Sunday 31 January 2021

Good for Lungs and Soul

 It's Schubert's birthday today (born 1797).
  What to say? Happily he is now recognised for what he was, one of the half dozen or so greatest composers who ever lived. It wasn't always so, and it took until well into the 20th century before Schubert got his long belated due. Even in my boyhood, he was still popularly regarded as a charming songwriter and not very much else. 
  Over the years on this blog I have posted quite a few examples of Schubert's genius – mostly songs – but today I'm going to go for something on a grander scale, and for a particular reason. I remember some years ago hearing Dorothy Rowe, an unusually sane psychologist, on Desert Island Discs being asked, at the end of the programme, which of her eight choices she would rescue if she could only save one. Her answer was Schubert's Symphony No 9, the 'Great C Major', because it was the only piece of music she knew that always lifted her spirits and made her feel better, however she felt when she started and in whatever circumstances she was listening. I feel exactly the same way about it, and it would be my choice of the one disc to save should the call from Desert Island Discs ever come (and they're leaving it a bit late...). 
  If it weren't for the efforts of Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn, the Great C Major might have lain forgotten for many years. Schumann was shown the manuscript on a visit to Vienna in 1838, immediately recognised it as something very special, and arranged for his friend Mendelssohn to premiere it in Leipzig the following year (eight years after Schubert's death), albeit in shortened form. It is a symphony of, in Schumann's phrase, 'heavenly length', the kind of length that only Beethoven, it was assumed, could handle. How wrong they were. 
  Here, in the interests of lifting the spirits in these dreary locked-down times, is the final movement of Schubert's symphonic masterpiece, an endlessly inventive dance of unquenchable vitality and melodic beauty. Listen out for the nod to Beethoven's Ode to Joy around halfway through – and feel free to dance and fling your arms about; it's good for your lungs, as well as your soul. 

Friday 29 January 2021


 The BBC's Winterwatch series has been a welcome window on the natural world in these hunkered-down times ('It's what you pay your licence fee for,' as presenter Chris Packham likes to say, exultingly, after a particularly choice item – and it is indeed one of the few BBC programmes I would actually miss).
Watching it last night I actually learned a new word – 'psithurism' (the 'p' is silent). It describes the sound made by the wind among the leaves in the tree canopy of a woodland. It derives from the Greek psithuros, a whispering, and it sounds much like what it denotes. Not as versatile as the broadly similar 'susurration', but a useful word to have about you on a woodland walk: 'Harken to that psithurism!'

Thursday 28 January 2021

The Death of Yeats

 On this day in 1939, William Butler Yeats – who, for all that can be said against him, was surely one of the great poets of the 20th century – died in a room in the modest Hotel Idéal Séjour at Menton. He had come there, with his wife 'George', in the hope that the mild weather would help his failing health, but that winter (his second in the South of France) was exceptionally severe. As he drifted towards death, helped by generous doses of morphine, he was nursed, turn and turn about, by his wife and his last mistress, Edith Shackleton Heald. His son Michael was also in attendance, and others of his adoring 'parish of rich women' were near at hand. 
   'If I die,' he told George, 'bury me up there [indicating the churchyard at Roquebrune]. And then, in a year's time when the newspapers have forgotten me, dig me up and plant me in Sligo.' This plan, however, was blown off course by the coming of war, and it was not until 1948 that the poet's body was disinterred and shipped to Ireland. The exhumation was not straightforward, as the bodies in Yeats's part of the churchyard had already been dug up and reburied in a mass grave. There was some dispute over whether the body was correctly identified,  as Yeats – who, unglamorously, wore a surgical truss – was buried in the same churchyard and at much the same time as an Englishman who wore a medical corset, which might quite easily have been mistaken for a truss.  Either way, Yeats (or the remains taken to be him) was at last buried where he wished to be, 'Under bare Ben Bulben's head, In Drumcliff churchyard' in County Sligo. 
   The death of Yeats on that cold winter day in 1939 inspired Auden to write one of his finest poems, 'In Memory of W.B. Yeats' .

