Saturday, 13 August 2022

Indulging a Maggot

 Talking of Tristram Shandy, yesterday Patrick Kurp quoted a bravura passage from that curious masterpiece, in which Sterne digresses on 'hobby-horses', a favourite subject of his and a major theme of the novel –

'Nay, if you come to that, Sir, have not the wisest men of all ages, not excepting Solomon himself, – have they not had their HOBBY-HORSES; – their running horses, – their coins and their cockle-shells, their drums and their trumpets, their fiddles, their pallets,  – their maggots and their butterflies? –'

'Their maggots and their butterflies' was the phrase that caught my eye. 'Maggots' is here used in its generic sense, covering all kinds of larvae, not just those of house flies and bluebottles. Sterne will be thinking of the caterpillars which, after pupating, become butterflies. Both 'maggots' and 'butterflies' have connotations of the whimsical or frivolous (very much Sterne's own line), a maggot being in one early usage 'a whimsical fancy; a crotchet' (OED), and a butterfly 'a vain, gaudily attired person; a giddy trifler' (probably what Lear means when he speaks of laughing at 'gilded butterflies'). However, Sterne is surely alluding here to the enthusiasts then known as Aurelians, whose hobby-horse drove them to take a perhaps mildly obsessive interest in butterflies and indeed caterpillars. In Sterne's time, lavish and beautiful books of hand-coloured prints showing the life cycle of butterflies were in vogue. He might well have seen Benjamin Wilkes's English Moths and Butterflies (published 1749), and Moses Harris's glorious The Aurelian (frontispiece below) had been published the year before the final volume of Tristram Shandy. Isn't there something a little Sternean about the figure in the foreground (probably a self-portrait of Harris)? Or am I indulging a maggot?

Butterflies are, of course, my own hobby-horse, or one of them – one that I am riding rather hard at the moment as I wrestle with what might or might not become a book on the subject. It is a harmless enough pursuit: 'So long as a man rides his HOBBY-HORSE peaceably and quietly along the King's highway, and neither compels you or me to get up behind him, – pray, Sir, what have either you or I to do with it?' Quite. 

Thursday, 11 August 2022

Sternean Evolution?

 'To New Guinea I took an old edition of "Tristram Shandy" which I read about three times. It is an annoying & you will perhaps say a very gross book, but there are passages in it that have never been surpassed while the character of Uncle Toby has certainly never been equalled, except perhaps by that of Don Quixote...'
   Who is writing here? The clue is in the mention of New Guinea: it is the much travelled naturalist and collector Alfred Russel Wallace, he who independently of Darwin came up with the theory of evolution by natural selection. Wallace is writing from Bacan in the Moluccas to his friend George Silk in London. The signature at the end of the letter is botched – 'PS A big spider fell close to my hand in the middle of my signature, which accounts for the hitch.' 
  The letter was written in the same year in which Wallace conceived his theory of natural selection – a theory that came to him in a flash when he combined the insights of a range of biologists (as we would now call them ) with Malthus's ideas on population growth. He was in the throes of the Genghis ague – malaria, as we now call it – and thrashing about on a sweat-soaked bed, his head splitting, his body racked with fever chills, when he had his light-bulb moment. Did his recent, repeated reading of "Tristram Shandy" play any part in its conception? The obvious answer is No, but there may be a Ph.D. thesis in it for someone...
  I've always had a bit of a soft spot for Russell, the 'nearly man' of evolutionary theory, the dauntless, prodigiously hard-working self-made commercial collector among all those gentlemen scientists (Darwin, Lyell, etc.), and I'm glad his star has risen again in recent years, thanks in part to the advocacy of that man of many parts Mr Bill Bailey. Wallace wrote a quite extraordinary account of an encounter with a butterfly – the one that came to be named Wallace's Golden Birdwing: 'The beauty and brilliancy of this insect are indescribable, and none but a naturalist can understand the intense excitement I experienced when I at length captured it. On taking it out of my net and opening the glorious wings, my heart began to beat violently, the blood rushed to my head, and I felt much more like fainting than I have done when in apprehension of immediate death. I had a headache the rest of the day, so great was the excitement produced by what will appear to most people a very inadequate cause.' Oh, I don't know...

Wednesday, 10 August 2022

On the Hill

 From the train this morning, the dip slope of Box Hill looked more like desert than grassland – as did most of the usually grassy open spaces I saw along the way. This drought is certainly having an impact (though I was pleased to find that the river Mole, though a bit low, is still flowing well, as is the upper Wandle), and it looks as if it will be with us a while yet, along with some pretty fierce heat. Anyway, I wasn't intending to walk up that parched slope. I took a taxi from the station to the famous viewpoint at the top of Box Hill (as featured, I believe, in Emma), and from there I walked down to one of my regular August haunts, where I hoped to find the Adonis Blue and Silver-Spotted Skipper, two of our loveliest, and latest-flying, butterflies.
  My first impression was of a drought-struck and desolate landscape, with barely a flower to be seen, and nothing flying but a few doughty Gatekeepers and Meadow Browns. However, as so often, when I had slowed my pace, often to a standstill, and got my attention focused, I discovered that there was green growth to be found, there were flowers – though nothing like as many as usual – and, praise be, there were butterflies. Soon I was seeing Chalkhill Blues everywhere, then my first Silver-Spotted Skipper – the first of many, as it turned out. The Adonis Blue was harder to find, but after a while, closing in on a slight fluttering I'd noticed in a tussock, I discovered that I had found not one, but two – a male and a female taking a breather in the midst of an epic courtship chase: they were off again as soon as I'd seen them, and were chasing around at speed for the rest of the time I was there. I saw a few more Adonises too, and another one on my way back down the hill, by way of the gentler and less exposed areas of the dip slope. As I also saw a couple more Silver-Spotted Skippers, in a place where I'd never seen them before, I returned home well satisfied: I had seen the heavenly blue of the male Adonis's wings, and more than once enjoyed the Silver-Spotted Skipper's beautiful green-and-silver underwings. My butterfly summer is complete (all bar the elusive Brown Hairstreak). What more could an aurelian ask? 

Tuesday, 9 August 2022

The Big One

The heatwave continues here in southern England, and spreading across much of the country, maybe even to Hull, to Coventry... How would the 'summer-born and summer-loving' Philip Larkin be enjoying it? 'Enjoying it'? It's Larkin we're talking about here, and he was too much his mother's son to simply enjoy it...

Mother, Summer, I

My mother, who hates thunder storms,
Holds up each summer day and shakes
It out suspiciously, lest swarms
Of grape-dark clouds are lurking there;
But when the August weather breaks
And rains begin, and brittle frost
Sharpens the bird-abandoned air,
Her worried summer look is lost,

And I her son, though summer-born
And summer-loving, none the less
Am easier when the leaves are gone.
Too often summer days appear
Emblems of perfect happiness
I can't confront: I must await
A time less bold, less rich, less clear:
An autumn more appropriate.

