Sunday 28 February 2021

'Poor woman, she had to get her war experience somewhere...'

 Willa Cather's 'war novel' One of Ours (1922) sold well, won a Pulitzer Prize, was much admired by the reading public, and roundly attacked by many male critics, including Hemingway, who charmingly accused Cather of plagiarising Birth of a Nation ('Poor woman, she had to get her war experience somewhere'), and H.L. Mencken ('There is a lyrical nonsensicality in it that often glows half pathetic; it is precious near the war of the standard model of lady novelist...'). Such attacks are, of course, unfair, but, more to the point, they overlook the fact that this is no standard war novel: the hero, Claude Wheeler, a thwarted and unhappy young idealist, doesn't even set sail for France until nearly two thirds of the way through the novel, and the book is three quarters over before he finally reaches the front. There is very little 'action' in the military sense, but what there is I found as vivid and shocking as any I've read in more conventional war novels; Cather certainly doesn't hold back or display anything like a conventional 'lady novelist's' dainty sensibility. Her view of the American soldiers' patriotic motivation might be idealistic – and therefore, in 1922, unfashionable – but surely there is some truth in that view as well as in the 'futility of war' angle that came to prevail.
   Like others of Willa Cather's novels (e.g. The Professor's House), One of Ours has been described as 'broken-backed' – as if a novel must be one thing, set in one place, proceeding along one straight narrative line. It does not, to me at least, read like two separate novels under one cover, though the first two-thirds of the book, set in rural Nebraska, could no doubt have been rounded off to make a satisfactory novel in itself. But then comes France... One of Ours is rich in glorious descriptive passages and heartfelt scenes, in Nebraska and provincial France alike, scenes suffused with Cather's love of the domestic pastoral. Claude Wheeler is an interesting central character, and there are others equally well drawn. Claude's unhappy marriage, and how he gets drawn into it, are sadly convincing. Parts of the novel read as well as anything Cather wrote, but, taken as a whole, it feels like an uneasy, awkward, ambivalent work, one that mostly lacks the easy flow of the 'prairie' novels. It feels raw and painful, as if something hasn't quite jelled. And it is desperately sad. 
   And now, dammit, I've read all of Willa Cather's novels. I'll have to start again...

Saturday 27 February 2021


 Born on this day in 1567 was the gorgeously named William Alabaster, poet, dramatist and religious writer. He is forgotten today, his works of interest only to scholars, but he gets a favourable mention in Johnson's Life of Milton
'I once heard Mr. Hampton, the translator of Polybius, remark, what I think is true, that Milton was the first Englishman who, after the revival of letters, wrote Latin verses with classick elegance. If any exceptions can be made they are very few; Haddon and Ascham, the pride of Elizabeth's reign, however they may have succeeded in prose, no sooner attempt verses than they provoke derision. If we produced anything worthy of notice before the elegies of Milton it was perhaps Alabaster's Roxana.'
  Roxana was a tragedy in Latin verse in the manner of Seneca (there, that's whetted your appetite, hasn't it?), and it attracted some attention in its day. Alabaster also wrote a number of devotional sonnets (in English), but devoted much of his time and energy to theological writing and caballistic speculations. The most interesting thing about him now, perhaps, is his life story, which exemplifies so much about his times – how strange and different they were, and what a dangerous business life could be, even for a poet and theologian. 
After Cambridge (Trinity College, where he wrote Roxana), he went with the Earl of Essex on an expedition to Cadiz, and while there converted to Catholicism, a conversion he defended in a pamphlet of which not a single copy survives. It seems his rather too public change of faith led to a period of imprisonment in the Tower of London. 
Then, in 1607, he published (in Antwerp) a mystical interpretation of Scripture, Apparatus in Revelationem Jesu Christi, which went down badly with his new Church and was duly put on the Index. Rashly travelling to Rome, he was imprisoned by the Inquisition, but contrived to escape and return to England, where he again embraced the Protestant faith. He became a Doctor of Divinity at Cambridge and chaplain to James I, and, having married and settled down, he devoted his remaining years to his caballistic studies and other theological writings, contributing his portion to that great mountain of unread and unreadable verbiage that is all that remains of most writers of the past – and likely all that will remain of most writers of the present.  As Johnson said, 'No place affords a more striking conviction of the vanity of human hopes than a public library.'

