Friday 30 July 2021

Piers Plowright

 This morning on Radio 3, there was an affectionate tribute to the doyen of radio producers, Piers Plowright, who died on Friday, aged 83. He was the ultimate radio man, doing great work in every genre from soap (Waggoners' Walk) to high-art features, and deservedly winning every award going. He was fortunate to be working when the radio landscape was a much richer and more varied terrain than it is now. He was also one of the nicest men I came across in my years in (or on the edges of) the radio world. He produced my one and only broadcast radio piece – a short dramatised feature on  the 'poisoner and critic' Thomas Griffiths Wainewright – and it was a pleasure (and indeed an honour) to work with him. The feature went out on Radio 3 in, I think, 1993 or 4, with Alex Jennings as Wainewright.
Before that, I had tried to interest publishers in a partly fictionalised biography of Wainewright (a man whose strange career fascinated Oscar Wilde and Thomas de Quincey, among others). Some years after my radio feature went out, Andrew Motion published an 'experimental biography', Wainewright the Poisoner, which I did not read. It would probably have annoyed me too much.   

Tuesday 27 July 2021


 For me, the worst thing about this year and a half of Covid madness has been that New Zealand has effectively become a closed country, cutting us from the Wellington family and them from us (though they might be braving the horrors of Kiwi quarantine to journey to the UK later in the year). When we last said our goodbyes back in those innocent days of January 2020, we little thought that it would be for so long. How I miss them – and how I miss Wellington, a city that I had no great expectation of even liking but which I grew to love. Memories of Wellington now seem like scenes from an enchanted city, one that I might never see again, if its government continues on its zero-Covid, China-friendly road to ruin. 
  One thing about those visits to New Zealand I don't miss – getting there. Long-haul flight is surely the most punishing and exhausting ordeal any of us voluntarily endures. It is not a subject for poets – but Les Murray (who else?) takes it on. His 'Touchdown' is a brilliantly observant evocation of the exhausted, brain-scrambled end of a long-haul flight. 'Kliegs', by the way, are powerful arc lamps used in film lighting; 'freak lemon Kliegs' exactly describes the dazzling, anomalous flashes of early sunlight penetrating a darkened plane. And, come to that, the background sound of a flight does indeed rhyme with 'forth'...

The great airliner has been filled
all night with a huge sibilance
which would rhyme with FORTH
but now it banks, lets sunrise
in in freak lemon Kliegs,
eases down like a brushstroke 
into swift cement, and throws out
its hurricane of air anchors.
Soon we'll all be standing
encumbered and forbidding in the aisles
till the heads of those farthest forward
start rocking side to side, leaving,
and that will spread back:
we'll all start swaying along as
people do on planks but not on streets,
our heads tick-tocking with times
that are wrong everywhere. 

Sunday 25 July 2021

Jackie RIP

 Sorry to hear of the death of the great Jackie Mason, albeit at the ripe old age of 93. He was one of the most naturally funny of comedians, and surely the most Jewish.  He leaves a huge legacy of comedy across several genres (who could forget his voice-over as Rabbi Hyman Krustofsky, father of Krusty the Clown, in The Simpsons?), but he was at his absolute best in stand-up, a form in which there was no one to touch him. In his obituary in Jewish News, he is described as 'the Wisconsin-born funny funny man', which is probably unintentional but it's true: he was a 'funny man' who was actually funny (we can all think of plenty who aren't and some who never were). Here is Jackie Mason back in the 1960s, appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show and addressing one of his favourite subjects – doctors.

