Tuesday 31 August 2021

The Hero's Return

 I love this picture of Jimmy Stewart, my supposed double (I wish), on a visit to the family hardware store in Indiana, Pa. The year was 1945 and Stewart had just returned from the war. He is phoning an old friend to arrange a fishing trip. 
Jimmy Stewart joined up as a private in the Air Corps in 1941, despite being well into his 30s and having already been rejected once as underweight(!). Being too old for aviation cadet training, he applied successfully for a commission, and in 1943, anxious not to have special treatment because of his celebrity status, he got himself sent to England as part of the 445th Bombardment Group, piloting a B-24 Liberator. Flying several successful bombing raids over Nazi Europe, Stewart rose through the ranks to become a full colonel, and ended the war with the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Croix de Guerre with palm, and many other honours. Like most of his generation, he seldom spoke about his wartime experiences.
And there he is, fresh back from the war, cheerful as ever, in his dad's hardware store, where his Oscar (won in 1940 for The Philadelphia Story) was on display in the window. That's it in the picture below, where Stewart is chewing the fat with the store's oldest employee.

It hardly needs saying that they don't make film stars like Jimmy Stewart today.

Monday 30 August 2021


Hilarious anecdote re Praed [pronounced 'Prade'] –

A man goes into a bookshop and asks 'Have you Browning?'
'No' says the bookseller. 'We can't sell him. People say they can't understand him.'
'Have you Praed?' asks the customer.
'Yes, we've prayed, and we still can't understand him.'

Boom boom.

Normal Service

 Thinking of poets remembered for only one poem, my mind turned to Winthrop Mackworth Praed, who is perhaps not remembered at all these days – but if he is, I think it will be for one poem, 'Good-Night to the Season'. It's certainly the only one of his that I know, but I've remembered it ever since I first came across it  (in an anthology, of course) and I like it a lot. It's a joy to read, one of those poems that jogs along and brings a smile to the face. I really should read more of him...
  Praed was a bit of a star at Eton, had a less than glittering political career, and died at the age of 36 (in 1839), but his witty and ironic poems secured such fame as he had. A poet's poet, he surely influenced Browning, and was admired by Auden, who sagely remarked that his 'serious poems are as trivial as his vers de société are profound',  and Betjeman, who could easily be seen as Praed's poetical heir.
  Here is Praed's 'one poem', the cheerily jaundiced, nimbly anapestic valedictory 'Good-Night to the Season' – 

Good-night to the Season! 'tis over!
Gay dwellings no longer are gay;
The courtier, the gambler, the lover,
Are scatter'd like swallows away:
There's nobody left to invite one,
Except my good uncle and spouse;
My mistress is bathing at Brighton,
My patron is sailing at Cowes:
For want of a better employment,
Till Ponto and Don can get out,
I'll cultivate rural enjoyment,
And angle immensely for trout.

Good-night to the Season! – the lobbies,
Their changes, and rumours of change,
Which startled the rustic Sir Bobbies,
And made all the Bishops look strange:
The breaches, and battles, and blunders,
Perform'd by the Commons and Peers;
The Marquis's eloquent thunders,
The Baronet's eloquent ears:
Denouncings of Papists and treasons,
Of foreign dominion and oats;
Misrepresentations of reasons,
And misunderstandings of notes.

Good-night to the Season! – the buildings
Enough to make Inigo sick;
The paintings, and plasterings, and gildings
Of stucco, and marble, and brick;
The orders deliciously blended,
From love of effect, into one;
The club-houses only intended,
The palaces only begun;
The hell where the fiend, in his glory,
Sits staring at putty and stones,
And scrambles from story to story,
To rattle at midnight his bones.

Good-night to the Season! – the dances,
The fillings of hot little rooms,
The glancings of rapturous glances,
The fancyings of fancy costumes;
The pleasures which Fashion makes duties,
The praisings of fiddles and flutes,
The luxury of looking at beauties,
The tedium of talking to mutes;
The female diplomatists, planners
Of matches for Laura and Jane,
The ice of her Ladyship's manners,
The ice of his Lordship's champagne.

Good-night to the Season! – the rages
Led off by the chiefs of the throng,
The Lady Matilda's new pages,
The Lady Eliza's new song;
Miss Fennel's macaw, which at Boodle's
Is held to have something to say;
Mrs Splenetic's musical poodles,
Which bark 'Batti Batti' all day;
The pony Sir Araby sported,
As hot and as black as a coal,
And the Lion his mother imported,
In bearskins and grease, from the Pole.

