Sunday 28 November 2021

Oh for a Latibule...

 Thanks to Maya Oppenheimer (via Facebook), I have learnt a new word today: 'latibulate', verb. Actually, my Shorter Oxford gives it in the form 'latibulize' (v. rare, 1802), meaning 'To retire into a hiding-place or retreat'. In parentheses it adds, as well it might, '(for the winter'). The root is Latin latibulum, a hiding-place (hence English 'latibule'), from latere, to hide or be hidden (as in 'latent'). 
  To find a hiding-place in which to sit out the winter is an idea with considerable appeal for those of us who are easily drained and depressed by cold weather. And this winter, with the madness raging in the wider world, hiding away and sitting it out seems an even more attractive notion than usual. But alas, latibulation must remain a fond dream: the world is indeed too much with us, late and soon...
  While investigating 'latibulate' online, I came across an amusing and useful word of more recent origin: 'testiculate', verb, meaning 'to gesticulate wildly while talking bollocks'. The master testiculator used to be Andrew Marr; now, I suppose, it is Robert Peston. Or, on a bad day, Boris Johnson. 
  And now I'm returning to my latibule... No, I'm not – I'm off to Lichfield again tomorrow for a few days in the bosom of the f. It will be cold. 

Saturday 27 November 2021

Restoration or Devaluation?

 Dispiriting reports from Paris of plans for the restored Notre Dame
This kind of thing – using the vast, eloquent space of a cathedral to project fashionable secular themes – is a noticeable trend in this country (e.g. the recent Science extravaganza hosted by Lichfield, among others), and, at a lowlier and less intrusive level, there is a tendency in parish churches to label such basics as altar, pulpit and font with a kindergarten-level explanation of their function. At least such explanatory apparatus has some Christian substance, but that is hard to discern in some of what is planned for Notre Dame, which seems more concerned with the new secular religions of environmentalism and inclusivity. 
  France being the kind of nation it is, Notre Dame has been through similar indignities before, notably in the Revolutionary period, when the great cathedral was desecrated, much of its iconography mutilated or destroyed, and the building dedicated to the, ahem, Cult of Reason. Notre Dame recovered from that, helped by Napoleon (who reconsecrated the building and had himself crowned there), Victor Hugo (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) and a surge of renewed interest in old buildings, led by the likes of the indefatigable 'restorer' Viollet-le-Duc, who conducted the great 19th-century restoration that gave us the Notre Dame we knew before the calamitous fire of 2019. 
  Heaven knows what the final results of this latest restoration will look – and feel – like, but these early reports are not hopeful. It would be a terrible shame if resources were sunk in the service of transient secular religions that could have been spent on serious, much needed conservation and restoration work. The imperative should always be to rebuild on the Venetian principle of 'Dov'era e com'era' (where it was and as it was), or indeed, in the English manner, to restore conservatively, with as little fakery, disguise and reconstruction as possible. What you then do with the restored building is a secondary question, for later consideration. In my view, there's a lot to be said for leaving these great monuments of faith to tell, by their structures and their very existence, the stories they have always told, even if fewer and fewer people are listening. 'In an attentive ear, the same far rumour swells', as Peter Scupham puts it, in his poem Dissolution. An empty shell can be resonant and even eloquent – certainly more so than an echo chamber of secular received wisdom... As Larkin writes at the end of 'Church Going' (written nearly 70 years ago now, in times when the church had a far stronger presence and clearer purpose than it seems to now),

For, though I've no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

Thursday 25 November 2021

Homeric England

With the world growing ever madder, and in ever more alarming ways, it is a joy to come across a story like this – the chance discovery of a fine Roman mosaic under farmland in Rutland. What I find particularly cheering about it – and what makes it unique in England – is that the mosaic depicts a scene from the Iliad: the great fight between Hector and Achilles towards the end of the Trojan wars. I love the thought of a landowner in late Roman England amusing himself and his guests, and showing his deep cultural roots, with a high-quality depiction of a scene from Homer. And I love that this discovery has been made in Rutland, England's smallest county and one of its loveliest (in terms of rural landscape), an under-appreciated county nestling among the other under-appreciated counties of enduring Mercia. 
  Homer never went away, even in England. It was in the supposed Dark Ages that the history of Britain was linked to the Trojan wars by way of Brutus of Troy, a grandson or great grandson of Aeneas, who, banished from Italy after accidentally killing his father, wandered over much of Europe before settling in a country he named Britain, after himself, and filling it with his descendants. This foundation myth was presented as historical fact as late as the Elizabethan period, and there is even an 18th-century epic poem by one Hildebrand Jacob called Brutus the Trojan, Founder of the British Empire. The Homeric narrative has always been with us, and always will be – though that might be a rash assertion in these mad times. 

