Thursday 30 September 2021


 Reading (for review) a book about the Great North Wood that once stretched across south London, from Croydon to Deptford, I came across a word new to me – 'samara'. Apparently it's a botanical term for the winged seeds of such trees as maple, hornbeam, sycamore, elm and ash (ash 'keys'). It came into use in the late 16th century and derives from a dog Latin word denoting elm seed – and it sounds far too grand and resonant for the job. 'Samara' is also a given name in Hebrew, Arabic and Greek, a Russian city, and, in the Bible, a corruption of Samaria, where the Good Samaritan came from. Add an 's' and it becomes Samsara, the endless cycle of death and rebirth to which life in the material world is bound (and a rather nice Guerlain fragrance). But in botany it is simply a 'dry indehiscent one-seeded fruit with a wing-like extension'. 'Indehiscent'? That means the seed remains closed at maturity, rather than splitting open. You live and learn. And forget.

Tuesday 28 September 2021

Warner's Edward Thomas and Anne Donne

 One of the more surprising items in Anne Harvey's excellent anthology Elected Friends: Poems for and about Edward Thomas is a poem by Sylvia Townsend Warner. I've read several of her novels (and written about them on this blog), but had no idea she was a poet too. Her Thomas poem is titled 'Edward Thomas Memorial' – 

'Because a young man, petulant and young,
walked this hilltop with strides swinging and strong,
and hid apart
under these trees cooling his hot heart,
and cast his black mood listening to a bird's song;

I who am old, study and city bred,
have climbed hither, slipping in the autumn mud,
and stand here now,
panting for breath, mopping sweat off my brow,
thinking of my first editions and of his spilled blood.'

I'm not sure about that last line, but it's a well made poem, carefully structured, and with something in it suggestive of Thomas's own voice. It recalls a visit to the Edward Thomas memorial stone, which stands on Shoulder of Mutton Hill, overlooking the aptly named Steep, the village in which Thomas and his family lived. It's a place I've been meaning to visit for years, but have never done it yet. 

  Among Sylvia Townsend Warner's other poems is 'Anne Donne', a vivid and very dark piece of work, in which she imagines herself into the mind and body of the poet's long-suffering wife – 

'I lay in London;
And round my bed my live children were crying,
And round my bed my dead children were singing.
As my blood left me it set the clappers swinging:
Tolling, jarring, jowling, all the bells of London
Were ringing as I lay dying –
John Donne, Anne Donne, Undone!

Ill-done, well-done, all done.
All fearing done, all striving and all hoping,
All weanings, watchings, done; all reckonings whether
Of debts, of moons, summed; all hither and thither
Sucked in the one ebb. Then, on my bed in London,
I heard him call me, reproaching:
Undone, Anne Donne, Undone!

Not done, not yet done!
Wearily I rose up at his bidding.
The sweat still on my face, my hair dishevelled,
Over the bells and the tolling seas I travelled,
Carrying my dead child, so lost, so light a burden,
To Paris, where he sat reading
And showed him my ill news. That done,
Went back, lived on in London.'

Anne Donne gave birth to 12 children, five of whom died. The poem is set during the period (1611/12) when Donne was away travelling in France and the Low Countries with his patron, Sir Robert Drury. Anne died in 1617 at the age of 33, after giving birth to a stillborn child. The grief-stricken Donne vowed never to marry again. 

Monday 27 September 2021

'An uneasy participant...'

 On this day in 1917, Edgar Degas, the artist described by Kenneth Clark as the best draughtsman since the high renaissance, died. He was old (83), blind and more or less alone – the last from choice: he was famously misanthropic (and, it has to be acknowledged, a virulent antisemite). No longer able to draw or paint, Degas spent his last years as a forlorn and solitary figure, wandering the streets of Paris. He had never fitted in: Valéry described him as 'an uneasy participant in the tragicomedy of modern art, mad about drawing', and both halves of that are true. Without the daily struggle to draw what he saw, he had nothing to live for. 
  R.B. Kitaj drew the pastel above from an image in a book, Mon Oncle Degas by Jeanne Fevre, that he found on the Quai Voltaire. 'This old, bitter antisemite in bed, 'Kitaj wrote, 'not only put lines in places which seem more 'right' than anyone else's lines, but, like Michelangelo in his last crucifixion drawings, he uttered a spiritual cry, maybe of anguish at the human shell in imperfected life ... Degas drew so well because he wouldn't give up ... He could never go far enough.'

