Monday, 21 June 2021

Subnivean

 It seldom profits a man (especially a man) to listen to Radio 4 these days, but this morning I caught the new Book of the Week, Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez. A natural, social and cultural history of the Arctic region, this seems to be quite interesting, and is, I discover, something of a classic in its field, having been around since 1986 (the author died last year). But my point, if I have one, is this: listening to it, I discovered a new word – which is always a pleasure. The word is 'subnivean', which means under the snow: the 'subnivean zone' is the world between the snow surface and the terrain below, in which many creatures live at least some of their lives, relatively insulated and relatively safe from predators. 'Subnivean' – I like it...

Sunday, 20 June 2021

Unmasked

 A reader has written to ask me if I have stuck to my resolve – expressed in this post from last year – to resist the government's mask-wearing edicts. The answer is, mostly, yes. If it's a question of putting on a mask for a very short time, e.g. when entering a restaurant or popping into some mask-insistent shop for a few minutes, I'm not going to make an issue of it. However, I'm not going to suffer the entirely pointless discomfort of wearing a 'face covering' while doing a supermarket shop – still less while doing anything outdoors. The science (not to be confused with The Science) has not changed: no reputable study has shown that mask-wearing has anything more than a marginal effect on Covid transmission (similarly, no study has shown that Covid can be transmitted from contaminated surfaces, and yet hand sanitising is still being enforced on a huge scale, library books 'quarantined', etc.). Mask-wearing is clearly little more than a ritual observance that reassures the anxious and terrified – which is no reason at all for mandating it for the rest of us, in any circumstances. If people want to wear the things, that's fine – though the masking of toddlers and young children strikes me as a kind of child abuse – but the legislation is in essence arbitrary. 
  I have only been challenged a few times, and then weakly, for not wearing a mask. My usual response is to point to my chest and say I have breathing problems (which has a grain of truth in it); officials who know the law will know they can't question anyone about exactly what is wrong with them. The main thing, I think, is comportment – well, comportment and age: it probably helps to be older. As I am 6ft 4in at full height and can pass for 'distinguished', I have an inbuilt advantage, but it is still important to stand tall, to cultivate the air of a respectable senior citizen rather than a troublemaking refusenik – and, important this, to appear lost in one's own thoughts: this deters people from approaching. Keep the gaze focused on the middle distance and don't catch anyone's eye, at least if they look at all unsympathetic, and you should be fine. 
  My correspondent writes that she sees people driving around on their own in their cars, wearing masks and gloves. So do I. It is a sign – one of many – of the state of irrational fear to which the government's panic reaction to Covid has reduced much of the population. Many people will continue in that state of fear whatever happens next – 'Freedom Day, if it ever comes, will be wasted on them. But the rest of us should not be corralled into an anxious, anonymised, atomised and alienated future for no good reason at all. 
  By the way, the 'mask' I use when obliged to, is a slip of patterned silk with ear loops – about the most breathable option, and no more ineffective than other models. I recommend it. 

Thursday, 17 June 2021

Carl van Vechten

 Born on this day in 1880 was Carl van Vechten, novelist, photographer, figurehead of the Harlem Renaissance and literary executor of Gertrude Stein. The name might ring a bell with students of Ronald Firbank, as it was Van Vechten who got Firbank's name known in America. In March 1922 he wrote to Firbank out of the blue, warning him archly that 'there is some danger of you becoming the rage in America'. Firbank was delighted, and the two men corresponded in a mildly flirtatious manner for some while. It was Van Vechten who persuaded Firbank to change the name of his latest novel – a whimsical account of a black Caribbean family's attempt to 'enter society' – from the blameless Sorrow in Sunlight to what must now, I suppose, be written as Prancing N-Word. This, Van Vechten assured Firbank, would get his novel noticed in America. And so it did: the American edition, with its provocative title and an introduction by Van Vechten, was Firbank's biggest success in America, and overall his most commercially successful book. A couple of years later Van Vechten tried the same trick himself, publishing a panoramic novel depicting African-American life in Harlem as, er, N-Word Heaven. It proved controversial and divisive, and made Van Vechten famous. A few years later he gave up writing altogether and devoted himself to photography. This is his delightful photograph of Ella Fitzgerald –

Nature Notes: Good News and Bad

 Well, after a jittery start, the swifts have arrived in full force, and they've been wonderfully lively and vocal in recent days. Such a joy – and relief – to have them back.
  When it comes to the butterflies, however, it looks as if the dreadful spring weather – cold and dry, then cold and wet – has taken its toll. I haven't known butterflies so thin on the ground (or rather in the air) for some years. Even the ones you'd expect to see everywhere – the Whites – have been few and far between, and the numbers of virtually every species flying so far have been worryingly low. The other day, in my son's garden, a Tortoiseshell was nectaring at length on a flowering Cotoneaster and, as I pointed it out to the grandchildren, I realised that it was only the second I've seen this year. It's been the same with most species – I've seen them, but in far lower numbers than I'd expect in a normal year (if there is such a thing, when it comes to butterflies). Brimstones, Holly Blues and Peacocks have been about the only species flying in normal healthy numbers, at least around here. 
  Yesterday afternoon – hot and sunny – I visited one of my favourite local haunts to see its colony of Small Blues (below), those tiny beauties. Happily they were there, though in lower numbers than usual. Otherwise, however, there was almost nothing flying on that stretch of flower-rich chalk downland – one Common Blue, one Small Heath, a few Meadow Browns (my first of the year), and that was it.
  And then, by early evening, it was raining hard, and continued to do so through the night. And the forecast is for more days of cloud and intermittent rain. Oh dear, oh dear.

Tuesday, 15 June 2021

'As far as Englishness is concerned...'

I've been off on my Mercian travels again. This is Staunton Harold, just over the Derbyshire border in Leicestershire. 'For position,' says Pevsner, 'Staunton Harold, the house and chapel, are unsurpassed in the country – at least as far as Englishness is concerned...' The chapel is a unique survival – a church built during the Commonwealth, and built in a fully Gothic style. A plaque on the West tower tells the story: 'In  the yeare: 1653 when all things sacred were throughout ye nation Either demolisht or profaned Sir Richard Shirley Barronet Founded this Church whose singular praise it is to have done the best things in ye worst times And hope them in the most calamitous.'

  In 2021, a message from the present owner can be seen on a notice board. It is less eloquently expressed, but it too speaks of trying to do the best things in the worst times:
 'It is more than three hundred years since the first earl began to make Staunton Hall into a stately home. In that time the Ferrers family and others must have hosted hundreds of grand celebrations here, including a fair sprinkling of masked balls. Surely never, until last week, a masked wedding. Limited to thirty people, music but no dancing, and daughter Caroline spending much of her time disinfecting surfaces. One redeeming feature; the weather was fine and sunny.
I am fed up with the whole business and just hope that 21st June will see an end to it all. Covid 19 has been reported to the exclusion of all else. Even the reported number of cases is a nonsense. I, and a dozen others I know, have had the virus, but only three were tested. Approximately one thousand four hundred people die in England and Wales each day, of which a handful have Covid. The collateral damage to our physical and mental health, and to the economy, is known to be immense, but not assessed. We must be allowed to judge the risk for ourselves.'

Well, all hopes for 21st June have now been dashed. The lunacy goes on, but there are many, many people who have had more than enough of it...