Wednesday 24 November 2021

'The tattered cordage of my will'

 On this day in 1965, Larkin wrote, or signed off on, this one, 'How Distant' –

How distant, the departure of young men
Down valleys, or watching
The green shore past the salt-white cordage
Rising and falling.

Cattlemen, or carpenters, or keen
Simply to get away
From married villages before morning,
Melodeons play

On tiny decks past fraying cliffs of water
Or late at night
Sweet under the differently-swung stars,
When the chance sight

Of a girl doing her laundry in the steerage
Ramifies endlessly.
This is being young,
Assumption of the startled century

Like new store clothes,
The huge decisions printed out by feet
Inventing where they tread,
The random windows conjuring a street.

I realise, having checked, that I've written about it before – here – but I make no apologies for posting it again, as I believe it is one of Larkin's finest short poems, evoking a lost world ('how distant') with a precise perfection of touch. It is moving too, in a similar way to the more famous 'MCMXIV'. 
  The 'salt-white cordage' in the third line puts me in mind of a very different poem by a very different poet (and probably the best he wrote) – Frank O'Hara's 'To the Harbormaster':

I wanted to be sure to reach you;
though my ship was on the way it got caught   
in some moorings. I am always tying up   
and then deciding to depart. In storms and   
at sunset, with the metallic coils of the tide   
around my fathomless arms, I am unable   
to understand the forms of my vanity   
or I am hard alee with my Polish rudder   
in my hand and the sun sinking. To   
you I offer my hull and the tattered cordage   
of my will. The terrible channels where   
the wind drives me against the brown lips   
of the reeds are not all behind me. Yet   
I trust the sanity of my vessel; and   
if it sinks, it may well be in answer   
to the reasoning of the eternal voices,
the waves which have kept me from reaching you.

Tuesday 23 November 2021

Dame Partington and The Outrage

 My visit to the barber's this morning was disappointing (though the haircut was up to standard). Hoping for the usual vigorously expressed Jeremiad on the state of things in general, I was instead regaled with a blow-by-blow account of a difficult house move and subsequent neighbour dispute. The weather came up though, as it always does: now that the unseasonably warm period has ended, all the talk is of imminent snowfall, to hit us – here in the mild Southeast – by the weekend. I guess it is the English way always to look forward to worse weather if the current situation doesn't afford enough to complain about.
  It's actually a rather lovely day out there – coldish but sunny, with blue skies. The catastrophists should count themselves lucky they weren't around on this day in 1824, when a horrific gale and storm that became known as 'The Outrage' hit the Dorset coast, flooding the river valleys and breaching the formidable Chesil Bank, destroying some 80 houses and drowning around 50 or 60 people. The other great shingle bank, Hurst Spit, was 'moved bodily forward for 40 yards' (according to the geologist Charles Lyell). Wrecks littered the coast, and the Plymouth breakwater, Weymouth esplanade and the Cobb at Lyme Regis were ruined. At Sidmouth, the Rev. Sydney Smith recalled in a speech in Parliament some years later,
'In the winter of 1824, there set in a great flood upon that town – the tide rose to an incredible height – the waves rushed in upon the houses, and everything was threatened with destruction. In the midst of this sublime and terrible storm, Dame Partington, who lived upon the beach, was seen at the door of her house with mop and pattens, trundling her mop, squeezing out the sea water and vigorously punching away the Atlantic Ocean. The Atlantic was roused.'
For a while, Dame Partington and her mop became a popular image for those trying to hold back the rising tide of political reform. 

Sunday 21 November 2021

Men Improve with the Years (claims poet)

 For some unknown reason, this poem by W.B. Yeats turned up on my Facebook today. 
Has word got out that I am a weather-worn, marble triton?
The title is 'Men Improve with the Years', which sounds like Yeatsian wishful thinking. 'Is this my dream, or the truth?' 