Good-night to the Season! – the Toso,
So very majestic and tall;
Miss Ayton, whose singing was so-so,
And Pasta, divinest of all;
The labour in vain of the Ballet,
So sadly deficient in stars;
The foreigners thronging the Alley,
Exhaling the breath of cigars;
The 'loge' where some heiress, how killing,
Environ'd with Exquisites sits,
The lovely one out of her drilling,
The silly ones out of their wits.

Good-night to the Season! – the splendour
That beam'd in the Spanish Bazaar;
Where I purchased – my heart was too tender –
A card-case, – a pasteboard guitar, –
A bottle of perfume, – a girdle, –
A lithograph'd Riego full-grown,
Whom Bigotry drew on a hurdle
That artists might draw him on stone, –
A small panorama of Seville, –
A trap for demolishing flies, –
A caricature of the Devil, –
And a look from Miss Sheridan's eyes.

Good-night to the Season! – the flowers
Of the grand horticultural fête,
When boudoirs were quitted for bowers,
And the fashion was not to be late;
When all who had money and leisure
Grew rural o'er ices and wines,
All pleasantly toiling for pleasure,
All hungrily pining for pines,
And making of beautiful speeches,
And marring of beautiful shows,
And feeding on delicate peaches,
And treading on delicate toes.

Good-night to the Season! – another
Will come with its trifles and toys,
And hurry away, like its brother,
In sunshine, and odour, and noise,
Will it come with a rose or a briar?
Will it come with a blessing or curse?
Will its bonnets be lower or higher?
Will its morals be better or worse?
Will it find me grown thinner or fatter,
Or fonder of wrong or of right,
Or married, – or buried? – no matter,
Good-night to the Season, Good-night!

[Riego, in the seventh stanza, is Rafael del Riego, hanged in Madrid in 1823 for his efforts to resist an absolutist monarchy. The pun on 'draw' is clever.] 

Praed's season is, of course, the London social season. Mine is the butterfly season, the end of which is sadly drawing near. Yesterday morning, it being half sunny and almost warm, I took a stroll around my nearest patch of downland to see what was still flying. There were Meadow Browns in their usual abundance (and their usual range of coloration) with a couple of very weary Gatekeepers, a Brown Argus or two, a few Common Blues and rather more Holly Blues, a Red Admiral, plenty of Speckled Woods (staging a late comeback after a poor summer) and, best of all, half a dozen Chalkhill Blues, still bright and lively. Summer isn't over yet, even if the weather feels like autumn. 

Sunday 29 August 2021


 Some years ago I concluded that, whatever else is going on and whatever it might think it is doing, the West is in the process of committing suicide. By 'the West' I mean not only the geopolitical power block but also that precious bundle of hard-won freedoms, rights and principles that we think of, quite reasonably, as 'western values'. This suicide, driven by all manner of factors, some historical and deep-rooted, others of more recent vintage, is probably inevitable, and for now all I look for from any government, any polity, is some attempt to pause the process or, failing that, to slow it down for a while. By this criterion, the Trump presidency was quite successful, and the Biden presidency has been catastrophically bad. Trump might not have managed to put the brakes on, but Biden has pressed down so hard on the accelerator that his foot is through the floor. Thanks to his staggeringly inept handling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the world has been shown with unmistakable clarity that the US (and by extension the West) is an enemy that need not be feared and a friend that cannot be trusted. The Chinese Communist Party will continue on its road to hegemony unimpeded, as will Iran in the Middle East, and Russia wherever it fancies. We can be pretty sure that nothing will be learned from what has happened, except by our enemies. The end is not nigh, but after this fiasco it is surely drawing nearer. Still, chin up, eh?
[I shall not be returning to this topic. Normal service will resume very soon.]

