Friday, 31 December 2021

Looking Back

 As 2021 staggers to an end, it's time to look back over a year that has been, for me, rather more mixed than most. It was the year in which, after 71 years of almost uninterrupted good health, I discovered that my mortal frame was, after all, liable to various afflictions – all dealt with now, but very tiresome at the time. And it was a year in which the derangement and dehumanisation of the larger world, driven by the hysterical reaction to a virus, reached such a pitch that at times the psychic weather penetrated even my usually unconquerable soul.
  However, however, however... This blog is A Hedonic Resource or it is nothing. So, let us look back on the high points of 2021. Although the New Zealand family remain in enforced exile, thanks to that country's insane approach to the virus, the family in England was enlarged by one more grandson, the delightful and adorable Jack – and, by moving to Lichfield, that family made my life even more Mercian and opened the pleasing prospect of a future life in that fine city. 
  In January, the month of Jack's birth, I discovered the delicious and health-giving aperitif Cynar , and on the 2nd of February, Candlemas, I saw my first butterfly of the year. Later that month I finished, with regret, my reading of Willa Cather's novels with One of Ours. In March I read Samuel Beckett's extraordinary fragment of Johnsonian drama, Human Wishes,  and in April found a church open and unrestricted at last. The swifts returned on May 4th, only to disappear again while the weather deteriorated, before staging a triumphant summer comeback. Also in May I embarked on another 'big read', The Maias by Eça de Queiroz, a hugely enjoyable classic. In June I happened upon the rather wonderful paintings of Jon Redmond, and, in an unrelated development, was converted to pyjamas. I think it was in this month too that I was startled by a communication from a respectable publisher expressing apparently genuine interest in the little butterfly book that I had written over the winter. I have yet to discover what will come of this (as I noted only yesterday, publishing is slow...).
  In July I enjoyed (and reviewed) Adam Nicolson's The Sea Is Not Made of Water, and attended a very moving and beautiful funeral. In August I read an enjoyable memoir of Ivy Compton-Burnett by her typist, Cecily Greig. September brought a memorable, indeed magical church-crawling moment in Lincolnshire, and an equally memorable and magical end to the butterfly year. I also enjoyed Roger Scruton's Our Church and Anne Harvey's anthology Elected Friends: Poems For and About Edward Thomas. October began with the wonderful Helen Frankenthaler exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery, and ended with my first walk in a long while with my walking friends. In November I came across a slim volume that has given me much pleasure – John Betjeman's Church Poems, illustrated by John Piper, and in December I treated myself to a facsimile edition of Moses Harris's beautiful butterfly book, The Aurelian.
  Much else has happened in my world in this rather too eventful year, and I have enjoyed many more books and poems, paintings, pieces of music and (of course) butterflies than are mentioned here, but those are some of the highlights. I look forward to many more small and large pleasures in the year that is about to unfold, and in that spirit I wish all who browse here a very Happy New Year.

Thursday, 30 December 2021

Publishing Fast and Slow

 In August 1831 Thomas Carlyle came down to London from Craigenputtock to find a publisher for his genre-breaking philosophical novel Sartor Resartus. He left it at the offices of John Murray, with a note requesting that 'no time may be lost in deciding on it' and declaring that 'At latest next Wednesday I shall wait upon you...' This is pretty pushy behaviour for a not very well known journalist and essayist, and suggests that publishing then was, shall we say, a rather more urgent affair than it is now. 
  Next Wednesday, however, came and went with no word from Murray, so Carlyle took to calling in at the office, always finding Murray out of town. He became increasingly exasperated – 'I have lost ten days by him already' – but eventually Murray agreed to publish. At this point, Carlyle made a fatal mistake by approaching another publisher to see if he could get a better offer. Learning of this, Murray decided to send the manuscript out to a literary friend for an opinion on its merits and its commercial potential. This friend, Henry Hart Milman, reported that Sartor Resartus was too clever, too German, too whimsical, too elaborate and too long to find many English readers. On 6 October Jane Carlyle wrote to her mother: 'They are not going to print the book after all – Murray has lost heart lest it do not take with the public and so like a stupid ass, as he is, has sent the manuscript back.'*
  Murray's decision was commercially sound: it would be some years before Sartor Resartus began to be widely read and regarded as a classic (if one that has hardly survived to our time). What is surprising, though, is the speed with which all this was transacted – less than two months from Carlyle's delivery of the manuscript to its final rejection, with at least one serious reading, an initial acceptance and Carlyle's fatal mistake along the way. In that more leisurely age, publishing seems to have moved remarkably fast.
  Things were very different when, in 1963, Cynthia Ozick set about getting her first novel published. In her essay 'James, Tolstoy, and My First Novel', she recalls how it took three whole years to achieve publication: six months waiting for the editor who had initially accepted it to come up with the 'suggestions' he had promised to supply; a further 12 months of waiting while said editor assured her he was working on a long list of 'suggestions'; an interview in the course of which it became clear that he had no such list; the eventual delivery, from another editor, of the first 100 pages of the manuscript, densely covered with scribbled 'suggestions'; Ozick's rejection of all these 'suggestions', the editor's agreement, and finally, eventually, publication of Trust, her first novel, exactly as she wrote it. Today, I fear, she would have had many more obstacles – minefields indeed – to negotiate on her way to publication. And it is still a slow, slow business...

* I take all this from Dear Mr Murray: Letters to a Gentleman Publisher, an excellent browsing book that I was given for Christmas. 
  