Thursday, 10 June 2021

Two Cathedrals

 There was an excellent documentary on BBC4 last night that told the story of the redesign and rebuilding of Coventry cathedral after German bombs had reduced much of the ancient structure to rubble. Several things were striking about this trip back in time to the postwar world, among them the astonishingly high quality of (most of) the commissioned artworks, and the equally high quality of Kenneth Clark's intelligent and critical response to the new cathedral. Filming his own documentary about the then new building, he asked real, searching questions of the architect, Basil Spence, and had certainly not hung his critical faculties up at the door, being clear about what he thought worked and what he thought did not. This was very refreshing, especially as we tend to caricature the postwar period as one of unquestioning deference (and Lord Clark of Civilisation as a presenter sauntering into view and asking only 'What could be more agreeable...?')
  Watching the BBC4 film put me in mind of another new cathedral, less grand and less iconic, which was consecrated a year earlier (in 1961) in my home county. Guildford cathedral had a long gestation – 25 years – and a troubled one, beset as it was by financial problems and various controversies, including a pretty basic one about the style of the building. At Coventry, Spence, in keeping with the spirit of the time, had turned his back on Gothic and created an unmistakably modern building. At Guildford, however, the Gothic style had one of its late triumphs. Edward Maule's building is in a plain, pared-down Gothic idiom, in keeping with the architect's aim to 'produce a design, definitely of our time, yet in the line of the great English cathedrals, to build anew on tradition, to rely on proportion, mass, volume and line rather than on elaboration and ornament'. A fine statement of intent, and one that Maule kept to, producing a noble building with airy, numinous interior spaces. 
  I remember the latter stages of the building of Guildford cathedral, when we would take family trips to see how it was getting on. And I remember a brilliant fund-raising scheme that was launched to raise money to finish the building – 'Buy a Brick'. For half a crown in the old money (equivalent to a fiver or so today), anyone could buy a brick and sign their name, or someone else's, on it. More than 200,000 people bought a brick, making a huge contribution to the cathedral's seriously limited building budget. 
  What I did not know at the time was that the project had been saved years before, in 1947, when a former Canadian prime minister, R.B. Bennett, the 1st Viscount Bennett, bought much of the land intended for the cathedral's site on Stag Hill and donated it to the diocese, as a memorial to the sacrifice of his fellow Canadians in the two world wars. Bennett had retired to Mickleham in Surrey after his Canadian political career, which coincided with the Great Depression, had ended in failure. The fine building that stands on Stag Hill is his best memorial, and a worthy one to the extraordinary sacrifice made by Canada in the world wars.


Wednesday, 9 June 2021

Too Darn Hot

 It's Cole Porter's 130th birthday today – and the weather here is very nearly hot (by English standards). So, what could be more fitting than this Porter song, sung to perfection in every point  – and in a voice beyond compare – by Ella Fitzgerald...


Tuesday, 8 June 2021

A True Great

 On the 89th birthday of the great Ray Illingworth, the best Test captain England ever had, it's tempting to wonder what he might be making of the present England shower. Actually I don't think we need to wonder...
The exemplar of Yorkshire grit, Illingworth forged a distinguished career in his own right as a hard-to-hit bowler and hard-to-shift batsman (upwards of 2,000 wickets and 20,000 runs in first-class cricket), but it was as a captain that he reached the heights. When he took charge of the England team, they had lost only one of their previous 14 Test matches and none of their last seven. Under Illingworth that unbeaten run was extended to 27 Tests without defeat between 1968 and 1971, and only one defeat in 40 Tests between 1966 and 1971. In Australia in 1970-71, Illingworth's team beat the Aussies 2-0 in the Test series – an unprecedented feat on Australian soil. They played tough, not stinting on mental and physical intimidation, and they played to win – defeat was not to be contemplated. How different, how very different, from today's approach, and today's players, whose lamentable performance against New Zealand over the weekend must have had Illingworth shaking his head in disbelief, along with the rest of us. 
And we may be sure that every other word uttered by Illingworth's men in their prime would have been enough to get them suspended from international cricket today. 

Sunday, 6 June 2021

Jon Redmond

 When this image turned up online, my first thought was something along the lines of 'Wow!' and my second was, Who painted this? An intense, boldly worked still life of everyday objects, it's clearly in a tradition that stretches back from the present to Manet, to the great Dutch still-life painters and to Velazquez. Could it be a contemporary painting? Well, yes, it could: it's called 'Silver', and it's by one Jon Redmond, a Pennsylvania-based painter of whom I had never heard. 
  I immediately sought out more, and found a good many online, also an interview with the artist, who has been exhibiting for 20 years or so, and seems uncommonly sensible for a contemporary artist (which may be why he isn't better known). Redmond paints landscapes and buildings as well as still lifes and interiors, all drawn from his immediate surrounding in Chester County. His paintings are very much about the play of light on surfaces, and his technique is vigorous and immediate, painting alla prima (wet on wet), without preliminaries, least of all any line drawing – 'I hate line. I want to do the searching and struggling while I am painting, because that is when the painting becomes interesting ... What is important is what is happening on either side of where a line would be.' And he likes to show his workings, leaving areas unfinished.
  He has no anxiety about influence or tradition and is happy to channel, for example, Degas, as here, in this accomplished nude, which explores the play of light on convex (the model) and concave (the bath) surfaces –

Redmond also sees no need to make a fuss about being 'contemporary': 'If you try to be "contemporary" your work will suffer. We are contemporary by being alive today, so why work hard at it?' He is attracted by 'ordinary', simple subjects rather than by big and obviously picturesque ones. 'The most important thing,' he says, 'is that I am excited about what I see.' Well, you can sense the excitement in a painting like this one, with its singing, zinging colours – 
And, talking of colour, how about this one, titled 'Eclipse', which reminds me of the work of our own Robert Dukes...
Redmond is refreshingly honest about the painter's life: 'Painting for me is really just a legal excuse to sit down and look at something for hours on end. What other profession allows you to go out, find something really cool, and stare at it as long as you want?' Well, quite. And that 'something really cool' might include, as here, washing hanging out to dry on a clothesline. This one is called 'Pink Pants' – 

And here, finally, is one of Redmond's haunting interiors – 

This, it seems to me, is a fine painter. I'll be looking out for his work from now on...

Saturday, 5 June 2021

Amis's Camberwell Beauty

 Ageing has its pleasures. One is that, as my memory becomes lightly perforated, I find myself 'discovering' something – a poem, even a book – that I subsequently discover I had read before. It reads as if for the first time, but, no, I've been here before... Case in point: the other day I heard someone on the radio mention that Kingsley Amis had written a poem about seeing a Camberwell Beauty butterfly when he was a boy – in Camberwell. I soon found it – not exactly a poem about seeing a Camberwell Beauty but the first stanza of a poem of regret, 'To H.', addressed to Amis's first wife, Hilary 'Hilly' Bardwell, whom he had treated appallingly when they were married. Nevertheless, Hilly and her third husband ended up living in Kingsley's big house as a kind of upmarket housekeepers. By then, Amis's sex drive (the lunatic to whom he'd been handcuffed for fifty years, to use his own image) had finally waned, so life was that bit simpler. Looking back in this poignant poem, Kingsley clearly regrets the way he undervalued and mistreated Hilly when he had her – but I think what we're looking at here is wistful regret rather than repentance. Or is that uncharitable?

To H.

I.
In 1932 when I was ten
In my grandmother’s garden in Camberwell
I saw a Camberwell Beauty butterfly
Sitting on a clump of Michaelmas daisies.
I recognised it because I’d seen a picture
Showing its brownish wings with creamy edges
In a boy’s paper or on a cigarette-card
Earlier that week. And I remember thinking,
What else would you expect? Everyone knows
Camberwell Beauties come from Camberwell;
That’s why they’re called that. Yes, I was ten.