Saturday 25 September 2021

'Gushes and eddies of wind took the flames this way and that...'

 This was a happy find – a classic 1950s public information bookmark warning of the dangers of fire – and it could hardly have been in a more appropriate book: Christopher Hibbert's King Mob: The Story of Lord George Gordon and the Riots of 1780 (published 1958). This is a book full of colourful descriptions of raging infernos, created by the anti-Catholic (and anti-pretty much everything else) rioters as they rampaged across London, burning great swathes of the city, freeing prisoners from the gaols, and wreaking wholesale destruction. The Gordon Riots are something I knew very little about, beyond some vague memories gleaned from trying to read Barnaby Rudge. They certainly put our contemporary notions of civil disorder in perspective: we are lucky to live in a very peaceable age, and the only taste of seriously destructive rioting we've had in recent times was the August 2011 outbreak, largely the result of police inaction. Here is Hibbert's description of an incident in the 1780 riots, the firing of Langdale's distillery – 
'As the buildings leapt with a roar into flame, a gentle wind came up ... gushes and eddies of wind took the flames this way and that, wrapping the streets in fire and setting alight houses further down Holborn towards Fleet Market, until the whole district looked, as Wraxall* said, "like a volcano".
  The fire was given an added and ferocious life by a fire engine pumping through its hose not water but gin from the stills in Langdale's cellar. Another engine, capture from its operatives by an enterprising old cobbler, was pumping up gin into buckets, while the cobbler did a good trade selling it to the spectators of the havoc at a penny a mug.
  Others, unwilling to pay for what they could get for nothing, ran into the raging building and down the stone steps into the cellar and came up choking, with blackened faces and bloodshot eyes, carrying untapped casks of gin, or pails and jugs, bowls and even pig-troughs overflowing with this most valued anodyne. Soon, even this effort was unnecessary, for as the heat below ground became intense the stills burst and overflowed and the gin came gushing up into the streets and ran in warm streams in the gutter and between the cobbles, joining a flow of rum pouring out of an enormous pile of staved-in rum casks. Delirious with excitement, the people knelt down and dipped their faces in the river of fiery spirits and gulped as much of it down as they could before it made them choke and burned their throats like acid. For the gin was in its raw state, unrectified. Wraxall saw men and women lying down prostrate in the streets incapably drunk; some of the women had babies in their arms or struggling near their insensible bodies, screaming in terror or in pain. Several staring, wide-eyed figures lay on their backs in grotesque postures, their faces blue, their swollen tongues will wet with poisonous liquid. 
  Below them in the cellars, trapped now by the fire, were the scorched bodies of men and women overcome by the fumes and the smoke, burning to death. And in the warehouse, too drunk to get out when the flames leapt in, other men and women could be heard screaming and shouting and giggling, scarcely aware of what was happening to them or too drunk to care.'
[* Nathaniel Wraxall, an eye-witness.]

Henry Thrale's brewery and distillery could easily have suffered the same fate but for the 'astonishing presence of mind' of the manager Mr Perkins 'in amusing the mob with meat and drink and huzzas'. Mrs Thrale told her friend Dr Johnson that 'our brewhouse would have blazed in ten minutes when a property of £150,000 would have been utterly lost'. This huge sum – the equivalent of about £13 million today – was in fact an underestimate: when the brewery was sold after Henry Thrale's death in 1781 it fetched £185,000. 

