Sunday 31 October 2021

Hotel Poems

 Lately, for various reasons, I've been spending quite a lot of time in hotels. This has led me to conclude that bland, low-price chain hotels are best for sleeping in, while older, more upmarket hotels are best for everything else, e.g. sitting around observing the passing scene. Here is Peter Porter doing just that, in the opening poem of his 1975 collection, Living in a Calm Country – 

At the Castle Hotel, Taunton

Today it's not scones but tea-cakes
   (And the sound of ambulances
   in the reconstructed streets) –

Rich voices are discussing the new Warden
   (The Show is the best for years,
   the Architects' watercolours outstanding) – 

Pearls and brogues survive, cashmere clings 
   (Is this the Ark of Adultery
   or two old friends killing time?) –

Interlopers must wait for their tea
   (There's only one waitress on today,
   her footsteps are masked on the stairs) – 

Hands want something to do, eyes won't idle
   (Country Life in a rexine folder:
   who buys, who sells all these houses?) – 

O impossible England under the modern stars
   (Mr Edward du Cann* thanks the voters
   of Taunton for their generous support) –

So much beauty, so unexpectedly preserved
   (And we two strangers have today
   honoured gentle Eliot at East Coker) –

Not only the pleasant eating by the road
   (And the cider factory, the industrial
   archaeology with the rural) – 

But the pattern of beauty changing in the air
   (Fields painted by history, a steam
   of seasons softening what lives) – 

Somerset for survivors and a good things too 
   (Seventeenth-century farmhouse,
   part-converted, owner abroad
) – 

Seen from Ilminster spire, everything is safe
   (It is being kept for posterity
   but where do the people of England live?)

*Edward du Cann was a rather louche Tory politician who was MP for Taunton. He was an Oxford friend of Kingsley Amis.
  In this miniature portrait of 'impossible England' at a particular time and in a very particular place, two distinct poems run in parallel, in a kind of antiphon, before they converge at the end – typically clever stuff, and in places beautiful (the last-but-two stanza, 'But the pattern of beauty changing in the air...'). 

Philip Larkin is also specific about place and time in his sonnet, 'Friday Night in the Royal Station Hotel', a scene of dimly lit ('darkly' lit indeed) desolation. I am old enough to remember when provincial hotels at quiet times were like this – but this is not just a well made descriptive poem: the five lines after the break, and especially the enigmatic closing sentences, take it into another dimension. 

Light spreads darkly downwards from the high
Clusters of lights over empty chairs
That face each other, coloured differently.
Through open doors, the dining-room declares
A larger loneliness of knives and glass
And silence laid like carpet. A porter reads
An unsold evening paper. Hours pass,
And all the salesmen have gone back to Leeds,
Leaving full ashtrays in the Conference Room.

In shoeless corridors, the lights burn. How
Isolated, like a fort, it is –
The headed paper, made for writing home
(If home existed) letters of exile: Now
Night comes on. Waves fold behind villages.

The Royal Station Hotel survived to become the 'iconic' Mercure Hull Royal Hotel. 

  Here's another hotel poem – or one that begins in a hotel: Anthony Hecht's 'Lagoon', his 'version' of a Joseph Brodsky poem. The hotel is the Pensione Accademia, where Ruskin stayed when he was working on The Stones of Venice, and I know it because I stayed there a few years ago. In the poem it's Christmas time, and the place seems as desolate as Larkin's Royal Station Hotel...

Down in the lobby three elderly women, bored, 
Take up, with their knitting, the Passion of Our Lord
        As the universe and the tiny realm
Of the pension 'Accademia', side by side, 
With TV blaring, sail into Christmastide,
        A look out desk-clerk at the helm.

And a nameless lodger, a nobody, boards the boat, 
A bottle of grappa concealed in his raincoat
        As he gains his shadowy room, bereaved
Of memory, homeland, son, with only the noise
Of distant forests to grieve for his former joys,
        If anyone is grieved.

Venetian churchbells, tea cups, mantel clocks,
Chime and confound themselves in this stale box
        Of assorted lives. The brazen, coiled
Octopus-chandelier appears to be licking,
In a triptych mirror, bedsheet and mattress ticking,
       Sodden with tears and passion-soiled.

Blown by nightwinds, an Adriatic tide
Floods the canals, boats rock from side to side,
      Moored cradles, and the humble bream,
Not ass and oxen, guards the rented bed
Where the windowblind above your sleeping head 
      Moves to the sea-star's guiding beam.....

