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. 

Saturday 17 April 2021

The Occasion

 It may be a cliché, but it's still true – by God, we do this kind of thing superbly well! This kind of thing being represented today by Prince Philip's funeral, a beautifully choreographed event, packed with resonant imagery and moving moments, the kind of occasion that reminds you that, despite present woes, this is still some kind of a great nation.
In the lead-up to the funeral service, just seeing those ranks of perfectly placed servicemen all with their heads bowed, and hearing that stirring English music was enough to get me in the heartstrings – not get me as I was got by Diana's funeral, which completely undid me, but I was moved, as I always am by big communal endeavours done seriously and for a good purpose. It is a very human thing, this urge to come together and create something far bigger and more important than the participants, and these great royal events are a powerful expression of it. As at Diana's funeral, the weather enhanced the effect: then it was mellow autumn sun, now sharp spring sunlight casting crisp shadows. The service itself achieved a fitting grandeur, despite the reduced scale of the occasion. Neither the Archbish nor the Dean of Windsor did much to enhance the grandeur, but the words and music did the work, and the sadly reduced choir of four singers were magnificent. The lamenting piper (much though I hate the bagpipes) was a brilliant piece of theatre.
The saddest sight, of course, was the grieving Queen, sitting alone and uncomforted, and with her face covered by a black mask – the most potent image of the day, and one that epitomises the deeply strange times we are living through.  Even the Royal Family must submit to the inhuman and arbitrary regulations that are at present governing the lives of the rest of us. That must have been the one detail the Prince did not foresee when he meticulously planned his own funeral. 

Thursday 15 April 2021


This haunting double portrait is by Arshile Gorky, the Armenian-American painter who is best known as one of the pioneers of abstract expressionism. Gorky was born on this day in 1904, or maybe 1903 or 1902 – he was vague about the year – in a village in Armenia, then part of the Ottoman empire. His father emigrated to America to escape the draft, leaving his family behind, and a few years later, in 1915, Arshile (then known by his birth name, Vostanik Manouog Adolan) and his mother fled the Armenian genocide, escaping into Russian-controlled territory. In the terrible aftermath, his mother died of starvation in Yerevan in 1919.
The double portrait is of The Artist and His Mother. No wonder it is so haunting...

Tuesday 13 April 2021

Following a Trail

I'm reading, for reasons vaguely connected with something I'm planning to write, The Private Life of Mrs Siddons by Naomi Royde-Smith. Published in 1933, this is a product of that expansive period when (following the example of A.J.A. Symons, among others) biography became something much more than a dutifully exhaustive chronicle of the known facts of a life, and developed into an art form in itself, and a rich and various one for which there was an eager, educated public. 'The plan of this book,' says Miss Royde-Smith at the outset, 'is that of the full-length and ceremonial portraits of the late eighteenth century, the greatest period of English painting till our own day [really?], and the period during which Mrs Siddons lived and was actually painted by Stuart, Hamilton, Romney, Gainsborough, Reynolds, Lawrence and other less important artists.' The author begins by assembling her materials, then painting in the background, then adding some 'cloudy symbols', and finally the sitter herself. 
  Sarah Kemble (Siddons to be) was the granddaughter of John Ward, manager of a troupe of travelling players, whose daughter had married an aspiring actor, Roger Kemble. Sarah's brother, John Philip Kemble, was to become, like her, one of the leading actors of their time. The Kemble family were a big presence in Hereford, where Roger Kemble was born and spent his first 30 years – and it was in Hereford also that another great actor was born: David Garrick (whose father, I learn, was a Huguenot called Garric). His family moved, not long after his birth, to Lichfield, where he attended Lichfield grammar school.
  Where is all this leading, you may ask? Actually it's leading to Bromley, which just goes to show what can happen when you follow a trail of biographical associations.... After leaving the grammar school in Lichfield, David Garrick enrolled at Edial Hall, a small (very small) private school that had been set up by Samuel Johnson, son of a Lichfield bookseller, and his wife Elizabeth ('Tetty'). Elizabeth, some 21 years older than her husband, had invested her dowry of £600 in the school, but it soon failed. Johnson and Garrick, who were now fast friends, headed for London, where Tetty duly followed. Later in life, she was in poor health and seems to have become addicted to alcohol and opiates, but her husband loved her devoutly and grieved for her all his life. 'I tried to compose myself,' he wrote in his diary on an anniversary of her death, 'but slept unquietly. I rose, took tea, and prayed for resolution and perseverance. Thought on Tetty, poor dear Tetty, with my eyes full.' 
  When Mrs Johnson died, she was buried in, of all places, Bromley, at the church of St Peter and St Paul. The old church was nearly destroyed by wartime bombing and was rebuilt in the 1950s – but Elizabeth Johnson's memorial stone, inscribed with her husband's heartfelt Latin epitaph ('formosae, cultae, ingeniosae, piae' etc.) survived, and can still be seen in the church. If I ever find myself in Bromley, I shall seek it out... 