Today is the big one – the centenary of Larkin's birth. Already I've heard Larkin talking and reading his own poetry on Radio 3, and his biographer Andrew Motion being interviewed on Radio 4, and there's a string of Larkin-related documentaries lined up on BBC4 tonight – not to mention the various goings-on in Hull today and through much of the year. There will probably never be another poetical centenary celebrated so widely: Geoffrey Hill's, which falls in ten years' time, certainly won't be, though he is (IMHO) the only other candidate for greatness among postwar English poets. Larkin's reputation, and his popularity, have survived the publication of his letters and the shocking (to some) revelations in Motion's biography. One exam board recently dropped him from its GCSE syllabus, but that seems to have been nothing personal, just part of a general dumbing down. I can't help feeling that if some of those unfortunate revelations had come out in the past few years there would have been serious attempts to 'cancel' Larkin, but happily he has survived, and his work seems only to grow in stature with the passage of time; much of it has become classic. Perhaps, as Auden wrote, in In Memory of W.B. Yeats, 'Time that with this strange excuse/Pardons Kipling and his views,/And will pardon Paul Claudel,/Pardons him for writing well.' 
  I have written so often here on Larkin, and posted so many of his poems (try a search), that he has become a kind of tutelary deity of this blog. What can I add today? Only this perhaps – that if you haven't read his novel, A Girl in Winter, you really should. It is a revelation. 

Saturday, 6 August 2022

Justice's Farewell

It was on this day in 2004 that Donald Justice, one of America's finest poets, died. As David Orr wrote of him, 'sometimes his poems weren't just good; they were great. They were great in the way that Elizabeth Bishop's poems were great, or Thom Gunn's or Philip Larkin's. They were great in the way that tells us what poetry used to be, and is, and will be.' Quite so. 
Here is one of the last poems Justice wrote, and one of those that is indeed great. In painterly terms it is a triptych. The first panel is a Crucifixion scene, bathed in the even light of divine love (charity). The second is a scene from the Orpheus legend, expressing the pain of love and parting. And in the third, a direct paraphrase from Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, Sonya Alexandrovna paints a wishful vision of the life to come. The three six-line sections of this poem (with their ingenious whole-word rhyming) add up to something far larger than its parts – a poised and poignant farewell to the world.

There is a gold light in certain old paintings
That represents a diffusion of sunlight.
It is like happiness, when we are happy.
It comes from everywhere and nowhere at once, this light,
  And the poor soldiers sprawled at the foot of the cross
  Share in its charity equally with the cross.
Orpheus hesitated beside the black river.
With so much to look forward to he looked back.
We think he sang then, but the song is lost.
At least he had seen once more the beloved back.
  I say the song went this way: O prolong
  Now the sorrow if that is all there is to prolong.
The world is very dusty, uncle. Let us work.
One day the sickness shall pass from the earth for good.
The orchard will bloom; someone will play the guitar.
Our work will be seen as strong and clean and good.
  And all that we suffered through having existed
  Shall be forgotten as though it had never existed.

Thursday, 4 August 2022

Johnson on the Duvet

 I've bought, for a tiny sum, another tiny volume from the Carr's Pocket Books series, published by the Quince Tree Press from J.L. Carr's home in Kettering. This one, titled The Sayings of Chairman Johnson, is a well chosen little anthology of quotations from Samuel Johnson's writings and utterances (including the whole of his famous letter to his dilatory patron, Lord Chesterfield, and some lines from 'The Vanity of Human Wishes'). The collection, 'arranged by Edmund Kirby', is prefaced by a quotation from (Professor) Sir Walter Raleigh: 'The memory of other authors is kept alive by their works. But the memory of Johnson keeps many of his works alive. The old philosopher is still among us in his brown coat with the metal buttons and the shirt which ought to be at wash, blinking, puffing, rolling his head, drumming his fingers, tearing his meat like a tiger, and swallowing his tea in oceans. No human being who has been seventy years in the grave is so well known to us.' True enough, thanks to Boswell's extraordinary feat of sympathetic, indeed loving (and therefore unblinking) biography. 
  One entry in The Sayings of Chairman Johnson brought me up short. A quotation from The Idler, it reads: 'Promise, large promise, is the soul of an advertisement ... and there are now to be sold for ready money only, some Duvets for bed-coverings, of down, beyond comparison superior to what is called Otter Down: warmer than four or five blankets and lighter than one.' 
  Duvets? In the mid-eighteenth century? Even two centuries later, duvets were regarded with suspicion as something only foreigners would use; we English were quite content to sleep under woollen blankets. It was Terence Conran who finally popularised the use of duvets in this country, and it was not until the 1970s that they began to become a standard form of bedding.
  'Duvet' is of course a French word, meaning down, and Johnson seems to have been the first English writer to use it. There had been at least one attempt to introduce the duvet to England in the seventeenth century, when the diplomat and historian of the Ottoman Empire Sir Paul Rycaut sent his friends a quantity of eider down, with instructions on how to turn it into a warm bed covering. He had come across the duvet in Hamburg and felt sure it would be a boon in the English winter. However, the blanket-loving English wanted none of it. By the sound of Johnson's remarks on advertising, it would seem another campaign to introduce the duvet was under way half a century after Rycaut's efforts. If so, it was again doomed to failure. Only Terence Conran, it seems, could make this foreign innovation palatable to the English. 

Monday, 1 August 2022

'The shell of balance rolls in seas of thought...'

 The great naturalist Jean-Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, chevalier de Lamarck, better known simply as Lamarck, was born on this day in 1744. He is remembered chiefly for his evolutionary ideas, notably the inheritance of acquired characteristics. It's an idea that seemed to have been rendered irrelevant by the development of genetics and the discovery of DNA as an apparently sufficient explanation for all heredity. Then along came transgenerational epigenetics, in which heritable characteristics occur in response to the environment without any alteration of DNA. At least I think that's how it works... 

Here is a poetical response – 'Lamarck Elaborated' by Richard Wilbur, in which he takes the Lamarckian idea that 'the environment creates the organ' and runs with it...

                   "The environment creates the organ"

The Greeks were wrong who said our eyes have rays;
Not from these sockets or these sparkling poles
Comes the illumination of our days.
It was the sun that bored these two blue holes.

It was the song of doves begot the ear
And not the ear that first conceived of sound:
That organ bloomed in vibrant atmosphere,
As music conjured Ilium from the ground.

The yielding water, the repugnant stone,
The poisoned berry and the flaring rose
Attired in sense the tactless finger-bone
And set the taste buds and inspired the nose.