I am worn out with dreams;
A weather-worn, marble triton
Among the streams;
And all day long I look
Upon this lady's beauty
As though I had found in a book
A pictured beauty,
Pleased to have filled the eyes
Or the discerning ears,
Delighted to be but wise,
For men improve with the years;
And yet, and yet,
Is this my dream, or the truth?
O would that we had met
When I had my burning youth!
But I grow old among dreams,
A weather-worn, marble triton
Among the streams.

Daybed Reading

 Apologies for the hiatus. Ever since I reported, 12 days ago, that I had been afflicted by a mystery bug but was over it (see 'Hedy Stuff'), I have been  nursing, with ill grace, what has to be described as a 'cold', that most inadequate of all quasi-medical terms. An unshakable cough, a staggeringly productive nose and the attendant sleeplessness and prostration have dogged me, in varying proportions, ever since that previous bug went its way.  There have been further complications too, but I don't want to turn this blog into a medical bulletin board.
  All this has, as you might imagine, somewhat reduced my reading, but I found solace in a volume of 'Familiar Essays' by Joseph Epstein entitled Once More Around the Block. I've enjoyed everything I've come across by Epstein and always found him wonderfully readable – 'full of matter', as Dr Johnson would put it, but unfailingly entertaining. So Once More was ideal reading for the daybed. Epstein muses elegantly on various themes – the pleasures of work and neighbourhood, bookshops and language snobbery (much to disagree with there) – but I think the essay I've most enjoyed so far is one on humour (of which Epstein has a great deal more than most contemporary writers). From this essay ('What's So Funny?') I pass on a couple of classic putdowns. This is Sydney Smith on the unstoppable talker Macaulay: 'He has occasional flashes of silence that make his conversation perfectly delightful' (I'm sure was can all think of others of whom that might be said). And here is Evelyn Waugh on learning that a benign tumour had been removed from the lung of his friend Randolph Churchill: 'It was a typical triumph of modern science to find the only part of Randolph that was not malignant and remove it.' That's fine, if perhaps a little laboured, but my favourite of the putdowns quoted by Epstein was from Max Beerbohm (something of an Epstein hero), talking about William Morris: 'Of course we all know that Morris was a wonderful all-round man, but the act of walking round him has always tired me.' This is typical Max – the gentlest of putdowns but wonderfully deflating. He always implies (disingenuously enough) that the fault might be his that he cannot raise his appreciation to the level required by such a cultural colossus as Morris. Or William James, of whom he once wrote that 'I was insensible to his thrillingness' (the perfect word). I'm looking forward to reading the rest of these essays – and to finally shaking off this interminable 'cold'.
(Here are William Morris and Edward Burne Jones, as imagined by Max, sharing the settle at Red Lion Square)...

Monday 15 November 2021

'Kirkby with Muckby-cum-Sparrowby-cum-Spinx...'

 Well, it's a slim volume, so it won't take any shelf space, and it's a knockdown price, and fate has clearly thrown it in my way... So I reasoned with myself as I put up a token resistance to the inevitable purchase of John Betjeman's Church Poems, illustrated by John Piper (John Murray, 1981, condition v.g. with dust-wrapper, £2.99), spotted on the shelves of one of my regular charity shops this morning. It's a lovely volume (though the jacket colour is a slightly bilious mustard yellow), and Piper's elegant, lightly drawn sketches perfectly complement Betjeman's poems. 
   The first entry is a Lincolnshire poem – in fact, the first that Betjeman wrote about a part of the country he knew well and loved above all other maritime counties except, of course, Cornwall. 'A Lincolnshire Tale', a mock-Gothic ballad in a springy anapaestic meter, was inspired by the out-of-the-way churches of the Lincolnshire Wolds, a part of the country he knew particularly well from visits to his friend Noel Blakiston at Kirkby-on-Bain, near Horncastle. 'Kirkby' is the only authentic place name in the poem, the others being highly plausible inventions. I find it all very evocative, having been in the Lincolnshire Wolds only recently; in particular it puts me in mind of following an uncertain path across exposed open land, beside rivers and drains, to reach the little churches of St Adelwold, Alvingham, and St Mary, North Cockerington, which stand within yards of each other in the same remote churchyard. Below is my picture of one of them, I think North Cockerington. And here is 'A Lincolnshire Tale' – 

Kirkby with Muckby-cum-Sparrowby-cum-Spinx

Is down a long lane in the county of Lincs.