II.
In 1940 when I was eighteen
In Marlborough, going out one winter’s morning
To walk to school, I saw that every twig,
Every leaf in the vicar’s privet hedge
And every stalk and stem was covered in
A thin layer of ice as clear as glass
Because the rain had frozen as it landed.
The sun shone and the trees and shrubs shone back
Like pale flames with orange and green sparkles.
Freak weather conditions, people said,
And one was always hearing about them.

III.
In ’46 when I was twenty-four
I met someone harmless, someone defenceless,
But till then whole, unadapted within;
Awkward, gentle, healthy, straight-backed,
Who spoke to say something, laughed when amused;
If things went wrong, feared she might be at fault,
Whose eye I could have met for ever then,
Oh yes, and who was also beautiful.
Well, that was much as women were meant to be,
I thought, and set about looking further.
How can we tell, with nothing to compare?


Anyway, having read 'To H' as if for the first time, I noticed an online link to Stephen Pentz's wonderful First Known When Lost blog, and discovered that, back in 2010, he had posted just this poem – and, what's more, I had commented on it. Ah well – it was good to 'discover' it again. 

Thursday, 3 June 2021

Lost Lanes, Cut Grass, a Golden Anniversary

 Yesterday, while enjoying my constitutional, I took this photograph of a path bordered by lush cow parsley (or Queen Anne's lace) and posted it on Facebook, captioned 'Lost lanes of Queen Anne's lace' – a line from Philip Larkin's 'Cut Grass'. Today I discover that this poem – surely one of the finest really short poems in English, certainly one that packs the most charge into the fewest syllables – was written (or signed off) on this date exactly 50 years ago. Surely a golden anniversary worth marking...

Cut grass lies frail:
Brief is the breath
Mown stalks exhale.
Long, long the death

It dies in the white hours
Of young-leafed June
With chestnut flowers,
With hedges snowlike strewn,

White lilac bowed,
Lost lanes of Queen Anne's lace,
And that high-builded cloud
Moving at summer's pace.

Tuesday, 1 June 2021

Monument and Butterflies

 Noting that today was the birth date (in 1563) of the great Elizabethan (and Jacobean) statesman, courtier and survivor Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, I was reminded of those happy days when I was out and about researching my book, The Mother of Beauty. Cecil's striking monument, in St Etheldreda's, Hatfield, was designed by the Fleming Maximilian Colt, and is one of the greatest of its period. When I visited Hatfield, with my cousin, to see it, we found the church closed and locked, but this was one of those happy occasions when (a) the rectory was next to the church, (b) the rector was at home, and (c) he was only too happy to let us in and leave us to wander at large in his magnificent church. This fortuitous combination of circumstances did not often occur in the course of my researches, but the quest for monuments – in those heady days before the lockdowns – was a joy in itself. 
   The research for my latest production, a small book on butterflies, was mostly conducted on the living-room sofa that is my 'work station' these days – though, in a sense, the real research was done in the course of many years of watching butterflies and reading about them. It was written partly to while away the winter months when there are no butterflies to be seen, and  I am hoping the book will become available, in some form, before too many months have passed. I'll let you know.
  As for this butterfly season, it is finally under way after a dismal couple of months – cold dry April, cold wet May – and, after that prelude, it is unlikely to be a bumper season. Although I have seen a respectable 19 species so far, numbers of most have been very low, and the relentless rains of May have left a legacy of lush grass and overgrown vegetation that will not be to the liking of many of our butterflies. Let's hope things improve as the season goes on. If this sun continues shining for a few more weeks, it could make all the difference.. 

Sunday, 30 May 2021

Beckett in Folkestone; Form on 4

 Yesterday on Radio 4, I caught a few minutes of an interview with that fine actress Harriet Walter. My ears pricked up when she mentioned the name of Samuel Beckett, and I gathered that she is involved with a Folkestone Book Festival production inspired by Beckett's two-week sojourn in that South coast resort. This was something I didn't know about (though I should have done, having ploughed through Deirdre Bair's exhaustive biography years ago). In 1961 Beckett had decided to put his affairs in order by marrying his long-time partner Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil and making her the heir to his literary property. As most of his business affairs were based in the UK, he would have to reside there for two weeks before the marriage could go ahead. His publisher, John Calder, suggested that he stay in a quiet South coast resort, handy for France and ideal for lying low.   
  So Beckett and his trusty Citroen 2CV ('Two Nags') flew over from Le Touquet to Lydd airport, from where Beckett drove to the (then) genteel resort of Folkestone and booked in to the small Hotel Bristol (since demolished) on the Leas, the elegant clifftop promenade designed by Decimus Burton. He signed the register as Barclay (his middle name) to avoid attention, and spent his time working on his play Happy Days and drinking Guinness in dreary backstreet pubs. After a while Suzanne joined him and they took some drives into the Kentish countryside (the names of two Kent villages, Ash and Snodland, find their way into Happy Days). They were married at Folkestone registry office, with two witnesses signing the register – E. Pugsley and J. Bond, presumably passersby or registry staff. Then it was back to Paris, from where Beckett summed things up in a letter – 'Thank God that is over.' 

Later on Radio 4, I was pleasantly surprised (not something I often say about anything on Radio 4) to happen on a series called On Form – about poetic form! Not a subject one readily associates with Radio 4 poetry programmes, which tend towards shapeless free expression or slamming rap-style couplets. Here was a handy little guide to the sonnet and its history, with nods to Petrarch, Thomas Wyatt and Shakespeare (the latter two represented by specimen sonnets). Sadly the programme fell apart somewhat when we came to sample sonnets being written today by poets who are supposedly in thrall to the form. Alas, their works sounded more like chopped-up prose than formal sonnets – but never mind. Surely it is a good, perhaps even hopeful, thing that Radio 4 is running a series on poetic form. As one of the participants said, form is 'more about freedom than it is about constraint'. Indeed it is.

Friday, 28 May 2021

Fischer-Dieskau

 Today would have been the 96th birthday of the great lyric baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, so it's as good an excuse as any for a little Schubert-Fischer-Dieskau-Gerald Moore magic. 
This is the achingly beautiful 'Im Adendrot' (at sunset). Listening to it, it's hard to believe that Fischer-Dieskau was, for most of his career, a smoker. It doesn't seem to have affected either his glorious voice or his longevity: he died just shy of his 87th birthday, though by then he had given up smoking. 'I smoked for 35 years,' he said, 'and then stopped in a single day.' 



Thursday, 27 May 2021

At Last!

 At last – sunshine and blue skies, after three weeks and more of relentlessly cold, wet and dismal weather.
And at last – the swifts are back in force. Circling overhead this morning, performing their graceful evolutions, were more than a dozen of these amazing birds. I was never so glad to see them – and to hear that joyous scream that is the sound of summer. Phew – they came back, after all.
(This photograph – not mine – seems to have caught a pair of swifts mating, which they do, as they do everything else, in mid-air.)

Monday, 24 May 2021

Pigeons

Browsing in my collected Larkin the other day, I came across this short, simple and rather lovely little poem about pigeons –

'On shallow slates the pigeons shift together,
Backing against a thin rain from the west
Blown across each sunk head and settled feather.
Huddling round the warm stack suits them best,
Till winter daylight weakens, and they grow
Hardly defined against the brickwork. Soon,
Light from a small intense lopsided moon
Shows them, black as their shadows, sleeping so.'