Monday 12 April 2021

History is wasted on me

 So today is the 60th anniversary of the first manned space flight – the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's single orbit of the Earth. I would have been in my last year of primary school at the time, and I have only the vaguest memory of the event, which I think I found mildly exciting, if, like so much else in life, rather bewildering. History is wasted on me. 
I think I was more excited by Christopher Cockerell's Hovercraft making its first Channel crossing – this was in the hot summer of 1959 when I was on holiday at Bexhill-on-Sea – and by the unveiling, the same year, of Alec Issigonis's Mini car. These, for some reason, had more impact on my boyhood self. What had no impact at all, as far as I can recall, was the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, by which time I was at grammar school and should have been paying more attention. The world may have been holding its breath, crossing its fingers, cowering under tables in expectation of the Big One, but this boy's soul was untroubled by a moment's anxiety, and I can't even remember the grown-ups talking about it. There you are – as a witness to history and chronicler of my times I am entirely useless. I seem to have lived through these moments in a state of what Dr Johnson would call 'stark insensibility'. Hey ho. 

Saturday 10 April 2021

'Spring has got into the wrong year'

 Another cold grey-white morning, as this stop-start spring continues its latest retreat into winter. Philip Larkin seems to have been having similar weather when he wrote this poem, on today's date in 1970, and it was clearly doing nothing to lift his spirits... 

How high they build hospitals!
Lighted cliffs, against dawns
Of days people will die on. 
I can see one from here.

How cold winter keeps
And long, ignoring 
Our need now for kindness.
Spring has got into the wrong year.

How few people are,
Held apart by acres
Of housing, and children
With their shallow violent eyes.

That pay-off line is unduly harsh (and not even accurate – how many children do you know with shallow violent eyes?). However, the middle stanza is fine and, as it happens, a perfect evocation of how things feel as this lockdown drags on and on, 'ignoring our need now for kindness'.
The image of the hospital building as a cliff was to be reused in Larkin's much more substantial poem of 1972, 'The Building' – 'This clean-sliced cliff'. 

More cheeringly, nature, whatever the weather, carries on as near regardless as it can. The trees are coming into leaf ('Like something almost being said'),  blossom abounds, and, in rare moments of sunshine in the past few days, the odd butterfly has ventured forth. I've seen a Holly Blue, a Speckled Wood, a few Small Whites – and, best of all, Orange Tips, the cheeriest of spring butterflies. The male of this species, with his orange-tipped wings, is also among the most amorous. In a vivid passage in his Butterflies of Britain & Ireland, Jeremy Thomas writes: 
'For as long as the sun shines, the male Orange-Tip flutters along hedges, shrubs and bushes in search of a mate. His initial approach is not discriminating, as he investigates any white object, including the Green-Veined Whites that emerge in abundance on most Orange-Tip sites ... Little will stop a young male once he has recognised a young female of his own species, especially if she is a virgin, whereas older females are examined for no more than three seconds. But once a fresh female is detected, he will force his way through the densest foliage, whereupon she, if receptive, signals her readiness by raising her abdomen at right angles for about four seconds, and mating begins. Curiously, the same posture is adopted by older females in an attempt to deter males that are pestering them.'

Thursday 8 April 2021

William Herbert

 Born on this day in 1580 was William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke, one of the numerous Herbert clan, which included the poet George (on a collateral branch) and, centuries later, very distantly and obliquely, the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert – or so he believed. William was one of those Interesting Elizabethans, a man of many parts – nobleman, courtier and politician, founder of Pembroke College, Oxford, holder of a wide range of public offices and honours, and dedicatee of the First Folio, along with his brother Philip, that 'incomparable pair of brethren'. He is also believed by some to be the 'fair youth' of the Sonnets and the 'Mr W.H.', the 'onlie begetter of these sonnets'. One of his lovers, Mary Fitton, has also been suggested as the original of the 'dark lady'. William had an affair with Mary Fitton when he was 20, got her pregnant, admitted paternity but refused to marry her, and was sent to the Fleet prison for a while, where he passed the time writing verse. More interestingly from my particular point of view, he had earlier been urged to marry Elizabeth Carey, granddaughter of the Lord Chamberlain Henry Carey, patron of Shakespeare's company of players. He refused to do so (he seems to have been decidedly averse to matrimony, though he did have one regular marriage, to Mary Talbot, daughter of the Earl of Shrewsbury). This Elizabeth Carey is the remarkable woman whose beautiful monument by Nicholas Stone is in St Dunstan's church, Cranford. I have written about her and her monument on this blog, and also, of course, in this book.   