And often on Wednesdays, well-harnessed and spruce,

I would drive into Wiss over Winderby Sluice.


A whacking great sunset bathed level and drain

From Kirkby with Muckby to Beckby-on-Bain,

And I saw, as I journeyed, my marketing done,

Old Caisterby tower take the last of the sun.


The night air grew nippy.  An autumn mist roll’d

(In a scent of dead cabbages) down from the wold,

In the ocean of silence that flooded me round

The crunch of the wheels was a comforting sound.


The lane lengthened narrowly into the night

With the Bain on its left bank, the drain on its right,

And feebly the carriage-lamps glimmered ahead

When all of a sudden the pony fell dead.


The remoteness was awful, the stillness intense,

Of invisible fenland, around and immense;

And out on the dark, with a roar and a swell,

Swung, hollowly thundering, Speckleby bell.


Though myself the Archdeacon for many a year,

I had not summoned courage for visiting here;

Our incumbents were mostly eccentric or sad

But – the Speckleby Rector was said to be mad.


Oh cold was the ev’ning and tall was the tower

And strangely compelling the tenor bell’s power!

As loud on the reed-beds and strong through the dark

It toll’ from the church in the tenantless park.


The mansion was ruined, the empty demesne

Was slowly reverting to marshland again –

Marsh where the village was, grass in the Hall,

And the church and the rectory waiting to fall.


And even in springtime with kingcups about

And stumps of old oak-trees attempting to sprout,

‘Twas a sinister place, neither fenland nor wold,

And doubly forbidding in darkness and cold.


As down swung the tenor, a beacon of sound,

Over listening acres of waterlogged ground

I stood by the tombs to see pass and repass

The gleam of a taper, through clear leaded glass.


And such lighting of lights in the thunderous roar

The heart summoning courage to hand at the door;

I grated it open on scents I knew well,

The dry smell of damp rot, the hassocky smell.


What a forest of woodwork in ochres and grains

Unevenly doubled in diamonded panes,

And over the plaster, so textured with time,

Sweet discolouration of umber and lime!


The candles ensconced on each high panelled pew

Brought the caverns of brass-studded baize into view,

But the roof and its rafters were lost to the sight

As they soared to the dark of the Lincolnshire night:


And high from the chancel arch paused to look down

A sign-painter’s beasts in their fight for the Crown,

While massive, impressive, and still as the grave

A three-decker pulpit frowned over the nave.


Shall I ever forget what a stillness was there

When the bell ceased its tolling and thinned on the air?

Then an opening door showed a long pair of hands

And the Rector himself in his gown and his bands.

. . . . . . . . . .

Such a fell Visitation I shall not forget,

Such a rush through the dark, that I rush through it yet,

And I pray, as the bells ring o’er fenland and hill,

That the Speckleby acres be tenantless still.

Sunday 14 November 2021

Elegy Season

 Rather than share my Remembrance Sunday thoughts (which are, as usual in recent years, along the lines of 'Is this what they gave their lives for?'), I'll post a seasonal poem appropriate for this dreech day –

In the Elegy Season

Haze, char, and the weather of All Souls':
A giant absence mopes upon the trees:
Leaves cast in casual potpourris
Whisper their scents from pits and cellar-holes.
Or brewed in gulleys, steeped in wells, they spend
In chilly steam their last aromas, yield
From shallow hells a revenance of field
And orchard air. And now the envious mind
Which could not hold the summer in my head
While bounded by that blazing circumstance
Parades these barrens in a golden trance,
Remembering the wealthy season dead,
And by an autumn inspiration makes
A summer all its own. Green boughs arise
Through all the boundless backward of the eyes,
And the soul bathes in warm conceptual lakes.
Less proud than this, my body leans an ear
Past cold and colder weather after wings’
Soft commotion, the sudden race of springs,
The goddess’ tread heard on the dayward stair,
Longs for the brush of the freighted air, for smells
Of grass and cordial lilac, for the sight
Of green leaves building into the light
And azure water hoisting out of wells.
                                            Richard Wilbur