After which, something cheering is called for. Here is Frank O'Hara, as usual skipping merrily through whatever's bobbing about on the surface of his mind. 'Hotel Particulier' hardly seems to be about any particular hotel, but it's fun – and I've always liked the last sentence, which invariably springs to mind when I enter a new hotel, though I've yet to try it on the desk-clerk...

How exciting it is
                              not to be at Port Lligat
or learning Portuguese in Bilbao so you can go to Brazil

Erik Satie made a great mistake learning Latin
the Brise Marine* wasn't written in Sanskrit, baby

I had a teacher one whole summer who never told my anything
                                                           and it was wonderful

and then there is the Bibliotheque Nationale, cuspidors,
glasses, anxiety 
                          you don't get crabs that way,
and what you don't know will hurt somebody else

how clear the air is, how low the moon, how flat the sun,
et cetera,
               just so you don't coin a phrase that changes
can be 'rung' on
                          like les neiges d'antan
and that sort of thing (oops!), (roll me over)!

is this the hostel where the lazy and fun-loving
                                       start up the mountain?

* The Brise Marine is a poem by MallarmĂ© – and, as it happens, the name of a hotel at Cap-Ferrat. 

Saturday 30 October 2021

Walking Again

 Yesterday, for the first time in a year and more, I was out walking with that little band of walkers who, from time to time, muster for a day's walk, usually with some architectural/historical interest thrown in. I've been walking with them for nearly 40 years now, and the group is dwindling in numbers and becoming less active, for obvious age-related reasons – but yesterday five of us still ambulant survivors assembled in the Wiltshire countryside for a nine-mile walk, punctuated by the traditional long lunch.
  We met at the out-of-the-way village of Ogbourne St Andrew, close to Marlborough but feeling much like the middle of nowhere. The church there, built of flint and ashlar with some brick infill, is a nice example of the kind of small, unostentatious village church that has evolved over the centuries, incorporating something of each architectural period along the way. It even has an Anglo-Saxon burial mound standing conspicuously in the churchyard – something you don't often see. 
  Sadly, but not surprisingly, the church was locked, but, peering in through a clear window, I was able to make out a rather fine monument, which I photographed through the glass, creating this ghostly image of a monument floating amid reflected trees and sky –

The couple in the circular niche recall some of the 17th-century monuments of conjugal affection that feature in my book (in the chapter 'What Will Survive of Us'), but this husband and wife are holding between them a skull; their thoughts are less on each other than on mortality – as well they might be: six of the eight children kneeling below them are holding skulls, showing that they were already gone into the world of light (as Henry Vaughan puts it). It's a slightly old-fashioned monument for its date – and the date is interesting: 1655, therefore under the Commonwealth, when very few memorials of any degree of elaboration were being made. 
  The other notable church was St John the Baptists, Mildenhall (pronounced Minal, and not to be confused with Mildenhall in Suffolk). This has a similarly unshowy and mixed exterior, but inside is a revelation – a rare, perfectly preserved late Georgian interior, complete with box pews, panelling, gallery,  reredos, pulpit and (identical) reader's desk. And it was open.
  We ate lunch in a little town pub in Marlborough, where the menu consisted almost entirely of pies – but they were good pies. As we ate – in company with another of the walkers and his wife, who had dropped in to meet us  – we watched the rain siling down outside. By the time we had finished, it had passed over, replaced by blue skies and mellow autumn sunshine. Most of the rest of the walk was along an abandoned railway track, lined with small trees and shrubs – dogwood, guelder rose beautiful in its autumn colouring and hung with berries, hawthorn jewelled with bright red haws, blackthorn studded with plump sloes (abundant this year, as are most tree fruits).
  It was so good to be out walking amid all this beauty, and in company again. Let's hope it is a harbinger of better, more normal, more humanly convivial times ahead.

Thursday 28 October 2021

'All things which sustain'

 In times like these, when it is fashionable in some quarters to describe yourself as an 'activist' (and, like as not, a 'stand-up comedian'), it's good to hear a quiet voice celebrating the importance of doing nothing. In this elegant, musical poem on a musical subject – the 'fermata' is what we Brits usually call a 'pause', the undefined rest denoted by a Mr Chad* eye (arch over dot) – the American poet Turner Cassity gives form to... well, to nothing, to that charged pause. He's a poet who is light on his feet, fluent, agile, and often – that rare thing among modern poets – funny. His work is hard to find over here, but worth seeking out. The collection from which this poem is taken, Between the Chains, has an epigraph from Ivy Compton-Burnett – a sure sign of something interesting in store...