Sunday, 26 December 2021

Christmas Prevails

 Well, I managed to get to the cathedral on Christmas morning, and the service did not disappoint. Well, as it was Choral Eucharist, with the splendid organ and the fine choir providing the music, how could it? Even the sermon impressed: the nonsense quotient was gratifyingly low, there was at least one genuine laugh, and it developed into a very sound exposition of the mystery of the Incarnation, taking as its starting point the line (from 'Hark the Herald Angels Sing') 'Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see'. This, we were told, was voted the second most heretical line from a hymn in a recent Twitter poll – though, as the preacher (in fact the Bishop himself) pointed out, those who would vote in such a poll can scarcely be said to be representative of the UK population. The most heretical line, by a large margin, was from 'Away in a Manger' – 'The little Lord Jesus no crying he makes' (if Jesus was fully incarnate, he would surely have cried as lustily as any other newborn). Anyway, it was the beauty of the music, and of the glorious building itself, that made this a Christmas morning service to lift the spirits and revive the soul. Christmas had prevailed over Xmas, as it always, somehow, does. 

Friday, 24 December 2021

Happy Christmas

A happy Christmas and an altogether better new year to all who browse here.

Wednesday, 22 December 2021

Past and Present

 In a passage in his English Hours, Henry James pays a visit to Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire (which seems to have presented a livelier, and certainly a drunker, scene then than it does now it's an English Heritage site). Finding that 'there was still a good deal of old England in the scene', James goes on: 'Who shall resolve into its component parts any impression of this richly complex English world, where the present is always seen, as it were, in profile, and the past presents a full face?' 
  It's a striking phrase, and true, and not only of England. The present is always passing before us, on its way to somewhere else – that somewhere else being, of course, the past, which is indeed all around us, presenting its full face, or the remnants of its full face – though what we see of it might equally be regarded as the back view of something still retreating. Whatever, the past is inescapably present in the fabric of England – no more so than in, say, Italy or Greece, but certainly more so than in James's native America. What gives this presence in England its special character is, I think, one thing more than any other: the ubiquity of the English parish church, nearly always old or designed in homage to the old, and present in practically every village, however remote. The steeple of the parish church, appearing above trees, or rising above a cluster of buildings, standing high on a hill or out in the fields, deserted by its village, is perhaps the defining image of England (and the soundtrack would be the gentle cawing of rooks). 
  All of which calls for a church poem. Not 'Church Going' again, not a Betjeman, but this, by U.A. [Ursula] Fanthorpe, about one of the oldest churches in England still in something like its original form – the wood-built Saxon church of Greensted in Essex...

Stone has a turn for speech.
Felled wood is silent
As mown grass at mid-day.

These sliced downright baulks
Still bear the scabbed bark
Of unconquered Epping
Though now they shore up
Stone, brick, glass, gutter
Instead of leaf or thrush.

Processing pilgrims,
The marvels that drew them –
Headless king, holy wolf –
Have all fined down to 
Postcards, a guidebook, 
Matins on Sunday.

So old it remembers
The people praying
Outside in the rain
Like football crowds. So old
Its priests flaunted tonsures
As if they were war-cries.

Odd, fugitive, like
A river's headwaters
Sliding a desultory 
Course into history. 

Saturday, 18 December 2021

Best Before

 Earlier today, delving in the recesses of the food cupboard, I found the jar of mixed spice I was looking for, and glanced at the label to see what the 'Best Before' date might be. Reader, it was August 1996. This jar of mixed spice had achieved its silver anniversary – impressive, eh? In the month in which is ceased to be Best, we were on a family holiday at Port de Pollença, Majorca, with our then teenage children – the only all-in sun-and-sand package holiday we ever took (our other hols were rather more bespoke).  How long ago it seems. How long ago it was...
  And now, back in the present, I'm getting ready to head back to Mercia tomorrow – to Derbyshire this time. 

Storm and Balm

 First, I must apologise for the lack of blogging activity over the past week or so. The reasons are not far to seek...
  Back when I was a working man, I fondly imagined that by retiring I would escape the relentless pre-Christmas workstorm that was an inevitable feature of my line of work (and no, I wasn't a department-store Santa). Little did I realise then that the domestic pre-Christmas workstorm can blow just as fiercely as the work one, especially when complicated by much toing and froing to and fro Lichfield, and such matters as my continuing unshakable 'supercold', and a broken-down boiler depriving the house of heating and hot water (fixed now, I'm glad to say). My pre-Christmas mood is, alas, no more festive than it was in my working days, and I look on aghast yet again at the unfolding horror of Xmas (X for Xcess), that frenzy of getting and spending whose spirit seems so entirely divorced from that of Christmas itself, the religious festival that will begin on Christmas Day. I am sure, by the way, that this year's bombardment of ear-bleedingly awful 'festive' 'music' has been louder and more relentless than ever, with yet more emphasis placed on the most unbearable songs, even the most unbearable cover versions of the most unbearable songs. Or is that just me?
  Anyway, happily, Christmas – the real Christmas – is coming, and here is a little balm for the spirit – a poem, a simple hymn without music, to remind us of its realities. Richard Wilbur takes his cue not from the Nativity story itself but from Luke's account of Jesus's triumphal entry into Jerusalem...

          A Christmas Hymn

And some of the Pharisees from among the multitude said unto him, Master, rebuke thy disciples. And he answered and said unto them, I tell you that, if these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out. - St. Luke XIX.39-40

A stable-lamp is lighted
Whose glow shall wake the sky;
The stars shall bend their voices,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry,
And straw like gold shall shine;
A barn shall harbor heaven,
A stall become a shrine.

This child through David’s city
Shall ride in triumph by;
The palm shall strew its branches,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry,
Though heavy, dull, and dumb,
And lie within the roadway
To pave his kingdom come.

Yet he shall be forsaken,
And yielded up to die;
The sky shall groan and darken,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry
For stony hearts of men:
God’s blood upon the spearhead,
God’s love refused again.