Thursday 25 February 2021

Walter Greaves

 This dejected fellow is Walter Greaves, painted by William Nicholson in 1917. Greaves, by this stage of his life, had some reason to feel dejected. A Thames waterman and boat builder, one of a family of watermen (his father had been J.M.W. Turner's boatman), he lived on Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, when it was nothing like the millionaire's row it is now, and in 1863 he became friends with another Chelsea habitué, James McNeill Whistler. Greaves, who knew the river like the back of his hand, became Whistler's boatman, studio assistant and pupil. It was thanks to Greaves taking him out on the river and showing what it had to offer that Whistler was inspired to paint his great Thames nocturnes and create his etchings of riverside scenes. And thanks to Whistler, Greaves too began to paint and draw, trying his hand at portraits and scenes of Chelsea life. Among the Chelsea notables he painted was Thomas Carlyle – a curiously bland portrait, but not bad (Carlyle's character always showed most vividly in photographs).

Greaves was more convincing when his subjects were the riverside scenes he knew so well. Here he had clearly learnt well from Whistler... 

Sadly, Greaves's career went into decline as Whistler ascended through society and spent more time abroad. After years of poverty and neglect, Greaves was rescued from obscurity by a gallery owner, William Marchant, who mounted an exhibition in 1911, but this was quickly overshadowed by claims from Whistler's biographers that Greaves had plagiarised his teacher. Eleven years later, another exhibition was organised, by William Nicholson, Augustus John and Will Rothenstein, but Greaves fell back into obscurity and spent his last years as a Poor Brother at the Charterhouse. 
   In the days of their friendship, Greaves painted and drew Whistler several times. This portrait catches him rather well...

Tuesday 23 February 2021

'A sun – a shadow of a magnitude'

 It was 200 years ago today that John Keats died, in Rome, of the tuberculosis that had already carried off his brother Tom. It is one of the saddest deaths in literary history, made still more so by the poet's heartbreaking last letter ('... I can scarcely bid you good bye even in a letter. I always made an awkward bow. God bless you!'). Whatever his headstone in the Protestant Cemetery may say, his name was not 'writ in water', and the bicentenary of his death is being duly marked with some Covid-friendly low-key events. Radio 4's Today programme called on Ruth Padel to read a poem she had written for the occasion. At least, they said it was a poem but, listening to it, you'd be hard put to distinguish it from prose, and very dull prose at that. 
  Regular readers of this blog will know how much I love Keats, as poet, man and letter-writer, though I love him rather more as man and letter-writer than as poet. Certainly he wrote half a dozen or so of the greatest poems in the language, but if I could save only the letters or the poems from the wreck of civilisation, I would choose the letters, for the infinite riches they contain and for what they show us of human character at its best. However, I'm going to mark this day with a poem – one that Keats wrote in 1817, at the age of 21, and which I think is quite startlingly brilliant (and too little known):

On Seeing the Elgin Marbles

My spirit is too weak—mortality
   Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep,
   And each imagined pinnacle and steep
Of godlike hardship tells me I must die
Like a sick eagle looking at the sky.
   Yet ’tis a gentle luxury to weep
   That I have not the cloudy winds to keep
Fresh for the opening of the morning’s eye.
Such dim-conceived glories of the brain
   Bring round the heart an undescribable feud;
So do these wonders a most dizzy pain,
   That mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude
Wasting of old time—with a billowy main—
   A sun—a shadow of a magnitude.