Against Activism

The arch of the fermata holds the note,
If only on the paper. Wrist or breath
Or the depressed piano keys draw out
The sound itself. Inertia audible,
Vibrating string, vibrating air postpone.
That which they so delay, the beat held back,
Is abstract also; yet the mind conditioned
Waits for the certain thunderclap
Hard on the flash. The lightning, nothing if
Not active principle, creates the wave
Which it anticipates. The lifted felts
In the piano, up-bow, down-bow, tongue
Not touching on the reed, prolong the bars
Each passively, by what they do not do.
Horsehair on catgut take the active voice?
Of course. The thing the players do not do
Is let the change from down to up-bow sound. 
'Free bowing' is the operative phrase.
Assuring linkages by letting be,
Most concertmasters write it in the parts.
Among the brasses faces turn to red;
Arms independent bow one seamless note.
Soon, on the sostenuto, cramp sets in.
The right-hand pedal, all things which sustain,
Do so at least in part by doing nothing.

* Mr Chad was a popular graffito character, usually portrayed poking his nose over a wall and complaining about the absence of something: 'Wot! No.....?' He was born, it seems, in 1941, at a secret training centre in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, where 'radio location' (Radar) was being taught. A wag adapted a circuit diagram into the features of Mr Chad and added the words 'WOT! No electrons?' The rest is history: Mr Chad lasted well into the Sixties, maybe longer.  

Wednesday 27 October 2021

Darwin and Johnson: 'Mutual and strong dislike subsisted between them'

 From the start, it is clear that Anna Seward's biography of Erasmus Darwin is a wonderfully eccentric production, organised on principles entirely her own. It is also clear that she is not hugely enamoured of Dr Darwin as a man, though she reveres him as a poet and respects his intellect (even if she has very little to say about his scientific inquiries and his many inventions). It seems she nursed some animus towards him because he used lines of hers in his Botanic Garden without permission or acknowledgment.
   The first chapter begins with a short, hardly flattering sketch of the corpulent, stuttering, overbearing Darwin, before diverting into something of more interest to Anna Seward – the intellectual life of Lichfield and the luminaries who gave it, in her day, its particular lustre. Most of the first chapter, indeed, is taken up with a lengthy biographical profile of one of them, Thomas Day, an interesting figure in himself – one of many intellectuals led astray by the ideas of the fashionable Jean-Jacques Rousseau – but of no great relevance to the life of Dr Darwin. Seward makes a show of getting back on track at the start of the second chapter. but is soon talking of Sir Brooke Boothby, with a diversion on Mr Munday of Marketon, author of Needwood Forest ('one of the most beautiful local poems that has ever been written'). She returns to her subject with an account of Dr Darwin being thrown from his carriage and breaking the patella of his right knee. 'It is remarkable,' writes Seward, 'that this uncommon accident happened to three of the inhabitants of Lichfield in the course of one year; first, to the author of these memoirs in the prime of her youth; next, to Dr Darwin; and, lastly, to the late Mr Levett, a gentleman of wealth and consequence in the town. No such misfortune was previously remembered in that city, nor has it once recurred through all the years which has since elapsed.' Well, fancy that. 
  After a little more of Dr Darwin, Seward introduces , among others, the Rev. Thomas Seward (no relation), whose poetry she quotes, and the Rev. Archdeacon Vyse, whose verse she quotes at greater length. Any reader hoping that Seward's admiration for the 'choice spirits' of Lichfield would extend to its most famous son, Samuel Johnson, will be disappointed. He and Dr Darwin 'had one or two interviews, but never afterwards sought each other. Mutual and strong dislike subsisted between them' – and Anna Seward cannot forgive Johnson his 'many hints of Lichfield's intellectual barrenness'. The 'arrogant' Johnson, she says, 'liked only worshippers'. Though several of Lichfield's finest paid court to Johnson when he visited his home town, 'they were not in the herd that "paged his heels" and sunk, in servile silence, under the force of his dogmas, when their hearts and their judgments bore contrary testimony'. All of this sounds rather as if Anna Seward could not forgive Johnson for neglecting Lichfield, with its galaxy of starry intellects (in her estimate), in favour of London. It is a shame, though, that the two greatest men Lichfield produced – Erasmus Darwin and Samuel Johnson – did not get on. 