But now, as at the ending,
The low is lifted high;
The stars shall bend their voices,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry
In praises of the child
By whose descent among us
The worlds are reconciled.

Sunday, 12 December 2021

From Johnson to James – and Richard Cockle Lucas

 For reasons unknown, my recent post showing the statue of Dr Johnson under the Christmas lights in Lichfield's market place attracted more views than anything I have put up in a long time – is the good Doctor popular in Sweden perhaps, where an increasingly large number of my readers are to be found, according to Blogger stats (Norway, recently so dominant, seems to have lost interest)? 
  The statue gets a mention from an unimpressed Henry James in English Hours (1905). He describes it as 'a huge effigy of Dr Johnson, the genius loci, who was constructed, humanly, with very nearly as large an architecture as the great abbey [i.e. cathedral]'. James describes the statue as made of 'some inexpensive composite painted a shiny brown, and of no great merit of design'. This is a harsh judgment indeed, but if the statue was covered with shiny brown paint when James saw it, he would hardly have formed a good impression of it. The paint has long gone, revealing what certainly looks more like real stone than any cheap composite.
  The Johnson statue was carved by a sculptor who rejoiced in the name Richard Cockle Lucas, and whose other works included a wax bust of Flora that was bought for a very large sum by Wilhelm von Bode, general manager of the Prussian Art Collections, for the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin. This gentleman was convinced the bust was by Leonardo, and continued to believe this even after Lucas's son, the ambitiously named Albert Dürer Lucas, testified under oath that his father had made it from old candle ends and stuffed it with various bits of rubbish, including newspapers. When staff at the Berlin museum examined the bust, they did indeed find crumpled newspapers from the 1840s stuffed inside it, but that too failed to shake Bode's belief that it was a Leonardo. 
  Richard Cockle Lucas became increasingly eccentric as he grew older, becoming a firm believer in fairies, and riding around Southampton in a Roman chariot. His visiting cards show him posing in a variety of character costumes. This one shows him 'as a necromancer' –

But to return to Lichfield (as I am doing tomorrow), James goes on to be duly impressed by the cathedral and its close, and rightly praises the work of George Gilbert Scott in 'undoing the misdeeds of the last century. This extraordinary period expended an incalculable amount of imagination in proving that it had none.' Falling under the spell of the great East windows (the glass of which was rescued from a ruined Belgian abbey and sold to the cathedral at cost by Brooke Boothby), James begins to sound almost like Ruskin. 'The great choir window of Lichfield is the noblest glass-work before the spell of which one's soul has become simple. I remember nowhere colours so chaste and grave, and yet so rich and true, or a cluster of designs so piously decorated and yet so vivified. Such a window as this seems to me the most scared ornament of a great church; to be, not like vault and screen and altar, the dim contingent promise to the spirit, but the very redemption of the whole vow.' No photograph can ever do justice to stained glass, but this gives a general impression of the glories of the East end of Lichfield cathedral...


Saturday, 11 December 2021

RIP

 Sorry to hear of the death of Michael Nesmith, the most musical and original of the Monkees and, more to the point, an under-appreciated pioneer of country rock. While the Eagles soared to stratospheric fame (on wings as eagles, as it were), Nesmith's efforts with his First National Band and on his own met with little success. One of his later albums is ruefully titled And The Hits Just Keep On Comin'. They didn't (though his song Different Drum was a massive hit for Linda Ronstadt and others).
I've always liked this song, from the album Loose Salute...

Thursday, 9 December 2021

What on earth?

 I just came across this photograph, and wondered what on earth it could be...
It is, in fact, Michelangelo's great statue of David, in situ and entirely encased in a brick 'hive' to protect it from bomb damage in 1943 (in the event, when Florence was bombed in 1944, great care was taken to avoid all its artistic treasures). It's an extraordinary image, almost a work of art in its own right – Michelangelo meets Carl Andre. What would it have been like to be present when the statue was liberated from its brick prison? Imagine it emerging, detail by detail, until there was he was, the mighty David, in all his glory.

Wednesday, 8 December 2021

Gold

 Among my presents yesterday was a very welcome copy of Richard Wilbur's New and Collected Poems (Harcourt Brace, 1988). This handsome edition will replace my Collected Poems 1943-2004 (Waywiser, 2005), which, though obviously more complete, is not an attractive volume and, being too thick for its binding, has split in half along the spine. 
  After an initial flick through the New & Collected, I decided to open it at random (the Sortes Wilburianae) and see what I found. And I struck gold – this:

Part of a Letter

Easy as cove-water rustles its pebbles and shells
In the slosh, spread, seethe, and the backsliding
Wallop and tuck of the wave, and just that cheerful,
             Tables and earth were riding

Back and forth in the minting shades of the trees.
There were whiffs of anise, a clear clinking 
Of coins and glasses, a still crepitant sound
            Of the earth in the garden drinking

The late rain. Rousing again, the wind
Was swashing the shadows in relay races
Of sun-spangles over the hands and clothes
           And the drinkers' dazzled faces,

So that when somebody spoke, and asked the question
Comment s'apelle cet arbre-là?
A girl had gold on her tongue, and gave the answer:
          Ca, c'est l'acacia.

Not a big, showy poem, but a perfect miniature, demonstrating Wilbur's technical mastery, his feel for light and water, his brilliant evocation of scene and mood, the music of his language, the exuberant sense of joy and plentitude that his best poems convey. It's from his second collection, Ceremony and Other Poems, and somehow I had never come across it before.
  And then this morning, browsing in one of my local charity shops, I spotted Thom Gunn's Poems 1950-1966: A Selection – the 1969 Faber paperback, in astonishingly good condition, priced at, er, £1.00. It is now, needless to say, mine. 