In the last section of the poem, Auden writes in iambic tetrameter, a meter that lends itself naturally to light verse and can easily decline into doggerel – and he elevates it into something sublime. This section could stand alone as one of the greatest English-language elegies.
  Iambic tetrameter was Swift's preferred meter, and Yeats adopted it for his translation of the Dean's Latin epitaph (in St Patrick's cathedral in Dublin) –

'Swift has sailed into his rest;
Savage indignation there
Cannot lacerate his Breast.
Imitate him if you dare,
World-Besotted Traveller; he
Served human liberty.'

and Auden surely had that epitaph in mind when he wrote 'Earth, received an honoured guest'. 

Yeats's own epitaph, on his headstone in Drumcliff churchyard, is justly famous:

'Cast a cold Eye
On Life, on Death.
Horseman, pass by.'

Wednesday 27 January 2021

An End to the Grey Squirrel Menace?

 I was delighted to learn that grey 'squirrels' are to be unwittingly dosed with contraceptives in an effort to reduce their numbers. These pests have wrought havoc in Britain, seeing off their red cousins across most of the land and causing widespread destruction in woodlands – all the while presenting themselves to an adoring public as cute, lovable bushy-tailed rodents. Parks and gardens around here are swarming with them, to the great detriment of the songbird population (they eat eggs and kill nestlings, destroy nests, ruin nestboxes and steal the birds' food). They swarm around me whenever I walk through one of the local parks that they've taken over – no doubt expecting me to lob some monkey nuts their way, as most people do. I simply glare at them and mutter maledictions, but the shameless creatures take no notice. 
   The difference between red squirrels and the grey impostors can be neatly demonstrated by comparing Beatrix Potter's Squirrel Nutkin (red) and Timmy Tiptoes (grey). The tale of the former is lively, delightful, beautifully pictured and imagined, and Nutkin comes over as a Potter hero every bit as attractive as Tom Kitten or Peter Rabbit. The tale of Timmy Tiptoes is a tired and stilted effort, produced with no conviction, simply to bolster the author's American sales. Enough said. 
  My only reservation about the contraception project is that the grey squirrels might have done good work in sabotaging the government's insane tree-planting projects. Maybe they'll hang on long enough to finally make themselves useful.

Tuesday 26 January 2021

Winter Consolations

 The most cheering sight of this dismal time of year, or so I find, is the redwing, that elegant little thrush with its sleek eyestripes and russet flanks. After a slightly slow start, the redwings are having a good winter and seem to be busy in every tree and shrub around here. Individually they are (like some other forest-dwelling birds) surprisingly tame, often allowing a good close look before flying off, but a group of them together – and together is what these sociable birds usually are – will suddenly take fright and explode out of a bush or tree with a frantic beating of wings, all taking off together and speeding towards safety. Around here they have stripped the trees and shrubs of all their favourite early berries and are now devouring ivy berries, which, ounce for ounce, fact fans, pack almost as many calories as a Mars bar. This cold winter has brought the redwings here from their even colder Eastern homelands – but what am I saying? I'm sure that at the end of the month we shall be informed that this was the warmest January  since records began, and that this will also turn out to have been the warmest winter... 
   And another cheering thing: blood oranges are in the shops. For their looks, texture and flavour – and their limited season (such a rarity now) – these are my favourite oranges, though, according to the food 'experts' on Radio 4's ludicrous Kitchen Cabinet, they are no different from any other oranges. The palates of these poor souls have been so ravaged by too much kitchen time that they seem unable to taste anything unless unspeakable culinary abuse has been wrought on it. I've yet to hear them come up with one 'idea' that didn't make me wince. 

Sunday 24 January 2021

Good News and Snow

 Good news – I am a grandfather again. A fine healthy boy, born early this morning. This brings the tally to five – four boys (two of them in New Zealand) and one girl.
And, as if to mark the occasion, it snowed this morning – great fat flakes to begin with, promising well, but, alas, within an hour or two it was mostly slush. Good to have had some snow though – I don't think we had any the last three winters. Just briefly it looked almost like the scene above, painted by a local artist, the excellent John Stillman. That is All Saints, Carshalton, viewed aslant across the East pond.