Tuesday 26 October 2021


 Strolling down the King's Road this morning, en route to an old friend's 70th birthday lunch, I was pleased to see that the statue of Sir Hans Sloane is still standing proudly in full view. In a book I read recently (for review), Sloane is described as a 'naturalist, slave owner and founder of the British Museum' – in that order. He is clearly in the crosshairs of the woke brigade, so it would be no surprise if that statue were to become 'problematic'.
Wikipedia describes Sir Hans, more usefully and accurately, as a 'physician, naturalist and collector'. 

Sunday 24 October 2021

'This stoney register'

 Oddly, in researching my book on monuments, I never visited the Collegiate Church of St Bartholomew, Tong, one of the most monument-packed churches in the Midlands (it's just over the Staffordshire border in Shropshire). Yesterday, on my Mercian travels with my cousin, I made good the omission, and was relieved to find that it contained no particularly interesting monuments of 'my' period (the early 17th century). But it does indeed contain a lot of monuments, to members of the Vernon and Stanley families – a collection whose general effect is, it has to be said, more than a little oppressive. 
  One of the monuments – a grand, well carved double-decker – has some literary interest. It commemorates three of the Stanley family, various members of which illustrious clan patronised William Shakespeare. Because of this connection, it is widely believed that the two epitaphs on this monument were written by the man himself. If so, they are not among his best efforts, but they have their moments. One reads
'Ask who lyes here but do not weep
He is not dead he doth but sleep
This stoney register is for his bones
His fame is more perpetual than these stones
And his own goodness with himself being gone
Shall live when earthlie monument is none'
[Note the unfortunate per-echo of that ever popular funeral verse 'Do no stand at my grave and weep']
And the other reads
'Not monumental stone preserve our Fame
Nor skye aspiring pyramids our name
The memory of Him for whom this stands
Shall outlive marble and defacers Hands
When all to Time's consumption shall be geaven
Standley for whom this stands shall stand in Heaven'

  Tong church has another literary association too. It was in Tong that Dickens set his great tearjerker, the death of Little Nell (he knew Tong because his grandmother was housekeeper at Tong Castle). This death scene (of which Oscar Wilde wrote 'One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing') caused such a sensation, on both sides of the Atlantic, that Dickensian pilgrims soon began descending on Tong in search of Little Nell's grave. At some point an enterprising verger created a suitably inscribed tombstone and even faked an entry in the church's burial register, so Tong churchyard became the site of 'Little Nell's Grave'. Visitors were quite prepared to overlook the fact that in The Old Curiosity Shop she is buried inside the church.

Thursday 21 October 2021

'The masculine loco-descriptive tradition'

 I recently bought a modern edition (2010) of the Life of Erasmus Darwin written by the 'Swan of Lichfield', Anna Seward (pronounced, I was surprised to learn, 'See-ward'). Seward has recently attracted the attention of academics, for her sometimes innovative proto-Romantic verse and other writings, for her unconventional (and in modern terms unclassifiable) love life, and for being a respected woman writer in a then very male-dominated literary world. Whether her biography of Darwin is any good I have yet to discover, having only just got through the lengthy Introduction, which, while full of interest, reads rather like a reheated thesis or dissertation. I laughed out loud at a quotation from one Sharon Seltzer, who declares that Seward's poems on the famous early industrial site Coalbrookdale are 'a significant intervention in the masculine loco-descriptive tradition'. A little later, the author of the Introduction describes Seward's literary criticism as 'worthy of our attention because it evokes a deeply relational mode of analytic thought and creative work not always associated with late 18th-century literature'. Deeply relational, eh?
  As for Erasmus Darwin, he remains very present in Lichfield. Yesterday I spotted the most unlikely tribute to the great man and the Lunar Society of which he was a leading light: the Brewhouse and Kitchen pub, which brews its own beers, has a red rye ale (dry, amber aromatic) called Lunartick [sic]. I must try it some time...

Tuesday 19 October 2021

Pixellated Sam


A pixellated Samuel Johnson keeps watch over one of Lichfield's many benches. 
Yes, I am back in the 'city of philosophers'...