Friday 24 September 2021

Raining Conkers

 Yesterday, on my return from the 'city of philosophers'*, I went for a relaxing stroll in the park where, in my first autumn in the suburban demiparadise (sixty-plus years ago), I climbed trees and gathered conkers with my new friends. It was an Indian summer, I remember, very much like the one we're now enjoying.
  The horse chestnuts in the park, having fought off various recent afflictions, are again heavily laden with conkers. A dog walker warned me, as I strolled under the trees, to look out for falling conkers – a warning I didn't take too seriously until, nearing one of the older trees, I heard the sounds of what seemed to be a heavy aerial bombardment of conkers – they were falling  in their dozens and hundreds, hitting the ground like a nutty hailstorm, and indeed posing some danger of a painful bump on the head (it was a tall tree and the conkers seemed mostly to be coming from high up near the crown). I had never seen anything like this rain of conkers, and wondered what on earth had brought on such a sudden dramatic drop. I soon knew the answer: hearing a piercing squawk and looking up, I saw that high up in the tree a party of ring-necked parakeets were having a high old time, shaking the upper branches and letting loose fusillade after fusillade of conker artillery onto any unsuspecting passers-by. They are, I believe, the only birds who eat conkers, but yesterday they were clearly more intent on having fun than eating. I gave their tree a wide berth, and came away unscathed.
  This wouldn't have happened in my boyhood, when the only parakeets we saw were in cages. If it had, though, we would no doubt have returned fire with a will. 

* 'Sir, we are a city of philosophers: we work with our heads, and make the boobies of Birmingham work for us with their hands.'  Sam: Johnson.

Wednesday 22 September 2021


 I've just realised that I haven't posted my latest contribution to the Literary Review (not that I post them all) – a review of a mind-boggling new book by Henry Gee, A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth: 4.6 Billion Years in 12 Chapters. It went out under the apt title 'What Will Survive of Us?' Here it is...

‘Once upon a time…’ The opening words of Henry Gee’s new book give notice that what follows will be a story – and a dazzling, beguiling story it is, told at exhilarating pace. The scale is apparent from the first of a set of mind-boggling timeline graphics: this runs from the birth of the universe at the bottom of the page to ‘Extinction of life on Earth’, near the top, alarmingly close to the dotted line of ‘NOW’. This is a book to give you a new, dizzying perspective on such small matters as human civilisation. ‘Against the backdrop of geological time,’ Gee reminds us, ‘the rise of humanity is of negligible significance.’ We’ll be gone in a while, leaving barely a trace behind . The ‘carbon spike’ we have contributed to, and which causes us so much anxiety, is high but very narrow, ‘perhaps too narrow to be detectable in the very long term’. Besides, taking the long view, ‘life on Earth, with all its drama, all its comings and goings, is governed by just two things. One of them is a slow decline in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The other is the steady increase in the brightness of the Sun.’ Unlike carbon dioxide, oxygen might be thought of as an all-round good thing, essential to life on Earth. And yet it was a sudden surge of free oxygen that caused the Great Oxidation Event, unleashing the first of many mass extinctions that pepper the history of this planet. All that oxygen scrubbed the air of the carbon dioxide and methane that were keeping Earth warm and launched the first and longest ice age – 300 million years during which the planet became ‘Snowball Earth’, covered from pole to pole with ice. ‘And yet,’ observes Gee calmly, ‘the Great Oxidation Event and subsequent Snowball Earth episode were the kind of apocalyptic disasters in which life on Earth has always thrived.’ Eighty million years of ice ages only encouraged life to keep on coming back, sometimes in decidedly strange forms. I must admit I had never heard of Lystrosaurus, an animal with ‘the body of a pig, the uncompromising attitude towards food of a golden retriever, and the head of an electric can opener’ – and yet, for millions of years after the End-Permian mass extinction (yes, another one), nine out of every ten animals on Earth was a Lystrosaurus. Nor had I heard of stromatolites, mounds of slime and sediment that, early in the history of life on Earth, became ‘the most successful and enduring form of life ever to have existed on this planet, the undisputed rulers of the world for three billion years’. Dinosaurs, on the other hand, are animals that every child has heard of. These hugely successful creatures filled every evolutionary niche, leaving little room for much else, including the early mammals, who had to wait until the dinosaurs finally died out before they could ‘burst forth, like a well-aged champagne, shaken beforehand, and inexpertly corked’. A profusion of fast evolving and diversifying mammals took over from the dinosaurs. They included what Gee calls ‘a group of leftovers … an assortment of scrappers that included rats, mice, rabbits and, seemingly almost as an afterthought, the primates’. These small, fast-moving creatures with forward-facing eyes, inclined to curiosity and exploration, would, eventually, give rise to Homo sapiens. But the emergence of modern humans could so easily not have happened. Around 200,000 years ago, the last survivors of the species were confined to an oasis on the edge of what is now the Kalahari desert. And yet, Homo sapiens squeaked through, saved by a period of warming that turned much of the surface of the planet into rich grassland, teeming with game. The author begins the last chapter of this hugely enjoyable page-turner by paraphrasing Tolstoy: ‘All happy, thriving species are the same. Each species facing extinction does so in its own way.’ This chapter contemplates the future – a future that will, of course, not include Homo sapiens. We have already incurred a massive ‘extinction debt’ by damaging our own habitat; our population is likely to start falling by around 2100; and our genetic variation is woefully insufficient. We’ll be gone within the next ‘few thousand to tens of thousands of years’, but life will go on, with more ice ages, more extinctions, until eventually, in maybe a billion years, the story of life on Earth will be over. Viewed in the kind of vertiginous perspectives Gee opens up, our human presence looks vanishingly insignificant. And yet we have huge significance as the first and only species to be aware of itself. We owe it to ourselves, and to our fellow species, to conserve what we have, to make the best of our brief existence. ‘Do not despair,’ the author concludes. ‘The Earth abides, and life is living yet.’