Out of our vivid ambiance came unsought
All sense but that most formidably dim.
The shell of balance rolls in seas of thought.
It was the mind that taught the head to swim.

Newtonian numbers set to cosmic lyres
Whelmed us in whirling worlds we could not know,
And by the imagined floods of our desires
The voice of Sirens gave us vertigo.

Saturday, 30 July 2022

More Moore

 Born on this day in 1899 was the great accompanist Gerald Moore. I've written about him, and his rather unusual career path, before (e.g. here), but am happy to take any opportunity to enjoy again the special magic that occurred whenever Moore was at the piano with one of his favourite singers. It was never more magical than when the singer was Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who said of Moore: 'There is no more of that pale shadow at the keyboard; he is always an equal with his partner.' In this recording of two Schubert lieder, both men are on top form. The piano introduction to 'Der Lindenbaum' is especially wonderful. As ever, Fischer-Dieskau just stands and delivers – but what a voice! That he maintained it through 35 years of heavy smoking is little short of miraculous...

Thursday, 28 July 2022

They Tell Me There's a Lot of It About

 Sorry to hear that the versatile comic actor and performer Bernard Cribbins has died, albeit at the ripe old age of 93. Among his many talents was a gift for old time music hall. Here he is in a classic performance from that TV stalwart of yesteryear, The Good Old Days, chaired by Leonard Sachs. Enjoy...

Wednesday, 27 July 2022

When Emus Attack

 'Man fleeing Wiltshire crash scene attacked by emus' – that's the kind of headline I like. And it's a good story (leaving aside the crash itself, which must have been quite terrifying for those who witnessed it). If you vault into a field while fleeing the scene of an accident, you really don't expect to come under attack from emus, least of all in Wiltshire. I like the quote from the chef who gave chase: 'One of them went into the field, and tried to be a bit aggressive towards the emus. The emus were curious and they started pecking away at him, which he didn't take to.' Well, you wouldn't really, would you...
  Les Murray has a bravura description of an emu in his poem 'Second Essay on Interest: The Emu' –

'Weathered blond as a grass tree, a huge Beatles haircut
raises an alert periscope and stares out
over scrub. Her large olivine eggs click
olily together; her lips of noble plastic
clamped in their expression, her head-fluff a stripe
worn mohawk style, she bubbles her pale blue windpipe: 
the emu, Dromaius novaehollandiae,
whose stand-in on most continents is an antelope,
looks us in both eyes with her one eye
and her other eye, dignified courageous hump,
feather-swaying condensed camel, Swift Courser of New Holland...'

Monday, 25 July 2022

Neither of the Above

 Perhaps I'm being a simpleton in asking this question, but why on earth are the (pathetic) debates between the (pathetic) candidates for the Conservative leadership being broadcast to the nation on primetime TV? Of course the winner will be, by default, Prime Minister (heaven help us), but the electorate in this contest is not the viewing (and voting) nation but only the membership of the Conservative party (180,000, is it?)? The rest of us have no dog in this fight. And I suspect that, after a few more weeks of this ghastly, infantile campaign, the verdict of many party members, let alone the rest of us, will be a very clear 'neither of the above'.

Sunday, 24 July 2022

Porter and Bach

No apologies for returning again to Peter Porter, the Australian expat poet who seems in danger of being forgotten, despite writing some of the best verse of his time. 
Two themes very prominent in Porter's work were death and music – and, less obviously, religion, which for him was the link between the two: 'I think I was six when first I thought of death./I've been religious ever since./Good taste lay in wait and showed me avenues of music.' This poem, taking its title from the final lines of Larkin's 'Toads Revisited' ('Give me your arm, old toad;/Help me down Cemetery Road.'), was new to me, as was the Bach church cantata at its core.

Down Cemetery Road

The wind brings the Sunday bells. Come to church,
good people. But for me they're simulacra
of the great bell in my chest, clouting out the end.

This comes of keeping one's nose to the moral North
where gods go when they die. Oh how pleased
they are to leave their Babylonian captivity.

And how strange that religion comes from the East
where tourists see only commerce – fanaticism
seeking blue-eyed converts in the claggy fens.

But not the point of this poem. The chorale of Bach's
which moves me most is a tune of 1713,
a real contemporary, Liebster Gott, wann wird ich sterben?

The tune is Daniel Vetter's, the treatment Bach's.
There's the soft flush of earth when corpse and men
move among the matutinal flowers.

Bells like teeth touching, the towers of Leipzig
carving a Lutheran world in friendly slices,
that warm sententiousness we know as death.

Almost chirpy music, but don't ask the corpse
his view. Perhaps he sees that transcendental
radish bed promised by the tame Tibetans.

After a lifetime of blood letting, we deserve
a vegetable future. The flutes and oboes pilfer grief,
we have earned this joyful gruesomeness.

I think I was six when first I thought of death.
I've been religious ever since. Good taste
lay in wait and showed me avenues of music.

Which opened on the road to Leipzig's cemetery,
the alder trees in leaf and the choristers
waiting for their dinner. Herrscher über Tod und Leben!

We Northerners are really Greek. Stoic, old
and held by oracles. Tears are running down like soot.
My daily prayer, Mach einmal mein Ende gut!

And here is the cantata. The glorious opening section is, I think, especially beautiful. That repeated flute motif, in which the same note is played 24 times, suggests the sound of a bird – perhaps the alarm call of a blackbird – but surely also refers to the 24 tolls of the bell that were rung at someone's death in the Leipzig of Bach's time...

Friday, 22 July 2022

Dawn on This Bay

 Born on this day in 1844 was William Archibald Spooner, the famously absent-minded Oxford don after whom the Spoonerism – as in 'It is kisstumary to cuss the bride' – was named. Spooner himself, an albino with poor eyesight, spent 60 years of his life in the service of New College, Oxford (where he was the first non-Wykehamist undergraduate), and was the very image of the unworldly bachelor don, but was actually a married man with five children, one of whom went on to found a large engineering firm and another of whom was a successful portrait painter. He was not very pleased to be associated with the Spoonerism, many of the most famous examples of which were invented by Oxford wags and others. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations has only one authenticated Spoonerism: 'The weight of rages will press hard upon the employer'. Spooner himself confessed to 'Kinquering Congs their titles take'. Invented Spoonerisms include 'I am tired of addressing beery wenches', 'The Lord is a shoving leopard' and 'You have hissed all my mystery lectures, and were caught fighting a liar in the quad'. 
  Personally, I find the stories of Spooner's absent-mindedness (no doubt equally apocryphal) rather more entertaining. One has him inquiring of an undergraduate, 'Was it you or your brother who was killed in the war?' In another he invites a colleague to tea 'to welcome Stanley Casson, our new Archaeology fellow'. 'But, sir,' the man replies, 'I am Stanley Casson.' 'Never mind,' says Spooner. 'Come anyway.' 
Then there was the long sermon he (allegedly) preached, to an understandably bemused congregation, all about Aristotle. Descending from the pulpit when it was over, he was suddenly struck by a thought, climbed back up and announced, 'I'm sorry – did I say Aristotle? I meant Saint Paul.'  