Saturday 28 August 2021

Two Adlestrops

 If, by some deep injustice, Edward Thomas were to end up as one of those poets remembered for one much-anthologised poem, there is no doubting which it would be: this short, beautiful evocation of so much – 

Yes. I remember Adlestrop—
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop—only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

It is a poem that seems to have haunted the English imagination ever since it became widely known (it was not published in Thomas's lifetime). The centenary of the incident that inspired it was celebrated in grand style (in 2014) with a special Cotswold Line train, the Adlestrop Centenary Special, running from Oxford to Moreton-in-Marsh, with a respectful halt at the site of what was once Adlestrop station.  Festivities in the village itself included a reading of the poem by Robert Hardy.
In the 1970s, as I discovered last night, browsing in his Collected Poems, Peter Porter had his own experience of an Adlestrop interlude, one very different from Edward Thomas's. The poem that commemorates it is also very different from Thomas's, which Porter describes as 'Not a great poem, but rich in names And heartaches'. Porter's poem is rich in atmosphere and observed detail – both quite different from Thomas's, as is the season, though the day is hot, 'A sinisterly fine October afternoon'. The air of Porter's death-infused poem is oppressive, where Thomas's is rapt, peaceful, enchanted. But Porter is finally grateful to have had this strange, unexpected moment...

Good Vibes
for Shena Mackay

If you hadn't notice the unprominent sign
We'd have missed Adlestrop, missed the gone
Railway and the bullock raking his back
In the hollow holly-bower. Missed, too, the sky
So intolerably lofty in its beakered blue
And the loping dog which frightened me
(Which is how I know he was friendly) –
Most noticeably missed the station bench
And ADLESTROP, the railway sign, with Edward
Thomas's poem on a plaque for pilgrims.
Not a great poem, but rich in names
And heartache and certainly a focus for
A sinisterly fine October afternoon.
Down one lane adjacent the Home for Children,
(With what impediment we never found),
All the day-labourers of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire
Were about their honey-making masonry
Of Cotswold stone, and the bullocks were nifty
In the meadow by the creek. There were no
Devils in the landscape, exhalations from
Ponds and dogs' breath and graveyards after rain
Could only be imagined in such unexpected sunshine,
But we felt them, felt a new humidity,
Oppressive like the self. This was a short halt
On two pilgrimages, a look-back out of Hades, 
Such as the gods provide for laughter in their
Chronicles. Yet that sound, that risible division,
Strikes mortal earth some otherwise – such as
Gravel flicking from a low-slung bumper,
A trailing jet above, a jostling on the eaves
Of sycamores. It was as if the well-intentioned 
Dead were breathing out and blessing everyone,
Vibrations of the minute, without franchise,
A pointless benediction. Thinking again, I feel
Grateful that you saw through uncleaned windows
A name which meant the same to all half-educated
Persons. To have trod on ground in happiness
Is to be shaken by the true immortals.

The dedicatee of this jokily titled (but deadly serious) poem is the Scottish novelist and short story writer Shena Mackay, whose stories I remember greatly admiring back in the Eighties and Nineties (perhaps I should revisit them). Happily, unlike Porter, she is still with us. 


Monday 23 August 2021

'The last trustworthy vessel of the inner life'

'Hierarchy, to be sure, is an off-putting notion, invoking high and low; and high smacks of snobbery and anti-egalitarianism. But hierarchy also points to the recognition of distinctions, and – incontrovertibly – the life of intellect is perforce hierarchical: it insists that one thing is not the same as another thing. A novel concerned with English country-house romances is not the same as a tract on slavery in Antigua. A department of English is not the same as a Marxist tutorial. A rap CD is not the same as academic scholarship. A suicide bomber who blows up a pizzeria crowded with baby carriages is not the same as a nation-builder.'
   That's Cynthia Ozick, in an essay titled 'Highbrow Blues', published in the collection The Din in the Head and written the best part of 20 years ago, but now seeming truer than ever. Her essay takes off from Jonathan Franzen's famous refusal to appear on the Oprah Winfrey show to talk about his novel The Corrections. Franzen declared himself to be 'solidly in the high-art literary tradition'. What was it, Ozick asks, that made that assertion seem so strikingly off-key? Well, for one thing, that 'high-art literary tradition' had all but disappeared. Apart from the occasional out-of-nowhere controversy like the one kicked up by Franzen's great refusal, books were no longer stirring up much public interest at all; new publications were rarely, if ever, 'events', still less 'cultural markers'. 
   She cites as evidence the near silence that greeted Philip Roth's Shop Talk: A Writer and His Colleagues and Their Works, published in the same year as The Corrections. That silence she contrasts with the furious buzz that surrounded Normal Mailer's similar and much inferior Advertisements for Myself in 1959. In the intervening years, 'a pervasive indifference to serious critical writing' had grown up. And that indifference has only become more marked in the years since Ozick's essay, largely because literary criticism has been taken over by an ever more inturned, obscurantist and ideologically motivated Adademe. 
   And what of the novel? In the next essay, 'The Din in the Head', Ozick wonder if the literary novel is, 'like the personal essay, in danger of obsolescence'. She thinks not, if only because, in Henry James's words, 'It can do simply everything.' She declares that, 'if the novel were to wither – if, say, it metamorphosed altogether into a species of journalism or movies, as many popular novels already have – then the last trustworthy vessel of the inner life (apart from our heads) would crumble away'. Which is not to say it could not happen, nor that it might not have happened already. That vessel might have sailed... Has it?