Saturday 23 January 2021

Manet Day Again

 Here at Nigeness we rarely let January 23rd go without marking the birthday of Edouard Manet (born 1832). This year in particular, one of his glorious late flower paintings would surely make a cheering sight. The one above is described as 'Roses, Oeillets, Pensées' (roses, carnations, pansies) or, more vaguely in English, 'Flowers in a Crystal Vase'.  As with so many of these flower paintings, the vase itself is a little masterpiece. He paints it again, still more brightly, in 'Lilas et Roses' – ah, roll on lilac time...

Friday 22 January 2021

Winter Aconite

 In the depths of winter nothing lifts the heart like the sight of a clump of golden winter aconites. And in this dismal locked-down winter, with the world apparently going madder by the day and no sign of an end to it (though I live, as always, in hope), the heart is in dire need of lifting. 
The winter aconite is a flower that lives up to its name, even in Linnaean Greek (Eranthis hyemalis = spring flower of winter). It is in full bloom now, usually (as in the picture) around trees, in fairly open woodland or in parks and gardens: although it now feels like one of our native wildflowers, a cherished part of the familiar cycle of seasonal flowering, it is actually  a garden escape. Happily it is thriving, seizing its moment each winter before the tree canopy starts growing over and obscuring the sunlight, flowering gloriously, then dying back into its tuber, leaving not a trace behind. Enjoy it while it is here – and when you find some, the chances are you will find snowdrops too. 

Tuesday 19 January 2021

Murray Sings the Broad Bean

 I came across this poem by the late great Australian poet Les Murray while I was browsing in an anthology, and thought I would post it here for wider enjoyment. It's a bravura piece of descriptive writing, shot through with Murray's hyperacute visual sense and utterly distinctive imagination. No one else could have written such a description of a row of broad beans – no one else, perhaps, would have thought to do so. It's called a 'sermon', and begins with an image of a 'slack church parade' and the sound of 'trespass against us' in unison, but Murray has nothing to teach beyond the one great lesson: pay attention, look at what is there...

The Broad Bean Sermon

Beanstalks, in any breeze, are a slack church parade
without belief, saying trespass against us in unison,
recruits in mint Air Force dacron, with unbuttoned leaves.

Upright with water like men, square in stem-section
they grow to great lengths, drink rain, keel over all ways,
kink down and grow up afresh, with proffered new greenstuff.

Above the cat-and-mouse floor of a thin bean forest
snails hang rapt in their food, ants hurry through several dimensions:
spiders tense and sag like little black flags in their cordage.

Going out to pick beans with the sun high as fence-tops, you find
plenty, and fetch them. An hour or a cloud later
you find shirtfulls more. At every hour of daylight

appear more than you missed: ripe, knobbly ones, fleshy-sided,
thin-straight, thin-crescent, frown-shaped, bird-shouldered, boat-keeled ones,
beans knuckled and single-bulged, minute green dolphins at suck,

beans upright like lecturing, outstretched like blessing fingers
in the incident light, and more still, oblique to your notice
that the noon glare or cloud-light or afternoon slants will uncover

till you ask yourself Could I have overlooked so many, or
do they form in an hour? unfolding into reality
like templates for subtly broad grins, like unique caught expressions,

like edible meanings, each sealed around with a string
and affixed to its moment, an unceasing colloquial assembly,
the portly, the stiff, and those lolling in pointed green slippers ...

Wondering who’ll take the spare bagfulls, you grin with happiness
– it is your health – you vow to pick them all
even the last few, weeks off yet, misshapen as toes.

Monday 18 January 2021


 It has been drawn to my attention that Cary Grant (or, as he then was, Archibald Alec Leach) was born on this day in 1904. 
Well, any excuse for a Cary clip. Here he is, on top form, sparring with Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday. Genius-level comic acting, from both of them – and great tailoring...