Tuesday, 7 December 2021

Birthday

 Another year gone, and me and Tom Waits turn 72 today. I don't know what he's doing, but me I'm hunkering down, concentrating on staying warm and trying to shake off this interminable cough/cold/catarrh/whatever the hell it is – it's been with me a month now and shows no sign of getting better. Hey ho. 

Monday, 6 December 2021

'Let me go there'

St Nicholas' Day already... Time for an Advent poem.
Here is one by R.S. Thomas – 'The Coming'. There's a flavour of George Herbert here, but with an overlay of bleakness that is all Thomas's own.

And God held in his hand
A small globe. Look, he said.
The son looked. Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour. The light burned
There; crusted buildings
Cast their shadows: a bright
Serpent, a river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
With slime.
                        On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky. Many People
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs. The son watched
Them. Let me go there, he said.

Sunday, 5 December 2021

Reminder

 It's time for my annual reminder that Christmas is coming and, if you're short of a present or stocking filler for 'anyone interested in churches, in the lost corners of England, or in meditating on mortality' (to quote one of the reviews), you could do worse than slip them a copy of The Mother of Beauty: On the Golden Age of English Church Monuments, and Other Matters of Life and Death. It's still available on Amazon, or, if you'd prefer to bypass Bezos, direct from me at nigeandrew@gmail.com.

The Aurelian

 In the interests of research and my own aesthetic pleasure (always a winning combo), I recently bought a copy of the 1986 facsimile edition of Moses Harris's The Aurelian, or Natural History of English Insects; Namely, Moths and Butterflies, Together with the Plants on which they Feed. First published in 1766, this is the most charming, accomplished and beautiful butterfly book of the Georgian age – some might say, of any age, though of course the text reflects the limited entomological knowledge of its time. Our knowledge of Moses Harris is limited too – even the date of his death is unknown – but he describes himself as a 'Painter who has made this Part of Natural History his Study and has bred most of the Flies [butterflies] and Insects for these twenty years'. The delightful frontispiece of The Aurelian is almost certainly a self-portrait, showing Harris elegantly dressed and posing at his ease, his long, two-handled net on his knees, and some of his prize catches displayed around him in oval boxes. The setting is gloriously sylvan, and in the woodland ride behind him a fellow enthusiast stalks his prey. Beneath this idyllic image of an English aurelian's paradise are inscribed words from Psalm 111: 'The works of the Lord are great, sought out of all them that have pleasure therein.'

Pleasure and beauty, and the pursuit thereof, were the guiding principles of the Society of Aurelians, whose interest in butterflies was as much aesthetic as scientific, and whose meetings were well lubricated and convivial affairs (in the course of one of them, still in session after midnight, a disastrous fire broke out that destroyed their meeting place at the Swan tavern in Change Alley and forced them to make a hasty escape into the night, leaving the Society's records and collections to the flames). 
The plates in The Aurelian each show a selection of butterflies, moths and other insects, some of them with their caterpillars and chrysalids, all accurately drawn from life, brought together into a complete, balanced, artistically satisfying composition. Often a vase of flowers or some other not strictly relevant prop is included, brought in purely to perfect the beauty of the finished plate. And very beautiful these illustrations are. 

This plate features one of my favourite butterflies, the White Admiral (along with five moths – the Figure Eight, the Brown Plumed, the Scarce Silver Lines, the Chimney Sweeper and the Red Arches). Of the 'White Admirable', as he calls it, Moses Harris writes, disarmingly: 
'In all my researches in the Insect World, I have not been able to discover the Caterpillar of this excellent Fly. I have watched the females several times in the woods, thinking to find them laying their eggs; I have likewise beat every tree and shrub I could think on, about a month before their time of flight, but to none effect; so all that I can inform my reader is, that the Fly may be taken in woods, where they are found in plenty the latter end of June, and beginning of July; they fly very rapidly, often skimming like a swallow, and are fond of settling on the leaves of the oak; sometimes they settle on the ground, in the shady paths of the woods: they are very timorous, and when persued, with wonderful swiftness dart over the tops of the highest trees, or settle on the topmost branches, where they will be sure to tire your patience ere they will remove...'
This beautiful book will do much to help me through the cold, dark, butterflyless months of winter. 




Friday, 3 December 2021

Nigeliana

 The one and only Dave Lull recently sent me a link to a piece in The Oldie written by a fellow member of the dwindling tribe of Nigels. Sadly no mention of Half Man Half Biscuit's Nigel Blackwell, or Spinal Tap's Nigel Tufnel, but otherwise it's a pretty good survey of Nigels past and present. 
  There is no denying that, as Nigel Pullman notes, the name has what might be called an 'image problem' – and one that seems to have deep roots. I was startled the other day to come across this passage in The Skin Chairs, a novel by the rather wonderful Barbara Comyns (The Vet's Daughter, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, etc.), written in 1962 but set in the Twenties. To set the scene... The young narrator is living with her family in reduced circumstances, and one of her older sisters, Polly, has become scandalously involved with a boy they nickname the Golden Boy, or Goldy. He is a last-year student at the local grammar school, but, 'unlike the other grammar school boys, he had a certain glamour, and we once overheard him tell a man at a petrol station [...] that he was joining his parents in the Middle East when he had finished his education. Although he was a boarder, he used to stroll around the town capless, his golden hair flowing and glowing in the sun, which always seemed to be shining on him. He walked with a casual grace and often had a faint smile on his face, which I thought attractive but Esmé said was a smirk. It was I who christened him the Golden Boy, and Esmé who remarked that all that glitters is not gold.'
In due course, Polly is rescued from her entanglement with the Golden Boy – whose name has now come to light –  and returns home to her family. 'Just as I was going to sleep I suddenly found myself laughing. "Nigel!" I whispered. "That's just the sort of name Goldy would have ... Nigel ..."' 
  Well really I meantersay chiz chiz, as my namesake N. Molesworth night say. 