It was written at Christmas 1995, when Larkin and his mother were staying in a hotel in Grantham.  This Lincolnshire town was the birthplace of Margaret Thatcher, and is the site of St Wulfram's church, which boasts a steeple so tall and beautiful that Ruskin is supposed to have swooned when he first saw it. However, the thought of Christmas in a Grantham hotel, then or now, does not set the pulses racing. Larkin clearly spent a good deal of that Christmas staring bleakly out of the window – which at least gave him one good poem.
Writing to his mother the following September, he discusses two recent radio programmes about him, one of them focusing on his life in Hull –

'The Hull programme was all right but I thought the poems were read badly. The one about Pigeons was written at Grantham when we were there at Christmas — they were on a roof opposite the hotel and I watched them through the short afternoons as we sat in the lounge. Do you remember them? I expect not. You were asleep most of the time.'

In the poem, Larkin writes tenderly of the pigeons, as he often does of animals and birds. Pigeons make another memorable appearance in his novel A Girl in Winter, at an emotional turning point, just after Katherine, the troubled young woman at the centre of the story, has a kind of epiphany, feeling her frozen heart suddenly thawed by compassion, and glimpsing the possibility of happiness. She and Miss Green, the library colleague she is reluctantly escorting home, are sitting, huddled against the cold, on a bench in the centre of a dreary northern town –

 'Through the light mist she [Katherine] could see the ornamental front of the Town Hall under the flat shield of the sky, dark and ledged with snow. But all the white-grey patches were not snow, for as she watched they revealed themselves as pigeons, a score of them launching off into the air and hanging with a great clapping of wings. Then the whole flight dropped, rose over the intervening trees across the traffic, and landed on a stretch of snow not fifteen yards from where the two of them sat, coming up as if they expected to be fed.'

In poetry, pigeons have their finest hour in the glorious closing image of Wallace Stevens' 'Sunday Morning' –

'We live in an old chaos of the sun, 
Or old dependency of day and night, 
Or island solitude, unsponsored, free, 
Of that wide water, inescapable. 
Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail 
Whistle about us their spontaneous cries; 
Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness; 
And, in the isolation of the sky, 
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make 
Ambiguous undulations as they sink, 
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.'

To descend from the sublime to the faintly ridiculous, there is a poem by one James Henry titled simply 'Pigeons' –

'By what mistake were pigeons made so happy,
So plump and fat and sleek and well content,
So little with the affairs of others meddling,
So little meddled with? say, a collared dog,
And hard worked ox, and horse still harder worked,
And caged canary, why, uncribbed, unmaimed,
Unworked and of its will lord absolute,
The pigeon sole has free board and free quarters,
Till at its throat the knife, and pigeon pie
Must smoke ere noon upon the parson’s table;
Say, if ye can; I cannot, for the life o’ me;
But, wheresoe’er I go, I find it so;
The pigeon of all things that walk or fly
Or swim or creep, the best cared-for and happiest;
Ornament ever fresh and ever fair
Of castle and of cottage, palace roof
And village street, alike, and stubble field,
And every eye and volute of the minster;
Philosopher’s and poet’s and my own
Envy and admiration, theme and riddle;
Emblem and hieroglyphic of the third
Integral unit of the Trinity;
Not even by pagan set to heavier task
Than draw the cart of Venus; since the deluge
Never once asked to carry in the bill,
And by the telegraph and penny-post
Released for ever from all charge of letters.'

Henry is right about the sleek, well fed apparent contentment of wood pigeons at least, if not of town pigeons, whose lives seem harder. I like 'every eye and volute of the minster', but there is not much to commend about this cheery little poem, though its awkward, busy gait might be taken for a poetical representation of a pigeon's walk.
James Henry was an Irish physician who devoted most of his life to the obsessive study of Virgil, and published a good deal of verse at his own expense, all of which sank without trace. He was entirely forgotten until Christopher Ricks rediscovered him while researching his New Oxford Book of Victorian Verse, and subsequently edited a small selection of Henry's verse for the Lilliput Press. At his best he is said to be reminiscent of another free-thinking Victorian maverick, Arthur Hugh Clough, and at his worst of William McGonagall – which is quite a range. He also published much prose, mostly on Virgilian matters, but including A Letter to the Members of the Temperance Society, in which he warns of the danger of substituting tea and coffee for spirituous liquors, and proposes a diet from which both of these dangerous liquids are excluded. Sound medical advice if ever I heard it. 

Sunday, 23 May 2021

Heady Days

 These are heady days: on Friday, we took the grandchildren to a favourite café (where a very fine pistachio cake is available), then on to another at a little distance, and finally to yet a third, where the children took an early dinner. And at every café, we were able to enter, with minimal (or no) Covid-related fuss, sit down at a table, and eat and drink. And it was a joy.
What has happened to us over the past months that this once entirely normal and taken-for-granted amenity of daily life should seem like a rare treat, a privilege, a gift? From whom? In whose gift is this simple, basic freedom?  What have we been reduced to? Enough questions.  I wasn't asking any at the time; I was just enjoying it. It's been a long while.
And, as it this wasn't enough excitement, yesterday the lot of us (including son and daughter-in-law) were at it again, having lunch at one of our local pubs. As this was the first weekend since the Great Easing (sounds like a village in Somerset) we were expecting the place to be heaving – but far from it. The bar (where we ate) was barely a quarter full, and the restaurant maybe half full. It seems that many people are hesitant about resuming anything too much like normal life. That's the trouble with inducing a general state of fear in the population – it's very hard to get people out of it. Just as it's very hard for governments, bureaucracies and The Science to give up their control over so many aspects of our lives. 
Meanwhile, the 'Indian variant' has proved a disappointment to those who were hoping it would justify postponing the Even Greater Easing we are promised for June. No doubt they are now busy seeing what else they can come up with to keep us all in our places, and give them longer in the driving seat before they resume the nonentity status that was rightly theirs before all this came along. 




Friday, 21 May 2021

Pope's Eloisa

 Born on this day in 1688 was Alexander Pope, perhaps our most brilliant satirical poet, and often the cruellest. I guess he is little read these days outside the academy, and it is too easy to think of him merely as a dazzlingly effective cold-blooded killer in verse. There was much more to him than that, including an ability to write from the heart, albeit never in his own voice. His 'Eloisa to Abelard' is a heart-rending evocation of hopeless love – a subject with which the dwarfish and deformed Pope was probably painfully familiar. The tragic story of Heloise and Abelard also inspired a fine novel by Helen Waddell. These are the closing stanzas of Pope's poem –

May one kind grave unite each hapless name,
And graft my love immortal on thy fame!
Then, ages hence, when all my woes are o'er,
When this rebellious heart shall beat no more;
If ever chance two wand'ring lovers brings
To Paraclete's white walls and silver springs,
O'er the pale marble shall they join their heads,
And drink the falling tears each other sheds;
Then sadly say, with mutual pity mov'd,
"Oh may we never love as these have lov'd!"

From the full choir when loud Hosannas rise,
And swell the pomp of dreadful sacrifice,
Amid that scene if some relenting eye
Glance on the stone where our cold relics lie,
Devotion's self shall steal a thought from Heav'n,
One human tear shall drop and be forgiv'n.
And sure, if fate some future bard shall join
In sad similitude of griefs to mine,
Condemn'd whole years in absence to deplore,
And image charms he must behold no more;
Such if there be, who loves so long, so well;
Let him our sad, our tender story tell;
The well-sung woes will soothe my pensive ghost;
He best can paint 'em, who shall feel 'em most.