Friday 23 July 2021

Runge and Sendak

 Born on this day in 1777 was the German Romantic painter (and colour theorist and Christian mystic) Philipp Otto Runge. His most famous, or most lasting, work is The Hülsenbeck Children, an extraordinary group portrait of the children of Friedrich August Hülsenbeck, a shipping magnate and business partner of the artist's elder brother. This is a child portrait like no other before and very few since. Painted from child's eye level, it takes you straight into the children's world. These children are not ornaments of a family group portrait but individuals living their lives, filling the frame to the edges and looking out at us with a disturbingly candid gaze. And the lives these children are living are no sentimental idyll; they do not radiate the bliss of innocence. They are playing, but they are deadly serious. There are flowers, but they are not pretty; a giant sunflower looms over them. The girl, the one child who does not stare out at us, looks back anxiously over her shoulder at the plump baby in the cart, who holds not a flower but a dark sunflower leaf. It is an altogether unsettling picture – and its artistic progeny was to be even more so.  Maurice Sendak's Outside Over There is steeped in the spirit of Runge's painting, which is explicitly quoted throughout, most obviously on the cover.

Outside Over There is, as those who have braved it will know, the strangest and most disturbing of all Sendak's works, truly the stuff of nightmares (though it does, thankfully, have a happy ending). Ida, the girl with the wunderhorn, must look after her baby sister. Their father is away at sea, their mother is lost in some reverie of her own, and even the German shepherd seems uninterested in guarding the baby. One terrible night, Ida blows her horn and summons a goblin who, all unnoticed, climbs up a ladder to the bedroom and snatches the baby, replacing her with a baby of ice, who then melts in Ida's arms... 

Sendak said that, when he was working on Outside Over There, he listened exclusively to Mozart to get the period feel (though Schubert's hair-raising Erlkönig might have been more appropriate). He drew on his memories of a real-life nightmare from his own childhood – the kidnapping of aviator Charles Lindbergh's 20-month-old son – and, to brilliant effect, he drew on Philipp Otto Runge. 

Wednesday 21 July 2021

A Funeral

 Today I went to a beautiful and very moving funeral service. I mention this because funerals these days are so often disappointing events – relentlessly upbeat 'celebrations of the life'  – and do scant justice to the person we could once refer to as the loved one, before Evelyn Waugh's satirical novel made the phrase unusable. Today's funeral was for an old friend – or rather a young one, who had died in her early 50s, but whom I had first met some 30 years ago. We had once been very close to her and her family, but had lost contact in recent years as her life began to drift into a dark place from which, in the end, no one and nothing could rescue her. 
The funeral was that increasingly rare thing, a Christian service, with all the necessary depth that the spiritual element provides. There were prayers, a hymn, a reading (Mary Magdalen encountering the risen Jesus) and a well judged address by the vicar. But what made the occasion so special were the words – heartfelt, loving, honest and entirely fitting – spoken by her son and her ex-husband. How rarely anyone manages this well – especially when such difficult and complex feelings are in play – and yet both of these addresses were exactly right and intensely moving. This was a funeral to remember, and it did full justice to a remarkable woman who at her best gave so much love, warmth, kindness and happiness to her family and friends. RIP.

Tuesday 20 July 2021

Sublime Adjustment

 And now a real poem, and very good one. Browsing in Peter Porter's Collected Poems last night, I came across this dense but elegant, perfectly formed meditation on music, death, life and who knows what else. Porter really should be recognised and remembered, but I fear he's posthumously paying the price for writing too much and making it seem too easy.

Walking Home on St Cecilia's Day

It is sublime adjustment: now
The only home for a deep sunk spine
Raising blood cordial, the plain wine
Of the bored. They can never trespass enough

Against us, who use their surly right
Of making the world hateful. The rose
Foot is in the clay and the catgut clothes
The notes of ink. On our backs the freight

Is never less and the pack sores rub,
But these are scabs of scarab. Atlas' welts
Where the whole world has hung or else
No single blade of grass could stand up.

The packed authority is in one glance.
The injustice of delight! All that is made
Makes this ventriloquist's serenade – 
Words to sing, beautiful impermanence.

And feeling my death in me, I walk home,
Rehearsing wrongly Mozart's own congruity.
Thus I say to the gatepost, see
I could be drunk and not fall to this huge drone.