Wednesday 7 April 2021


 Sad to hear that the actor Paul Ritter has died, and at the early age of 54. He was one of those versatile, accomplished performers who do great work on stage and screen but never become stars – he probably wouldn't have wanted to be one anyway. He was a brilliant Pistol in The Hollow Crown, the BBC's adaptation of (some of) Shakespeare's history plays. I think he would have made a great Beckett actor had he lived a little longer. As it was, he found fame in the unlikely setting of a TV sitcom, Robert Popper's Friday Night Dinner, where his performance as Martin Goodman, the imperfectly earthed father of the family, was comedy gold, and will long outlive him. There are a couple of compilations of his greatest Friday Night Dinner moments on YouTube, but you need to watch whole episodes to fully appreciate his characterisation. I believe they can be found on All4 and Netflix.

Tuesday 6 April 2021

Over My Shoulder

 Here's a little something to bring good cheer (and a reminder of live music) in these trying times – Max Raabe and the Pallast Orchester performing 'Over My Shoulder':

The original, performed by Jessie Matthews in the musical Evergreen, is, er, something else...

Monday 5 April 2021

Gertrude Käsebier

 This image caught my browsing eye this morning. I love the lighting, and particularly the energy and movement in it – unusual for photographs of its period (turn of the last century) – and its feeling of intimacy and spontaneity. It's called 'Dancing School' or 'The Dance' and it's a gum bichromate print by Gertrude Käsebier, who was America's leading woman photographer in her day. She was one of the first to earn money by photography, and she encouraged other women to do the same. The emphasis Käsebier, who had a husband and family to support, put on the commercial side of photography led to a falling-out with her former mentor Alfred Stieglitz (who, according to Edward Dahlberg, 'had genius, but he was not a good man'). Below is Käsebier's portrait of Stieglitz, a photograph that looks like an Expressionist painting –

Gertrude Käsebier was known for her domestic interiors and mother-and-child compositions, her striking images of Native Americans, and her portraits. Among her many subjects was an old friend of this blog, the notorious Evelyn Nesbit – 

Sunday 4 April 2021


 As a change from my favourite painting of the resurrected Christ – Rembrandt's Christ and Mary Magdalen at the Tomb (see past Easters passim) – here is something very different, an austerely beautiful, decidedly Hellenistic take on the subject by Perugino.
   A happy Easter to all who browse here. 

Saturday 3 April 2021

The Answer?

 This morning I noticed a piece of paper stuck to a lamp post, bearing this simple message, hand-written: 'Humility is the answer.' To which the cynic might respond, 'What's the question?' But if one word, one quality, is to be deemed 'the answer', humility will, I think, serve very well, better than Faith or Hope or even Love. Faith can degenerate into fanaticism, Hope can become blind optimism, and Love – well, all manner of things can go wrong with Love. It is impossible, however, to overdo humility: if you do, it ceases to be humility and becomes something else altogether, as in the 'very 'umble' Uriah Heep.
Humility (usually translated as 'meekness', a word that has unfortunately changed its meaning) is surely central to Jesus's teaching and the example of His life.  From an everyday perspective, humility is an honest assessment of our worth and our place in the scheme of things, a perspective that corrects arrogance, and helps us to realise that we are not the centre of the universe. Marianne Moore recommended as her three cardinal virtues Humility, Concentration (i.e. paying proper attention) and Gusto (i.e. enjoying what is to be enjoyed). Those three together probably are 'the answer', if anything is. And the question is 'What do we most need to live well in the world?' Also, in Miss Moore's view, 'What do we need to write well?'

Friday 2 April 2021

Good Friday

The Crucifixion is a subject that was in every visual artist's repertoire for centuries. Visually, it's a gift – the image (much sanitised) of the crucified man rising, dead centre, above the carefully composed scene, his suffering transformed already into triumph, his angled head irradiated by a halo, his arms spread as if to embrace all the world and all time to come. Such images of the Crucifixion are painted from the perspective of Easter and Resurrection, not from that of Good Friday, when what was on show was the cruel and humiliating punishment of a criminal, a supposed prophet whose career had ended in the most abject failure. 
  For poets, even the great religious poets, Good Friday has generally been a subject best avoided, or conflated with Easter (one exception is George Herbert's 'The Sacrifice'). But in the 20th century, in the stark light of that century's terrible events, it perhaps became possible to address the Crucifixion in a different way, and Good Friday occasioned one of the Auden's finest poems: 'Nones' from Horae Canonicae . It's quite a long read, but it is well worth the effort...

What we know to be not possible,
    Though time after time foretold
    By wild hermits, by shaman and sybil
    Gibbering in their trances,
    Or revealed to a child in some chance rhyme
    Like will and kill, comes to pass
    Before we realise it: we are surprised
    At the ease and speed of our deed
    And uneasy: It is barely three,
    Mid-afternoon, yet the blood
    Of our sacrifice is already
    Dry on the grass; we are not prepared
    For silence so sudden and so soon;
    The day is too hot, too bright, too still,
    Too ever, the dead remains too nothing.
    What shall we do till nightfall?