Follow this link to read the whole thing...
https://poets.org/poem/eloisa-abelard

Wednesday, 19 May 2021

Sandy, Fenella, Parvula

At the risk of turning this blog into some kind of gay almanac, I must just mark the anniversary of Sandy Wilson, born on this day in 1924. Wilson, the doyen of British stage musical writers in the Fifties and Sixties, is best known for The Boy Friend, a kind of affectionate and tuneful parody of the Twenties musical, but he also wrote several musicals adapted from novels: His Monkey Wife (from a novel by John Collier), The Clapham Wonder (from Barbara Comyns's The Vet's Daughter) –  and, most improbably, Valmouth (from Ronald Firbank's novel of the same name). I have never seen this – indeed I have never knowingly been present at any production of a stage musical – and knew little of it, until I did a little light research, and discovered that it had not been the commercial flop I'd assumed it to be (in keeping with its source material), but had done pretty well when it was premiered in 1958, had been revived from time to time, released as a soundtrack album, and even adapted for radio. What's more, it was Valmouth that made a star of the vampish, husky-voiced Fenella Fielding – just as the Broadway production of The Boy Friend had made a star of the 19-year-old Julie Andrews. Fenella played the fun-loving widow Lady Parvula de Panzoust in Valmouth (that's her above in character). If you're curious, you can follow the link below to hear her singing one of the songs from the show, in her inimitable (but much imitated) manner. Froth, of course, but cleverly written and artfully performed...

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_DEceb5HVP8


Tuesday, 18 May 2021

'I was so thrilled I attempted to mount my television'

 'I was so thrilled I attempted to mount my television.' 
Who said that? The answer, surprisingly, is the Conservative politician Norman St John-Stevas, or rather Baron St John of Fawsley, who was born on this day in 1929. (I cannot find any context for this quotation – had he just seen himself on television? – but it appears to be his best-remembered utterance.)
Lord St John is perhaps passing from public memory now, but in his day he was one of the most colourful ornaments of the political, social and cultural scene. Though much about him was quite conventional – brilliant legal brain, president of both the Cambridge and the Oxford Union, journalist and academic, editor of Bagehot, government minister under Margaret Thatcher, chairman of the Royal Fine Art Commission, Master of Emmanuel – much was decidedly, er, different. He even constructed his own origin myth, claiming that his father was an engineer and company director called Stephen Stevas, whereas in fact he was a hotel owner of Greek origin called Spyro. Norman was of course gay – no one could ever have mistaken him for a red-blooded heterosexual – and he was as camp as a row of tents; indeed, during his tenure at Emmanuel, the college was referred to disparagingly as 'Mein Camp'. The dandified Stevas wore purple (a colour he sometimes referred to as 'crushed cardinal') at every opportunity, wrote all his personal letters in purple ink (on House of Lords notepaper after his elevation), proffered his hand in papal fashion, and affected to lapse into Latin and to be unable to pronounce modern words. He worshipped the Queen Mother, Princess Margaret and Pius IX, sometimes wearing a cassock that had supposedly belonged to that ultraconservative Pope. That a figure who might have stepped out of a Ronald Firbank novel could rise so high in politics seems hard to believe now – he was blithely indiscreet, and the potential for scandal must have been vast – but as everyone says, lamenting the dulness of today's politicians, there used to be 'characters' in those days. Compared to today's public sphere, terrorised by social media and subject to 24-hour journalistic scrutiny, it was a safe world, where people could get away with things that now would bring their careers crashing to the ground.  They don't make them like Norman St John-Stevas any more – or rather they probably do, but they steer clear of the world of politics.
I saw him once in his later years, swanning along outside the National Gallery. His ripe claret complexion was something to behold – he looked as if he might burst at any moment.

Saturday, 15 May 2021

Swifts – Victims of Lockdown?

 My unexpectedly early first sighting of swifts has been followed by, er... nothing very much. Since then I've seen the odd one here, two there, occasionally three, but none of them showing any signs of settling down. It's now mid-May and there's no sign of the swifts that live on our road returning. I'm hoping it's just that the unseasonably cool weather is deterring them, but wondering if there might be another, more worrying factor.
  In the first lockdown one of the things people round here found to do was loft conversion. At times it seemed that every other house had the scaffolding and tarps up and the conversion gangs at work. Then it died down again – only to return as Lockdown 3.0 draws to an end (maybe). Some of these conversions must have destroyed or covered over swifts' nesting sites under the eaves of houses – and, if not, the changed appearance of the houses, and the continuing commotion of building work, might be enough in themselves to deter the swifts. Birds are remarkably sensitive to the slightest change in their immediate surroundings, as anyone who's put up a new bird feeder or moved an old one will know – it can take birds weeks to get used to the new arrangements. Could all this loft conversion activity mean the end of swifts on our road? I devoutly hope not. My eyes still scan the skies every morning and evening, hoping for signs of a return...

Meanwhile, the lockdown continues to reap its human harvest. This morning I discovered that our excellent local picture framer has been driven into despairing insolvency, after 36 years, by the destructive impact of lockdown after lockdown. There is nothing left of this once thriving business but a quietly anguished message in the window. Another victim of lockdown, another loss to the community. 
  And now, as we contemplate the heady prospect of being 'allowed' (allowed!) to eat and drink indoors in pubs and restaurants from Monday, the forces of The Science (with zero-covid nutters now in the ascendant) are mustering to ensure that this dangerous notion of restoring a few of our confiscated freedoms doesn't go any further. The so-called Indian variant is their current pretext – and this despite the lack of any evidence that it is likely to do significant harm in a largely vaccinated population where (according to the ONS) some 70 percent of the population now have antibodies. If the 'government' continues to be led by these people, there is no prospect of the lifting of restrictions promised for June happening on schedule, if at all. So long as The Science is running the show, we're on the road to nowhere. Or rather to ruin. What will happen when we get the next seasonal flu epidemic? Or, perish the thought, when the Chinese, having learnt the lessons of Covid, unleash their next virus on us?




Help?

This morning I was startled to discover (via email) that 'Blogger' has deleted four of my posts – quite recent ones – for violating 'community guidelines'. Uh oh, I thought – have I offended against the Woke ethos? Is it all over for Nigeness? No – apparently I've violated Blogger's Malware and Viruses Policy. How might I have done that? And what can I do to avoid offending again? Any ideas? Has this happened to any of you out there? 

Friday, 14 May 2021

Vernal good cheer

 Ah, you might think, glancing at this, he's put up another of those late Manet flower paintings he loves so much. The impression won't last beyond the first glance, as this is clearly not the work of the master. I picked it up this morning in a charity shop (so good to have them open again), recognising it as a copy of one of those glorious Manets that I do indeed love so much. It's not even a particularly good copy – there are plenty of faults, and at least one extraneous mark on the canvas – but it's a spirited attempt, boldly painted, and full of vernal good cheer. It catches something of the spirit of Manet's original, if not its technical brilliance. I couldn't resist it, especially as it was priced at a mere eight pounds. I shall get it framed and find somewhere to hang it.
The painting it copies is this one...