Wednesday, 20 July 2022

'He sleeps among the dull of ancient days'

 I was pleased (and rather surprised) to see that the distinction of recording the hottest temperature ever in the UK (40.3C) was achieved yesterday by the village of Coningsby in Lincolnshire. Coningsby is just the kind of quiet, unassuming, more or less nondescript Mercian village that I like. Its church, St Michael's, has a one-handed clock, the dial of which is painted onto the tower, which, unusually, has an arched passageway passing under it, part of a footpath from the high street to the old school.
 The Rector here in the 1720s was one Laurence Eusden, the nation's youngest ever Poet Laureate, and one of its least distinguished. Appointed at the age of 30, on the strength of an ode celebrating the Lord Chamberlain, Lord Newcastle's marriage, he succeeded the rather more distinguished Nicholas Rowe, and held the office for 12 years, enduring much derision. His reputation continued to fall after his death. In his Lives of the Poets, Johnson wrote that 'the Laureateship was in this instance preserved and handed down by perhaps our worst poet'. Johnson's brief account of Eusden's poems is peppered with phrases such as 'far-fetched flatteries', 'fulsome fustian' and 'servile adulation and tiresome triplets'. At Coningsby, Eusden took to drink, but still managed to make a translation of Tasso. He died in 1730. 
'The reader,' Johnson concludes, 'will, we fear, agree with us that more than enough has been said of this versifier. Though a clumsy courtier, his flatteries gained for him in that era patronage. In the present one, his powers of puffery would have been turned to a different account. He might have exhausted imagination in celebrating the virtues of blacking, or the praises of cheap clothing.'
'Know, Eusden thirsts no more for sack or praise;
He sleeps among the dull of ancient days.'
(Pope, The Dunciad

Monday, 18 July 2022

One for the Heatwave...

'The heat has come down handsomely upon Lahore: the temperature, even in a room fanned by a punkah, is 95°F and an ill omened pillar of dust is skirmishing outside under an orange coloured sky. The clouds are so low down and so metallic in appearance that one feels as if they could be rapped with the knuckles, and if this were done they would ring like saucepans...' 
That's the teenage Rudyard Kipling writing home to his mother and sister from the scorching summer heat of Lahore (then in India, now in Pakistan). Already the assistant editor of the Civil & Military Gazette, Kipling was left holding the fort while most of his colleagues had decamped to the cool hill country for the summer. Suffering from night terrors and an entirely reasonable fear of cholera, young Rudyard found it all but impossible to sleep, so took to wandering the streets of the Old City at night. This was an unthinkable thing for a respectable white man to do, but it brought him into intimate contact with Indian street life – loud, colourful, chaotic, sometimes menacing – and furnished him with much material not only for his newspaper but for the short stories he was already writing (and, especially, Kim). Those nocturnal wanderings, like the epic night walks of Dickens through London, seem to have done much to fire his creative imagination. In the course of them the teenage Kipling also habitually availed himself of Lahore's prostitutes, and discovered the pleasures of opium and hashish – all apparently without a qualm. The heat can do strange things to a man... 
Incidentally, the drink that got the British through all that Indian heat was weak whisky and soda, the 'chota peg'. Churchill carried on drinking it through most of his life. Cheers!

Saturday, 16 July 2022

The Faultless Painter

 Born on this day in 1486 was Andrea del Sarto, the 'faultless painter' as Browning (following Vasari) calls him. Browning's dramatic monologue in Andrea's voice is a fascinating poem, one of the best of its kind – full text here. Taking his lead from Vasari – an unreliable source, but what can you do? – Browning explores the relationship between the painter and his faithless, frivolous wife, and relates his passivity to the weakness of ambition that allowed him to be overshadowed by his contemporaries Leonardo, Raphael and Michelangelo (surely the most daunting set of rivals any artist could have). All this is probably very unfair on the Andrea del Sarto of real life, but at least posterity now recognises him as a hugely accomplished, important, influential (and, yes, faultless) painter. 
The intense, uneasy, exquisitely painted portrait above is in the National Gallery. Titled Portrait of a Young Man, it could well be a self portrait. It certainly makes a perfect match with Browning's poem.
London also has one of his Madonnas – the beautiful Virgin and Child with the Infant Baptist in the Wallace Collection (below). 

Friday, 15 July 2022

Another Cloud

 Talking of clouds, here's a painting that, I think, perfectly illustrates Larkin's 'high-builded cloud moving at summer's pace'. The depth and luminosity of that summer sky is extraordinary. The painting, Noon, Bratsevo (1866), is by Ivan Shishkin, a highly accomplished landscape painter whose work is often almost photorealist in its sharpness and precision, but with a romantic flavour, especially when he is painting his beloved forest scenes. This kind of 'poetic realism' was always a strong force in Russian art, and, alas, all too easily mutated into the propagandistic kitsch of 'socialist realism'. Nowadays, to judge by what I see online, Russian 'neo-impressionism' seems to be all the rage. Some of that is pretty kitsch too.
Here is the Larkin image in context – 

'Cut grass lies frail:
Brief is the breath
Mown stalks exhale.
Long, long the death

It dies in the white hours
Of young-leafed June
With chestnut flowers,
With hedges snowlike strewn,

White lilac bowed,
Lost lanes of Queen Anne's lace,
And that high-builded cloud
Moving at summer's pace.'

Wednesday, 13 July 2022

Wool sack clouds and mare blobs

 Born on this day in 1793 was John Clare, briefly famous in his day as a 'peasant poet', then forgotten about until the early 20th century, and now perhaps rather overpraised for poetry that is decidedly patchy, though at its best eloquent and moving. As a nature poet, he certainly had the advantage of close contact and deep-rooted knowledge, though he was not above a bit of high-toned waffling (no doubt what his early public wanted of him). His poetry is rich in (Northamptonshire) dialect words, and opens a window on a rural way of life that was, as Clare was all too painfully aware, already disappearing. Here, seasonally, is his joyful  'I love to see the summer', a kind of sonnet but written entirely in rhyming couplets –

I love to see the summer beaming forth

And white wool sack clouds sailing to the north

I love to see the wild flowers come again

And mare blobs stain with gold the meadow drain

And water lilies whiten on the floods

Where reed clumps rustle like a wind shook wood

Where from her hiding place the Moor Hen pushes

And seeks her flag nest floating in bull rushes

I like the willow leaning half way o'er

The clear deep lake to stand upon its shore

I love the hay grass when the flower head swings

To summer winds and insects happy wings

That sport about the meadow the bright day

And see bright beetles in the clear lake play

'White wool sack clouds' for the woolly cumulus of summer is good (better than Hopkins's 'silk-sack clouds' in 'Hurrahing in Harvest'). 'Mare blobs' are the yellow, water-loving flowers we now call Marsh Marigolds. The 'insects happy wings' no doubt include those of butterflies, which Clare celebrated in verse more than once, though even he seems to have seen them largely in generic (and symbolic) terms, never mentioning or describing any particular species. 