Blue Monday, Blue Melody

 This day, the third Monday of January, is, we are told, Blue Monday – the unhappiest day of the year, as calculated by 'an equation' devised in 2005 (and applicable only in the Northern Hemisphere). Well, we all like a bit of pseudoscience to start the day, don't we, and this one is harmless enough. 
  An idle train of thought led me from Blue Monday to Blue Afternoon, one of the best albums of Tim Buckley's musical maturity (after he'd moved on from his early folky stuff into the more jazz-infused musical landscapes that he made entirely his own). Tim's posthumous reputation sometimes seems in danger of being eclipsed by that of his son Jeff – so, to keep the flame alive, and as a reminder of what an extraordinary singer Tim Buckley was, here is 'Blue Melody' from the Blue Afternoon album. Enjoy...

Sunday 17 January 2021

Auberon Waugh, Novelist: 4

 My enjoyable stroll through the all but forgotten novels of Auberon Waugh is nearing its end. Of the five published (between 1960 and 1972), I have now read four. Having greatly enjoyed the third, Who Are the Violets Now?, I was hoping that number four, Consider the Lilies (1968), might be even more fun. Sadly, it was not to be: after a promising start, Consider the Lilies never quite builds into a satisfying novel. Perhaps the problem is that Waugh is here, uncharacteristically, writing in the first person, taking us inside the head of his narrator and obliging us to see everything through his worse than jaundiced eyes. This opens up possibilities for Waugh the satirist but cramps the style of Waugh the novelist. After a while, this particular first person ceases to be as much fun as he initially promised to be.
   Nicholas Trumpeter is a youngish clergyman taking up a new living which is in the gift of an enigmatic, extremely rich financier, whose disenchanted view of the world looks almost benign in comparison with Nicholas's bottomless cynicism. Trumpeter seems to regard the church he is supposedly serving as a dead letter, good only for functioning as a minor branch of the social services and endorsing whatever causes and grievances are fashionable at any given moment. Nicholas is certainly happy to fling himself into this cause in order to advance his career, or at least keep it afloat, mouthing sociological platitudes, calling on 'the government' to do something about such issues du jour as inflammable nighties, old aged pensioners' dance halls and, of course, the needs of 'young people'. (This is not entirely unfair as a satirical portrait of the Church of England in the Sixties.) Nicholas is in fact quite uninterested in the work of the church, or the most basic requirements of his position, and would happily spend his time reading detective novels (while complaining about being overworked). 
   And then there is Gillian, Nicholas's wife and a most vexing thorn in his side. An old-fashioned atheist and serious believer in all the politically correct views of the time, she is also, according to our none too reliable narrator, physically unattractive, shrewish and entirely humourless. Nicholas's loathing for her has now reached such a pitch that he is actively considering bumping her off in some relatively humane and undetectable way.  As an added bonus, such an outcome would leave him free to carry on his affair with the cassock-chasing daughter of his patron...
   Nicholas Trumpeter, then, is not a nice man; indeed he could be classed as a borderline psychopath. And yet, for much of the time, his disarming frankness, his eye for absurdity and his sheer shamelessness make him surprisingly agreeable company – especially as he narrates, perforce, in the elegant, limpid, ironically inflected prose of his creator. In the early chapters at least, there are good laughs to be had from the dark comedy that unfolds, especially from the antics of Nicholas's more or less deranged clerical colleagues. However, I found as the story went on that the narrator's all-embracing cynicism and absolute self-absorption tended to drain the life out of everything and everyone else around him. Waugh pulls it all together at the end with a couple of narrative moves that serve to wrap things up and reveal the full extent of Nicholas's delusions, but Consider the Lilies does not show Waugh fils at his best, and there is something of a pot-boiler feel to it. Perhaps, however, the creation of Nicholas Trumpeter played its part in the genesis of Waugh's classic Diaries; there are passages where Nicholas sounds uncannily like the persona adopted by Waugh for that other, very different exercise in fiction.  
   And that leaves me with just one more Waugh to go – A Bed of Flowers (1972). I'll be sorry when this little excursion is over. 