Wednesday, 12 May 2021

'He became a land'

 The Barn Owl above was painted by Edward Lear, who was born on this day in 1812, the 20th of 21 children (and the youngest to survive). As well as being a brilliant painter of birds – especially parrots, which seemed to have a special appeal to him – Lear was also an accomplished landscapist, a musician and composer, and of course an author, most famously of the great nonsense poems.  
Nothing better captures the essence of this strange, troubled man than Auden's brilliant biographical sonnet – 

Left by his friend to breakfast alone on the white
Italian shore, his Terrible Demon arose
Over his shoulder; he wept to himself in the night,
A dirty landscape-painter who hated his nose.

The legions of cruel inquisitive They
Were so many and big like dogs: he was upset
By Germans and boats; affection was miles away:
But guided by tears he successfully reached his Regret.

How prodigious the welcome was. Flowers took his hat
And bore him off to introduce him to the tongs;
The demon's false nose made the table laugh; a cat

Soon had him waltzing madly, let him squeeze her hand;
Words pushed him to the piano to sing comic songs;
And children swarmed to him like settlers. He became a land.

Sunday, 9 May 2021

A Good Portent

 To judge by the number of online sources offering to interpret them, I am not alone in having butterfly dreams. They can mean, it seems, all manner of things, most of them, as you'd expect, good. My butterfly dreams differ from most, perhaps, in being highly specific. Last night, for example, I dreamt I was strolling on a not very promising patch of marginal downland when I looked down and saw a pair of Grizzled Skippers. Delighted, I pointed them out to a passerby, who seemed unimpressed – understandable, I suppose, as these tiny, moth-like creatures are not what you'd call spectacular. Their beauty is quiet, understated and small-scale; you need to look closely to appreciate it. 
Anyway, taking this dream as a good portent, I set out this morning for a spot where I had seen several Grizzled Skippers last year. The weather had turned suddenly warm, with intermittent sunshine, but I was not too hopeful as a strong wind was blowing, apparently from two quarters at once, and wind is bad news for small butterflies. There were Brimstones flying in abundance, with a fair number of Orange Tips, Peacocks and the odd Speckled Wood. And then, as I drew near the patch of downland that was my target, suddenly at my feet was a single Grizzled Skipper, on the path, with its little wings spread. As it was showing no inclination to brave the wind and fly away, I was able to spend several minutes admiring its subtle, spangled beauty. The promise of the dream was fulfilled, even though that single specimen was to be the only one I saw today.   

Heinrich Kühn

 More and more I find myself looking at old photographs (or rather digital images thereof) on the internet. I generally find these images more satisfying than modern photographs, I think because of their imprecision and blur, and their painterly quality – by which I mean, the sense they give that have been 'painted with light', that they are conscious creations, they are not just passively reflecting back an accurate image of external reality. And they can be painterly in a more literal sense too. Yesterday I came across this arresting autochrome photograph from 1915, by the Austrian-German photographic pioneer Heinrich Kühn...

Something about it – the coloration, the steep perspective, the bisecting shadow – reminded me of this painting by Felix Vallotton, The Ball...


Still more painterly, in the sense of looking like a painting, is this autochrome photograph of Kühn's...

And here is another wonderfully soft-toned, soft-outlined Kühn photograph –  
Kühn, I gather, used the gum bichromate process, which allowed for a lot of creative manipulation and adjustment, and he was consciously trying to make photographs that resembled other kinds of art prints. He and his artistic colleagues wanted to make stylised photographs as an element of the gesamtknustwerk, the 'ideal work of art' that the Viennese Secessionists aimed to create. Well, he certainly made some very beautiful pictures.

Friday, 7 May 2021

The Maias

Having been laid low – or semi-laid semi-low – by a painful mystery ailment affecting what can only be described as my left groin, I've been spending more time than usual on the sofa. So I thought it was a good opportunity to take on a heroic reading project, something comparable to last year's The Betrothed.  
  For some years I've been reading and enjoying the novels of the great (and still too little known) Portuguese writer Eça de Queiros, but I had never got round to the one widely regarded as his greatest achievement – The Maias, all 633 pages of it (in my Carcanet edition). It looks forbidding – a great brick of a book – but, as always with this author, it is wonderfully easy to read. Eça is a fine no-nonsense storyteller, but it is his distinctive tone that makes his work so attractive – endlessly ironic but sympathetic, ever alert to human folly and to the comedy and pathos of the human condition, always proceeding with a light tread, never getting heavily 'serious', still less telling the reader what to think. He is, if you like, at the very opposite end of the authorial spectrum from Dickens – though there is something strangely English about him, or at least something that makes his works particularly appealing to English readers.
  Eça conceived The Maias while working at the Portuguese consulate in Newcastle on Tyne, and wrote most of it while living in Bristol (and it's striking how many of his characters spend time in other countries, especially England, though Portugal, in particular Lisbon, is always the focus). The novel traces the history of an aristocratic family against the background of the 19th-century decline of the Portuguese monarchy – and of Portugal itself – but it is in no way a political novel: it is about people (and places), not Ideas. According to Wikipedia, Os Maias is a compulsory text for year 11 students in Portugal; their 15-year-olds must be a good deal more literate than ours. And it was even made into a soap-opera style drama series by a Brazilian TV network – clearly this novel is in the Portuguese cultural bloodstream.
  I'm only about a tenth of the way into The Maias so far, but already I am completely hooked. I'm going to enjoy this...

Tuesday, 4 May 2021

They're Back!

 In keeping with long-standing Nigeness tradition, I must report that today, to my surprise and delight, I saw two swifts flying over my son's garden. The surprise was because it's quite an early sighting, after a dismal April, and it was a very windy and decidedly cool day – which is probably why the swifts were flying low, feeding on insects avoiding the worst of the wind. And delight because, well, they're swifts, and they're here! Summer cannot be far behind.
(The photo isn't mine by the way: I think it's by Patrick Barkham, whose wonderful book The Butterfly Isles I enjoyed rereading recently.)

Sunday, 2 May 2021

Random Jottings

Talking of Chekhov, this photograph of the author with his wife, the actress Olga Knipper (who lived to the age of 90, dying in 1959), has always struck me as one of the most engaging pictures of any writer. Relaxed, open and genial, and clearly happy in his wife's company, Chekhov has none of the usual affectations of an author posing for a photograph: the pensive, soulful look, the chin resting on an elegant hand, the profile shown to best advantage, the calculated advertisement of 'artistic' character. Chekhov was too busy writing – and practising medicine and staging his plays and working for prison reform and supporting his demanding family – to bother about 'being a writer'. 


Meanwhile I'm being targeted again by clerical outfitters, whose latest offerings include a fine preaching scarf and preaching bands, and a 'black grosgrain cincture with falls'. Tempting though all this is, I fancy there is, alas, rather more to being a cleric than dressing up. Ronald Firbank was said to have been so impressed by the uniform of the Pope's Swiss Guard that he considered applying to join it. I don't think that would have gone very well...

I see the Hongkong & Shanghai Banking Corporation – sorry, HSBC – has yet another fatuous slogan: 'Welcome to the New Normal', with 'Normal' crossed out and replaced with 'Different' – 'Welcome to the New Different'. Hmm. I guess it's no worse than 'We are not an island. We are part of something bigger' – a particularly unfortunate slogan these days for a Hongkong-based company. 