Sunday, 10 July 2022

Frost Tries to Disappear

 I'm reading (for review) a couple of new books on wetlands – marsh, fen, bog, swamp, mire, etc. In one of them I came across a tale from Robert Frost's early life that I don't remember hearing before – his youthful journey into the poetically named Great Dismal Swamp (a still large area of wetland that straddles Virginia and North Carolina). The young poet was suffering from a bad case of thwarted love, and his intention was apparently to disappear into the swamp and never come out again. His sweetheart, Elinor White, was at college in New York, where, he feared, she was in danger of forgetting about him and dallying with other men. To make sure of winning her heart, he travelled overnight from Massachusetts and turned up unannounced at her college, clutching one of two specially made copies of his first collection of verse and bearing the good news that one of his poems (the rather dreadful 'My Butterfly') had been accepted for publication. Elinor sent him packing, citing the college rules about male visitors, and Frost, heartbroken, tore up his copy of his poems and resolved to disappear, never to be seen or heard of again. Hence the journey to the Great Dismal Swamp. 
   Arriving by ship at Norfolk, Virginia, Frost walked out to the village of Deep Creek, then took the road into the heart of the swamp, walking by moonlight and taking to plank boardwalks when the road ran out. This was dangerous stuff, but the young poet survived unscathed and, by the time he saw a light – the light of a lock-keeper's cottage – he was ready to abandon his suicidal venture. He got a lift on a canal boat to the nearest town, and embarked on a three-week journey back to Massachusetts, some of it on freight trains in the company of hobos. From Baltimore, he wired his mother for the money to buy a ticket home. And the following year he married Elinor. They were together for 43 years.


 So, a heatwave comes, and suddenly sparseness gives way to abundance. At least for the swifts, which had been worryingly quiet and/or absent so often in May and June, and are back in numbers, screaming and chasing each other full pelt across the suburban skies. And for the butterflies, whose numbers had been so low in spring and early summer, and which are now abundant again – not the same butterflies, but the grassland species that have benefitted from the earlier wet weather making the grass grow lush. I sometimes wonder if, despite my generally sceptical views on 'climate change' etc, I have nevertheless absorbed a touch of catastrophic thinking, leading me to overreact to temporary sparseness, even though I know that abundance will likely follow – especially once we get some proper summer weather.
   Yesterday, visiting a favourite local patch of clay grassland, I found it alive with Ringlets, Gatekeepers, Meadow Browns, Marbled Whites and Skippers (Small and, for those who like nice distinctions, Essex). There were also, as I had hoped, Purple Hairstreaks to be spotted in the oak trees. Today I was briefly on chalk downland and found almost as much abundance, with the added bonus of beautiful Dark Green Fritillaries (they're having a very good year) and my first Chalkhill Blue of the season. There will be more. 

Friday, 8 July 2022


 Today is the bicentenary of the death of Percy Bysshe Shelley. A suicidally reckless swimmer – as was Swinburne, who, despite his puny build, would happily throw himself into the roughest of seas – Shelley died by water, but not in a swimming accident. He 'drowned when the boat he was sailing was caught in a sudden storm, and his body was washed up ten days later at Viareggio, along with his two sailing companions. They were identifiable only by their clothes – and, in Shelley’s case, a volume of Keats [Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St Agnes, and Other Poems, 1820] that he had crammed into his pocket. With the help of Italian soldiers who were on hand, guarding the bodies, Trelawny [writer, adventurer and friend of poets] built the funeral pyre and set it alight, while his friends Byron and Leigh Hunt looked on. The fierce heat of blazing resinous pine took Trelawny by surprise and drove the onlookers away to a safe distance. As the flames began to die down, Trelawny poured on frankincense and salt, then wine and oil, in the manner of the ancient Greeks, and that was that. The three men then took a long swim out from the shore, and, in one final romantic gesture, Trelawny seized Shelley’s heart from the embers of his pyre. (That heart now resides in the Shelley family vault at St Peter’s, Bournemouth, along with the body of Mary Shelley and the remains of her parents, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, dug up from the churchyard of Old St Pancras.)'
That account of the improvised funeral is from this, hem hem, highly recommended book. There is a fuller account of the much mythologised occasion in Philip Hoare's curiously titled RisingTideFallingStar
To mark the bicentenary, commemorative events are planned at the Keats-Shelley House in Rome (about which I wrote something a few years ago).  

Wednesday, 6 July 2022

'It's just not a word I like'

I just came across this quotation from my exact coeval Tom Waits: 
'I don’t have fun. Actually, I had fun once, in 1962. I drank a whole bottle of Robitussin cough medicine and went in the back of a 1961 powder-blue Lincoln Continental to a James Brown concert with some Mexican friends of mine. I haven’t had fun since. It’s just not a word I like. It’s like Volkswagens or bellbottoms, or patchouli oil or bean sprouts. It rubs me up the wrong way. I might go out and have an educational and entertaining evening, but I don’t have fun.' No doubt Waits was stringing an interviewer along when he came out with this, but I can see his point. There is something tiresome about the constant celebration and pursuit of 'fun', a thing that often turns out in practice to be anything but (and yet one feels obliged to pretend it is, as promised, fun). As Johnson observed: 'Nothing is more hopeless than a scheme of merriment.'

Tuesday, 5 July 2022

The Great Joy

 Ten years ago today, I became a grandfather. Sam, the first of what was to become a fine tally of five delightful grandchildren, was born to our daughter in Wellington, where he was to be joined two and a half years later by a brother, Ethan. Meanwhile, in England, our daughter-in-law brought the sole granddaughter, Summer, into the world, to be followed after a long interval by William, now three, and Jack, just two years younger. Being a grandfather has been the great joy, and the great adventure, of my later years. It's true what they all say: it brings all the pleasures and rewards of parenthood (including falling in love with each baby as it comes along, though 'they' don't usually say that), but with the added bonus of being able to give the children back to their parents at the end of the day. And it's true what they also say – that grandchildren keep you young, though it's in spirit rather than body; being an active grandparent to young children is nothing if not tiring. But it is all energy well spent. Indeed it could hardly be better spent. Happy birthday, Sam!