It is the maker's gift, mechanic sound,
Which they say can analyse to God.
But here is hunger where we would feel greed;
We can learn it, a miracle on the ground.

But it still won't make tomorrow other than
Another day of chafing, shaving, sitting still:
Nodules on noses grow, pet cats get killed,
The lush and smooth upstage the scrag and thin.

But I know now as I charge my batteried heart
With thirty years' unhappiness on end,
There is a practice of music which befriends 
The ear – useless, impartial as rain on desert –

And conjures the listener for a time to be happy,
Making from this love of limits what he can,
Saddled with Eden's gift, living in the reins
Of music's huge light irresponsibility.

Monday 19 July 2021

Freedom Day: A Celebratory Ode

 Its subject having mysteriously dissolved into air, this ode is being held over. 

Saturday 17 July 2021

'A little inward note of complacency'

 The swifts have been livelier than ever today, perhaps encouraged by the hot sun. Flying low, they've been hurtling past their nest sites, screaming as they go, then ascending to perform their aerobatics with equal gusto over the rooftops. Gilbert White was fascinated by these 'amusive birds', which he observed with delight. Here he describes their behaviour at the height of the season: 
'In hot mornings several, getting together in little parties, dash round the steeples and churches, squeaking as they go in a very clamorous manner; these, by nice observers, are supposed to be males serenading their sitting hens; and not without reason, since they seldom squeak till they come close to the walls or eaves, and since those within utter at the same time a little inward note of complacency. When the hen has sat hard all day, she rushes forth just as it is almost dark, and stretches and relieves her weary limbs, and snatches a scanty meal for a few minutes, and then returns to her duty of incubation.'

Giant Butterfly Back!

 Under the heading 'Butterfly back from the dead', the Daily Mail (which I buy for old time's sake and out of gratitude for the pension they pay me) announces today that 'A giant butterfly thought to be extinct in Britain has been found breeding in the country for the first time in half a century'. 
'Giant' is pushing it – it's about the same size as a Peacock – but news that the beautiful Large Tortoiseshell is breeding again on the Isle of Portland is very welcome. The story has been bubbling under for a while – there was some evidence of breeding last year – but it now appears that the butterfly might be establishing itself in that corner of Dorset. At least one specimen seems to have survived the English winter, which is a very hopeful sign. We can assume that this development is a happy result of the Minor Modern Warming, which has also attracted various exotic (and very small) continental Blues and the gorgeous Queen of Spain Fritillary to these shores. 
One likely result of the Daily Mail piece is a lot of excitement for people who have spotted the similar, but infinitely commoner, Small Tortoiseshell. I need hardly add that I have never seen a Large Tortoiseshell (even abroad), but my father did once catch one in a tea garden in the New Forest. Even then (the 1930s) it was on its way to extinction. Let's hope that now it's on its way back.

Thursday 15 July 2021

'At least they flap their fins to express emotion...'

Today is the birthday of the great lyricist and librettist Dorothy Fields (born 1904) – she who wrote the words to, among many others, 'The Way You Look Tonight', 'On the Sunny Side of the Street', 'I'm in the Mood for Love', 'Pick Yourself Up' and, much later, 'Big Spender'. Not to mention this feast of virtuoso rhyme-making – enjoy...

Wednesday 14 July 2021

Swifts, Hedgehog, Tortoise and Fox

 The swifts got off to a worryingly late start this year, thanks to the appalling May weather, but once they got going, they certainly made up for lost time. I don't think I've ever seen such large gatherings over our road – up to twenty at a time, I'd say (they're fiendishly hard to count), not quite blackening the sky, but covering quite a lot of what's visible above the suburban rooftops. Yesterday and today they've been going bonkers, in traditional swift fashion, flying low and fast, screaming past their nesting sites, streaking between the houses and over the roofs at incredible speed. This is the grand climax of the swift season – a glorious mad spectacle, but tinged with sadness by the knowledge that soon, in little more than a fortnight perhaps, they will most of them be gone, flying south for the winter. And a short while after that we'll see the last stragglers, quiet now and drifting ever southward. Summer's lease has all too short a stay...