Saturday 21 August 2021


 Dame Janet Baker is 88 today. 
Here she is singing Strauss's 'Morgen' (with a young Kenneth Sillitoe on violin). Not a great recording technically – but oh, the beauty!

Friday 20 August 2021

Snail Anthology, and an Insect

 A mini-anthology of snail poems could be extracted from this blog. Over the years I have posted snail-themed lines from Shakespeare (Venus and Adonis, as joyously quoted by Keats in a letter written from Box Hill) –

'As the snail, whose tender horns being hit,
Shrinks back into his shelly cave with pain
And there all smothered up in shade doth sit,
Long after fearing to put forth again:
So at his bloody view her eyes are fled,
Into the deep dark Cabins of her head.'

Then Cowper, beguiled by the secure self-sufficiency of a creature that carries its home on its back –

'The Snail

To grass, or leaf, or fruit, or wall,
The snail sticks close, nor fears to fall,
As if he grew there, house and all

Within that house secure he hides,
When danger imminent betides
Of storm, or other harm besides
                                                Of weather.

Give but his horns the slightest touch,
His self-collecting power is such,
He shrinks into his house, with much

Where’er he dwells, he dwells alone,
Except himself has chattels none,
Well satisfied to be his own
                                                Whole treasure.

Thus, hermit-like, his life he leads,
Nor partner of his banquet needs,
And if he meets one, only feeds
                                                The faster.

Who seeks him must be worse than blind,
(He and his house are so combin’d)
If, finding it, he fails to find 

Its master.' 

Marianne Moore, like Keats and Shakespeare, is impressed by the 'contractility' of the snail's 'occipital horn' – 

'To a Snail
If “compression is the first grace of style,”
you have it. Contractility is a virtue
as modesty is a virtue.
It is not the acquisition of any one thing
that is able to adorn,
or the incidental quality that occurs
as a concomitant of something well said,
that we value in style,
but the principle that is hid:
in the absence of feet, “a method of conclusions”;
“a knowledge of principles,”
in the curious phenomenon of your occipital horn.
Author’s Notes:“Compression is the first grace of style”: Democritus.
“Method of conclusions”; “knowledge of principles”: Duns Scotus.'

Thom Gunn attempts to enter the mysterious nocturnal world of the snail, moving 'in a wood of desire' (it is hard to escape the erotic subtext) –
'Considering the Snail

The snail pushes through a green
night, for the grass is heavy
with water and meets over
the bright path he makes, where rain
has darkened the earth's dark. He
moves in a wood of desire,

pale antlers barely stirring
as he hunts. I cannot tell
what power is at work, drenched there
with purpose, knowing nothing.
What is a snail's fury? All
I think is that if later

I parted the blades above
the tunnel and saw the thin
trail of broken white across
litter, I would never have
imagined the slow passion
to that deliberate progress.'

And now I have found a worthy new entry for the snail anthology – a fine poem by Janet Lewis (best known perhaps for her novel The Wife of Martin Guerre). Like Gunn, she attempts to enter the snail's world, but hers is the poem of a gardener, and it ends (uniquely?) with the poet, 'taking sides in the universe', dealing death to her subject. 
'Snail Garden
This is the twilight hour of the morning
When the snails retreat over the wet grass
To their hidden world, when my dreams, retreating,
Leave me wondering what wisdom goes with them,
What hides in mouldering earth.
Softly they go, the snails,
Naked, unguarded, perceptive
Of the changing light, rejoicing
In their slow progress from leaf to stem,
From stem to deeper darkness.
Smoothness delights them.