Sunday, 3 July 2022

The Strange Fate of Mr Hardy's Heart

 Browsing in one of my late uncle's very well organised scrapbooks (mostly newspaper cuttings about politics and theatre, alas), I came across a splendidly macabre tale of what happened – or might have happened – to Thomas Hardy's heart after he died. Hardy, bleak atheist (or God-hater) though he was, wanted to be buried in the churchyard of Stinsford, Dorset (the Mellstock of his Wessex), 'unless the Nation strongly desires otherwise' – which inevitably it did, demanding a Westminster Abbey burial. So it was decided that Hardy's heart would be taken for burial in Stinsford churchyard and the rest of his body cremated for an urn burial at the Abbey.
When Hardy died at his home in Dorchester (the hideous Max Gate), his heart was duly removed and the undertaker Charles Hannah, who had buried both Hardy's parents, wrapped it in a tea towel and placed it for safe keeping in a biscuit tin. Alas, the tin proved less than secure, and a household cat managed to get the lid off and eat the greater part of the heart (cats, for the record, are averse to human flesh – unlike dogs – but will eat human offal). Charlie Hannah, discovering this, took an executive decision. 'Mr 'Ardy wanted 'is 'eart buried at Stinsford,' he declared, 'and buried at Stinsford Mr 'Ardys 'eart shall be.' With which he wrung the poor cat's neck and crammed it back into the biscuit tin, which now contained Mr 'Ardy's 'eart nestled in the stomach of a dead cat. If this it true, then that curious combination is what was interred, with due ceremony, in Stinsford churchyard (in the grave of Emma, Hardy's much-wronged first wife). It would explain why, instead of being presented for burial in the modestly sized urn prepared for the occasion, Hardy's heart was buried in a polished wooden box large enough to contain biscuit tin, cat, heart and all. So the story may well be true. Either way, Hardy would surely have relished the tale. 

Friday, 1 July 2022

'It made me extremely happy...'

 Acting on a hot tip from a trusted source, I did something I rarely do these days: I read a new work of fiction. Well, almost new – Sam Riviere's Dead Souls was published last year – but since then, after a slow start, it has, I gather 'taken New York by storm'. If so, that's a surprise because it is, among other things, a very English work set in a very English scene – specifically the English poetry scene. Not, however, the English poetry scene as we know it, but strangely transformed into an exaggerated, hypertrophied version of itself by developments in what we must take to be the near future, as it is much like the present, only that bit worse. In particular, a piece of software, the QACS (quantitative analysis and comparison system), capable of detecting plagiarism, or rather duplication, in any writer's works and thereby triggering a career-ending pile-on, has had devastating effects on prose fiction, leaving only the poets standing – or, in many cases, falling victim. Solomon Wiese, a poet who thought he had found a way around the software – and was not in any normal sense plagiarising – is a recent casualty, and it is his story, told in the course of one night in the bar of the Travelodge by Waterloo Bridge (which, we are told, has an all-night licence and is therefore a magnet for poets), that forms the bulk of Dead Souls. Listening to Solomon Wiese's tale is an unnamed narrator who is a poetry editor and translator and has just delivered a reading of works by an absent Ukrainian poet to an audience none of whom, the narrator realises, actually wants to be there, but all of whom feel obliged to show their faces and maintain their positions in the fiercely competitive and fissiparous world of the English poetry scene. Solomon Wiese's tale – indeed the whole novel – is told in one unbroken paragraph, conventionally punctuated but tending towards very long sentences, often packed with subordinate clauses, qualifications and clarifications, and anchored periodically by the reminder 'Solomon Wiese said' (in the manner of the 'Austerlitz said' at the end of the torrential sentences in Sebald's Austerlitz).  This way of writing reminded me strongly of another novel I read recently – Javier Marias's The Infatuations – and, as with the Marias, I enjoyed being carried along on these great surging rollers of prose. As a satire, Dead Souls is gloriously bitter and very funny, increasingly funny as it (and the night in the Travelodge bar) goes on. It's a thoroughly unusual novel, English in its subject matter but in style and spirit very far from what we might expect of a contemporary English novel. It is rather wonderful that such a big mainstream  house as Weidenfeld & Nicolson should have published it – hats off to them, and to Sam Riviere for having produced something so bracingly original and so hugely enjoyable. 
The back jacket is covered with blurbs so peppered with reviewers' adjectives that I suspected they might all be part of the satire (alas, they are not) – 'Mordant, torrential, incantatory, Bolano-esque, Perec-ian' ... 'Beautiful, intricately humane and gut-wrenchingly funny' ... 'Sublime, legendary, delightfully unhinged'... 'Whip-smart, razor-sharp, wise-funny'... I'd agree with one blurber's conclusion, though: 'It made me extremely happy, and I dreaded it ending.' Me too. 

Thursday, 30 June 2022

Cat-English: Kingsley's Soft Side

 Another batch of what I laughingly call 'my papers' having turned up, I was browsing through some old copies of The Listener. In the issue of 11th June, 1987, I found this poem by – rather surprisingly – Kingsley Amis, a man not known for soft-hearted sentimentality, but a cat-lover none the less: 'I am enough of a cat-lover,' he wrote, 'to be suspicious of a household that doesn't have a cat ... I associate a person having a cat with them being gentler with other people.' The poem was written for an anthology of new poetry for children, Island of the Children, compiled by Angela Huth. 


It may seem funny but my cat
Is learning English. Think of that!
For years she did all right with 'Meow',
But that won’t satisfy her now,
And, where before she’d squawk or squeak,
She’ll try with all her might to speak.
So when I came downstairs today
I was impressed to hear her say
'Hallo'. Not like a person, true;
It might not sound quite right to you,
More of a simple squeak or squawk,
Still, that’s what happens when cats talk;
Their mouths and tongues and things are fine,
But different shapes from yours and mine;
They simply try their level best
And our good will must do the rest.
So, when I pick up Sarah’s dish
And ask who’s for a spot of fish,
I have to listen carefully,
But I’ve no doubt she answers, 'Me!'
And when I serve her with the stuff
It’s 'Ta', she tells me, right enough.
Well now, I could go on about
Her call of 'Bye!' when I go out
And 'Hi!' when I come home again
But by this stage the point is plain:
If you’ve a sympathetic ear
Cat-English comes through loud and clear;
Of course, the words are short and few,
The accent strange, and strident too,
And our side never gets a crack
At any kind of answer back,
But think of it the other way,
With them to listen, you to say.
Imagine the unholy row
You’d make with 'Mew!' and 'Purr!' and 'Meow!'
And not get anything across!
Sarah would give her head a toss,
Her nose or tail a scornful twitch –
I cannot really settle which –
And gaze at you in sad distress
For such pathetic childishness.
Unless you want a snub like that,
Leave all the talking to your cat.