Saturday 13 November 2021

Plus Ça Change

 As I write, the exhausted participants in COP 26 are staggering to the finishing line, still firmly under the delusion that they have it in their power to precisely control the planet's temperature, limiting any imminent rise to 1.5C above whatever the baseline is for this purpose. This looks to me like hubris merging into outright insanity – and of course the BBC is unquestioningly cheering on the whole sorry jamboree. That the BBC is now wedded to bad science and alarmism should come as no surprise: their line throughout has been dictated by climate activists, and back in 2018, as I noted at the time, they decided that 'the science is settled'. Here's what I wrote then: 

'I gather the BBC has a new editorial policy on reporting climate change.  A briefing note from the director of news and current affairs warns of the dangers of 'false balance' thus:
'Manmade climate change exists. If the science proves it we should report it. To achieve impartiality, you do not need to include outright deniers of climate change in BBC coverage, in the same way you would not have someone denying that Manchester United won 2-0 last Saturday. The referee has spoken.'
'Climate change IS happening ,' the note asserts, going on to warn against such 'common misconceptions' as that 'not all scientists think manmade climate change is real' and 'climate change has happened before'.
Both of those 'misconceptions', it seems to me, are rather closer to the statement 'Manchester United won 2-0 last Saturday' than is the statement that 'Climate change IS happening'. Though that is, on the face of it, unexceptionable, as climate is never static, the implication is clearly that 'Catastrophic anthropogenic climate change' (memorably acronymised by Clive James as 'CACC') is happening. To assert that that kind of climate change 'IS happening' looks more like a statement of faith than one of scientific fact. For a start, it isn't even falsifiable, is it? 
What's more disturbing is that 'deniers' is now the BBC's default term for all those with any doubts about the story we're being told. People who used to be described, accurately, as 'sceptics' are now tacitly aligned with the swivel-eyed antisemites who deny that the Holocaust ever happened. Even the amiable Roger Bolton, discussing the issue on Radio 4's Feedback, referred to sceptics throughout as 'deniers'. I guess that's going to be the new normal on the BBC now.'

This policy has been enacted with vim and vigour by the Corporation, and never more so than in recent weeks. In particular, extreme weather events, wildfires and suchlike are now routinely described as 'caused by climate change', when even the IPCC is cautious about making any such claims. It is handy for the evangelists of course: if global warming isn't happening to schedule, there will always be an 'extreme weather event' to point to as evidence that man is destroying the planet. Hey ho. Six years ago, I wrote this about another meaningless climate jamboree, the one in Paris that took place in the wake of a murderous rampage by Islamist murderers –

'So, barely a fortnight after Islamist murderers staged a random massacre of infidels in Paris, the city is hosting the latest international 'climate summit', addressing what all concerned agree is the real threat. This vast expulsion of hot air will, as ever, achieve almost nothing; even if an agreement is signed, we can be quite sure it won't be widely observed, and it's highly unlikely that, with India pledging to triple its carbon emissions, there will be any real impact on the perceived problem.

 I don't know whether it's heartening that, so soon after the Paris massacre, it's back to 'business as usual', or depressing that that business is still the same old futile flogging of a half-dead horse. It's a subject I don't often refer to here (it tends to lead to unpleasantness), but ever since 'global warming' - as it was then called (I wonder why the name changed?) - rose up the political agenda, I've been suspicious of the whole business, on various grounds. I might as well outline some of them here:
Climate is an immensely complex supernetwork of immensely complex networks. We surely can't claim to have a complete understanding of how it works, let alone that 'the science is settled'.
 The claim that 'the science is settled' is profoundly non-scientific, like so much else in this field, which looks more like a mix of politics and spilt religion, its orthodoxy enforced by means that appear more like the ruthless enforcement of a faith than anything to do with science.
 The 'climategate' emails, the scientifically discredited 'hockey stick' on which so much of the alarmism was based, the more recent uncovering of systematically 'massaged' temperature readings... All of these - plus the inconvenient truth that 'global warming' did not occur in the manner that was confidently predicted (this, we are told, was an unexpected 'pause') - suggest that we would be wise to be sceptical. Scepticism is, after all, the very basis of the scientific method, and faith its very opposite.
 I suspect future generations might look back on our 'climate change' preoccupation with much the same bewilderment that we feel about medieval scholiasts (allegedly) arguing over how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. Especially this time, when the angel-counting is taking place in a city where unmistakable, brutal notice has just been given of a threat very much more imminent and real.'