Friday 15 January 2021

Twang Dillo Dee, the Amen to Nonsense

 On this day in 1820, John Keats, writing to his sister-in-law Georgiana out in Kentucky, tells her that 
'This is a beautiful day. I hope you will not quarrel with it if I call it an american one. The Sun comes upon the snow and makes a prettier candy than we have on twelvth-cakes. George is busy this morning in making copies of my verses. He is making one now of an Ode to the nightingale, which is like reading an account of the Black Hole at Calcutta on an iceberg.'
(How strange to think of that Ode as a newly written poem being copied out...) Keats picks up again on the temperature contrast when he goes to sit in the sun with snow all around, apricating (I wonder if he knew the word): 
I have been sitting in the Sun whilst I wrote this till it’s become quite oppressive this is very odd for January. The vulcan fire is the true natural heat for winter: the sun has nothing to do in winter but to give "a little glooming light much like a Shade". – Our Irish servant has piqued me this morning by saying that her father in Ireland was very much like my Shakspeare only he had more colour than the Engraving.'
That 'little glooming light' is from the Faerie Queen. What train of thought could have led from the sunshine and snow to the Irish servant? The joy of Keats's letters – one of the joys – is that you never know what is coming next. 
 This letter to Georgiana is one of a sequence written between the 13th and 28th January and sent as one letter. Keats professes to be 'dull', but Keats dull is worth a hundred other letter writers in good spirits. He comforts Georgiana in her Kentucky isolation (her husband, Keats's brother George, is in England) and amiably teases the proud parents: 
We smoke George about his little Girl, he runs the common beaten road of every father, as I dare say you do of every mother – there is no Child like his Child, so original! original forsooth However, I take you at your words; I have a lively faith that yours is the very gem of all Children. Aint I its Unkle?'
Later Keats becomes misanthropic, in a general way: 'Upon the whole I dislike Mankind: whatever people on the other side of the question may advance they cannot deny that they are always surprised at hearing of a good action and never of a bad one.' He goes on to describe how dull he is finding London and its society – probably intending to console Georgiana for the deeper dullness of Louisville society. Anyway it is a theme that is soon sending him off into flights of fancy that are anything but dull:
I know three people of no wit at all, each distinct in his excellence. A, B, and C. A is the foolishest, B the sulkiest, C is a negative – A makes you yawn, B makes you hate, as for C you never see him though he is six feet high. I bear the first, I forbear the second, I am not certain that the third is. The first is gruel, the second Ditch water, the third is spilt—he ought to be wip’d up. A is inspired by Jack-o’-the-clock – B has been drilled by a Russian Sargeant, C – they say is not his Mothers true Child but that she bought him of the Man who cries, "Young Lambs to sell." Twang dillo dee...This you must know is the Amen to nonsense. I know a good many places where Amen should be scratched out, rubb'd over with pounce made of Momus’s little finger bones, and in its place "Twang-dillo-dee" written. This is the word I shall henceforth be tempted to write at the end of most modern Poems. Every American Book ought to have it. It would be a good distinction in Saciety. My Lords Wellington, Castlereagh and Canning and many more would do well to wear Twang-dillo-dee written on their backs instead of wearing ribbands at their Button-holes. How many people would go sideways along walls and quickset hedges to keep their Twang-dillo-dee out of sight, or wear large pigtails to hide it. However there would be so many that the Twang-dillo-dees would keep one another in countenance ..... Some philosophers in the Moon, who spy at our Globe as we do at theirs say that Twang dillo dee is written in large Letters on our Globe of Earth – They say the beginning of the T is just on the spot where London stands, London being built within the Flourish – w a n reach downward and slant as far as Timbuctoo in africa, the tail of the G goes slap across the Atlantic into the Rio della Plata – the remainder of the Letters wrap around new holland, and the last e terminates on land we have not yet discovered. However, I must be silent, these are dangerous times to libel a man in, much more a world.'
I don't think we would have far to look in these times for worthy recipients of the Twang-dillo-dee...