What do they hear? The air above them
Is full of the sharp cries of birds.
Do they see? The lily bud,
Three feet above the soil on its leafy stalk,
Is known to them at midnight
As if it were a lighthouse. Before sunrise
They have gnawed it half in two.
Toothless mouths, blind mouths
Have turned the leaf of the hollyhock to lace,
And cut the stem of the nasturtium
Neatly, just below the blossom.

The classic shell, cunningly arched, and strong
Against the hazards of the grassy world
Is nothing before the power of my intention.
The larks, also, have had their fun,
Crashing that coiled shell on stone,
Guiltless in their freedom.

But I have taken sides in the universe.
I have killed the snail that lay on the morning leaf,
Not grudging greatly the nourishment it took
Out of my abundance,
Chard, periwinkle, capucine,
Occasional lily bud,
But I have begun my day with death,
Death given, death to be received.
I have stepped into the dance;
I have greeted at daybreak
That necessary angel, that other.'
Janet Lewis also wrote one of the best, most acutely observant and imaginative, of all butterfly poems (and she wrote it at the age of 95) –

The Insect

The power and mystery are there,

Relentless grandeur, as the wet insect

Struggles to rise, to cleanse the jointed foreleg,

Sleek the folded wings.

Bound in the liquid of the long enchantment,

Predestined from the days

When it crawled softly

With its many feet

On twig and stock and clung at last

To wind itself for sleep,

Imprisoned in its destiny, can it

Foresee the sunlit moment,

The lifting air beneath,

The rainbowed wings?’

Thursday 19 August 2021

Mercian Hers

 All roads lead back to Mercia – even the BBC news. I heard this story on the radio bulletin and my heart gave a little Geoffrey Hill-related leap – the site of Offa's widow Queen Cynethryth's monastery has been located. Rather wonderfully, it is situated next to the churchyard of Holy Trinity, Cookham, where Stanley Spencer set his famous Resurrection painting. In Hill's great Mercian Hymns, Cynethryth, as far as I can recall, barely gets a mention, though she was unique among Saxon queens in having her image on a coin, and Pope Adrian I wrote to her and Offa jointly about the bishopric of Lichfield. Hill, genius though he was, was undeniably a very masculine poet.


Science in the Cathedral

 Lichfield cathedral, with its perfect setting, its three spires, its magnificent west front and its gracefully beautiful interior, has already established itself as one of my favourite English cathedrals. However, it seems to be having a bit of a funny turn just now, filling its lofty and numinous interior with 'immersive light and sound installations' telling 'a history of science as never seen before'. The Great Exhibition: Science is an artistic collaboration described as 'a stunning light and sound show inspired [by] the evolution of science. This unforgettable multi-sensory experience transports visitors through elements, molecules, DNA, as we contemplate [the] world around us.' Happily, this extravaganza is limited to the evening, so the visitor is free to wander around the cathedral in daytime. However, even then there is ample evidence of this celebration of science, in the shape of a loud, intrusive and chaotic 'contemporary installation artwork' called The Laboratory, which occupies much of the south transept, and icons of various 'pioneering scientists you may never have heard of' (including, bizarrely, the nurse and businesswoman Mary Seacole). I rather doubt if the Science Museum is planning to return the compliment with an immersive light and sound show celebrating the wonders of Christianity...
  It's a shame that Lichfield, or any cathedral, should be using light and sound for a spectacular glorifying science, when they can be put to so much better use bringing the building itself to life, returning it to its original polychrome splendour or simply playing with the chromatic possibilities of the façade, as I have seen done with many great French churches. Amiens cathedral, I remember, did it particularly well. 
  Never mind, The Great Exhibition: Science will be gone by the end of the month, and the cathedral – and, one hopes, its purposes – will endure. 

Sunday 15 August 2021

Heaven, Blues

 'It's like being in heaven, isn't it,' said the cheery lady passing me on the path with her equally cheery husband. I could only agree. Who would take issue with the popular fancy that the air of heaven is jewelled with butterflies, many of them of a fittingly celestial blue? I was visiting my favourite Surrey hillside, and the air and ground were alive with blue butterflies – most of them the milky-blue Chalkhill Blues, which were flying in glorious abundance. My hope of seeing the most beautiful of all the blues, the Adonis, were soon fulfilled when I spotted a patch of that ultimate blue amid a little cluster of Chalkhills. A male Adonis had joined them in an orgiastic feeding frenzy focused on a scattering of fresh ordure. These blues do have some strange tastes, and delight in extracting desirable minerals from faeces. 
   It was a breezy morning, warm but not hot, and I wasn't at all sure I would find the other butterfly I really wanted to see – the Silver-Spotted Skipper (see Nigeness passim). A fellow enthusiast who hoved into view assured me there were some around, moving even faster than usual in the gusty wind. He was right: the first few I saw were impossible to follow, but in a lull I tracked one to the tussock where it had settled, and there it was, the little beauty – always a joy to see, and often the last species of my butterfly season (unless I get lucky with the Brown Hairstreak). What's more, today's excursion might be my last visit to the much-loved hillside from my home base nearby. I wonder if I'll be making an annual pilgrimage from Lichfield – you never know...