Meanwhile, I learn that the tale of the death-wish hedgehog came to a predictably sad end. The poor thing settled without protest in its box, furnished with water and cat food in case it rallied, but by morning it was dead. At least it had escaped the attention of the local foxes – unlike next door's tortoise, a dignified veteran who must have survived much in his long life, but was so badly injured by a fox that he gave up the ghost. I guess establishing a suburban hunt is out of the question at this stage, but a few good shots patrolling with double-barrel guns would be a welcome sight (to me and my next-door neighbour at least). They could take out some of those pesky 'squirrels' too...

Monday 12 July 2021

Books and Bookmen

 On Anecdotal Evidence today, Patrick Kurp says he would like to see the term 'bookman' resuscitated, without its fusty connotations. This reminded me that there was once a magazine called Books & Bookmen – and it was certainly anything but fusty. Published by the decidedly eccentric Philip Dossé, it was refreshingly outspoken, unpredictable and often vituperative, and I always enjoyed reading it. Books & Bookmen was one of a stable of titles published by Dossé's company, Hansom Books. Back in my long-ago library days, I had a colleague who wrote for Dance & Dancers, which made him something of a glamorous figure in my eyes, though he said he only did it for the free tickets (there certainly wasn't any money in writing for Dossé's titles). Books & Bookmen lasted from 1955 to 1986, and its principal ornament for some while was Auberon Waugh, who later took something of the Books & Bookmen spirit with him to Literary Review, the best magazine of its kind that we still have. 
  The special character of Books & Bookmen, and its publisher, is well caught in this piece by its last editor, the novelist Sally Emerson, and in this one, from The Oldie, by Michael Barber. Sadly, a magazine like Books & Bookmen could never be published now – even the name would give offence, let alone the contents. That was another age. 

Sunday 11 July 2021

Any Day Now

 A lonely impulse of delight led me just now to this video, which (a) is glorious, (b) features one of the largest collections of monster egos ever assembled on one stage, (c) also features the rare sight of Van Morrison smiling (it's right at the end) and (d) feels like a kind of anthem for our strange times. Any day now...

Urn Burial, 21st-Century Style

 Early this morning, while drifting back to sleep, I caught some of that Radio 4 perennial On Your Farm and, for once, my attention was caught. The presenter was at Soulton Hall farm in Shropshire, reporting on a wonderful retroprogressive enterprise – the creation of a long barrow, made in much the same way as those millennia-old barrows that still dot our remoter landscapes, and for much the same purposes. The Soulton Hall long barrow is designed not as an archaeological curiosity but as a repository for urns containing the ashes of the dead, placed on shelves around the interior, decorated with whatever mementoes the living choose to leave. Leases of various dates are being sold, and the barrow is already proving popular. I can understand why: this is surely a fine way to commemorate the dead in a suitably accessible but numinous space, while at the same time  forging a link across time with the countless generations of dead who went before. Sir Thomas Browne would surely approve. Indeed, hearing about the Soulton Hall long barrow sent me back (yet again) to his great Hydriotaphia: Urne Buriall; or, a Discourse on the Sepulchrall Urnes Lately Found in Norfolk...
'In the deep discovery of the Subterranean world, a shallow part would satisfie some inquirers; who, if two or three yards were open about the surface, would not care to rake the bowels of Potosi, and regions towards the centre. Nature hath furnished one part of the Earth, and man another. The treasures of time lie high, in Urnes, Coynes, and Monuments, scarce below the roots of some vegetables. Time hath endlesse rarities, and shows of all varieties; which reveals old things in heaven, makes new discoveries in earth, and even earth itself a discovery. That great Antiquity America lay buried for a thousand years; and a large part of the earth is still in the Urne unto us...'  