Saturday, 1 May 2021

'I always come out of the theatre more conservative than I went in'

 (Re)reading Chekhov's 'A Dreary Story' – one of his very best, I think – I was amused to come across this passage, which I had forgotten. The narrator, a distinguished – and dying – medical professor, airs his views on theatre: 


'I don't think the theatre's any better now than it was thirty or forty years ago. I still can't find a glass of clean water in corridors or foyer. Attendants still fine me twenty kopeks for my coat, though there's nothing discreditable about wearing warm clothes in winter ... The men still go to the bar in the intervals and drink spirits. Where there's no progress in small things, it would be idle to seek it in matters of substance. When an actor, swathed from head to foot in theatrical traditions and preconceptions, tries to declaim a simple, straightforward soliloquy like 'To be or not to be' in a manner anything but simple, and somehow inevitably attended with hissings and convulsions of his entire frame, when he tries to convince me at all costs that Chatsky* – who spends so much time talking to fools and falls in love with a foolish girl – is a highly intelligent man, and that Woe from Wit isn't a boring play, then the stage seems to exhale that same ritual tedium which used to bore me forty years ago when they regaled me with bellowings and breast-beatings in the classical manner. And I always come out of the theatre more conservative than I went in.
  You may convince the sentimental, gullible rabble that the theatre as at present constituted is a school, but that lure won't work on anyone who knows what a school really is ... the theatre can only be a form of entertainment under present conditions. Yet this entertainment costs too much for us to continue enjoying it. It deprives the country of thousands of  healthy, able young men and women who might have become good doctors, husbandmen, schoolmistresses and officers, had they not devoted themselves to the stage. It deprives the public of the evening hours, which are best for intellectual work and friendly converse – not to mention the waste of money, and the moral damage to the theatre-goer who sees murder, adultery or slander improperly handled on the stage.'


  Well, I wouldn't go quite that far myself, but in general terms I share Nicolas Stepanovich's lively aversion to theatre – and I wonder how much of the above Chekhov himself might have agreed with. As it is, his plays are among the very few that might – given the right production, etc – tempt even me to endure the dismal experience of attending a theatre. 


* Chatsky is the protagonist in Woe for Wit, a classical verse comedy of 1823 by Alexander Griboyedov. 

Friday, 30 April 2021

A Church!

 Yesterday, for the first time in months, I found a church standing open to all, with only minimal precautions, and no one on hand to harry the incautious or shepherd us round a prescribed route. It gave me a quite unexpectedly intense surge of pleasure, making me realise how much I'd missed the simple pleasure of walking into a church and having a good look around – something we took for granted in those dear dead days before Lockdown. 
I was with my Derbyshire cousin, taking a day trip to lovely Lichfield, and we thought we'd go and have a look at the nearby canalside village of Alrewas (a name that reads like an anagram).  And there it was – the open church, with only hand sanitiser and a cordoned-off chancel to mark the strange times we live in. It was, in a sense, the perfect building to remind us of the suspended delights of church crawling – small-scale, unpretentious, but full of interest, with a couple of Norman doorways, an Early English chancel, 14th-century nave, west tower and south aisle, and, from the 16h century, clerestory windows and a fine carved wooden roof. Also a 17th-century pulpit, a bit of 15th-century wall painting, and a beautifully coloured east window in Morris style (by Henry Holiday). A typically, gloriously English miscellany. But the chief delight was not in the detail but in the sheer joy of paying an impromptu, unimpeded, unshepherded visit to an English parish church. May this be a harbinger of freedom to come, and a return – at last – to normal human life.

Wednesday, 28 April 2021

Veg Talk

 Radio listeners with long memories might recall, with a frisson of horror, the Radio 4 programme of the above name, in which two cheery cockney types would, er, 'celebrate fruit and veg'. This was the programme that launched the insufferable Gregg Wallace on the world – hence the frisson. Now, of course, he is everywhere, and still finding ways to become yet more insufferable, bless him. But he does still like his vegetables and is happy to 'celebrate' them (Come, muse, and sing the parsnip...).
  All this by way of preamble to more talk of fruit and vegetables, triggered by Patrick Kurp's post which picked up on yesterday's Aubergine Mystery. Patrick's memories of the limited bill of fare we grew up with chimes with my own, but with differences distinctive to this side of the Atlantic. I could make an alphabet of foodstuffs that never came my way or were regarded as impossibly exotic – well, I could start one anyway, as 'A' alone has avocados (then known as avocado pears), artichokes, asparagus and of course aubergine. 'B', incredibly, would feature broccoli: in my boyhood the only greens on offer were cabbage, spring greens and spinach, all of which would be boiled to within an inch of their life. Broccoli florets were available as a frozen luxury veg, but otherwise never seen (though happily my dad grew purple-sprouting broccoli in the garden). Courgettes (zucchini) were unheard of, and cheeses were, as in Patrick's case, severely limited, with anything continental deemed wildly adventurous and available only in delicatessens. Parmesan came in dried powder form, shaken from a little drum which smelt rather like vomit – but I loved it, even in that debased form. Fresh herbs were not to be had, with the sole exceptions of parsley and mint. Olive oil was something you bought in tiny bottles from the chemist, not for culinary use, and black olives were never seen. Peppers came only in green and were sliced, rather daringly, onto salads. Yoghurt was a mysterious health food, of interest only to sandal-wearing cranks (until the Ski brand came along). Pasta meant either macaroni (for macaroni cheese or macaroni pudding) or spaghetti, which came full length, wrapped in dark blue paper, and would be stewed for a good long time before serving. 'Spaghetti bolognese' was basically mince on top of soggy spaghetti, rather than under mashed potato (cottage/shepherd's pie). Similarly 'curry' was mince, with a dash of curry powder, on top of overcooked white rice – but with the 'authentic' touch of a few sultanas and maybe some sliced apple. Rice itself was regarded with deep misgiving by my parents' generation, who deemed it uniquely difficult to cook, and best served in very small portions. Pizza was something you might come across in the few vaguely authentic Italian restaurants to be found in those days when eating out was, for most, a rare event. I didn't discover what real pizza was until my first visit to Italy, when I was 19. 
  Was anything in the food line better then? I suppose we ate more fresh produce and much less in the way of processed food – and every high street had a fishmonger, so fresh fish could be easily had – but the range of choice everywhere was seriously restricted. Today's supermarket shelves offer a range of possibilities beyond the wildest dreams of my younger days – a veritable cornucopia. This abundance and range graphically demonstrate the fact that (mostly) free markets work to the huge benefit of consumers. Centrally controlled markets, on the other hand, create scarcity and restrict choice. Imagine what those supermarkets would be like if we'd nationalised food – we'd be shuffling along in an endless queue in the hope of getting the last sawdust sausage and a handful of turnip tops...
  By the way, aubergines mysteriously reappeared today. 


Monday, 26 April 2021

Aubergine Mystery

 Here's a mystery. Suddenly all the aubergines have disappeared from the supermarket shelves, leaving not even an aubergine-allocated space behind. I tried four shops today and not a single eggplant to be found. 
I know there was a bit of a panic earlier in the year when a mighty snowstorm, Storm Filomena, hit the polytunnels of Spain (must be that global warming) and supplies of unseasonal veg were disrupted. But I have  heard of no such event since then, nor of any aubergine blight or crop failure. 
What is going on? Is this, I wonder, the price we pay for Brexit? If I'd only known it was going to come to this, I would of course never have voted for it. It's clearly time to get behind the exciting 'rejoin the EU' movement and reclaim our rightful aubergines. 