Friday 13 August 2021

'it was winter and he sailed quickly'

 Here's a poem for our times, although it was written more than half a century ago. 
The Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert (who claimed he was a distant descendant of our own George Herbert) was a modernist with a classical sensibility, his poetry constantly reaching back to the classics, partly in response to his own experience of the terrible history of Poland through much of the 20th century. He was all too aware of how destructive forces could wipe out countries and cultures, how history and its lessons could be forgotten or denied. His classicism is characterised by Al Alvarez as 'a strict and wary attitude to a situation which is at best prone to romanticism and at worst a violation of all sanity. It is a way of coping coolly with facts which could easily slide out of control.' 

Why the Classics

                         in the fourth book of the Peloponnesian War
                         Thucydides tells among other things
                         the story of his unsuccessful expedition

                         among long speeches of chiefs
                         battles sieges plague
                         dense net of intrigues of diplomatic endeavours
                         the episode is like a pin
                         in a forest

                         the Greek colony Amphipolis
                         fell into the hands of Brasidos
                         because Thucydides was late with relief

                         for this he paid his native city
                         with lifelong exile

                         exiles of all times
                         know what price that is

                         generals of the most recent wars
                         if a similar affair happens to them
                         whine on their knees before posterity
                         praise their heroism and innocence

                         they accuse their subordinates
                         envious colleagues
                         unfavourable winds

                         Thucydides says only
                         that he had seven ships
                         it was winter
                         and he sailed quickly

                         if art for its subject
                         will have a broken jar
                         a small broken soul
                         with a great self-pity

                         what will remain after us
                         will it be lovers' weeping
                         in a small dirty hotel
                         when wall-paper dawns

Herbert's poetry has the great advantage that it translates beautifully into English – that is to say that it reads as if it was written in English (maybe it's the ghostly influence of George Herbert). 

Thursday 12 August 2021

From Lichfield

 That's Samuel Johnson, brooding over the town of his birth, in the fine statue that stands on the market square in Lichfield, between his birthplace – now a museum and (as is only right) a bookshop – and St Mary's, formerly a church and now a library, information centre and 'hub'. The café, built into the nave as a kind of mezzanine, offers quite a view of the East end of the Victorian church (by Fowler of Louth). Those strange halo  things are not UFOs but lights.
Mrs N and I are in Lichfield, staying in the George Hotel, which has a framed quotation from Erasmus Darwin (the city's other most famous son) on the wall of the lounge:
'But thou! whose mind the well-attemper'd ray
Of Taste and Virtue lights with purer day;
Whose finer sense each soft vibration owns
With sweet responsive sympathy of tone;'
(at which point it ends abruptly, but it's nice to see it there). We're likely to be spending a good deal of time in Johnson's home town over the coming weeks and  months, as our son and his family have moved (t)here. And we shall be doing the same at some point. Yes, incredibly, Nige will be leaving the suburban demiparadise. Happily Lichfield is one of the very few places I would leave it for...