Monday 22 February 2021

Then and Now

 Among its many uses, a blog serves as an excellent aide-mémoire, even a portal into the past. Looking to see what I was up to on this day two years ago, I find that I visited a fascinating exhibition of Rembrandt prints and drawings at the British Museum, and dropped in on the church of St Giles in the Fields, 'the poets' church', to have a look at a particular monument. Back then I was still writing the book that was to become The Mother of Beauty (hurry hurry while stocks last). And now, as I write, I am at work on another book, this time a short one on butterflies – indeed I have nearly finished it. I'm hoping it will be launched on a startled world later this year...
Oh for those days when we could wander at large with no restrictions (or masks) and actually 'drop in on' things – galleries, churches, museums, pubs, bookshops, cafés, restaurants... Now all are either closed or hedged about with so many restrictions and conditions as to rule out all spontaneity. Having surrendered a great swathe of our basic rights and freedoms in what appeared at first to be, just possibly or at least arguably, a good cause (remember 'flattening the curve'?), we now seem to have settled into a way of living that a year ago – well, two years ago – would have seemed utterly unthinkable. And the glimmer of light we are promised in the PM's announcement looks likely to be a feeble flicker in the middle distance at best, despite mass vaccination and falling infection rates etc. All this for a virus that mostly kills old people, has barely registered in terms of Qualys (quality adjusted life years) lost, and has restored overall death rates to parity with 2003. Can the costs of all this – social, economic, educational, psychological and physical – possibly be justified? It looks like madness to me. And I would rather like to have my life back, please.

Saturday 20 February 2021

Psychopaths Then and Now

 The other day I came across a curious case of how words change their meanings over (quite a short) time. Reading Willa Cather's 1922 novel One of Ours (of which, probably, more in due course), I found this passage, in which the protagonist Claude Wheeler, with the US army in France, asks a hospital doctor about a curious young man who has caught his attention. 'Oh yes!' says the doctor. 'He's a star patient here, a psychopathic case.' This is a young man who has lost his left arm in action and suffered some brain damage. Rather than be shipped home, he has elected to stay behind and make himself useful at the hospital – nothing remotely psychopathic about that... Then it gets stranger still, as the doctor continues, 'This psychopath, Phillips, takes a great interest in him and keeps him here to observe him.' At this point the penny drops: a 'psychopathic' case is a case in psychopathology, what we would now call psychiatry; and 'psychopath' is here simply short for psychopathist, i.e. psychiatrist. 
'Psychiatry' and 'psychopathy' (in the general sense of mental illness) seem to have come into the language at much the same time: the OED gives a date of 1846 for the first, 1847 for the second. Presumably they coexisted well into the 20th century, sowing confusion for the modern reader. 

Thursday 18 February 2021


 I recently posted this picture – The Street by Balthus – on Facebook, just for the heck of it. It's an image I find endlessly fascinating (as, it seems, does our own Robert Dukes, who has painted his own version or study of it). Fascinating and disturbing, with that unsettling dreamlike quality that much of Balthus's work has. Perhaps his most disturbing works  are the studies of languid pubescent girls which made him notorious in his time, and which remain highly controversial. Balthus, who died on this day 20 years ago, was widely admired, especially by other figurative artists. He cultivated the image of an enigma and a recluse, sending this telegram to the Tate ahead of its 1968 retrospective: 'No biographical details. Begin: Balthus is a painter of whom nothing is known. Now let us look at the pictures. Regards B.' Yet he became an international celebrity. Bono sang at his funeral (what had the poor man done to deserve that?), and among the mourners were the President of France, the Aga Khan, Elle MacPherson and Henri Cartier-Bresson. A classic case of backing into the limelight. 
   This is another hauntingly strange Balthus (which Robert Dukes has also painted a version of)...

And this one was used as the dust-wrapper image on John Gray's excellent Feline Philosophy. An inspired choice.

Tuesday 16 February 2021

Porter's St John

Here is a short poem to keep alive the memory of that extravagantly gifted poet Peter Porter, who was born on this day in 1929 (in Brisbane). The painting above, St John on Patmos by Bosch, I once knew very well, as a nicely framed reproduction of it hung over the fireplace in the home of my old English master. When I visited him, we would sit in armchairs at either side, me sipping sherry (or Cinzano, or whatever was on offer) while he talked. He was very fond of talking, and I was happy to listen. Whether Porter was thinking of this, or some other painting, or none at all, when he wrote the poem, I don't know, but it's a fine piece of work, I think... 

St John on Patmos

For the right visions
You need a desert or an island.

