodles,
Which bark 'Batti Batti' all day;
The pony Sir Araby sported,
As hot and as black as a coal,
And the Lion his mother imported,
In bearskins and grease, from the Pole.

Good-night to the Season! – the Toso,
So very majestic and tall;
Miss Ayton, whose singing was so-so,
And Pasta, divinest of all;
The labour in vain of the Ballet,
So sadly deficient in stars;
The foreigners thronging the Alley,
Exhaling the breath of cigars;
The 'loge' where some heiress, how killing,
Environ'd with Exquisites sits,
The lovely one out of her drilling,
The silly ones out of their wits.

Good-night to the Season! – the splendour
That beam'd in the Spanish Bazaar;
Where I purchased – my heart was too tender –
A card-case, – a pasteboard guitar, –
A bottle of perfume, – a girdle, –
A lithograph'd Riego full-grown,
Whom Bigotry drew on a hurdle
That artists might draw him on stone, –
A small panorama of Seville, –
A trap for demolishing flies, –
A caricature of the Devil, –
And a look from Miss Sheridan's eyes.

Good-night to the Season! – the flowers
Of the grand horticultural fête,
When boudoirs were quitted for bowers,
And the fashion was not to be late;
When all who had money and leisure
Grew rural o'er ices and wines,
All pleasantly toiling for pleasure,
All hungrily pining for pines,
And making of beautiful speeches,
And marring of beautiful shows,
And feeding on delicate peaches,
And treading on delicate toes.

Good-night to the Season! – another
Will come with its trifles and toys,
And hurry away, like its brother,
In sunshine, and odour, and noise,
Will it come with a rose or a briar?
Will it come with a blessing or curse?
Will its bonnets be lower or higher?
Will its morals be better or worse?
Will it find me grown thinner or fatter,
Or fonder of wrong or of right,
Or married, – or buried? – no matter,
Good-night to the Season, Good-night!

[Riego, in the seventh stanza, is Rafael del Riego, hanged in Madrid in 1823 for his efforts to resist an absolutist monarchy. The pun on 'draw' is clever.] 

Praed's season is, of course, the London social season. Mine is the butterfly season, the end of which is sadly drawing near. Yesterday morning, it being half sunny and almost warm, I took a stroll around my nearest patch of downland to see what was still flying. There were Meadow Browns in their usual abundance (and their usual range of coloration) with a couple of very weary Gatekeepers, a Brown Argus or two, a few Common Blues and rather more Holly Blues, a Red Admiral, plenty of Speckled Woods (staging a late comeback after a poor summer) and, best of all, half a dozen Chalkhill Blues, still bright and lively. Summer isn't over yet, even if the weather feels like autumn. 

Sunday, 29 August 2021


 Some years ago I concluded that, whatever else is going on and whatever it might think it is doing, the West is in the process of committing suicide. By 'the West' I mean not only the geopolitical power block but also that precious bundle of hard-won freedoms, rights and principles that we think of, quite reasonably, as 'western values'. This suicide, driven by all manner of factors, some historical and deep-rooted, others of more recent vintage, is probably inevitable, and for now all I look for from any government, any polity, is some attempt to pause the process or, failing that, to slow it down for a while. By this criterion, the Trump presidency was quite successful, and the Biden presidency has been catastrophically bad. Trump might not have managed to put the brakes on, but Biden has pressed down so hard on the accelerator that his foot is through the floor. Thanks to his staggeringly inept handling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the world has been shown with unmistakable clarity that the US (and by extension the West) is an enemy that need not be feared and a friend that cannot be trusted. The Chinese Communist Party will continue on its road to hegemony unimpeded, as will Iran in the Middle East, and Russia wherever it fancies. We can be pretty sure that nothing will be learned from what has happened, except by our enemies. The end is not nigh, but after this fiasco it is surely drawing nearer. Still, chin up, eh?
[I shall not be returning to this topic. Normal service will resume very soon.]

Saturday, 28 August 2021

Two Adlestrops

 If, by some deep injustice, Edward Thomas were to end up as one of those poets remembered for one much-anthologised poem, there is no doubting which it would be: this short, beautiful evocation of so much – 

Yes. I remember Adlestrop—
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop—only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

It is a poem that seems to have haunted the English imagination ever since it became widely known (it was not published in Thomas's lifetime). The centenary of the incident that inspired it was celebrated in grand style (in 2014) with a special Cotswold Line train, the Adlestrop Centenary Special, running from Oxford to Moreton-in-Marsh, with a respectful halt at the site of what was once Adlestrop station.  Festivities in the village itself included a reading of the poem by Robert Hardy.
In the 1970s, as I discovered last night, browsing in his Collected Poems, Peter Porter had his own experience of an Adlestrop interlude, one very different from Edward Thomas's. The poem that commemorates it is also very different from Thomas's, which Porter describes as 'Not a great poem, but rich in names And heartaches'. Porter's poem is rich in atmosphere and observed detail – both quite different from Thomas's, as is the season, though the day is hot, 'A sinisterly fine October afternoon'. The air of Porter's death-infused poem is oppressive, where Thomas's is rapt, peaceful, enchanted. But Porter is finally grateful to have had this strange, unexpected moment...