Tuesday 12 January 2021

Sassoon's Surprize

 In the course of my researches, I came across this passage from Siegfried Sassoon's The Old Century and Seven More Years (1938).
Sassoon, sitting in the attic of his Kentish home, has become aware of the flutterings of a butterfly trapped behind the gauze covering the skylight... 
'By standing on a chair – which I placed on a table – I could just get my hand between the gauze and the glass. The butterfly was ungratefully elusive, and more than once the chair almost toppled over. Successful at last, I climbed down, and was about to put the butterfly out of the window when I observed between my fingers that it wasn't the Small Tortoiseshell or Cabbage White that I had assumed it to be. Its dark wings had yellowish borders with blue spots on them. It was more than seven years since I had entomologically squeezed the thorax of a "specimen". Doing so now, I discovered that one of the loftiest ambitions of my childhood had been belatedly realised. I had caught a Camberwell Beauty.'
  This vivid description of the thrill of encountering one of the most beautiful and unpredictable of our English rarities – the butterfly formerly known as the Grand Surprize – has, to modern ears, a chilling edge, as it becomes apparent that Sassoon, without a qualm, straight away squeezes its thorax, delivering a quick death and establishing possession of a 'specimen' he has long dreamt of. Autres temps, autres moeurs.
  The Camberwell Beauty is the butterfly known to Americans as the Mourning Cloak. I have only seen it in Canada, and it was one of the great butterfly encounters of my life. It is the butterfly Patrick Kurp was writing about the other day, and quoting Nabokov's poetical description

Like the Camberwell Beauty, Sassoon's Military Cross also turned up, as if by magic, in an attic (his step-grandson's). This was many years after it was thought lost. You can read the story of that 'grand surprise' here... 

Sunday 10 January 2021

Doomscrolling and Tallis

 On the radio this morning I caught a word that was new to me – 'doomscrolling'. It's a word that fits what it describes – obsessive seeking out of negative news stories online. It used to be known as 'doomsurfing'. but nowadays we scroll rather than surf, running a treadmill rather than riding the wavecrests. Before we even had the internet, the phenomenon (or its old-world equivalent) was labelled the 'mean world syndrome' – a belief that the world if a far more dangerous place than it actually is, again as a result of too much exposure to relentlessly negative material. There are certainly many among us suffering from this syndrome: some months ago a survey found that most people believed the death toll from Covid to be around 7 percent. Even now, after many more deaths, the actual figure stands at 0.12 percent. Enough said.

 I picked up 'doomscrolling' on Radio 4, but was soon back with my default network – wonderful (mostly) Radio 3. There I heard this rather lovely modern take on Thomas Tallis's setting of Archbishop Parker's metrical translation of Psalm 2 – the work that inspired Vaughan Williams's beautiful Tallis Fantasia. The Spirit of Tallis is written by Christopher Monks and performed here by his ensemble Armonica Consort.  I think it's just the kind of thing we need in these strange times...

Actually, this is a taster video. Oddly the piece on its own seems reluctant to upload (or is it download?). However, it is definitely there on YouTube in glorious isolation, if you feel like seeking it out...

Saturday 9 January 2021

'But once I lived in Gloucestershire...'

 Born on this day in 1881 was one of the most splendidly named of all English poets – Lascelles Abercrombie. His poetry long ago fell out of fashion, along with that of most of the other 'Georgians' (and, from what I've seen of it, its fate seems to have been deserved). However, Abercrombie had a successful career as a literary critic and academic, and he was, for one glorious period, at the centre of a literary group from which two great poets would emerge. The group was the 'Dymock poets', based on and around the village of Dymock on the Gloucestershire-Herefordshire border. From 1911 to 1916 Abercrombie lived in a cottage, The Gallows, at Ryton, near Dymock, where the loose-knit circle of poets met, stayed or visited – John Drinkwater, Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Gibson and the two greats in the making, Robert Frost and Edward Thomas. It was at Dymock that the intense friendship between Frost and Thomas – the friendship that was to make a poet of Thomas – was born. 
   Frost's 'Iris by Night' recalls a memorable walk that he and Thomas, 'elected friends', took at Dymock –