Sunday 8 August 2021

Counting Cambridges

 Here, as a counterweight to most of the current 'news', is a nice, cheering story. It's good to know that the Cambridges are taking part in the Big Butterfly Count, doing their bit to 'track the number of diversity of the insects', as the BBC puts it (I fancy these pieces are written in haste). 
  Oddly enough, I've just been writing about how the perceived 'uselessness' of butterflies had, in premodern times, the double effect of making them irrelevant or mildly deplorable in the Christian worldview and, from a more practical angle, not worth finding out about, still less distinguishing into species. All that useless beauty (to paraphrase Elvis Costello) began to cast its spell later: the first major butterfly books were produced by men (and women) who were as much artists as scientists. And, as more was found out about them, butterflies found a new kind of utility, embodying the wonder of creation and the purposes of God. Since then, a more purely scientific approach has taken over, and for a while utility was set aside – these creatures were worthy subjects of study in themselves. Now, at a time when it's safe to say that most people know far less about butterflies than their net-wielding great grandfathers would have done, the ever more popular insects have found a new utility – as 'vital parts of the ecosystem'. Each age sees butterflies in its own way and finds its own value in them. 
  Anyway, it is good that the Cambridges are taking a lively interest in butterflies. My own interest this year has been as lively as ever, but somewhat hampered by poor weather and too much domestic/family busyness, though I've managed to clock up my usual thirtysomething species (and hope for a couple more). Most recently, I took advantage of a rare sunny morning to pay a visit to my nearest decent patch of chalk downland, and found it alive with Chalkhill Blues – a sight to gladden the heart. But I wasn't counting.

Friday 6 August 2021

Baden Powell's Second Career

 Wikipedia's daily List of Historical Anniversaries is a strange, but sometimes useful, thing. The list of births consists largely of names that mean nothing to me – and some of them are indeed strange. Born on this day, for example (in 1937) was one Baden Powell de Aquino, a Brazilian guitarist, who went by the professional name of 'Baden Powell' – a name that suggests almost anything but guitar playing, particularly in the bossa nova, samba and Latin jazz styles favoured by BP de Aquino.
   This Baden Powell was a beneficiary of his father's enthusiasm for Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scout movement and author of the imperishable Scouting for Boys. In Brazil, it is common for such parental enthusiasms to be inflicted on male offspring in the form of unlikely first names: Wikipedia lists, among many others, Wagner, Mozart, Donizetti, Emerson (as in Fitipaldi, the racing driver), Washington, Jefferson, Nobel and, er, Lenin. A curious convention – but it doesn't seem to have held Baden Powell de Aquino back. 
   (I fancy I might be hearing from my Brazilian follower Ricardo on this one. And, talking of foreign parts, I was startled to discover the other day that this blog has a bigger following in Sweden than anywhere else – indeed Sweden accounts for around two thirds of all views. What on earth could this mean?)

Thursday 5 August 2021

'Suddenly Ivy's face was on the screen...'

 'Write about what you know' is a bit of advice often handed out to would-be writers. This is probably not a great idea, as it is liable to get interpreted as 'write about yourself', and the results will be unfortunate. However, some very fine writers have lived by the precept – none more so, perhaps, than Ivy Compton-Burnett. She knew two things very well: the upper-middle-class milieu of late Victorian-Edwardian England, and the things that families do to each other. Having created a fictional world firmly based on these foundations, she never strayed from it into things she did not know – for example, the way most people lived in the modern world that had developed around her and from which she remained happily insulated. And yet she was insatiably curious about this strange world, reading and even approving of a good many contemporary novels (she even enjoyed Catcher in the Rye – 'Such a clever study of a boy') – and she read newspapers, though of course she never had a television. Ivy liked to steer the conversation towards such unlikely subjects as the price of refrigerators at the Army & Navy Stores, and she enjoyed interrogating her friends about various bewildering features of the modern world. 
  Thus is was that the last conversation (as it turned out) that her typist Cicely Greig had with Ivy [as recounted in Ivy Compton-Burnett: A Memoir] turned on the subject of labour-saving gadgets. She wanted details of any such things that Miss Greig had in her home.
Cicely described a wind-up oven timer, and 
'Ivy listened with great interest. "What else have you got?"
"Someone gave us a pressure cooker. That's marvellous if you want to cook something quickly." I told her about pressure cookers. 
Ivy said: "If these things are really so good, then why don't people have them?"
I said: "Some people do have them ... things like those alarm clocks that wake you up in the morning and make you a cup of tea at the same time."
Ivy was amused and wholly disbelieving...'
Then the subject of the electric mixer comes up. 
'"What does that do?" 
"It mixes," I said, disappointed that I couldn't make wilder claims for it. "You know, it saves you all that beating with a wooden spoon."
Ivy clearly didn't know, but she invited me to go on. Rotisseries, liquidisers, potato peelers... I was getting bored. But not Ivy.'
 Not quite the conversation you would want to remember a great writer by (albeit a slight improvement on the last words she spoke, which were to her devoted housekeeper, Mary, the night before she died: 'Leave me alone.').
Miss Greig found out that Ivy had died when 'some days later, I went to the television room at the club to hear the news, and suddenly Ivy's face was on the screen, and the announcer was telling us that she had died that morning.'