Tuesday 21 September 2021

Kay Day

 This blog is not going to let Kay Ryan's birthday pass unmarked. Incredibly, she is 76 today – long may she live and write yet. Here, again, is the first poem of hers I posted (back in 2010) – one that I think displays her unique gift perfectly: wise, succinct, beautifully crafted and utterly distinctive...

Carrying a Ladder

We are always
really carrying
a ladder, but it’s
invisible. We
only know
the matter:
something precious
crashes; easy doors
prove impassable.
Or, in the body,
there’s too much
swing or off-
center gravity.
And, in the mind,
a drunken capacity,
access to out-of-range
apples. As though
one had a way to climb
out of the damage
and apology.

Saturday 18 September 2021

Ending on a High

 Well, my butterfly season – which, for various reasons, has been a rather patchy one – ended today with a glorious surprise. I was taking a stroll on Epsom downs, with no particular end in mind but enjoying the autumn sunshine, when, in one of the scruffy spinneys that line the fairways of the golf course that has, deplorably, taken over so much of the downland, I spotted a butterfly settling about ten feet up in a large dogwood bush. At first glimpse, I thought it was a Speckled Wood (there are lots of them around this autumn, after a thin summer). Then, as I drew nearer, I saw orange patches on the forewings – a belated Gatekeeper? No, the orange was too bright, and the brown ground colour too rich. Could it be...?
  Oh yes, it could. It was a female Brown Hairstreak! Excuse my exclamation mark, but this is one highly elusive butterfly, notoriously hard to find. This fine specimen – so late in the year – was in tiptop condition, and spent several minutes cruising from one sunny perch to another in the leafy undergrowth, showing off its hairstreaked golden underwings, before flying up and away through the trees. I watched in a state of aurelian ecstasy, failing as ever to get a photograph – but who cares? The Brown Hairstreak – as usual appearing from nowhere and in a wholly unlikely location – had delivered me another grand surprise, another glorious end-of-season gift. 

'Here is a brave boy'

 Samuel Johnson was born in Lichfield on this day in 1709 (in the New Style, which he adopted himself in 1753). He entered the world by way of his father's bookshop on the corner of Breadmarket Street, the building that is now the Samuel Johnson Museum – and bookshop. 'My mother had a very difficult and dangerous labour,' Johnson wrote in a posthumously published memoir. 'I was born almost dead, and could not cry for some time. When [the man-midwife] had me in his arms, he said, "Here is a brave boy."' Johnson's father was that year Sheriff of Lichfield, and due to ride the Circuit of the County, a ceremonial occasion of great pomp. To celebrate his son's birth, 'he feasted the citizens with uncommon magnificence'.
  Soon after this, the baby Samuel was, 'by my father's persuasion', put out to a wet-nurse 'to be nursed in George Lane, where I used to call when I was a bigger boy, and eat fruit in the garden, which was full of trees'. Clearly his mother was not happy that Sam had been put out to nurse: 
'My mother visited me every day, and used to go different ways, that her assiduity might not expose her to ridicule; and often left her fan or glove behind her, that she might have a pretence to come back unexpected; but she never discovered any token of neglect. Dr Swinfen* told me, that the scrofulous sores which afflicted me proceeded from the bad humours of the nurse, whose son had the same distemper, and was likewise short-sighted, but in a less degree. My mother thought my diseases derived from her family.
  In ten weeks I was taken home, a poor, diseased infant, almost blind.
  I remember my aunt Nath. Ford told me when I was about ... years old, that she would not have picked such a poor creature up in the street.'
  And yet this 'poor creature', 'this poor, diseased infant, almost blind' grew up to become one of our greatest writers, a ground-breaking lexicographer, a brilliant conversationalist and, taken all in all, one of the finest Englishmen who ever lived. 
  My second youngest grandson, the incomparable William, now attends a 'preschool' on George Lane, the street where Johnson was put out to nurse. 