Thankfully, there was no recent Islamist outrage on this occasion, but otherwise nothing has changed. For the better, anyway. 

Friday 12 November 2021

'So still the Tadpole cleaves the watery vale...'

 Browsing in the classic anthology of bad verse, The Stuffed Owl, I notice that Erasmus Darwin, that great son of Lichfield, is represented by several passages from The Loves of the Plants (praised at the time by Cowper, Hayley and Walpole), The Economy of Vegetation and The Temple of Nature
   Darwin, a true polymath, is a fascinating figure, but clearly not the great poet that Anna Seward (in her more generous moods) thinks him. I have given up on her biography of the great man, not least because she herself more or less gives up on trying to write his life after he moves from Lichfield to Derby. Miss Seward is, alas, seriously interested in Darwin only at the points where his life and interests happen to impinge on hers – which means, among other things, that she has no real interest in his scientific studies, his thinking and his inventions, but only in his poetry, which she analyses at great length. Her ambiguous attitude to her subject shows through even in her study of his verse, which includes frequent comparisons with other authors, often to the detriment of Dr Darwin. However, where she finds what she considers 'beauties', her praise knows no bounds. Of an 'animated apostrophe to Steel' in The Botanic Garden, she asks 'What has poetry more noble than these first six lines?' 

Hail adamantine Steel! magnetic Lord,
King of the prow, the ploughshare and the sword!
True to the pole, by thee the pilot guides
His steady course amid the struggling tides!
Braves, with broad sail, th' immeasurable sea,
Cleaves the dark air, and asks no star but thee!

What indeed...?
  There is something charming about the idea of an encyclopaedic tour d'horizon that embraces great swathes of what we would now call science – often new science and technology – and a pre-scientific world of nymphs and mythical creatures, all brought together into one vast edifice of heroic verse. Such was Erasmus Darwin's poetical oeuvre, the product of a particular time, when science and the arts could still mingle naturally, and, from the start, is was likely to date fast, and to appear to later generations as absurd, a noble endeavour brought down by bathos, a living example of what Pope called 'the art of sinking in poetry'. Hence Darwin's presence in The Stuffed Owl. Of the specimens of Darwiniana collected there, this passage from The Temple of Nature is perhaps the choicest, and I shall close with it:

So still the Tadpole cleaves the watery vale, 
With balanc'd fins and undulating tail;
New lungs and limbs proclaim his second birth,
Breathe the dry air, and bound upon the earth.
Allied to fish, the Lizard cleaves the flood
With one-celled heart, and dark frigescent blood;
Half-reasoning Beavers long-unbreathing dart
Through Eirie's waves with perforated heart;
With gills and lungs respiring Lampreys steer, 
Kiss the rude rocks, and suck till they adhere;
With gills pulmonic breathes th' enormous Whale,
And spouts aquatic columns to the gale. 

'With perforated heart' is a lovely touch, and the adhesive manoeuvres of the lamprey could hardly be more pithily described. 

Tuesday 9 November 2021

Hedy Stuff

 For several days now, I've been more or less prostrated by a mystery bug – not the CCP Virus (as some wags are calling it, rather aptly I fear) – but one of the many lesser players now seizing their moment. You may judge the severity of my malaise by the fact that I haven't had a drink in five days – well, only one very weak Campari and soda, or rather soda and Campari. This is the longest drink-free run I can remember, so I hope it's doing me good. 
Today, anyway, I seem to be well enough to head back to Mercia  (Lichfield, to be precise).
As it's the 107th birthday of that extraordinary and lovely woman Hedy Lamarr, I take the liberty of reprinting a Nigeness post from 2009 – yes, this blog has been going that long (in fact a year longer)...