Thursday, 2 December 2021

Turner Time Again

 Talking of vanity, I see that something called Array Collective has won this year's Turner Prize with a re-creation of an Irish pub interior. If only O'Neill's had thought to apply...
  Having recently read Peter Ackroyd's pithy short biography of Turner, I cannot imagine the great man approving of this, or almost any, winner of the prize awarded in his name. The whole thing has descended into a dismal farce, and should be either scrapped or renamed. A new Turner Prize for painting – you know, skilfully and artistically applying paint to a surface – might be an idea. There are still good painters out there.

Under the Lights

 Under the Christmas lights on Lichfield's market place, Samuel Johnson sits brooding on the vanity of human wishes. 
'Nothing is more hopeless than a scheme of merriment.'

Sunday, 28 November 2021

Oh for a Latibule...

 Thanks to Maya Oppenheimer (via Facebook), I have learnt a new word today: 'latibulate', verb. Actually, my Shorter Oxford gives it in the form 'latibulize' (v. rare, 1802), meaning 'To retire into a hiding-place or retreat'. In parentheses it adds, as well it might, '(for the winter'). The root is Latin latibulum, a hiding-place (hence English 'latibule'), from latere, to hide or be hidden (as in 'latent'). 
  To find a hiding-place in which to sit out the winter is an idea with considerable appeal for those of us who are easily drained and depressed by cold weather. And this winter, with the madness raging in the wider world, hiding away and sitting it out seems an even more attractive notion than usual. But alas, latibulation must remain a fond dream: the world is indeed too much with us, late and soon...
  While investigating 'latibulate' online, I came across an amusing and useful word of more recent origin: 'testiculate', verb, meaning 'to gesticulate wildly while talking bollocks'. The master testiculator used to be Andrew Marr; now, I suppose, it is Robert Peston. Or, on a bad day, Boris Johnson. 
  And now I'm returning to my latibule... No, I'm not – I'm off to Lichfield again tomorrow for a few days in the bosom of the f. It will be cold. 

Saturday, 27 November 2021

Restoration or Devaluation?

 Dispiriting reports from Paris of plans for the restored Notre Dame
This kind of thing – using the vast, eloquent space of a cathedral to project fashionable secular themes – is a noticeable trend in this country (e.g. the recent Science extravaganza hosted by Lichfield, among others), and, at a lowlier and less intrusive level, there is a tendency in parish churches to label such basics as altar, pulpit and font with a kindergarten-level explanation of their function. At least such explanatory apparatus has some Christian substance, but that is hard to discern in some of what is planned for Notre Dame, which seems more concerned with the new secular religions of environmentalism and inclusivity. 
  France being the kind of nation it is, Notre Dame has been through similar indignities before, notably in the Revolutionary period, when the great cathedral was desecrated, much of its iconography mutilated or destroyed, and the building dedicated to the, ahem, Cult of Reason. Notre Dame recovered from that, helped by Napoleon (who reconsecrated the building and had himself crowned there), Victor Hugo (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) and a surge of renewed interest in old buildings, led by the likes of the indefatigable 'restorer' Viollet-le-Duc, who conducted the great 19th-century restoration that gave us the Notre Dame we knew before the calamitous fire of 2019. 
  Heaven knows what the final results of this latest restoration will look – and feel – like, but these early reports are not hopeful. It would be a terrible shame if resources were sunk in the service of transient secular religions that could have been spent on serious, much needed conservation and restoration work. The imperative should always be to rebuild on the Venetian principle of 'Dov'era e com'era' (where it was and as it was), or indeed, in the English manner, to restore conservatively, with as little fakery, disguise and reconstruction as possible. What you then do with the restored building is a secondary question, for later consideration. In my view, there's a lot to be said for leaving these great monuments of faith to tell, by their structures and their very existence, the stories they have always told, even if fewer and fewer people are listening. 'In an attentive ear, the same far rumour swells', as Peter Scupham puts it, in his poem Dissolution. An empty shell can be resonant and even eloquent – certainly more so than an echo chamber of secular received wisdom... As Larkin writes at the end of 'Church Going' (written nearly 70 years ago now, in times when the church had a far stronger presence and clearer purpose than it seems to now),

For, though I've no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

Thursday, 25 November 2021

Homeric England

With the world growing ever madder, and in ever more alarming ways, it is a joy to come across a story like this – the chance discovery of a fine Roman mosaic under farmland in Rutland. What I find particularly cheering about it – and what makes it unique in England – is that the mosaic depicts a scene from the Iliad: the great fight between Hector and Achilles towards the end of the Trojan wars. I love the thought of a landowner in late Roman England amusing himself and his guests, and showing his deep cultural roots, with a high-quality depiction of a scene from Homer. And I love that this discovery has been made in Rutland, England's smallest county and one of its loveliest (in terms of rural landscape), an under-appreciated county nestling among the other under-appreciated counties of enduring Mercia. 
  Homer never went away, even in England. It was in the supposed Dark Ages that the history of Britain was linked to the Trojan wars by way of Brutus of Troy, a grandson or great grandson of Aeneas, who, banished from Italy after accidentally killing his father, wandered over much of Europe before settling in a country he named Britain, after himself, and filling it with his descendants. This foundation myth was presented as historical fact as late as the Elizabethan period, and there is even an 18th-century epic poem by one Hildebrand Jacob called Brutus the Trojan, Founder of the British Empire. The Homeric narrative has always been with us, and always will be – though that might be a rash assertion in these mad times. 