Saturday, 24 April 2021

Gyroid Beauty

 Having remarked yesterday that butterflies are 'few and far between', I must add that this was certainly not true of the Brimstones that were flying at one of my favourite local butterfly spots this morning. They were out in unusually high numbers, both the sulphur-yellow males and the paler, greenish-white females, all flying with every appearance of gusto, despite the lingering chill in the air. They were a joy to see (as were the few Orange Tips and the more frequent Peacocks), but I was hoping for a sight of two other spring species: the Green Hairstreak and the Grizzled Skipper. If there were Skippers, they quite eluded my search of their usual patch, but, to my delight, I was soon spotting Green Hairstreaks, several of which obligingly landed and gave me a close-up sight of their beautiful, iridescent green underwings. 
  In the course of researching my forthcoming (hopefully, some time, in some form) long essay/ short book on butterflies, I discovered that scientists have been taking a particular interest in the emerald sheen of the Green Hairstreak's underwings. This is, it seems, a demonstration in nature of a structure that originated as a purely theoretical entity – the gyroid. Defined as an 'infinitely connected triply periodic minimal surface', this is a kind of three-dimensional honeycomb structure, unique in having triple junctions and no lines of reflectional symmetry. The gyroid could, we are told, have important 'real-world' applications in computer electronics and anti-forgery logos. So, as it flutters about the sunny hedgerows, the little Green Hairstreak is, all unwittingly, at the cutting edge of science. 

Friday, 23 April 2021

This and That

 This is the day generally regarded as William Shakespeare's birthday, and celebrated as such – but not on Google (no Shakespearean doodle), nor on Wikipedia, which in this matter shows itself a stickler for fact and gives only the baptismal date (the 26th). 
Anyway, it's another bright, sunny, very nearly warm day here in the Southeast. The day before yesterday I saw my first swallow (overflying at speed – they never stay around here), and the day before that I spotted one of our local peregrines, flying elegantly past one of the urban cliffs (i.e. tower blocks) that are now their habitat. Butterflies continue to be few and far between, though there are orange tips, holly blues and speckled woods flying now, as well as the peacocks and brimstones. 


But enough of nature notes. Here is a sentence from Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest (Algernon speaking): 'The amount of women in London who flirt with their own husbands is perfectly scandalous.' Yes – 'the amount of women'! It is something of a shock to come across such looseness of language in a writer otherwise so impeccably stylish – see also Henry James and Vladimir Nabokov. No doubt I'll recover. Incidentally, unlike many plays, The Importance reads very well on the page. I'm reading it in a 1924 Methuen edition, the eighteenth since its first publication in 1899. It took ten years – the years of Wilde's disgrace, presumably – for Methuen to republish it in a standard edition, but it seems to have really taken off during the Great War, with five editions, four of them in 'cheap form', being brought out during the war years, and two more in 1919. It must have made for perfect escapist reading, like a dispatch from a lost world.

It's always a pleasure to discover a new word, especially if it denotes something for which no word seemed to exist. Admittedly the word in this case is not English but Japanese, but I was still pleased to find it, as it describes the blurry effect of out-of-focus areas of a photograph – one of the things that most attracts me about old photos by the likes of Julia Margaret Cameron.  The word is 'bokeh' and there is a very long, technical entry devoted to it on Wikipedia. Much of that I don't understand, but I look forward to using (or misusing) the word some time – 'I say, look at that bokeh!' 

Wednesday, 21 April 2021

'The eyes like quinine...'

Above is Van Gogh's famous, and still startling, portrait of Dr Gachet, the homoeopath and amateur painter who was Vincent's friend and protector during the final months of his life. In his collection of ekphrastic poems, 'Impressions' (published in the volume Between Here and Now), R.S. Thomas responds to the portrait...

Not part of the Health Service;
no-one to pass his failures
on to. The eyes like quinine
have the same medicative

power. With one hand
on cheek, the other
on the equivocal
foxglove he listens

to life as it describes
its symptoms, a doctor
becoming patient himself
of art's diagnosis.

Elsewhere in 'Impressions', Dr Gachet appears again, in Thomas's response to a Cézanne painting, Dr Gachet's House. Cézanne got to know Dr Gachet when he was staying in Auvers-sur-Oise in 1872 (18 years before Van Gogh's portrait). Though Cézanne dismissed Vincent's paintings as 'the work of a madman', Van Gogh admired those of Cézanne's pictures that he knew, including this one.
Here is R.S. Thomas...

Wanting to find out
if it was on the edge
of something? But the surroundings
blurred; only the way to it

clear, as it was meant
to be for the earless painter
coming with his mind in pieces
to mend it by the light of those eyes.

Monday, 19 April 2021

A Curious Survival

 Going through some papers just now, I came across a photocopy of something my paternal grandfather (whom I never knew; he died in 1936) wrote – an account of a journey from Liverpool to Montreal in 1892 on the steamship Sardinian. Handwritten and illustrated with little pen-and-ink sketches, it's very nicely produced, in the style of its time. The attitudes too are very much of their time, and the early pages, in particular, make for amusing reading.
  When the ship drops anchor off Moville in County Donegal, my grandfather and a few others take a rowing boat to the shore, where they are 'besieged by a crowd of jaunting-car drivers, whose remarks were very witty, chiefly consisting of absurd brag about one's own particular car, and biting sarcasm as to their rivals' vehicles'. As they walk around the town, the party find 'the whole crew of Jehus following us about with great persistency and never-ending jabber'. Eventually they strike a deal with one driver to take them to 'Greencastle, an old ruin of very dubious character' (which is all my grandfather has to say about Greencastle). Later, at the post office, 'a most amusing incident occurred'. This was a lengthy dialogue in which a woman complained, in 'an extremely rapid flow of genuine Irish', that a Post Office vehicle had run over one of her ducks and the Post Office should pay her compensation. I guess you had to be there...
  A great deal of singing and music-making goes on – weather and mal de mer permitting – as the journey proceeds, and of course there are church services. At one point my grandfather reports that 'steerage passengers have been encroaching on our part of deck today, and have been repulsed, looking very savage'. He sympathises though: 'Poor beggars. I feel very sorry for them. How on earth they exist in that hole of a steerage, I can't imagine. The smell is unbearable down there, and none of them appear to have had a wash since last Christmas.' At least they get their own church service, in the fo'c'sle, and later they have a dance 'to a bad fiddle accompaniment'. 
  My grandfather notes various of his fellow passengers, including Colonel Haggard, a brother of Rider Haggard, and his wife, who sounds like a formidable lady: 'She came on board with a large deerhound and a small pug. She is a fine tall lady. This lady, I understand, spends a good deal of time in the Rockies, wearing for the purpose a Norfolk jacket and breeches, being, of course, quite isolated from civilisation.' Well, quite. After several days of heavy weather, the boat comes in sight of land, passing Belle Isle and coming close to a flotilla of icebergs. My grandfather does not get to visit Quebec, as the ship docks at Lévis, on the opposite shore. At journey's end, he finds Montreal 'a very fine city' with 'very clean white buildings and streets'. Churches, priests and nuns abound. 'Many of the sidewalks are paved with wood, and the greater number of the streets are planted with tall trees, which look very fresh & green. Some of the houses are covered with creepers and flowers in the main streets of the city.' All of which sounds very different from the Montreal that I visited a few years ago. 
  My grandfather's account comes to an abrupt and anticlimactic end, describing a 'Japanese gentleman' on board, a Mr Arthur Hart. 'The Jap lady is his wife, Mrs ArthurHart. He speaks very good English, although he might be taken for pure Japanese.' Finis. Well, this document is a product of its time, but I am glad it has survived. 
  Nine years later, the Sardinian was the ship that carried Marconi to St John's, Newfoundland, to set up his radio station there. She ended her days ignominiously as a coal hulk, before being scrapped at Bilbao in 1938.