* A young doctor lodging with the Johnsons at the time of Samuel's birth. He was Sam's godfather, and diagnosed his scrofula – 'the King's Evil', for which Johnson was touched by Queen Anne in 1712, one of the last to be so treated.

Friday 17 September 2021

'To re-enchant the view'

I've been reading (on the recommendation of a blog follower) Roger Scruton's Our Church. Published in 2012, it expands on themes enunciated in the wonderful England: An Elegy, particularly the chapter on The English Religion.  Essentially a historical and philosophical study of the Church of England, it also includes a penetrative and necessary account of what religion in general is, and what it is not. Scruton is surely right to regard the hard-won Anglican Settlement, and the Church that emerged from it, as one of the greatest achievements of this or any nation. Could any other country have gone from the impassioned religious strife and slaughter of the Civil War to the social tranquility and religious indifference that settled on England barely half a century later? Surely no such peace would have been possible without the great creation that is (or was) the broad, tolerant, benign, ever compromising Church of England, with its Book of Common Prayer, its King James Bible, and its great body of hymns and sacred music.
  One of the themes of Scruton's short but dense book, as it is of England: An Elegy, is 'enchantment'. For a people with a reputation for prosaic common sense, the English, he argues, have been peculiarly prone to investing the most commonplace realities with an air of magic, mystique, enchantment. In An Elegy, Scruton speaks frequently of 'the enchantment that lay over England' (note past tense). In Our Church, he described how, for example, the burgeoning of neo-Gothic architecture in Victorian times performed 'one of the essential functions of the Anglican settlement, which is to re-enchant the view'. The Gothic revival spread 'an evangelism of enchantment' over the land – surely the best, and the most English, form of evangelism.  
   And when that enchantment fails, when the view is dis-enchanted, stripped of its magic – what happens then, to the Church and the country? That, I fear, is what we are finding out now, as the Church of England sets about destroying itself with ever increasing managerialism and an evangelism not of enchantment but of prosaic literalism. It is perhaps a mercy that Scruton did not live to see his beloved Church's pusillanimous response to the Covid panic, withdrawing entirely from the life of the nation as if to confirm that it no longer had any role to play, that its uniquely accommodating and accessible greatness was now firmly a thing of the past. 

Wednesday 15 September 2021

Quote of the Day

'I lately took my friend Boswell and showed him genuine civilised life in a provincial town. I turned him loose at Lichfield, my native city, that he might see for once real civility.' – Sam: Johnson. 

(The picture shows Percy Hetherington Fitzgerald's jaunty statue of Boswell, which stands in Lichfield marketplace.)

Sunday 12 September 2021

'The one True Thomas'

 After happening upon Peter Porter's Adlestrop poem, I decided to seek out Anne Harvey's anthology Elected Friends: Poems for and about Edward Thomas – and there I found another surprising poetical hommage. Gavin Ewart – who's had a few mentions on this blog before – was a poet quite unlike Edward Thomas in just about every way. And yet Thomas had played a part in Ewart's literary development, as this poem makes clear...

Edward Thomas
(for the ghost of Giles Romilly)

Some poets are for ever linked
with special times or places,
like epithets (the hedger's 'swink'd'),
but, oftenest, with faces...