Wednesday, 24 November 2021

'The tattered cordage of my will'

 On this day in 1965, Larkin wrote, or signed off on, this one, 'How Distant' –


How distant, the departure of young men
Down valleys, or watching
The green shore past the salt-white cordage
Rising and falling.

Cattlemen, or carpenters, or keen
Simply to get away
From married villages before morning,
Melodeons play

On tiny decks past fraying cliffs of water
Or late at night
Sweet under the differently-swung stars,
When the chance sight

Of a girl doing her laundry in the steerage
Ramifies endlessly.
This is being young,
Assumption of the startled century

Like new store clothes,
The huge decisions printed out by feet
Inventing where they tread,
The random windows conjuring a street.

I realise, having checked, that I've written about it before – here – but I make no apologies for posting it again, as I believe it is one of Larkin's finest short poems, evoking a lost world ('how distant') with a precise perfection of touch. It is moving too, in a similar way to the more famous 'MCMXIV'. 
  The 'salt-white cordage' in the third line puts me in mind of a very different poem by a very different poet (and probably the best he wrote) – Frank O'Hara's 'To the Harbormaster':

I wanted to be sure to reach you;
though my ship was on the way it got caught   
in some moorings. I am always tying up   
and then deciding to depart. In storms and   
at sunset, with the metallic coils of the tide   
around my fathomless arms, I am unable   
to understand the forms of my vanity   
or I am hard alee with my Polish rudder   
in my hand and the sun sinking. To   
you I offer my hull and the tattered cordage   
of my will. The terrible channels where   
the wind drives me against the brown lips   
of the reeds are not all behind me. Yet   
I trust the sanity of my vessel; and   
if it sinks, it may well be in answer   
to the reasoning of the eternal voices,
the waves which have kept me from reaching you.

Tuesday, 23 November 2021

Dame Partington and The Outrage

 My visit to the barber's this morning was disappointing (though the haircut was up to standard). Hoping for the usual vigorously expressed Jeremiad on the state of things in general, I was instead regaled with a blow-by-blow account of a difficult house move and subsequent neighbour dispute. The weather came up though, as it always does: now that the unseasonably warm period has ended, all the talk is of imminent snowfall, to hit us – here in the mild Southeast – by the weekend. I guess it is the English way always to look forward to worse weather if the current situation doesn't afford enough to complain about.
  It's actually a rather lovely day out there – coldish but sunny, with blue skies. The catastrophists should count themselves lucky they weren't around on this day in 1824, when a horrific gale and storm that became known as 'The Outrage' hit the Dorset coast, flooding the river valleys and breaching the formidable Chesil Bank, destroying some 80 houses and drowning around 50 or 60 people. The other great shingle bank, Hurst Spit, was 'moved bodily forward for 40 yards' (according to the geologist Charles Lyell). Wrecks littered the coast, and the Plymouth breakwater, Weymouth esplanade and the Cobb at Lyme Regis were ruined. At Sidmouth, the Rev. Sydney Smith recalled in a speech in Parliament some years later,
'In the winter of 1824, there set in a great flood upon that town – the tide rose to an incredible height – the waves rushed in upon the houses, and everything was threatened with destruction. In the midst of this sublime and terrible storm, Dame Partington, who lived upon the beach, was seen at the door of her house with mop and pattens, trundling her mop, squeezing out the sea water and vigorously punching away the Atlantic Ocean. The Atlantic was roused.'
For a while, Dame Partington and her mop became a popular image for those trying to hold back the rising tide of political reform. 

Sunday, 21 November 2021

Men Improve with the Years (claims poet)

 For some unknown reason, this poem by W.B. Yeats turned up on my Facebook today. 
Has word got out that I am a weather-worn, marble triton?
The title is 'Men Improve with the Years', which sounds like Yeatsian wishful thinking. 'Is this my dream, or the truth?' 

I am worn out with dreams;
A weather-worn, marble triton
Among the streams;
And all day long I look
Upon this lady's beauty
As though I had found in a book
A pictured beauty,
Pleased to have filled the eyes
Or the discerning ears,
Delighted to be but wise,
For men improve with the years;
And yet, and yet,
Is this my dream, or the truth?
O would that we had met
When I had my burning youth!
But I grow old among dreams,
A weather-worn, marble triton
Among the streams.

Daybed Reading

 Apologies for the hiatus. Ever since I reported, 12 days ago, that I had been afflicted by a mystery bug but was over it (see 'Hedy Stuff'), I have been  nursing, with ill grace, what has to be described as a 'cold', that most inadequate of all quasi-medical terms. An unshakable cough, a staggeringly productive nose and the attendant sleeplessness and prostration have dogged me, in varying proportions, ever since that previous bug went its way.  There have been further complications too, but I don't want to turn this blog into a medical bulletin board.
  All this has, as you might imagine, somewhat reduced my reading, but I found solace in a volume of 'Familiar Essays' by Joseph Epstein entitled Once More Around the Block. I've enjoyed everything I've come across by Epstein and always found him wonderfully readable – 'full of matter', as Dr Johnson would put it, but unfailingly entertaining. So Once More was ideal reading for the daybed. Epstein muses elegantly on various themes – the pleasures of work and neighbourhood, bookshops and language snobbery (much to disagree with there) – but I think the essay I've most enjoyed so far is one on humour (of which Epstein has a great deal more than most contemporary writers). From this essay ('What's So Funny?') I pass on a couple of classic putdowns. This is Sydney Smith on the unstoppable talker Macaulay: 'He has occasional flashes of silence that make his conversation perfectly delightful' (I'm sure was can all think of others of whom that might be said). And here is Evelyn Waugh on learning that a benign tumour had been removed from the lung of his friend Randolph Churchill: 'It was a typical triumph of modern science to find the only part of Randolph that was not malignant and remove it.' That's fine, if perhaps a little laboured, but my favourite of the putdowns quoted by Epstein was from Max Beerbohm (something of an Epstein hero), talking about William Morris: 'Of course we all know that Morris was a wonderful all-round man, but the act of walking round him has always tired me.' This is typical Max – the gentlest of putdowns but wonderfully deflating. He always implies (disingenuously enough) that the fault might be his that he cannot raise his appreciation to the level required by such a cultural colossus as Morris. Or William James, of whom he once wrote that 'I was insensible to his thrillingness' (the perfect word). I'm looking forward to reading the rest of these essays – and to finally shaking off this interminable 'cold'.
(Here are William Morris and Edward Burne Jones, as imagined by Max, sharing the settle at Red Lion Square)...