Monday 18 October 2021

Weddings Anniversary

 On this day in 1958 – some months after the event – Philip Larkin signed off on one of his most famous poems. 'The Whitsun Weddings' was widely thought of as his best – perhaps it is – and seemed to represent, along with 'Church Going', the essence of Larkin: until the likes of 'Aubade' and, heaven help us, 'This Be the Verse' came along to complicate the picture. 'The Whitsun Weddings' remains one of Larkin's most popular works – it made it into the BBC anthology of The Nation's Favourite Poems – and it shows him at his most (in Betjeman's phrase) 'tenderly observant'. It flows beautifully and easily, everything perfectly modulated, its Keatsian rhyme scheme (ABABCDECDE) barely apparent. The arresting final image – inspired, Larkin claimed, by the arrow shower in Olivier's film of Henry V – gives us one of Larkin's greatest endings (and he's a poet of great endings). A disenchanted world is suddenly, mysteriously re-enchanted.
Anyway, it's a fine poem, one that is always worth rereading. Here it is – 

That Whitsun, I was late getting away:
    Not till about
One-twenty on the sunlit Saturday
Did my three-quarters-empty train pull out,
All windows down, all cushions hot, all sense   
Of being in a hurry gone. We ran
Behind the backs of houses, crossed a street
Of blinding windscreens, smelt the fish-dock; thence   
The river’s level drifting breadth began,
Where sky and Lincolnshire and water meet.

All afternoon, through the tall heat that slept   
    For miles inland,
A slow and stopping curve southwards we kept.   
Wide farms went by, short-shadowed cattle, and   
Canals with floatings of industrial froth;   
A hothouse flashed uniquely: hedges dipped   
And rose: and now and then a smell of grass   
Displaced the reek of buttoned carriage-cloth   
Until the next town, new and nondescript,   
Approached with acres of dismantled cars.

At first, I didn’t notice what a noise
    The weddings made
Each station that we stopped at: sun destroys   
The interest of what’s happening in the shade,
And down the long cool platforms whoops and skirls   
I took for porters larking with the mails,   
And went on reading. Once we started, though,   
We passed them, grinning and pomaded, girls   
In parodies of fashion, heels and veils,   
All posed irresolutely, watching us go,

As if out on the end of an event
    Waving goodbye
To something that survived it. Struck, I leant   
More promptly out next time, more curiously,   
And saw it all again in different terms:   
The fathers with broad belts under their suits   
And seamy foreheads; mothers loud and fat;   
An uncle shouting smut; and then the perms,   
The nylon gloves and jewellery-substitutes,   
The lemons, mauves, and olive-ochres that

Marked off the girls unreally from the rest.   
    Yes, from cafĂ©s
And banquet-halls up yards, and bunting-dressed   
Coach-party annexes, the wedding-days   
Were coming to an end. All down the line
Fresh couples climbed aboard: the rest stood round;
The last confetti and advice were thrown,
And, as we moved, each face seemed to define   
Just what it saw departing: children frowned   
At something dull; fathers had never known

Success so huge and wholly farcical;
    The women shared
The secret like a happy funeral;
While girls, gripping their handbags tighter, stared   
At a religious wounding. Free at last,
And loaded with the sum of all they saw,
We hurried towards London, shuffling gouts of steam.   
Now fields were building-plots, and poplars cast   
Long shadows over major roads, and for
Some fifty minutes, that in time would seem

Just long enough to settle hats and say
    I nearly died,
A dozen marriages got under way.
They watched the landscape, sitting side by side
—An Odeon went past, a cooling tower,   
And someone running up to bowl—and none   
Thought of the others they would never meet   
Or how their lives would all contain this hour.   
I thought of London spread out in the sun,   
Its postal districts packed like squares of wheat:

There we were aimed. And as we raced across   
    Bright knots of rail
Past standing Pullmans, walls of blackened moss   
Came close, and it was nearly done, this frail   
Travelling coincidence; and what it held   
Stood ready to be loosed with all the power   
That being changed can give. We slowed again,
And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled
A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower   
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.