Friday 9 July 2021

From Big to Small

 Having recently bidden farewell to an enormous slab of a book – Eça de Queiroz's The Maias (and it felt like bidding farewell to a group of good friends, so deeply had the characters embedded themselves in my reading mind) – I have reverted to small books, always my preferred size. And you can't get much smaller than Les Murray's Poems the Size of Photographs, which is not only small but square, an attractive shape. The poems are very short and pithy. Here is one which condenses a lot of political wisdom into a few words – 

The Poisons of Right and Left

You are what you have got
and: to love, you have to hate.
Two ideas that have killed and maimed
holocausts and myriads.

Wednesday 7 July 2021


 It seems some rivers are not entirely made of water either. There are alarming reports of brown trout showing signs of addiction to traces of methamphetamine in the water they swim in. I hope my local trout stream, the purling Wandle, is not affected by this unfortunate side effect of modern life. 

The Sea Is Not Made of Water

 Adam Nicolson (he of The Mighty Dead and The Seabird's Cry) has a brilliant new book out – The Sea Is Not Made of Water, which I've reviewed in Literary Review. Here is a transcript of my review, but I urge you, as ever, to buy or subscribe to this excellent magazine...

When Keats lamented that scientific inquiry would ‘conquer all mysteries by rule and line’ and ‘unweave a rainbow’, he was, it turns out, being unduly pessimistic. Science has revealed a vista of new wonders and brought us up sharply against the limits of what we can know. Consider, for example, as Adam Nicolson does at one point in his wonderfully wide-ranging new book, the work of Benoît Mandelbrot, the father of the fractal, who demonstrated that, in Nicolson’s words, ‘the closer you look at something, the more it remains unknown. Knowledge cannot embrace whatever it seeks to know. It can only sit alongside the world, contingent, touching it, maybe, at one or two points but shrinking beside the unaddressable and limitless actuality of things.’ Such a simple question as ‘How long is the coast of Britain?’ has no answer once you start looking closely at the actuality.
 The coast of Britain – specifically the intertidal shoreline of a bay on the Morvern peninsula on the west coast of Scotland – is where this book begins and ends. Here Nicolson, fascinated by the animal and plant life revealed by the changing tides, sets out to build three rock pools and see what turns up in them. To the Victorians, rock pools were ‘gardens of prelapsarian bliss’. To Nicolson, they are ‘one of the most revelatory habitats on earth’. He begins by looking closely at five life forms that appear in his pools: sandhopper, prawn, winkle (whose Latin name, Littorina littorea, means ‘shorey shore-thing’), crab and anemone. Nicolson brings each of these vividly to life, discussing everything from the sandhopper’s array of specialised legs, ‘like a multi-bladed penknife’, to the delicate and dangerous copulation of crabs, a process that can last for days. Along the way, startling facts come up: tiny sandhoppers, for example, are so keen on chewing things up that they can reduce a single plastic bag to about 1.75 million fragments of toxic microplastic (a very good reason not to leave litter on the beach).
 But Nicolson’s mind is forever roaming beyond the narrow confines of biology to consider such questions as whether a prawn is a machine or a being with a self. And he ponders the apparent calm of life in a pool of prawns, concluding that it is ‘in reality a version of rigidified terror’. This is an idea that leads into the final chapter of the first section of the book, ‘Heraclitus on the Shore’, a lucid exposition of the pre-Socratic philosopher’s idea of the world as liquid, in a state of constant flux, its apparent stability the result of forces straining against each other and finding balance. By this light, the rock pool is a perfect Heraclitean microcosm.
 As the book proceeds, the vision gets ever broader as Nicolson considers planetary forces and the dizzying notion of deep time and explores the human history of the Morvern shoreline, from the Mesolithic period to the pre-modern Gaelic world, in which humans and animals were ‘co-actors in the drama of existence’ and the ‘still folk’ (‘fairies’ or ‘little people’) walked the earth. A Gaelic word, dùthchas, describes this sense of the unity of land, people, nature, culture and all living things. In the end, the dùthchas of this coastal community proved too fragile to withstand the coming of the modern world: it withered away just at the moment when the Victorian love affair with rock pools began. Nicolson’s philosophical reflections lead him to ponder Heidegger’s ideas of ‘total thereness’ and ‘being-with’, and the Kantian notion of noumena (‘things-in-themselves’), before, in his concluding section, he returns to the bay and sets about building another rock pool.
 This is a richly satisfying book, a worthy successor to Nicolson’s great study of seabirds, The Seabird’s Cry. The Sea is Not Made of Water is beautifully written and driven always by the author’s endless curiosity, his breadth of knowledge and his sense of the mystery and wonder of the world.