Monday, 15 November 2021

'Kirkby with Muckby-cum-Sparrowby-cum-Spinx...'

 Well, it's a slim volume, so it won't take any shelf space, and it's a knockdown price, and fate has clearly thrown it in my way... So I reasoned with myself as I put up a token resistance to the inevitable purchase of John Betjeman's Church Poems, illustrated by John Piper (John Murray, 1981, condition v.g. with dust-wrapper, £2.99), spotted on the shelves of one of my regular charity shops this morning. It's a lovely volume (though the jacket colour is a slightly bilious mustard yellow), and Piper's elegant, lightly drawn sketches perfectly complement Betjeman's poems. 
   The first entry is a Lincolnshire poem – in fact, the first that Betjeman wrote about a part of the country he knew well and loved above all other maritime counties except, of course, Cornwall. 'A Lincolnshire Tale', a mock-Gothic ballad in a springy anapaestic meter, was inspired by the out-of-the-way churches of the Lincolnshire Wolds, a part of the country he knew particularly well from visits to his friend Noel Blakiston at Kirkby-on-Bain, near Horncastle. 'Kirkby' is the only authentic place name in the poem, the others being highly plausible inventions. I find it all very evocative, having been in the Lincolnshire Wolds only recently; in particular it puts me in mind of following an uncertain path across exposed open land, beside rivers and drains, to reach the little churches of St Adelwold, Alvingham, and St Mary, North Cockerington, which stand within yards of each other in the same remote churchyard. Below is my picture of one of them, I think North Cockerington. And here is 'A Lincolnshire Tale' – 

Kirkby with Muckby-cum-Sparrowby-cum-Spinx

Is down a long lane in the county of Lincs.

And often on Wednesdays, well-harnessed and spruce,

I would drive into Wiss over Winderby Sluice.

 

A whacking great sunset bathed level and drain

From Kirkby with Muckby to Beckby-on-Bain,

And I saw, as I journeyed, my marketing done,

Old Caisterby tower take the last of the sun.

 

The night air grew nippy.  An autumn mist roll’d

(In a scent of dead cabbages) down from the wold,

In the ocean of silence that flooded me round

The crunch of the wheels was a comforting sound.

 

The lane lengthened narrowly into the night

With the Bain on its left bank, the drain on its right,

And feebly the carriage-lamps glimmered ahead

When all of a sudden the pony fell dead.

 

The remoteness was awful, the stillness intense,

Of invisible fenland, around and immense;

And out on the dark, with a roar and a swell,

Swung, hollowly thundering, Speckleby bell.

 

Though myself the Archdeacon for many a year,

I had not summoned courage for visiting here;

Our incumbents were mostly eccentric or sad

But – the Speckleby Rector was said to be mad.

 

Oh cold was the ev’ning and tall was the tower

And strangely compelling the tenor bell’s power!

As loud on the reed-beds and strong through the dark

It toll’ from the church in the tenantless park.

 

The mansion was ruined, the empty demesne

Was slowly reverting to marshland again –

Marsh where the village was, grass in the Hall,

And the church and the rectory waiting to fall.

 

And even in springtime with kingcups about

And stumps of old oak-trees attempting to sprout,

‘Twas a sinister place, neither fenland nor wold,

And doubly forbidding in darkness and cold.

 

As down swung the tenor, a beacon of sound,

Over listening acres of waterlogged ground

I stood by the tombs to see pass and repass

The gleam of a taper, through clear leaded glass.

 

And such lighting of lights in the thunderous roar

The heart summoning courage to hand at the door;

I grated it open on scents I knew well,

The dry smell of damp rot, the hassocky smell.

 

What a forest of woodwork in ochres and grains

Unevenly doubled in diamonded panes,

And over the plaster, so textured with time,

Sweet discolouration of umber and lime!

 

The candles ensconced on each high panelled pew

Brought the caverns of brass-studded baize into view,

But the roof and its rafters were lost to the sight

As they soared to the dark of the Lincolnshire night:

 

And high from the chancel arch paused to look down

A sign-painter’s beasts in their fight for the Crown,

While massive, impressive, and still as the grave

A three-decker pulpit frowned over the nave.

 

Shall I ever forget what a stillness was there

When the bell ceased its tolling and thinned on the air?

Then an opening door showed a long pair of hands

And the Rector himself in his gown and his bands.

. . . . . . . . . .

Such a fell Visitation I shall not forget,

Such a rush through the dark, that I rush through it yet,

And I pray, as the bells ring o’er fenland and hill,

That the Speckleby acres be tenantless still.