My copy has some Love from you
inscribed on early pages,
sixteen in 1932.
The teens are passionate ages,

and adolescent à quoi bon?
is mix'd with what's romantic;
young highbrows with our own haut ton,
we were quite mid-Atlantic – 

in that we loved the Sacred Wood
where Eliot was camping.
Thomas's concern seemed good,
for soldiers dully tramping.

The sadness and the wistfulness,
the 'Lights Out' feeling, chimed
well with our awkward, young distress.
The whole thing was well-timed.

If often what teenagers like
can turn out to be kitsch
and nonsenseful as the Third Reich,
with soppy tone and pitch,

this never happens in his verse – 
he is the one True Thomas
(young Dylan had the Bardic curse,
though, down to the last commas,

the tourist-wise Professors push
his vowel-rhyming sagas 
as higher than the Hindu Kush
to bigots bashing lagers).

The voice is level (read 'The Owl').
That War's across the Channel.
It's not a strident Ginsberg howl
of fluting, flat – or flannel!

This is the genuine rustic sound
we later found in Hardy – 
the countryman sure of his ground,
not brash, or bold, or bardy,

so good, a critic might say 'great'
that world need unemployment),
and wonderful for weightless weight
and actual enjoyment!

A fine summing-up of Edward Thomas, I think (and an equally fine dismissal of Dylan). Weightless weight is indeed what you get with Thomas at his best – and actual enjoyment.
The 'swink'd hedger', by the way, is in Milton's 'Comus'.

'Read "The Owl"' says Ewart, rightly – it's one of Thomas's best: 

Downhill I came, hungry, and yet not starved;
Cold, yet had heat within me that was proof
Against the North wind; tired, yet so that rest
Had seemed the sweetest thing under a roof.

Then at the inn I had food, fire, and rest,
Knowing how hungry, cold, and tired was I.
All of the night was quite barred out except
An owl’s cry, a most melancholy cry

Shaken out long and clear upon the hill,
No merry note, nor cause of merriment,
But one telling me plain what I escaped
And others could not, that night, as in I went.

And salted was my food, and my repose,
Salted and sobered, too, by the bird’s voice
Speaking for all who lay under the stars,
Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice.

Gavin Ewart was himself the subject of a poetic tribute – by Philip Larkin, in one of the last poems he wrote:

Good for You, Gavin

It's easy to write when you've nothing to write about
   (That is, when you are young),
The heart-shaped hypnotics the press is polite about
   Rise from an unriven tongue.

Later on, attic'd with the all-too-familiar
   Tea chests of truth-sodden grief,
The pages you scrap sound like school songs, or sillier,
   Banal beyond belief.

So good for you, Gavin, for having stayed sprightly
   While keeping your eye on the ball;
Your riotous road-show's like Glenlivet nightly,
   A warming to us all.

'Sprightly' is the word for Ewart's poetry, and his 'Edward Thomas' shows off his sprightliness. Like much of Ewart, it reads almost like conversational prose, its crafted poetical structure only fleetingly apparent. 'Edward Thomas' turns out, on inspection, to be written in common metre (alternating four-stress and three-stress lines, as in many a hymn) and rhymed AbAb (or, in a couple of stanzas, ABAB). A master of the art of concealing art, Ewart was indeed 'a warming to us all'. 

Saturday 11 September 2021

RIP Michael Chapman

 News came this morning of the death of Michael Chapman, a singer about whom I have written before. The news was sad, but it was a pleasant surprise to hear it reported on a Radio 4 news bulletin – clearly Chapman was not a forgotten figure from the Sixties/Seventies folk scene – and it was good to hear them play his best-known song, Postcards of Scarborough (see – or hear – below). By the way, the 'Paradise' referred to in the song is, or was, a street in Scarborough Old Town, which may or may not have been paved and turned into a parking lot – any Scarborough readers out there?