On an island the beasts will listen,
The groundsel sneak into your cell,

Evil done on the mainland
Will let down a bloody feather at your door,

You get a lion to boss your bestiary
And the best menagerie of all in your head.

What a ramshackle day! The missed heart-beat
Reforms a whole landscape: 

That sail is bringing pilgrims, a hymn to God
In your convalescence – the passion-fruit flower

In its sun-suit, heliotrope under the keel
And fish choking in unbreathable blue,

Closer than the enskied artillery of the Lord
Regrettable Emperors with gold hands

And at the right moment of routine
A sure verb to bind the vision to the rock.

Doctors, Doctors. There are things to do.
Kyrie Eleison. But with the world's help.

Monday 15 February 2021

William Nicholson: 'Digging bits of trombone out of the lawn'

Reading about the painter William Nicholson, I learn that his father, who ran a large ironworks in Newark, was one of that town's two MPs, elected in 1880 in the Conservative interest. When the result became known, supporters of Nicholson and of the Liberal who was elected with him took to the streets to make their feelings known. As the Newark Advertiser reported, 'Several free fights occurred and black eyes and broken heads appeared to be exceedingly common. A gang of roughs attacked several Conservative houses [pubs as well as private residences]. The Clnton Arms had a few broken windows. The most damage was, however, done at the Robin Hood. At this house nearly every pane of glass at the front was broken, and considerable damage done. The Generous Briton [great name] was also attacked, and at Mr White's house in Balderstongate a number of panes were broken. Not content with this damage, the Liberal mob ... proceeded to Mr Nicholson's house on the London road. Here they vented their feelings by pelting stones at the windows, and hooting and shouting. We understand it was about nine o'clock at night when a large mob proceeded to Mr Nicholson's residence on South Parade, and attempted to get into the grounds. Fortunately the gates were locked, and their efforts being frustrated, they commenced to throw stones and brickbats at the windows, about twelve panes of glass were broken. The mob had scarcely left before the report of the outrage was communicated to some of Messrs Nicholson's workmen, and a body of 50 or 60 of them proceeded to Mr Nicholson's residence and remained up to midnight to protect the premises.'
  Meanwhile, inside the Nicholson house (this is from Marguerite Steen's biography of Nicholson), 'Hardly was dinner over, or the popping of champagne corks abated, when an uproar outside and the crashing of panes of glass announced the arrival of the Liberal mob, rum-valiant, and out to avenge the defeat of one of their candidates. Someone rushed into the little bedroom where William [eight years old at the time] lay, far too excited to sleep: turned out the light and snatched him out of bed – just in time, for a brick crashed through the window and landed within an inch of the pillow on which his head had been laid. And while Mr Nicholson, snatching a Turkish cutlass from the wall, defied the mob in true heroic fashion on the doorstep, Uncle Fred Prior was out and away, across the flower-beds and walls, to summon the defensive army which, apprehending some such reprisal as this, he had warned to lie in readiness. These stalwarts came up, taking the Liberals – who had brought a brass band with them – in the rear ... and William spent the next few weeks digging bits of trombone out of the lawn.'
   It's easy to forget what a violent, rough-and-tumble affair electoral politics was before things quietened down in the 20th century. 
I am reminded of another political riot in a Mercian town, this one making a target of Joseph Priestley, better known to posterity as a great scientist.

Saturday 13 February 2021

Jolly Hardy

 Well, it seems the ancient weather lore is right: a few days after that sunny Candlemas, in blew the Beast from the East, bringing snow, deep frosts, cutting winds, and icy roads and pavements. 
Here is a jolly little poem by Thomas Hardy, amused by a group of 'buxom women' trying to stay upright on the icy highway: 

Ice on the Highway

Seven buxom women abreast, and arm in arm,
Trudge down the hill, tip-toed,
And breathing warm;
They must perforce trudge thus, to keep upright
On the glassy ice-bound road,

And they must get to market whether or no,
Provisions running low
With the nearing Saturday night,
While the lumbering van wherein they mostly ride
Can nowise go:
Yet loud their laughter as they stagger and slide!