[I've known cats myself that vocalise something very like 'Hello', but that's as far as it goes.]

Johnsonian Jottings

 Returning once again from Lichfield, I brought with me, not for the first time, a volume of the Johnson Society's transactions. These are available at a fiver a pop from the bookshop attached to the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum, and are just the right length to beguile the 90-minute train journey back to London. This time I picked up the 1996 Transactions, and found it full of good reading and fascinating titbits (for anyone with Johnsonian inclinations). Beginning with an excellent essay on Boswell's Life of Johnson by Professor Ian Campbell, the slim volume also includes a very perceptive account of Johnson's uneasy relationship with Boswell's wife, the story of how the famous statue of Johnson in Lichfield marketplace came to be erected, an essay on 'that clever dog Burney' (Charles Burney, the great historian of music, father of Fanny and friend of Johnson), and a short piece on Johnson's famous letter to his unsatisfactory patron Lord Chesterfield ('Is not a patron, my lord, one who looks with concern on a man struggling in the water and when he has reached ground encumbers him with help? The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labours, had it been early, had been kind; but it has been delayed until I am indifferent and cannot enjoy it, till I am solitary and cannot impart it, till I am known and do not want it...'). 
  Boswell's wife, Margaret née Montgomerie, remarked, apropos her husband's devotion to the ursine Johnson, 'I have seen many a bear led by a man: but I never before saw a man led by a bear.' Johnson had real affection for Mrs B, but it was not reciprocated: the Doctor was too powerful a rival for her husband's time and attention. Johnson's irregular hours and messy, uncouth habits made him a far from ideal house guest, but he could certainly write a gracious apology: 'Make my compliments to Mrs Boswell' [he writes to Boswell] ' and tell her that I do not love her the less for wishing me away. I gave her trouble enough and shall be glad, in recompense, to give her any pleasure.' On another occasion, Boswell returned to his wife in a sorry state, following a long debauch, just as a letter from Johnson to Mrs Boswell arrived: 'You will now have Mr Boswell home; it is as well that you have him: he has led a wild life ... Pray take care of him and tame him. The only thing in which I have the honour to agree with you is, in loving him.'
  A couple more snippets. In Johnson's dictionary, under the definition of 'lich' ('A dead carcase'), 'Lichfield, the field of the dead, a city in Staffordshire, so named from martyred christians. Salve magna parens [Hail, great parent].' And here's a quotation from Dr Johnson by Mrs Thrale (1984, edited by Richard Ingrams): 'When [David] Garrick told Mrs Thrale that Johnson felt there was no other town like Lichfield, she replied, "There is no town which ever produced two such men." "Oh," replied Garrick, "I am only the gizzard, madam, trussed under the turkey's wing."' 

Saturday, 25 June 2022

Carr's Tennyson

What will be the lasting legacy of that extraordinary one-off J.L. Carr, novelist, publisher, teacher, map-maker and eccentric (about whom I have written frequently on this blog)? Certainly his haunting short novel A Month in the Country (another extraordinary one-off) will last, having rightly achieved classic status. His other novels, each one so different from all the others, are excellent in their way(s), but lack the special magic of A Month in the Country.  Byron Rogers' biography of Carr, The Last Englishman, surely deserves to rank among the classics of the form, and will keep the memory of the man alive. And there is another Carr legacy: the long series of Carr's Pocket Books which he published, edited, illustrated and printed at his Quince Tree Press in Kettering. These very small, genuinely pocket-size books – ideal 'for reading in cold bedrooms and/or the bath' – are always a joy to find. The choice of subjects – poetry and prose selections, pocket dictionaries of cricketers, parsons, eponymists, etc. – reflect Carr's own range of interests, and the books are lovingly made, often surprising and highly individual. Yesterday I came across one I hadn't seen before, so naturally I snapped it up. Titled Alfred Tennyson: A Lincolnshire Landscape, it is a small collection of well chosen short poems and excerpts, all of them imbued with the feel of the landscapes of Tennyson's Lincolnshire childhood and early manhood. Beginning with 'The Owl' ('Alone and warming his five wits, The white owl in the belfry sits'), it arrives at its last entry, 'A Farewell' ('Flow down, cold rivulet, to the sea...'), by way of excerpts from 'Maud' and 'Mariana', 'In Memoriam', 'The Miller's Daughter' and 'The Lady of Shallot', with the dialect poem 'The Northern Farmer: Old Style'  (heavy going) underlining the Lincolnshire theme. The pages are decorated with images from Bewick's wood engravings, and it's a lovely little thing. Long may Carr's Pocket Books prosper.
(This is Bewick's disgruntled owl, who looks too fed up to warm his five wits.)

Friday, 24 June 2022

Dove for Larkin

 I see one of our exam boards is dropping poems by Larkin, Owen, Hardy, Keats, Heaney and Hopkins from its Eng Lit GCSE syllabus in order to 'refresh' it with new works by writers of – you guessed! – 'diverse ethnic backgrounds'. Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi, a man with a pretty diverse ethnic background, has rightly condemned this as 'cultural vandalism'. Among the casualties is Larkin's 'An Arundel Tomb', which has been replaced with 'Flirtation' by Rita Dove. Comments David James, a deputy head writing online for the Centre for Policy Studies: 'There may be many reasons for replacing Larkin’s 'An Arundel Tomb' with 'Flirtation' by Rita Dove, but nobody except the most swivel-eyed social justice warrior could say the latter is the better poem. The losers in this campaign to extend the culture wars into every corner of every classroom are the children denied the opportunity of studying a work of genius.' For the record, here is the poem that has replaced 'An Arundel Tomb' . I think it, er, speaks for itself –  Flirtation

After all, there’s no need
to say anything

at first. An orange, peeled
and quartered, flares

like a tulip on a wedgwood plate
Anything can happen.

Outside the sun
has rolled up her rugs

and night strewn salt
across the sky. My heart

is humming a tune
I haven’t heard in years!

Quiet’s cool flesh—
let’s sniff and eat it.

There are ways
to make of the moment

a topiary
so the pleasure’s in

walking through.

Thursday, 23 June 2022

It Flies Indeed...

 I know tempus fugit and all that, but yesterday's birthdays delivered two shocks. One: Prunella Scales – a fine actress whose portrayal of Sybil Fawlty (wife of Basil) surely placed her among the  comedy immortals – is now 90 years old. And two: Kris Kristofersson yesterday turned 86, which hardly seems possible (though I knew he was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford in the 1950s). His great album The Austin Sessions is one that I play often, but here is a moment that shows a different side of Kristofersson – enjoy!