A Great Broadcast

On this morning 20 years ago, Alistair Cooke, then 92, was at home in New York, looking forward to a pleasant autumn day... What happened next inspired one of his greatest broadcasts. It's well worth another listen on this melancholy anniversary.
Cooke's talk ends on a hopeful note, concluding that America may be 'down', but is not 'on the ground'. It would be harder to reach that conclusion today, twenty years on, in the aftermath of recent events in Afghanistan. 
Here's a link to Cooke's broadcast, America's Day of Terror –


Friday 10 September 2021

'A dim capacity for Wings'

 Guy Walker, via Facebook, has drawn my attention to one of Emily Dickinson's butterfly poems – this one:

My Cocoon tightens — Colors teaze — 
I’m feeling for the Air — 
A dim capacity for Wings
Demeans the Dress I wear — 

A power of Butterfly must be — 
The Aptitude to fly
Meadows of Majesty concedes
And easy Sweeps of Sky — 

So I must baffle at the Hint
And cipher at the Sign
And make much blunder, if  at last
I take the clue divine.

I thought it was new to me, but that just shows how fallible my memory is: it features in an essay by Kay Ryan, 'Specks', which I have read in her brilliant collection, Synthesizing Gravity.
Ryan doesn't think much of the second stanza – 'essentially some Dickinson boilerplate to say, Butterflies fly'. A harsh judgment, but Ryan is surely right that 'Dickinson terrain is hard on the brain suspension. In any poem of more than one stanza, one stanza is likely to bottom out.' This is refreshing, as admirers of Dickinson often tend towards a kind of cultic worship, as if their heroine could do no wrong: of course she could – and that doesn't make her any less of a poetic genius (think of Wordsworth's lapses, or Keats's, or Tennyson's). Ryan loves the third stanza – 'such a strange capsule of a stanza', with its heavy emphasis on clumsiness, 'the exhilarating unworkability of it: one can only blunder into the light, or whatever the "clue divine" is.' Her reaction to the first stanza is wonderfully complicated, and she traces its contours precisely, as always: Ryan's criticism is the closest thing there is to the actual experience of reading and honestly, spontaneously responding to what is on the page. 'So far the picture's funny and ill fitting and, well, let's just say so, ravishing: it takes massive poetic wings to think of "A dim capacity for Wings".' Of course things can be at once funny and ravishing – especially, perhaps, in Dickinson's poems – but it's hard to imagine anyone but Kay Ryan pointing this out.

Wednesday 8 September 2021

Barefoot Fox

 There are several plaques on the wall of St Mary's church in Lichfield, overlooking the market place. They commemorate various unfortunates burnt at the stake in that place under Mary and Elizabeth, and the last man to be burnt alive for heresy in England (1612). And then there's this one, commemorating George Fox's denunciation of Lichfield.
It's a curious tale, and seems to suggest that Fox, recently released from a spell in Derby jail (punishment for blasphemy), was somewhat out of his mind at the time. He and a band of followers, heading south from Derby, came upon Lichfield. Fox had to ask his friends what city this was, and, on hearing it was Lichfield, he immediately experienced a visitation from the Lord, who told him to remove his shoes. Even though it was a bitter cold day, Fox complied, handing his shoes to some bemused bystanders. Striding barefoot into the city, Fox was then instructed by the Lord to cry out, 'Woe to the bloody city of Lichfield!' And so he passed through the streets and the market place, vehemently denouncing this city of which he knew nothing. Fortunately the locals took it in good part, finding the spectacle more comic than threatening. 
Fox went on to found the Religious Society of Friends, and Lichfield experienced no particular woe as a result of his visit. 

Sunday 5 September 2021

The Key

Well, here I am in Mercia. And the other day my cousin and I were church crawling in a corner of Lincolnshire, with the particular aim of revisiting one of England's greatest and least-known 17th-century monuments – to Sir Adrian Scrope, almost certainly by the mysterious Epiphanius Evesham. It is in the church of St Leonard, South Cockerington, in an area quite close to the middle of nowhere. The last time we visited, the church was open – but this time no such luck. This was a decisively closed church, the door plastered with deeply depressing Covid-related notices about the impossibility of leaving it open, or doing anything much else that might smack of normal life. I spent a while roundly cursing the pusillanimous Church of England and all its works, and, having despaired of seeing this great monument, we resigned ourselves to moving on. 
  Just then an elderly woman – the only human being we had so far seen in this remote parish – came slowly into view, carrying a bunch of yellow dahlias in a bag. 'You're not after getting into the church, are you?' she asked. We answered firmly in the affirmative. 'You're in luck then,' she replied, and, from the depths of her bag, she produced a magnificent large, heavy key of old-fashioned design, and handed it to me... I could have fallen on her neck and kissed her, and the key, and the ground we stood on.
  We saw our monument, and it never looked better. And when we left there was no sign of the lady who had let us in – who was she? Why was she there? We never knew – but that mighty key was still in the door, proof that this wildly improbable turn of events had indeed happened. It was one of the best moments of all my church-crawling life. 