'This blog cannot let today go by without pausing to salute the great Hedy Lamarr, born (in Vienna) on this date in 1914. Described by Max Reinhardt as 'the most beautiful woman in Europe' (you can see his point), she gained early notoriety in a famous slice of arty porn, Ecstasy, prancing about in the altogether, skinny-dipping and assuming an orgasmic facial expression – achieved, she claimed, by the director pricking her in the bottom with a needle. Hmm...
Her first marriage, to a fascistically inclined Austrian arms magnate, was not a howling success, but, in his determination to keep her out of mischief, he would take his young wife with him to technical meetings – where, with her sharp mathematical mind, she picked up a lot of useful information about military technology. This would come in handy later in her life, when she had fled her husband and headed for Hollywood, movies, more husbands and lovers – and the invention, in collaboration with the avant-garde composer George Antheil, of a Secret Communications System, which they patented in 1942. Apparently this was an invention far ahead of its time, having to rely on the primitive technololgy of a piano roll, but it was, according to those who know about such things, an early version of frequency hopping, and a precursor of spread spectrum communications technology, which, according to Wikipedia, is 'a key to modern wireless technology'. So there you are – what a dame! Brains and beauty too... Happy birthday, Hedy, wherever you are.'

Sunday 7 November 2021

Philip and Steve's Furniture Removal Company

 Neil Hannon, that fine singer-songwriter, lead singer and sole permanent member of the Divine Comedy, was born on this day in 1970. To mark the anniversary, Radio 3 played Philip and Steve's Furniture Removal Company, an affectionate, funny and clever spoof of New York minimalism. It was inspired by Philip Glass and Steve Reich's foray into the removal business when they were impoverished musicians living in NYC in the early Sixties. Hearing it this morning cheered me greatly, so I share it here –

'If you live in New York City in the 1960s
And you're tired of having your stuff scuffed
And tossed about by some Boulez-loving lout
Who is out to make your home all atonal,
Call Philip and Steve's Furniture Removal Company.
They will, with minimal disruption to your routine,
Change your whole scene,
They'll take it apart, put it back together,
Strangely familiar but never quite the same.
They'll do it again, and again, and again...'

Saturday 6 November 2021


My latest contribution to that excellent magazine, Literary Review – 

 The Wood that Built London: A Human History of the Great North Wood By C.J. Schüler (Sandstone Press 321pp £19.99) 

 There was a time, not so long ago, when woodland stretched across south London in a great seven-mile swathe from Croydon (literal meaning ‘crocus valley’) to Deptford. It was not until Victorian times, when it was already seriously depleted, that it was given a name – the Great North Wood. Now that it is depleted still further, reduced to scattered patches amid suburban sprawl, it is attracting renewed attention and being recognised as an important survival of ancient woodland. That’s ancient woodland, not wild wood: there is scarcely any of that, or of any other true wilderness, in this country. The ancient woodland was a working environment, intensively managed to provide timber for building, wood for domestic and agricultural use, charcoal for kilns, bakers’ ovens and smiths’ forges, and wild food for humans and beasts. The history of the Great North Wood is ‘not only a natural history, but a human one’, as C.J. Schüler puts it in the introduction to his timely and informative survey of the past and present of this remarkable woodland. 
 The story begins to take shape in Anglo-Saxon times. By 871, Croydon and all its surrounding land had come into the possession of the Archbishop of Canterbury (hence the bishop’s palace that can still be seen in that unlovely town). A hoard of Anglo-Saxon coins was dug up by railway workers in 1862, between Thornton Heath and Selhurst, and a medieval hoard turned up in a garden near Beulah Hill in 1953 – close to the site of another treasure not mentioned by Schüler: the stolen World Cup, found in woodland by a dog called Pickles in 1966. 
 The history of the Great North Wood comes into focus with the arrival of the Normans, whose scrupulous record-keeping has gifted historians with masses of dry but invaluable material. Inevitably, records of legal disputes form the backbone of much of the history Schüler narrates, and he does his best to tease human interest out of the documentary evidence. It certainly leaves no doubt of how valuable a resource the woodland was, and how carefully it was managed to avoid damage and loss. In the sixteenth century a big new landowner emerged in the shape of Edward Alleyne, the wealthy theatre owner and actor who, in 1619, founded the College of God’s Gift in Dulwich (later to evolve into Dulwich College). A substantial remnant of the great wood still survives in Dulwich, adjoining the other major survival, Sydenham Hill Woods. 
 As time went on, events in the wider world impinged on the Great North Wood – the Great Fire of London, plague, the Civil War, the terrible storm of 1703. Medicinal springs were found, and gypsies became a popular feature of the woods around Norwood. Demand for charcoal fell in the 18th century, causing much woodland to be grubbed up. Enclosure Acts also made inroads – but none so destructive as the relentless spread of suburbia in Victorian times and later. Nevertheless, much of the surviving Great North Wood retained its rural character well into the 19th century, when its restful charm was enjoyed by Blake, Samuel Palmer, Ruskin, Dickens and others, including the philosopher John Stuart Mill, who was a keen plant spotter, the first to record the wild cherry (Prunus avium) in Dulwich Woods. The coming of the railways, and the re-erection of the Crystal Palace on Penge Peak, both had a big impact on the area, and gave rise to some striking collisions of past and present, as when the parishioners and dignitaries of Camberwell, beating the bounds of the parish, processed through the dining rooms of the Crystal Palace, causing much astonishment. 
 The later history of the Great North Wood has been of one long, broadly successful rearguard action against those who would subsume the remaining woodland into their development plans. Schüler details countless disputes, proposals, protests, inquiries, meetings, reports and surveys. Happily, from all of that agitation, the major surviving part of the Great North Wood – Dulwich and Sydenham Hill Woods – emerged as properly conserved and managed woodland. This is no longer a working environment, but now performs an equally valuable function as a beautiful and biodiverse ecosystem, thriving improbably close to London. Schüler details the abundant wildlife, plant and animal, to be found in the surviving woods, and describes their management, and the ways in which the public are engaged. As in almost all nature writing these days, the author comes over all apocalyptic as he looks to the future, and there are signs of a ‘woke’ outlook – is it fair to describe Sir Hans Sloane as ‘naturalist, slave-owner and founder of the British Museum’? Was being a slave-owner really the second most important thing about him? Never mind – you have to take your hat off to an author who gives a section of his last chapter the title ‘Covid’s Metamorphoses’.