Good Vibes
for Shena Mackay

If you hadn't notice the unprominent sign
We'd have missed Adlestrop, missed the gone
Railway and the bullock raking his back
In the hollow holly-bower. Missed, too, the sky
So intolerably lofty in its beakered blue
And the loping dog which frightened me
(Which is how I know he was friendly) –
Most noticeably missed the station bench
And ADLESTROP, the railway sign, with Edward
Thomas's poem on a plaque for pilgrims.
Not a great poem, but rich in names
And heartache and certainly a focus for
A sinisterly fine October afternoon.
Down one lane adjacent the Home for Children,
(With what impediment we never found),
All the day-labourers of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire
Were about their honey-making masonry
Of Cotswold stone, and the bullocks were nifty
In the meadow by the creek. There were no
Devils in the landscape, exhalations from
Ponds and dogs' breath and graveyards after rain
Could only be imagined in such unexpected sunshine,
But we felt them, felt a new humidity,
Oppressive like the self. This was a short halt
On two pilgrimages, a look-back out of Hades, 
Such as the gods provide for laughter in their
Chronicles. Yet that sound, that risible division,
Strikes mortal earth some otherwise – such as
Gravel flicking from a low-slung bumper,
A trailing jet above, a jostling on the eaves
Of sycamores. It was as if the well-intentioned 
Dead were breathing out and blessing everyone,
Vibrations of the minute, without franchise,
A pointless benediction. Thinking again, I feel
Grateful that you saw through uncleaned windows
A name which meant the same to all half-educated
Persons. To have trod on ground in happiness
Is to be shaken by the true immortals.

The dedicatee of this jokily titled (but deadly serious) poem is the Scottish novelist and short story writer Shena Mackay, whose stories I remember greatly admiring back in the Eighties and Nineties (perhaps I should revisit them). Happily, unlike Porter, she is still with us. 


Monday, 23 August 2021

'The last trustworthy vessel of the inner life'

'Hierarchy, to be sure, is an off-putting notion, invoking high and low; and high smacks of snobbery and anti-egalitarianism. But hierarchy also points to the recognition of distinctions, and – incontrovertibly – the life of intellect is perforce hierarchical: it insists that one thing is not the same as another thing. A novel concerned with English country-house romances is not the same as a tract on slavery in Antigua. A department of English is not the same as a Marxist tutorial. A rap CD is not the same as academic scholarship. A suicide bomber who blows up a pizzeria crowded with baby carriages is not the same as a nation-builder.'
   That's Cynthia Ozick, in an essay titled 'Highbrow Blues', published in the collection The Din in the Head and written the best part of 20 years ago, but now seeming truer than ever. Her essay takes off from Jonathan Franzen's famous refusal to appear on the Oprah Winfrey show to talk about his novel The Corrections. Franzen declared himself to be 'solidly in the high-art literary tradition'. What was it, Ozick asks, that made that assertion seem so strikingly off-key? Well, for one thing, that 'high-art literary tradition' had all but disappeared. Apart from the occasional out-of-nowhere controversy like the one kicked up by Franzen's great refusal, books were no longer stirring up much public interest at all; new publications were rarely, if ever, 'events', still less 'cultural markers'. 
   She cites as evidence the near silence that greeted Philip Roth's Shop Talk: A Writer and His Colleagues and Their Works, published in the same year as The Corrections. That silence she contrasts with the furious buzz that surrounded Normal Mailer's similar and much inferior Advertisements for Myself in 1959. In the intervening years, 'a pervasive indifference to serious critical writing' had grown up. And that indifference has only become more marked in the years since Ozick's essay, largely because literary criticism has been taken over by an ever more inturned, obscurantist and ideologically motivated Adademe. 
   And what of the novel? In the next essay, 'The Din in the Head', Ozick wonder if the literary novel is, 'like the personal essay, in danger of obsolescence'. She thinks not, if only because, in Henry James's words, 'It can do simply everything.' She declares that, 'if the novel were to wither – if, say, it metamorphosed altogether into a species of journalism or movies, as many popular novels already have – then the last trustworthy vessel of the inner life (apart from our heads) would crumble away'. Which is not to say it could not happen, nor that it might not have happened already. That vessel might have sailed... Has it?

Saturday, 21 August 2021


 Dame Janet Baker is 88 today. 
Here she is singing Strauss's 'Morgen' (with a young Kenneth Sillitoe on violin). Not a great recording technically – but oh, the beauty!