Monday 5 July 2021

Johnson's Physical Book

 'I have just now read  a physical book,' writes Samuel Johnson in 1758, in a letter to his mother. The phrase reads oddly now, as if Johnson had momentarily time-travelled to this digital age when we have to distinguish 'a physical book' from an electronic book, one that exists only on a screen. 
'A physical book' was, in Johnson's day, what we would today call 'a medical book', as becomes clear from the rest of the sentence: 'I have just now read a physical book, which inclines me to think that a strong infusion of the bark would do you good. Do, dear mother, try it.'
Johnson's letters to his ailing mother are touchingly solicitous and tender. As she lay on her deathbed, Johnson had not seen her for nearly 20 years, since his last visit to his native town of Lichfield. This, and the fact that they had never had an easy relationship, no doubt made his sorrow at the prospect of her imminent death all the sharper. His last letter to her reads 
'Dear honoured mother – 
Neither your condition nor your character make it fit for me to say much. You have been the best mother, and I believe the best woman in the world. I thank you for all your indulgence to me, and beg forgiveness for all that I have done ill, and all that I have omitted to do well. God grant you his Holy Spirit, and receive you to everlasting happiness, for Jesus Christ's sake. Amen. Lord Jesus receive your spirit. Amen.
I am, dear mother, your dutiful son,
Sam: Johnson'

Saturday 3 July 2021

Travel Travails

 Yesterday I took a train to Lichfield, there to meet up with my Derbyshire cousin. The train, however, was obliged to 'terminate' at Rugby, owing to trouble with the overhead cables between that town and Nuneaton. A coach, we were assured, would be on hand to take us on to Stafford. In the event, however, no coach was on hand to take anyone anywhere, and, after much waiting and general confusion, I was obliged to take a train to Birmingham, then on to Stafford, where my cousin was by now waiting. A 90-minute journey had become one of four hours – and to the wrong destination. However, Stafford is a very pleasant town, with handsome half-timbered and Georgian buildings, a fine church and a delightful river, studded with yellow water lilies, flowing through it. So all was not lost. 
  And there was another redeeming feature of this otherwise deeply frustrating rail journey. The approach to Milton Keynes Central station (as you come from the London direction in a nearside window seat) is a glorious spectacle just now, the trackside land for what must be the best part of a mile all awash with dog daisies, knapweed, red valerian, campion, St John's wort, marjoram, vetches and teasle. Sadly, despite all that nectar, no butterflies were apparent, but it was still a delight to see such a profusion of wild flowers in such an unlikely place. There are things to be cited in favour of the much maligned Milton Keynes, and its railside flora is definitely one of them. 

Thursday 1 July 2021

The Statue

At some point in my book – you know, this book – I express my doubts about the likely quality of the then forthcoming statue of Princess Diana. Given the generally low standard of monumental sculpture in our time and the near impossibility of capturing the essence of Diana in any medium other than photography, there was no reason to be optimistic. However, the thing that was unveiled today has undershot even my lowest expectations. Oh dear, it is bad, bad, bad – not much better than the horrific Meeting Place statue that disfigures St Pancras station. Not wishing to give anyone nightmares, I shan't add any images to this post...