We don't readily associate Hardy, that bleak tragedian, with jolly poems, but there is a modicum of jollity and comedy mingled in with the tragedy of his novels (especially the early ones), and among the huge number of poems he wrote are a good many that could be classified as comic or humorous. One of the funniest is this old favourite, a masterpiece of sardonic comedy: 

The Ruined Maid 

"O 'Melia, my dear, this does everything crown!
Who could have supposed I should meet you in Town?
And whence such fair garments, such prosperi-ty?" —
"O didn't you know I'd been ruined?" said she.

— "You left us in tatters, without shoes or socks,
Tired of digging potatoes, and spudding up docks;
And now you've gay bracelets and bright feathers three!" —
"Yes: that's how we dress when we're ruined," said she.

— "At home in the barton you said thee' and thou,'
And thik oon,' and theäs oon,' and t'other'; but now
Your talking quite fits 'ee for high compa-ny!" —
"Some polish is gained with one's ruin," said she.

— "Your hands were like paws then, your face blue and bleak
But now I'm bewitched by your delicate cheek,
And your little gloves fit as on any la-dy!" —
"We never do work when we're ruined," said she.

— "You used to call home-life a hag-ridden dream,
And you'd sigh, and you'd sock; but at present you seem
To know not of megrims or melancho-ly!" —
"True. One's pretty lively when ruined," said she.

— "I wish I had feathers, a fine sweeping gown,
And a delicate face, and could strut about Town!" —
"My dear — a raw country girl, such as you be,
Cannot quite expect that. You ain't ruined," said she.

Hard to believe that this was written by the author of that great tragedy of 'ruin', Tess of the D'Urbervilles.
I particularly like the line, '"Some polish is gained with one's ruin," said she.'

Thursday 11 February 2021


 Elizabeth of York, wife of Henry VII and mother of Henry VIII (her sole surviving son), was  born on this day in 1466 and died on her birthday exactly 37 years later. She was regarded as a woman of rare beauty, on a par with her mother Elizabeth Woodville, reputedly the most beautiful woman in England in her day. It is hard to judge from her funeral effigy in its undressed state and without her red-gold hair, but something like beauty survives in that face. This effigy would have been carried in her funeral procession, as was standard practice with royals and nobles. Henry was devoted to Elizabeth, and was apparently shattered by her death, for once in his life overcome by emotion and obliged to retire from the world while he recovered his equilibrium. Their son Henry VIII was equally devoted to her memory, and commissioned a magnificent tomb for Henry and Elizabeth in the lady chapel of Westminster Abbey. Designed by Pietro Torrigiano, it brought a rare touch of Italian renaissance brilliance to the abbey. It is still a pretty stunning sight...

Tuesday 9 February 2021

Larkin's Building

 On this day in 1972, Larkin signed off on one of his finest late poems, 'The Building'. It seems strangely topical now...

Higher than the handsomest hotel
The lucent comb shows up for miles, but see,
All round it close-ribbed streets rise and fall
Like a great sigh out of the last century.
The porters are scruffy; what keep drawing up
At the entrance are not taxis; and in the hall
As well as creepers hangs a frightening smell.

There are paperbacks, and tea at so much a cup,
Like an airport lounge, but those who tamely sit
On rows of steel chairs turning the ripped mags
Haven't come far. More like a local bus.
These outdoor clothes and half-filled shopping-bags
And faces restless and resigned, although
Every few minutes comes a kind of nurse

To fetch someone away: the rest refit
Cups back to saucers, cough, or glance below
Seats for dropped gloves or cards. Humans, caught
On ground curiously neutral, homes and names
Suddenly in abeyance; some are young,
Some old, but most at that vague age that claims
The end of choice, the last of hope; and all

Here to confess that something has gone wrong.
It must be error of a serious sort,
For see how many floors it needs, how tall
It's grown by now, and how much money goes
In trying to correct it. See the time,
Half-past eleven on a working day,
And these picked out of it; see, as they climb

To their appointed levels, how their eyes
Go to each other, guessing; on the way
Someone's wheeled past, in washed-to-rags ward clothes:
They see him, too. They're quiet. To realise
This new thing held in common makes them quiet,
For past these doors are rooms, and rooms past those,
And more rooms yet, each one further off