Friday, 20 August 2021

Snail Anthology, and an Insect

 A mini-anthology of snail poems could be extracted from this blog. Over the years I have posted snail-themed lines from Shakespeare (Venus and Adonis, as joyously quoted by Keats in a letter written from Box Hill) –

'As the snail, whose tender horns being hit,
Shrinks back into his shelly cave with pain
And there all smothered up in shade doth sit,
Long after fearing to put forth again:
So at his bloody view her eyes are fled,
Into the deep dark Cabins of her head.'

Then Cowper, beguiled by the secure self-sufficiency of a creature that carries its home on its back –

'The Snail

To grass, or leaf, or fruit, or wall,
The snail sticks close, nor fears to fall,
As if he grew there, house and all

Within that house secure he hides,
When danger imminent betides
Of storm, or other harm besides
                                                Of weather.

Give but his horns the slightest touch,
His self-collecting power is such,
He shrinks into his house, with much

Where’er he dwells, he dwells alone,
Except himself has chattels none,
Well satisfied to be his own
                                                Whole treasure.

Thus, hermit-like, his life he leads,
Nor partner of his banquet needs,
And if he meets one, only feeds
                                                The faster.

Who seeks him must be worse than blind,
(He and his house are so combin’d)
If, finding it, he fails to find 

Its master.' 

Marianne Moore, like Keats and Shakespeare, is impressed by the 'contractility' of the snail's 'occipital horn' – 

'To a Snail
If “compression is the first grace of style,”
you have it. Contractility is a virtue
as modesty is a virtue.
It is not the acquisition of any one thing
that is able to adorn,
or the incidental quality that occurs
as a concomitant of something well said,
that we value in style,
but the principle that is hid:
in the absence of feet, “a method of conclusions”;
“a knowledge of principles,”
in the curious phenomenon of your occipital horn.
Author’s Notes:“Compression is the first grace of style”: Democritus.
“Method of conclusions”; “knowledge of principles”: Duns Scotus.'

Thom Gunn attempts to enter the mysterious nocturnal world of the snail, moving 'in a wood of desire' (it is hard to escape the erotic subtext) –
'Considering the Snail

The snail pushes through a green
night, for the grass is heavy
with water and meets over
the bright path he makes, where rain
has darkened the earth's dark. He
moves in a wood of desire,

pale antlers barely stirring
as he hunts. I cannot tell
what power is at work, drenched there
with purpose, knowing nothing.
What is a snail's fury? All
I think is that if later

I parted the blades above
the tunnel and saw the thin
trail of broken white across
litter, I would never have
imagined the slow passion
to that deliberate progress.'

And now I have found a worthy new entry for the snail anthology – a fine poem by Janet Lewis (best known perhaps for her novel The Wife of Martin Guerre). Like Gunn, she attempts to enter the snail's world, but hers is the poem of a gardener, and it ends (uniquely?) with the poet, 'taking sides in the universe', dealing death to her subject. 
'Snail Garden
This is the twilight hour of the morning
When the snails retreat over the wet grass
To their hidden world, when my dreams, retreating,
Leave me wondering what wisdom goes with them,
What hides in mouldering earth.
Softly they go, the snails,
Naked, unguarded, perceptive
Of the changing light, rejoicing
In their slow progress from leaf to stem,
From stem to deeper darkness.
Smoothness delights them.

What do they hear? The air above them
Is full of the sharp cries of birds.
Do they see? The lily bud,
Three feet above the soil on its leafy stalk,
Is known to them at midnight
As if it were a lighthouse. Before sunrise
They have gnawed it half in two.
Toothless mouths, blind mouths
Have turned the leaf of the hollyhock to lace,
And cut the stem of the nasturtium
Neatly, just below the blossom.

The classic shell, cunningly arched, and strong
Against the hazards of the grassy world
Is nothing before the power of my intention.
The larks, also, have had their fun,
Crashing that coiled shell on stone,
Guiltless in their freedom.

But I have taken sides in the universe.
I have killed the snail that lay on the morning leaf,
Not grudging greatly the nourishment it took
Out of my abundance,
Chard, periwinkle, capucine,
Occasional lily bud,
But I have begun my day with death,
Death given, death to be received.
I have stepped into the dance;
I have greeted at daybreak
That necessary angel, that other.'
Janet Lewis also wrote one of the best, most acutely observant and imaginative, of all butterfly poems (and she wrote it at the age of 95) –

The Insect

The power and mystery are there,

Relentless grandeur, as the wet insect

Struggles to rise, to cleanse the jointed foreleg,

Sleek the folded wings.

Bound in the liquid of the long enchantment,

Predestined from the days

When it crawled softly

With its many feet

On twig and stock and clung at last

To wind itself for sleep,

Imprisoned in its destiny, can it

Foresee the sunlit moment,

The lifting air beneath,

The rainbowed wings?’