Wednesday 1 September 2021


 I'm off on my Mercian travels again tomorrow, so there might be a bit of a hiatus. Or not.

Kersh in Tarsus

 Gerald Kersh could justifiably be classified as a forgotten writer – too forgotten even to make it into Christopher Fowler's Book of Forgotten Authors – but in fact Kersh has a small cult following, mostly on the strength of his novels of London low life, and a few of his many titles have been reissued in recent years. As well as these low-life tales, Kersh, like many a hack writer of his day, could turn his hand to virtually any genre, and had an early success with the twice-filmed thriller Night and the City. He led a rackety life – one that gave him much material for his fiction – and the classic combination of drink, women and unpaid income tax ensured that he had to keep on churning out the stories and novels just to stay afloat. 
  My father enjoyed his books, and the paperback library that was housed in the lavatory of my boyhood home contained several of Kersh's titles, all of which I eagerly read, despite being too young and inexperienced to appreciate them. I have forgotten almost all, but one – an untypical historical novel called The Implacable Hunter – did leave some impression, and the other day I decided I might seek it out and reread it. Happily I found a reasonably priced copy (it's long out of print) and am reading it now. It comes highly praised by Anthony Burgess (not necessarily a recommendation) – 'This is a masterly book, full of live people and a live age, live language too...'  It tells the story of Paulus (Saint Paul to be) and how he was sent to persecute the Nazarenes (Christians). The narrator is one Diomed, a Roman colonial officer in Tarsus, keeping the peace as best he can, fraternising with the more patrician of the natives and enjoying their hospitality and conversation. He is educated, urbane, borderline cynical, and an adroit diplomat – as he has to be in a community as divided and easily inflamed as first-century Tarsus. 
  The story is told in the first person, and almost entirely in dialogue, so there is little or none of the scene-setting, exposition and local colour that mar so many historical novels; we experience Diomed's world from the inside. This makes for an exhilarating read, and so far I am enjoying it greatly: this does seem like a novel that should be much better known. And, as Burgess says, it is written in 'live language', robust and colourful, with nothing mealy-mouthed or self-consciously 'historical' about it. At one point a friend of Diomed's describes being present at the crucifixion of Jesus, of which he gives a decidedly prosaic, unimpressed account. Summing up, he concludes 
'And there is all I can tell you about the individual who influenced history to this extent – that now, hundreds of miles away, an orthodox Jew spits in the beard of an unorthodox one for kindling fire to cook his porridge on the Jewish sabbath; whereupon, in the name of Peace, the dissenter throws boiling porridge into the orthodox one's face; and Diomed, coming with soldiers to keep the Peace of Rome, is hit in the eye with a rotten fig hurled by a child still raw from his circumcision. And somebody sends a report to Rome. (a) Diomed is keeping the peace. (b) Diomed is persecuting the Jews.'
And here is an equally robust passage, narrated by Diomed, describing his visit to the house of a Jewish money lender:
'He was one of the sackcloth-and-ashes school, and when he saw the glint of the sunlight on Sergius's armour, and caught sight of me, he fell into the irritatingly equivocal attitude of body and expression of face which says at the same time "That's right – murder me because I am a Jew! But why do you want to murder me just because I am a Jew? It is a Jew's honour and privilege to be murdered because he is a Jew. I shall be delighted to be murdered because I am a Jew, this being part of my proud heritage. But why should a fine young fellow like you want to risk the wrath of the Almighty by murdering an abject old wretch like me, just because I am a Jew? Murder me by all means, but first let us talk things over..."'
   Kersh was himself Jewish, and his first novel, Jews without Jehovah, was based on his own impoverished early years – indeed based rather too closely, as it had to be quickly withdrawn when members of his own family threatened to sue for libel. Not the most auspicious beginning for a literary career – but four years later came Night and the City, and Kersh was launched.