Sunday 17 October 2021

Watson's Apology

 I've been reading a Beryl Bainbridge novel that I'd somehow never noticed (let alone read) before – Watson's Apology. I found it, needless to say, in a charity shop and snapped it up. 
  Watson's Apology dates from 1984, and is the second (after Young Adolf) of what might be called Bainbridge's 'historical novels': The Birthday Boys, Every Man for Himself, Master Georgie and According to Queenie – a truly impressive body of work – were to follow. Watson's Apology has nothing to do with Sherlock Holmes's sidekick, but is a fictionalised account of a real-life murder, and a most perplexing one. One Sunday morning in 1871, a respectable and scholarly former headmaster, the Rev. John Selby Watson, bludgeoned his wife to death at their house in Stockwell. He kept her body in a back room for two days, then made a half-hearted suicide attempt by drinking prussic acid. Through all the police inquiries and court hearings that followed, Watson remained impassive and uncommunicative, explaining only that his wife had goaded him to a fit of ungovernable rage. In court, he filed, unusually for the time, a defence of insanity.
  Bainbridge's novel draws on documentary evidence, and the characters – and even the house where the murder took place – are drawn from life. However, as she writes in a prefatory note, 'what has defeated historical inquiry has been the motives of the characters, their conversations and their feelings. These it has been the task of the novelist to supply.' And supply them she does, in a thoroughly persuasive manner, painting a portrait of an unhappy, awkward and frustrated man who made an unwise marriage and whose career ended in failure. As a picture of an unhappy marriage, Watson's Apology is brilliantly effective, not least because Bainbridge lets us glimpse how it might have been a happy one, if only Watson had been less self-absorbed and his wife had not drifted into alcoholism. 
  Like Penelope Fitzgerald, Bainbridge has the gift of total immersion in the period she is writing of: there is no sense of strain in this, no sign of half-digested research. The sights, sounds and smells of Victorian suburbia are vividly evoked, as is its everyday social life. But the great strength of the novel is its compassionate and convincing characterisation of the unhappy Watson and his equally (but differently) unhappy wife. It is a dark tale, but, thanks to the lightness of Bainbridge's touch, never unbearably oppressive. As it proceeds, however, the impending murder hovers ever more menacingly over the action. In the event it is not described (except by way of forensic reports). This is, I think, wise: by the time of the murder, we have seen enough, we know enough. 
  Translations from the Latin and Greek by John Selby Watson can still be found, some in Bohn's Classical Library and Everyman's Library. He also wrote several biographies, a book on The Reasoning Power in Animals, and Geology: A Poem in Seven Books. Watson made almost no money from these exertions. 

Friday 15 October 2021


 Earlier today I had the dismal experience of walking through central Croydon (on my way to more civilised parts). The air of squalor, dereliction and social collapse in what in living memory was a sedate suburban shopping centre seems to get more pungent every time I set foot in the place (which is as seldom as possible). The few survivals from an earlier Croydon – once the country seat of the Archbishops of Canterbury – seem ever more isolated and incongruous amid the hideous skyscrapers and depressing shopping streets. If ever I needed to strengthen my resolve to move to Lichfield – and I'm not likely to – I need only pay a quick visit to Croydon to set me right. 
However, there was one bright note: I noticed this image of Croydon's most famous son, the composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, over the entrance to one of the shopping centres. It's been given a a gratuitous touch of street cred by the addition of headphones and a jazzy background, but at least it's recognisable, and there. Heaven knows what SC-T would make of Croydon as it is today. 

Thursday 14 October 2021

Five Years Ago

 Today is the birthday of Katherine Mansfield (born 1888). 
Five years ago, in those dear dead days of unrestricted international travel, before New Zealand cut itself off from the rest of the world in the deluded pursuit of 'zero Covid', I was enjoying the wonderful city of Wellington – how I miss it, not to mention the loved ones who live there...
One morning I took myself off to the Katherine Mansfield birthplace museum, and recorded the experience in a blog post.
Here's the link...

Sunday 10 October 2021

Uncanny Harmony

 I enjoyed watching the American documentary The Harmony Game on BBC2 last night, even if it was ten years old. A film about Simon and Garfunkel, it was built around the making of their best and last album, the massively successful Bridge Over Troubled Water, which in the early Seventies seemed to be in absolutely everybody's record collection (12" vinyl of course). Paul and Art both contributed, separately, with Art notably more generous and affectionate in tone than Paul – no surprise there. It was very touching to see early footage of the two of them, their love for each other so evident and easy, their natural harmony extending beyond their music – what happened? This question was not explored. 
  The uncanny vocal harmony was still very much in evidence when Bridge Over Troubled Water was being made, and sound engineer Roy Halee knew how to bring out its special quality. He was the major contributor, after Art and Paul, to the documentary, and threw much light on the often unorthodox techniques used to create the album's richly textured, distinctive sound. Bridge Over Troubled Water was one of a string of great albums  (including the greatest, Pet Sounds) produced in response to The Beatles' mid-Sixties endeavours, which sparked a war of emulation – due at least as much to George Martin's innovative productions as to The Beatles' music. Also contributing – and a joy to see – were drummer Hal Blaine and bassist Joe Osborne, two of the three musicians who were the driving force of the Wrecking Crew (the third, keyboardist Larry Knechtel, was sadly already dead when the film was made).  
  The Harmony Game left a certain sadness in its wake. It was impossible to watch it without regretting that Simon and Garfunkel went their separate ways after hitting such heights with Bridge Over Troubled Water, and that the estrangement become so bitter. Nothing was said of all that in the film, but it was hovering in the air throughout. 