    The wind has dropped and we have lost our public.
    The faceless many who always
    Collect when any world is to be wrecked,
    Blown up, burnt down, cracked open,
    Felled, sawn in two, hacked through, torn apart,
    Have all melted away: not one
    Of these who in the shade of walls and trees
    Lie sprawled now, calmly sleeping,
    Harmless as sheep, can remember why
    He shouted or what about
    So loudly in the sunshine this morning;
    All if challenged would reply
    'It was a monster with one red eye,
    A crowd that saw him die, not I.'
    The hangman has gone to wash, the soldiers to eat;
    We are left alone with our feat.

    The Madonna with the green woodpecker,
    The Madonna of the fig-tree,
    The Madonna beside the yellow dam,
    Turn their kind faces from us
    And our projects under construction,
    Look only in one direction,
    Fix their gaze on our completed work:
    Pile-driver, concrete-mixer,
    Crane and pick-axe wait to be used again,
    But how can we repeat this?
    Outliving our act, we stand where we are,
    As disregarded as some
    Discarded artifact of our own,
    Like torn gloves, rusted kettles,
    Abandoned branch-lines, worn lop-sided
    Grindstones buried in nettles.

    This mutilated flesh, our victim,
    Explains too nakedly, too well,
    The spell of the asparagus garden,
    The aim of our chalk-pit game; stamps,
    Birds' eggs are not the same, behind the wonder
    Of tow-paths and sunken lanes,
    Behind the rapture on the spiral stair,
    We shall always now be aware
    Of the deed into which they lead, under
    The mock chase and mock capture,
    The racing and tussling and splashing,
    The panting and the laughter,
    Be listening for the cry and stillness
    To follow after: wherever
    The sun shines, brooks run, books are written,
    There will also be this death.

    Soon cool tramontana will stir the leaves,
    The shops will re-open at four,
    The empty blue bus in the empty pink square
    Fill up and depart: we have time
    To misrepresent, excuse, deny,
    Mythify, use this event
    While, under a hotel bed, in prison,
    Down wrong turnings, its meaning
    Waits for our lives: sooner than we would choose
    Bread will melt, water will burn,
    And the great quell begin, Abaddon
    Set up his triple gallows
    At our seven gates, fat Belial make
    Our wives waltz naked; meanwhile
    It would be best to go home, if we have a home,
    In any case good to rest.

    That our dreaming wills may seem to escape
    This dead calm, wander instead
    On knife edges, on black and white squares,
    Across moss, baize, velvet, boards,
    Over cracks and hillocks, in mazes
    Of string and penitent cones,
    Down granite ramps and damp passages,
    Through gates that will not relatch
    And doors marked Private, pursued by Moors
    And watched by latent robbers,
    To hostile villages at the heads of fjords,
    To dark chateaux where wind sobs
    In the pine-trees and telephones ring,
    Inviting trouble, to a room,
    Lit by one weak bulb, where our Double sits
    Writing and does not look up.

    That, while we are thus away, our own wronged flesh
    May work undisturbed, restoring
    The order we try to destroy, the rhythm
    We spoil out of spite: valves close
    And open exactly, glands secrete,
    Vessels contract and expand
    At the right moment, essential fluids
    Flow to renew exhausted cells,
    Not knowing quite what has happened, but awed
    By death like all the creatures
    Now watching this spot, like the hawk looking down
    Without blinking, the smug hens
    Passing close by in their pecking order,
    The bug whose view is balked by grass.
    Or the deer who shyly from afar
    Peer through chinks in the forest.

For something shorter, knottier and harsher (if you can take any more), there's this – Geoffrey Hill's 'Canticle for Good Friday' –

The cross staggered him. At the cliff-top
Thomas, beneath its burden, stood
While the dulled wood
Spat on the stones each drop
Of deliberate blood.

A clamping, cold-figured day
Thomas (not transfigured) stamped, crouched,
Smelt vinegar and blood. He,
As yet unsearched, unscratched,

And suffered to remain
At such near distance
(A slight miracle might cleanse
His brain
Of all attachments, claw-roots of sense)

In unaccountable darkness moved away,
The strange flesh untouched, carrion-sustenance
Of staunchest love, choicest defiance,
Creation's issue congealing (and one woman's).

(The best thing to do on Good Friday, though, is simply to listen to Bach's St Matthew Passion.)

Thursday 1 April 2021


 April at last – blossom time – and here are two seasonal images of the suburban demiparadise. Both are by the excellent pastel artist Neal Vaughan, and I have a print of the one below on my staircase. It shows All Saints' church viewed across the East pond.