One misty evening, one another's guide,
We two were groping down a Malvern side
The last wet fields and dripping hedges home.
There came a moment of confusing lights,
Such as according to belief in Rome
Were seen of old at Memphis on the heights
Before the fragments of a former sun
Could concentrate anew and rise as one.
Light was a paste of pigment in our eyes.
And then there was a moon and then a scene
So watery as to seem submarine;
In which we two stood saturated, drowned.
The clover-mingled rowan on the ground
Had taken all the water it could as dew,
And still the air was saturated too,
Its airy pressure turned to water weight.
Then a small rainbow like a trellis gate,
A very small moon-made prismatic bow,
Stood closely over us through which to go.
And then we were vouchsafed a miracle
That never yet to other two befell
And I alone of us have lived to tell.
A wonder! Bow and rainbow as it bent,
Instead of moving with us as we went
(To keep the pots of gold from being found),
It lifted from its dewy pediment
Its two mote-swimming many-coloured ends
And gathered them together in a ring.
And we stood in it softly circled round
From all division time or foe can bring
In a relation of elected friends.

And Frost's strange, uneasy poem 'The Sound of Trees' was written for Lascelles Abercrombie – 

I wonder about the trees.
Why do we wish to bear
Forever the noise of these
More than another noise
So close to our dwelling place?
We suffer them by the day
Till we lose all measure of pace,
And fixity in our joys,
And acquire a listening air.
They are that that talks of going
But never gets away;
And that talks no less for knowing,
As it grows wiser and older,
That now it means to stay.
My feet tug at the floor
And my head sways to my shoulder
Sometimes when I watch trees sway,
From the window or the door.
I shall set forth for somewhere,
I shall make the reckless choice
Some day when they are in voice
And tossing so as to scare
The white clouds over them on.
I shall have less to say,
But I shall be gone.

Later in his life, Abercrombie seems to have looked back on the Dymock years as a kind of lost paradise. In 1932 he wrote:
'I have lived in a cottage in the daffodil country and I have, for a time, done what I wanted to do ... and I have known what it is to have Wilfred Gibson and Robert Frost for my neighbours; and John Drinkwater, Rupert Brooke, Edward Thomas, Will Davies, Bob Trevelyan, Arthur Ransome, have drunk my cider, and talked in my garden. I make no cider now, and I have no garden. But once I lived in Gloucestershire.'

Friday 8 January 2021

And then...

 Oh, the irony! The morning after my first experiment with the health-giving elixir Cynar I woke up with a weird and disorienting visual impairment. Ever alert to the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, I drew no connection between the drink and the symptom, but decided I had better break the habit of a lifetime and see a doctor. I managed to secure that precious thing, an urgent appointment, and this resulted in a session of telephonic triage and a prompt referral to the local eye unit. There my eyes were tested at punishing length and found to be perfectly all right, and the baffled medic referred me elsewhere. I staggered home feeling thoroughly unwell, continued to do so for around 24 hours, then woke this morning in my usual state of butcher's dog-level fitness. Today I have an optician's appointment, which seems more than a little de trop after all that. More investigations will follow, but this is the last I'll say about the matter – I'm sure none of us wants this to turn into that kind of blog...

Tuesday 5 January 2021


 In my unceasing quest for medicinal liquors, I've landed on Cynar (pronounced 'Chee-nar'), a magical elixir created from a secret recipe as recently as 1952. Thirteen herbs are involved, but the key ingredient (as the label suggests) is artichoke – and the beauty of the artichoke is that it is good for the liver. So, even as the alcohol is punishing your liver, the artichoke is bringing healing and relief. Or so I would like to think... The good news is that Cynar is delicious, like a darker, less sweet Campari, with a greater depth of flavour and a lower alcohol content (16.5%), so that you can drink more of it – which is what I definitely want to do. So far I've drunk it long, with soda, a dash of orange juice and a slice of orange. I'm looking forward to trying it straight on ice as a digestif, and perhaps in place of Campari in a negroni. Cheers!
  By the way, the chap in the picture is the Italian actor Ernesto Calindri, urging us to take Cynar 'against the strain of modern life'. Sound advice, I'm sure. 