Saturday 9 October 2021

Sinden and Bosie

On this day we lovers of theat-ah (hem hem) must celebrate the birthday of Donald Sinden, who would have been 98 today. Sinden evolved from being a fairly conventional and versatile leading man into the fruitiest thesp who ever trod the boards. In his anecdotage he was a popular talk-show guest, and he published two volumes of memoirs, as well as editing (who better?) the Everyman Book of Theatrical Anecdotes. In addition to his long and distinguished acting career, he had a minor claim to fame as perhaps the last living link with Lord Alfred Douglas ('Bosie'), and thereby with Oscar Wilde. 
   In 1942 Sinden discovered that the aged Lord Alfred was living not far from him in Hove, so he decided to seek him out, having recently read a biography of Oscar Wilde. Cannily he prepared for his visit by reading some of Douglas's sonnets, which their author (and, to be fair, some others) rated very highly. Arriving at Lord Alfred's address, Sinden was surprised to find a row of very mean, two-up two-down houses. 'With some trepidation,' Sinden writes (in A Touch of the Memoirs), 'but tingling with excitement, I rang the bell. A long pause. The door was opened by a little stooping man, not more than five feet four inches tall, with grey hair, bleary eyes and pouches under them and a bulbous nose. "Please come in," said Lord Alfred.'
  The former Bosie responded charmingly to the young actor who had taken an interest in him,  and, after a pleasant conversation, he invited him back for tea the following week. 'And so began a series of visits during which he would talk about his childhood, his time at Oxford, the actors he had known, his court cases, books and writers, and gradually the subject of Oscar Wilde, whom he always recalled with great affection. Tears sometimes welled in his eyes.'
  But then Sinden, browsing in a Brighton bookshop, came across Lord Alfred's Oscar Wilde and Myself and discovered that it was full of vitriolic abuse of his one-time friend, lover and mentor. This was an eye-opener, but Sinden maintained his friendship with Lord Alfred, who one day took him to Worthing and showed him the house where he and Oscar  were staying when Oscar was writing The Importance of Being Earnest. When Lord Alfred died in 1945, Donald Sinden was one of only two people to attend his funeral. He described him later as 'a very dear, kind man' – a generous assessment. 

Friday 8 October 2021

A Guilty Pleasure, Good News for Retroprogressives, and an Earworm

 In one of the charity bookshops of Lichfield (there are at least two good ones, not to mention the excellent literary/historical bookshop in Dr Johnson's House) I came across this garish number with its wildly inappropriate cover image. Naturally I snapped it up. I haven't read I Like It Here in donkey's years, so I thought I'd give it a go. An early Amis (1958), it's a fairly slight affair, the tale of a writer who for various reasons finds himself reluctantly abroad, in Portugal, with wife and family. It's nothing like as bilious as Amis's other Englishman abroad novel, One Fat Englishman, and its protagonist, Garnet Bowen, is a great deal more likeable and less deplorable than the appalling Roger Micheldene. Reading Amis tends to feel like a guilty pleasure, but there's no good reason why it should: he was an excellent writer, as well as being very often very funny – a rare and cherishable combination. I Like It Here has already had me laughing out loud several times – at this passage, for instance, describing Bowen's first impressions on arrival in Portugal: 
 'Everything looked cheerful, expensive and brand-new, even vaguely important. Perhaps it was all to do with the sun and how bright it was. It was a pity that such terrible people said that colours were brighter in the South, because they were right. Oh well, they talked so much they were bound to be right occasionally, just by accident. Bowen looked nervously about for peasants. It would be unendurable if they all turned out to full of instinctive wisdom and natural good manners and unselfconscious grace and a deep, inarticulate understanding of death. But surely they couldn't, could they? No peasants were on hand to offer themselves as evidence. He had an uneasy feeling, though, that this situation was not going to last...'
Or there's this bravura description of the man who might or might not be the distinguished author Wulfstan Strether:
'Visually the fellow measured up: he was tall, slightly stooping, with almost white though abundant hair, and with a bearing, a nose, a mouth, a pair of eyes that could be unhesitatingly pigeonholed as authoritative, hawk-like, sensitive, piercing. This was to ignore, perhaps, the properties of his ears (elongated, red), hat (staringly white), shirt (damask, extra-zonal, unwise), and his dialogue recalled Charles Morgan rather than anything Downing College would approve – though the distinction was admittedly a fine one. But all this was countered by the quality of his voice (the statutory reedy tenor) and its accent (older speaker's upper-class, with even a scintilla of hyah about the word here). He looked about sixty and, while amiable enough, a terrible old crap.'
(I think by 'extra-zonal' Amis must mean 'not tucked in at the waist').
Yes, there's a lot to enjoy in I Like It Here. And all for the princely sum of £1.99. Books in charity shops seem to be getting cheaper and cheaper, with oddments being sold off for 50p and less.
  Old vinyl LPs, on the other hand, are on offer at surprisingly high prices, scratched and battered though many of them must be – a dramatic turnaround from a few years ago, when you could barely give them away. And yesterday I learned that new vinyl is now the bestselling physical form of recorded music, having overtaken the CDs that were supposed to render vinyl obsolete – great news for us retroprogressives. 
  My own collection of somewhat battered vinyl LPs I recently subjected to a drastic cull, and have lugged large quantities of them down to a local charity warehouse. Among them was John Cale's strangely beautiful, or beautifully strange, Paris 1919, which I have on CD and listen to quite often. Rather too often, it would seem, as I was recently plagued night and day for 48 hours or so by a most unlikely and unshakable earworm – this: 