And harder to return from; and who knows
Which he will see, and when? For the moment, wait,
Look down at the yard. Outside seems old enough:
Red brick, lagged pipes, and someone walking by it
Out to the car park, free. Then, past the gate,
Traffic; a locked church; short terraced streets
Where kids chalk games, and girls with hair-dos fetch

Their separates from the cleaners - O world,
Your loves, your chances, are beyond the stretch
Of any hand from here! And so, unreal,
A touching dream to which we all are lulled
But wake from separately. In it, conceits
And self-protecting ignorance congeal
To carry life, collapsing only when

Called to these corridors (for now once more
The nurse beckons -). Each gets up and goes
At last. Some will be out by lunch, or four;
Others, not knowing it, have come to join
The unseen congregations whose white rows
Lie set apart above - women, men;
Old, young; crude facets of the only coin

This place accepts. All know they are going to die.
Not yet, perhaps not here, but in the end,
And somewhere like this. That is what it means,
This clean-sliced cliff; a struggle to transcend
The thought of dying, for unless its powers
Outbuild cathedrals nothing contravenes
The coming dark, though crowds each evening try

With wasteful, weak, propitiatory flowers.

This poised and unflinching poem is a masterpiece of precise, evocative description, both of things and feelings, but hardly a crowd pleaser. Death is one thing – an almost omnipresent thing in Larkin's poetry – but death in hospital, medicalised death, is another, and a good deal harder to take, especially as it is the likely fate of so many of us. 
Larkin expertly evokes the quietly fearful, suspended atmosphere, the 'frightening smell' of a hospital – the ultimate and least comfortable liminal space – and the particular ways in which people respond to that space, that atmosphere. Having been obliged to spend a while hanging around in a couple of hospitals recently (as an outpatient, for tests), I was struck by how little hospitals have changed with the years. Larkin nailed it: this is surely the definitive hospital poem. 

Monday 8 February 2021


I know the world's gone mad – that much has been evident for a long while – but even I could hardly believe my ears yesterday when every radio news bulletin led on the same 'story': an extremely small-scale study, not peer reviewed, has suggested that one of the Covid vaccines might not be very effective against mild cases of one of the strains (the 'South African' one) of Covid; whether it's effective against serious cases is not known. This is a top-of-the-bulletin story?! And it's still being repeated today... What is going on here?
The authorities are keen to present the current crisis as a 'war' against the virus, but in wartime is it not the job of the broadcast media to raise morale, rather than lower it, still less lower it with a total non-story? You'd almost think they were trying to create a climate of fear, wouldn't you? But surely that can't be the case...

Sunday 7 February 2021


Born on this day 280 years ago was the Anglicised Swiss painter Henry Fuseli. He was very eminent and successful in his day (Professor of Painting at the Royal Academy, etc.), but his work has not aged well – all those strenuous contorted poses, that overwrought melodrama, that straining for the sublime and terrible, even the creepily perverse eroticism [see above, An Incubus Leaving Two Sleeping Women] look more ridiculous than impressive to modern eyes, though The Nightmare remains a popular image. The baleful influence of Michelangelo is all too apparent in his works (as in Blake's), and it is no surprise to learn that he rarely drew from life, preferring antique sculptures – and, of course, Michelangelo. 'Damn Nature!' he exclaimed. 'She always puts me out.' Hence no landscapes. 
My own favourite picture of his is this, The Artist Moved to Despair at the Grandeur of Antique Fragments...

Saturday 6 February 2021


 In my inbox this morning was a cheery message from Amazon that read as follows: 
'Based on your recent activity, we thought you might be interested in this.'
'This' was a book called 'The Mother of Beauty' by one Nigel Andrew. I'm interested – indeed I'm an interested party.
(So it's still sitting there on Amazon, and available also from me at – based on your recent activity, you might be interested...)