The great pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli was born on this day in 1920 (I must have missed the centenary). Here he is demonstrating his effortless technical perfection and exquisite musicality in playing Domenico Scarlatti. This is beautiful music, something we're all going to be in need of as the lockdown lid comes down on our lives yet again – enjoy...


Sunday 3 January 2021

Parents and Children

 Well, I've finished reading another book. This one was Parents and Children by Ivy Compton-Burnett – I think the only one of hers I've read this year, so my addiction must be under control. It's an unusual one too – unusually long, at 280-plus pages, and (by ICB standards) unusually mellow in tone; there's even something very like a happy ending. The cast of characters is also unusually long: there are Eleanor and Fulbert (great name) Sullivan; Fulbert's parents, Regan and Sir Jesse, in whose house Eleanor and Fulbert live; Eleanor and Fulbert's nine children, ranging in age from three-year-old to young adult; the nursery staff and tutor; the nearby family of the Cranmers (four adults); and the mysterious Marlowe siblings who live in genteel poverty on the fringe of the Sullivan estate. 
   With all those characters to bring to some kind of life, Ivy needs more space than usual, especially as she limits her fictional resources, as always, to dialogue and little else. Her great triumph is to fully characterise each of the Sullivan children, so that by the end we feel we know them as individuals. The youngest, Nevill – surely one of the most vividly drawn three-year-olds in literature – makes it easy for us by always referring to himself in the third person. Each of the others also has their own way of expressing themselves in words, and in the course of the novel we get to recognise each voice. Always an acute observer of children, ICB is at her best here. The characterisation of the adults is equally sure, and there are some fine comic scenes, with much less darkness apparent than in most of her novels. Parents and Children was published in 1941, at a low point in the war when Britain stood all but alone against the Nazis – but outside events, however large, seem never to have impinged on Ivy Compton-Burnett's perennially Edwardian fictional world. This might be one of the reasons why her novels were at their peak of popularity during the war.
   As for the plot of Parents and Children, it's the usual shamelessly rickety contraption. Fulbert has to go to South America on business and after a while is reported to be dead. But is he? Suffice to say that in his absence things move fast... The climax comes with a breakneck succession of confrontations and revelations that leave everyone reeling – or rather talking about it all at length. 
'"So the truth has escaped," said Daniel [one of the older children], "and with its accustomed dispatch."
"And we find that our feelings do not go beyond speech. And we are glad of that. The speech will be a relief. We are looking forward to it."'
Parents and Children is of course astringent, but never harsh. By its author's standards it is unusually readable and straightforward. Well, almost straightforward.

Friday 1 January 2021

New Year's Day

 On this day in 1957, Philip Larkin greeted the new year with this touching and beautifully made poem – 

Love Songs in Age

She kept her songs, they took so little space,
  The covers pleased her:
One bleached from lying in a sunny place,
One marked in circles by a vase of water,
One mended, when a tidy fit had seized her,
  And coloured, by her daughter –
So they had waited, till, in widowhood
She found them, looking for something else, and stood

Relearning how each frank submissive chord
  Had ushered in
Word after sprawling hyphenated word,
And the unfailing sense of being young
Spread out like a spring-woken tree, wherein
  That hidden freshness sung,
That certainty of time laid up in store
As when she played them first. But, even more,

The glare of that much-mentioned brilliance, love,
  Broke out, to show
Its bright incipience sailing above,
Still promising to solve, and satisfy,
And set unchangeably in order. So
  To pile them back, to cry,
Was hard, without lamely admitting how
It had not done so then, and could not now.

'Love Songs in Age' was one of three Larkin poems read at his memorial service in Westminster Abbey. The others were 'Church Going' and 'An Arundel Tomb'. Between them, I think, these three show what is best, and most humane, in Larkin's verse.