Oh well – I guess I should be glad it wasn't Antarctica Starts Here...


Wednesday 6 October 2021

Erasmus and Chad

 In these days, when most public memorial sculpture is sorry stuff (Princess Diana statue, anyone?), Lichfield is fortunate in having at least two statues that wouldn't suffer in comparison with the work of earlier time. 
The statue of Erasmus Darwin in Beacon Park is suitably full of character and energy, and effectively suggests the powerful but benign presence of the great polymath, grandfather of the now more famous Charles. His fine house, with its restored garden, is just over the road.

The statue of St Chad is also expressive of energy, emphasised by the forward tilt of the figure. It portrays the Bishop of Mercia and patron saint of Lichfield and its cathedral, as a man on a journey, a man with a mission indeed. This statue stands, well placed, in the cathedral precinct, by the Southeast corner of the great building (which in itself demonstrates the sad falling-off in quality of ecclesiastical sculpture between medieval and Victorian times – the few surviving bits of medieval  statuary show up the later stuff all too cruelly). 

Both these works are by the talented local sculptor Peter Walker, who also created the installation Peace Doves – 20,000 paper doves, which took flight in the nave of Lichfield cathedral (among others) a few years ago. 

Saturday 2 October 2021

Helen Frankenthaler: Radical Beauty

 Yesterday I went to the Dulwich Picture Gallery – always a pleasure in itself: what a building, what a collection! – to see the exhibition of Helen Frankenthaler's woodcuts. This was a real eye-opener, and a portal to the kind of aesthetic bliss that doesn't come along too often.
  I've long had a soft spot for Helen Frankenthaler – an underrated woman artist in the overwhelmingly male milieu of Abstract Expressionism – and have written about her before. Until this exhibition came along, I did not know that she worked in woodcut as well as painting on canvas – but these are woodcuts like no others I've ever seen; indeed at first glance (and second and third) they look very like paintings, and quite large paintings at that. I still have no very clear idea about how they were made – the information given wasn't basic enough for me – but I gather they involved innovative techniques, including the use of a jigsaw and much work with paper pulp and even, in one case, mulberry juice. The exhibition shows some of the prints at various stages, working towards the final version, and it is fascinating to see the fully realised picture emerging from a succession of proofs – but just how it happens I really don't know. 

   The finished prints certainly live up to Frankenthaler's central credo – that a picture must look as if it happened 'all at once' (which in fact could hardly be further from the truth with prints like these). All of them are fascinating and compel close attention, and some of them are quite – there is no other word for it – sublime. The impact, especially of the larger ones (like the late, unreproducible 'Madame Butterfly'), is stunning – but this is a classic case of an exhibition that has to be seen: reproduction gives little idea of what you see before you when you look at the finished print. I'd urge anyone who loves sheer painterly beauty (albeit in a highly unlikely medium) to visit Dulwich while the Frankenthalers are still there – you've got until April next year.

I do have one complaint: an unfortunate combination of lighting and over-reflective glass means that when you stand and look at some of these pictures you are obliged to look through a ghostly image of yourself and whatever is around and behind you. Something could surely be done about that, couldn't it? Also, as hinted above, some more technical and contextual information would have been helpful. But Helen Frankenthaler: Radical Beauty is still one of the most beautiful exhibitions I've seen in a long while.