Friday 5 November 2021

Miss La La

I've often admired this extraordinary painting  – Degas's Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando – in the National Gallery. With its neck-cricking viewpoint and awkward pose, not to mention the complex structure of the circus dome, it was a fantastically difficult subject, even for Degas, who made numerous sketches and studies before arriving at the final picture. 
  I must admit I had never wondered who Miss La La was – until today, when I came across a potted biography of her on a Facebook site. She was born Olga Brown in Szczecin, then German/Prussian territory, now in Poland. Her father was black and her mother white, and she began her circus career at the age of nine. Miss La La achieved great success as an aerialist, trapeze artist and human cannon ball, but her most impressive acts depended on the prodigious strength of her teeth and jaws: being pulled up to the full height of a circus dome, as in Degas's painting, while hanging on with her teeth only; hoisting people up by the same means; and hanging upside down from a trapeze while clenching a chain bearing a firing cannon between her teeth.
  In 1888 Olga married an African-American contortionist and had three children, then disappeared into obscurity, dying some time after 1919. She has her immortality, thanks to Degas.

Wednesday 3 November 2021

'And now the leaves...'

 On this day 60 years ago, Philip Larkin wrote a fine seasonal sonnet, which was left among his uncollected works – 

And now the leaves suddenly lose strength.
Decaying towers stand still, lurid, lanes-long,
And seen from landing windows, or the length
Of gardens, rubricate afternoons. New strong
Rain-bearing night-winds come: then
Leaves chase warm buses, speckle statued air,
Pile up in corners, fetch out vague broomed men
Through mists at morning.
                                           And no matter where goes down,
The sallow lapsing drift in fields
Or squares behind hoardings, all men hesitate
Separately, always, seeing another year gone –
Frockcoated gentleman, farmer at his gate,
Villein with mattock, soldiers on their shields,
All silent, watching the winter coming on.

Structurally this is an odd one: proceeding conventionally enough for the first seven lines, then there's an awkward turn to usher in the long sentence that rounds the sonnet off, resetting this autumn scene in a long historical span – yet another great Larkin ending.
'Rubricate' is a bit awkward too, but an apt evocation of the effect of reddening trees punctuating the landscape like the red-letter rubrics in a manuscript.