Friday 5 February 2021


 This morning Patrick Kurp sent me an ancient video clip of the music-hall artist Little Tich performing his famous Big Boot Dance. I'd seen it before but it's always a joy to watch such an astonishing performance – a shame that it's virtually the only footage of Little Tich that survives. 
Little Tich  was born Harry Relph and, as he was only four feet six inches tall, his nickname seems hardly surprising (if a little tautologous). However, he was actually the first 'Tich' to be so called, and it is only because of him that the words 'tich' and 'tichy' entered the language and became synonymous with anything small. The young Harrry Relph was called Little Tich because of his supposed resemblance to a man who had achieved great notoriety at the time – the 'Tichborne claimant' (pictured above). This was in reality a butcher and minor criminal called Arthur Orton, who convinced many people that he was in fact Roger Tichborne, the heir to the Tichborne baronetcy and estates, who had been lost at sea. Among those who were convinced was the real Roger Tichborne's mother, who, astonishingly, was prepared to overlook the fact that Orton looked nothing like Roger, was clearly uneducated and was essentially a rambunctious, hard-drinking ruffian. Some of Lady Tichborne's staff and advisors were apparently equally convinced, but the rest of the family saw the impostor for what he was. A sensational court case followed, and Orton was duly imprisoned for perjury. 
At the time of making his claim, Orton went by the name of Thomas Castro, a butcher from Wagga Wagga. Borges fictionalised the case as 'Tom Castro, the Implausible Impostor' in his A Universal History of Iniquity (1935), which I don't have. I think I must buy it... Meanwhile, here is that Big Boot Dance. 

Wednesday 3 February 2021

The Dig

 Last night I succumbed to the Zeitgeist (seldom a good idea) and watched the Netflix movie The Dig, a fictionalised version of the discovery of the Sutton Hoo ship burial. Everyone is raving about this, and it does have a terrific cast – the great Ralph Fiennes, Carey Mulligan and Ken Stott all giving it some – but it seemed to me that the script was very ordinary, the direction plodding, and the music so intrusive as to be all but unbearable. It had its moments, but essentially the whole thing left me with that all too familiar 'So what?' feeling. Maybe I have a heart of stone... 
I don't know what the book of the film is like – it's by John Preston, who's a good writer – but it's not the only novel inspired by Sutton Hoo: Angus Wilson certainly had it in mind when he wrote Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (about which I wrote some while back). I think I'd far sooner reread that than watch The Dig again. 

Tuesday 2 February 2021

A Butterfly for Candlemas

 Candlemas today – the end of Christmas and (taking an optimistic view) the beginning of spring, certainly a point from which we can look back to Christmastide and forward to the coming of the next season. It was a mild, even sunny morning here, so it was easy enough to sense a touch of spring in the air – and the more so because I saw my first butterfly of the year (just seven weeks since I saw the last one of 2020!). This was a Peacock, not blindly fluttering as if wakened early from hibernation but flying vigorously along a short row of houses, from one sunny frontage to the next, pausing once on a porch roof, then disappearing into a back garden. This was even earlier than my first Peacock of last year, and was a joyous surprise so early in the season. Of course, according to traditional weather lore, a mild, sunny day today means that winter will be coming back with a vengeance. Well, we'll see...
   Candlemas celebrates the presentation of the 40-day-old Jesus in the Temple. Here, as Luke relates, he is seen by the aged Simeon, a man nearing the end of his life, who recognises in this baby the promised saviour, and speaks the words we now known as the Nunc Dimittis: 'Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation...' A wonderfully eloquent late painting by Rembrandt, unfinished at his death (and perhaps altered later), shows Simeon at this moment of revelation... 

Monday 1 February 2021

Good News from Romania

 I found this heartening story from Romania on the BBC News website. While our own dear students seek to 'decolonise' the syllabus and disown their nation's pre-woke history, a group of Romanian students has set out to restore a magnificent thermal spa to its imperial glory. I hope they succeed; by the look of it, the place has the potential to be a real-life Grand Budapest Hotel. 
On the admittedly few occasions when I've come across students from European countries, I've always been impressed by their studious air. Once, in Greece, I was with my walking friends in a little Byzantine church somewhere near the middle of nowhere when a coach drew up and debouched a group of a dozen or so students, who immediately set about examining the building with daunting thoroughness. One of our number attempted to engage their apparent leader in conversation. 'What are you studying?' he asked. 'Everything,' the serious student replied matter-of-factly. It seemed all too believable.