Sunday, 14 November 2021

Elegy Season

 Rather than share my Remembrance Sunday thoughts (which are, as usual in recent years, along the lines of 'Is this what they gave their lives for?'), I'll post a seasonal poem appropriate for this dreech day –

In the Elegy Season

Haze, char, and the weather of All Souls':
A giant absence mopes upon the trees:
Leaves cast in casual potpourris
Whisper their scents from pits and cellar-holes.
Or brewed in gulleys, steeped in wells, they spend
In chilly steam their last aromas, yield
From shallow hells a revenance of field
And orchard air. And now the envious mind
Which could not hold the summer in my head
While bounded by that blazing circumstance
Parades these barrens in a golden trance,
Remembering the wealthy season dead,
And by an autumn inspiration makes
A summer all its own. Green boughs arise
Through all the boundless backward of the eyes,
And the soul bathes in warm conceptual lakes.
Less proud than this, my body leans an ear
Past cold and colder weather after wings’
Soft commotion, the sudden race of springs,
The goddess’ tread heard on the dayward stair,
Longs for the brush of the freighted air, for smells
Of grass and cordial lilac, for the sight
Of green leaves building into the light
And azure water hoisting out of wells.
                                            Richard Wilbur

Saturday, 13 November 2021

Plus Ça Change

 As I write, the exhausted participants in COP 26 are staggering to the finishing line, still firmly under the delusion that they have it in their power to precisely control the planet's temperature, limiting any imminent rise to 1.5C above whatever the baseline is for this purpose. This looks to me like hubris merging into outright insanity – and of course the BBC is unquestioningly cheering on the whole sorry jamboree. That the BBC is now wedded to bad science and alarmism should come as no surprise: their line throughout has been dictated by climate activists, and back in 2018, as I noted at the time, they decided that 'the science is settled'. Here's what I wrote then: 

'I gather the BBC has a new editorial policy on reporting climate change.  A briefing note from the director of news and current affairs warns of the dangers of 'false balance' thus:
'Manmade climate change exists. If the science proves it we should report it. To achieve impartiality, you do not need to include outright deniers of climate change in BBC coverage, in the same way you would not have someone denying that Manchester United won 2-0 last Saturday. The referee has spoken.'
'Climate change IS happening ,' the note asserts, going on to warn against such 'common misconceptions' as that 'not all scientists think manmade climate change is real' and 'climate change has happened before'.
Both of those 'misconceptions', it seems to me, are rather closer to the statement 'Manchester United won 2-0 last Saturday' than is the statement that 'Climate change IS happening'. Though that is, on the face of it, unexceptionable, as climate is never static, the implication is clearly that 'Catastrophic anthropogenic climate change' (memorably acronymised by Clive James as 'CACC') is happening. To assert that that kind of climate change 'IS happening' looks more like a statement of faith than one of scientific fact. For a start, it isn't even falsifiable, is it? 
What's more disturbing is that 'deniers' is now the BBC's default term for all those with any doubts about the story we're being told. People who used to be described, accurately, as 'sceptics' are now tacitly aligned with the swivel-eyed antisemites who deny that the Holocaust ever happened. Even the amiable Roger Bolton, discussing the issue on Radio 4's Feedback, referred to sceptics throughout as 'deniers'. I guess that's going to be the new normal on the BBC now.'

This policy has been enacted with vim and vigour by the Corporation, and never more so than in recent weeks. In particular, extreme weather events, wildfires and suchlike are now routinely described as 'caused by climate change', when even the IPCC is cautious about making any such claims. It is handy for the evangelists of course: if global warming isn't happening to schedule, there will always be an 'extreme weather event' to point to as evidence that man is destroying the planet. Hey ho. Six years ago, I wrote this about another meaningless climate jamboree, the one in Paris that took place in the wake of a murderous rampage by Islamist murderers –

'So, barely a fortnight after Islamist murderers staged a random massacre of infidels in Paris, the city is hosting the latest international 'climate summit', addressing what all concerned agree is the real threat. This vast expulsion of hot air will, as ever, achieve almost nothing; even if an agreement is signed, we can be quite sure it won't be widely observed, and it's highly unlikely that, with India pledging to triple its carbon emissions, there will be any real impact on the perceived problem.

 I don't know whether it's heartening that, so soon after the Paris massacre, it's back to 'business as usual', or depressing that that business is still the same old futile flogging of a half-dead horse. It's a subject I don't often refer to here (it tends to lead to unpleasantness), but ever since 'global warming' - as it was then called (I wonder why the name changed?) - rose up the political agenda, I've been suspicious of the whole business, on various grounds. I might as well outline some of them here:
Climate is an immensely complex supernetwork of immensely complex networks. We surely can't claim to have a complete understanding of how it works, let alone that 'the science is settled'.
 The claim that 'the science is settled' is profoundly non-scientific, like so much else in this field, which looks more like a mix of politics and spilt religion, its orthodoxy enforced by means that appear more like the ruthless enforcement of a faith than anything to do with science.
 The 'climategate' emails, the scientifically discredited 'hockey stick' on which so much of the alarmism was based, the more recent uncovering of systematically 'massaged' temperature readings... All of these - plus the inconvenient truth that 'global warming' did not occur in the manner that was confidently predicted (this, we are told, was an unexpected 'pause') - suggest that we would be wise to be sceptical. Scepticism is, after all, the very basis of the scientific method, and faith its very opposite.
 I suspect future generations might look back on our 'climate change' preoccupation with much the same bewilderment that we feel about medieval scholiasts (allegedly) arguing over how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. Especially this time, when the angel-counting is taking place in a city where unmistakable, brutal notice has just been given of a threat very much more imminent and real.'

Thankfully, there was no recent Islamist outrage on this occasion, but otherwise nothing has changed. For the better, anyway.