Monday 2 August 2021

The Whicker Man

 This blog is not going to let the centenary of the birth of Alan Whicker go unmarked. The great journalist and broadcaster, famous for his suave manner, slick phrase-making, highly distinctive delivery, clipped moustache, glasses and blazers, had a hugely successful career that spanned sixty-odd years and, in Whicker's World, much of the globe. He was a gift to impressionists and easily spoofed – most famously in the Whicker Island sketch on Monty Python – and he was quite happy with that, even though he had an impressive body of serious TV journalism behind him. I must admit I never took much notice of him until, in 2004, he came out with an extraordinary series, Whicker's War, in which he recounted his wartime experiences. As a member of the British Army's Film and Photo Unit in Italy, he filmed the landings at Anzio, and was one of the first to enter Milan, where he took into custody an SS general and his men, along with a trunk containing their payroll money and huge amounts of foreign cash. Whicker was also responsible for taking the British traitor John Amery into custody after his arrest by Italian partisans. Whicker's War vividly described these events and many others, as Whicker looked back on his war, often in sadness and sometimes in anger (particularly about the conduct of some American generals). It was a brilliant, eye-opening series, and (as I was writing about TV at the time) I gave it a rave review. Much to my surprise, I subsequently received a cheerily grateful postcard from Whicker, and this was followed by a failed attempt at meeting face to face (I couldn't get away from the office, alas, so never experienced the famous Whicker charm at first hand), and even a Christmas card, bearing an image of a well-muscled surfer with Whicker's face superimposed. We shall not, needless to say, see his like again. 

Sunday 1 August 2021

The Novelist, Her Typist and Her Critics

 Feeling my Ivy Compton-Burnett addiction stirring, and not having an unread novel at hand, I decided to read Ivy Compton-Burnett: A Memoir by Cicely Greig. Miss Greig was Ivy's typist from 1946 to 1969, typing each of her manuscripts as it came along and, in the process, becoming a friend as well as an admirer. 
  A typist's memoir – are there any others? – gives a unique perspective on a novelist's work, for the typist experiences it at close quarters, sentence by sentence, reiterating at one remove the work's creation. And Ivy was a great writer of sentences, composed with Ciceronian poise and surgical precision. Miss Greig analyses closely her technique of excising redundant words and dead phraseology – a technique of which, by virtue of her work, she had a close-up view. She and Ivy grew to understand each other in matters of style, both on the page and in life, where Miss Compton-Burnett's stern late-Victorian manner and very unmodern reticence put many off. Miss Greig saw through all that to the humorous and generous essence of Ivy, for whom friendship was the thing above all that made life liveable and worth living. 
  Miss Greig's (I can't bring myself to call her 'Greig') memoir is interesting also in the light it sheds on Ivy's relationship with the critics who reviewed her works. She was always curious to find out what they had to say, but never took any of it very seriously. Reading some of the reviews quoted by Miss Greig, it's easy enough to see why. For example, the reviews for Two Worlds and Their Ways included this from that humourless dullard C.P. Snow: 
'In order to read this novelist at all, much more to get the maximum out of her work, the reader has to perform a creative act himself; he has to supply the glue which sticks novels together, the ordinary commonplaces which make them real in terms of human sense. No novelist has ever asked so much of her readers; I think it is too much.' 
Two Worlds and Their Ways, writes Miss Greig, 'seems to have frightened Elizabeth Jenkins quite out of her wits. I never quite knew what the phrase meant until I read her review: 
"The work is frightening because it is in the true descent of English fiction – and this is what the family has come to. This dehydrated form of imaginative writing is one aspect of the Zeitgeist, of which artificial insemination and the atomic bomb are another."
Poor Ivy! And how we laughed over that one.'
Philip Toynbee, on the other hand, complained that Ivy's novels weren't frightening enough and didn't rise to the strenuous demands of the age (as defined by P. Toynbee). Her plots, he writes, 
'do not harrow or purge us, and we live in a sad age when not to be harrowed is not to be wholly won. We can only give full admiration where we have ourselves been given pain [!]. Nor is this demand as perverted as it might seem in this bare form. In so far as she fails to disturb us, Miss Compton-Burnett fails.'
  Well, there is plenty wrong with the fiction reviewers of today, but at least they don't write like that. We must be thankful.