The Touring Twelve

 I see the National Gallery is planning to mark its bicentenary by releasing a dozen of its masterpieces on loan to 12 galleries across the country, where each can be admired in splendid isolation. There's a slight whiff of Londocentric condescension about this, but I'm all for anything that spreads the capital's art treasures around a bit – and that reduces the scale of art exhibitions: you can't go lower than one painting. Presented with a single masterpiece, you have no choice but to engage with it at some length and in some depth, whereas, in touring a grand gallery – even one on a relatively modest scale, which the National is – it's all too easy to pass from one painting to another with barely a pause, forming only a superficial idea of each work. The average time a gallery visitor spends with each painting has been calculated at eight seconds, so there's plenty of scope for what is fashionably known as 'slow looking', and nothing could make that easier – imperative even – than a single-painting exhibition. The twelve set to be unveiled across the provinces are listed here...
It's an unexceptionable, even predictable, list, though another list of a dozen of equal quality could be made, and another, and another – the National is a great gallery with a quite astonishing collection. The odd one out in the touring twelve is obvious: Artemisia Gentileschi's Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria – and not solely because it's the only painting by a woman. A fine and fascinating work though it is, it surely doesn't fit in such stratospherically august company as this. No doubt it was included simply because the list makers felt there had to be something painted by a woman, and frankly there's not a lot of choice, at least in the National Gallery's collection. Oddly, it is the one painting of the dozen that has already been on tour – in 2018, when it turned up in a wide range of non-gallery, non-museum settings, so that it could be seen by people who do not go out of their way to look at works of art. Another laudable initiative, though of course not the kind of thing you could do with the Wilton Diptych or the Toilet of Venus... 

Sunday, 19 June 2022

Unquenchable Superabundance

 In the course of thinning out my bookshelves, I have just 'let go', after a short struggle, my big fat two-volume Browning, partly because of its condition, but largely because, well, who needs two fat volumes of Browning? Apart from 'The Ring and the Book', Volume Two contains little that is likely ever to interest anyone outside academe – 'Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau, Saviour of Society' anyone? 'Red Cotton Night-Cap Country, or Turf and Towers'? 'Pacchiarotto, and How He Worked in Distemper, et Cetera'? No, surely a judicious one-volume selection of Browning's best would be enough for anyone... Which made me think of Geoffrey Hill (who would have been 90 today). He wrote enough to fill two volumes almost as fat as my Browning, but would his Volume Two be of much more interest or appeal than Browning's? I'm quite sure that Hill's poetry will last, but what will last, and deserve to last, will be, I think, his earlier work, up to and including the two great long poems, 'The Triumph of Love' and 'The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy', and the little flurry of later short poems. After that, as with Browning, prolixity – or, more kindly, sheer unquenchable superabundance – takes over, and the returns diminish. Not that it matters: by that time, Hill had done enough, as Browning had, to secure his place among the greats.  

Saturday, 18 June 2022

Fred and Adele

 I caught this cheery number on Radio 3 this morning. In a recording made in 1926, Fred Astaire and his sister Adele sing Gershwin's 'I'd Rather Charleston' (from Lady Be Good), with the composer enjoying himself at the piano. 
Adele (born Adele Marie Austerlitz) was hugely talented and, in their early days, a bigger star than Fred. In 1932, after 27 years performing with her brother, she gave up showbusiness to marry Lord Charles Cavendish, son of the Duke of Devonshire. She proposed to him over drinks in a speakeasy, and he said yes. When the time came to meet his family, she introduced herself by cartwheeling across the floor to where her new relatives stood waiting uneasily. Overcoming some initial resistance, she was welcomed into the family, married at Chatsworth, and set up home with the alcoholic Lord Charles at Lismore castle in Ireland. When war came, she worked tirelessly at the American Red Cross's canteen near Piccadilly Circus, writing and posting letters home for soldiers, manning the information desk, dancing with soldiers and helping them to shop for necessities. After Lord Charles drank himself to death, Adele married an American Colonel and lived happily ever after – well, more or less – remaining close to Fred throughout her long life. 
P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton, both big fans of Adele, wrote after her premature retirement:

'Adele closed her career with a triumphant performance in The Band Wagon ... She then married the Duke of Devonshire's second son and retired to Lismore Castle, leaving a gap that can never be filled. Fred struggled on without her for a while, but finally threw in his hand in and disappeared. There is a rumour that he turned up in Hollywood. It was the best the poor chap could hope for after losing his brilliant sister.'

Friday, 17 June 2022

Another Amis

 Today is the centenary of the birth of the urbane John Amis, broadcaster, journalist and musical all-rounder.  A cousin of the more famous Kingsley, he was educated at Dulwich College (alma mater of P.G. Wodehouse, Raymond Chandler, C.S. Forester, Michael Ondaatje and indeed Bob Monkhouse) and had all manner of jobs in the music business, at one point turning the pages for Dame Myra Hess during her famous wartime concerts in the National Gallery, at another organising Gerard Hoffnung's anarchic performances. In his brief career as a tenor, he sang the role of Ishmael in Bernard Herrmann's cantata Moby-Dick and the Emperor in Turandot. After moving into broadcasting as a producer and presenter, he found wider fame with the radio (and later TV) series My Music, on which he became a regular panellist, along with two old friends of this blog, Frank Muir and Denis Norden. On Muir's suggestion, he gave up trying to compete with Frank and Denis in comic repartee and concentrated on music-related anecdotes, of which he had a plentiful store. Everyone on that show had to sing a bit, regardless of vocal talent – Muir and Norden's contributions (often from music-hall repertoire) were wonderfully game – and Amis not only sang but showed himself to be a skilled siffleur (surely the only thing he had in common with Wittgenstein). He died in 2013, at the ripe age of 91. 

Wednesday, 15 June 2022

Random Notes

 Lately, for obvious reasons, I've been having more telephone conversations than is healthy with estate agents, solicitors and the like. This is irksome enough in itself, but what makes it worse is that every single call from one such begins with an apparently serious inquiry into whether I am all right/well. I dismiss these as fast as I can, rather than regaling them with my latest symptoms, but the caller at the other end always sound faintly disappointed, as if I've failed to keep up my end of the conversation. At the conclusion of the call, when we have got through whatever tedious business needed to be got through, I am invariably urged to have a 'lovely' day/afternoon/weekend, but at least this is easier to deal with than the 'Are you well/ all right?' The English used to have the perfect greeting – 'How do you do', which was emphatically not a question, and to which the answer was another 'How do you do', and then down to business. 

While we're on the subject of this strange modern world – the other day, a sunny one, I was startled to see the Rector of our parish striding through the village clad in a black clerical vest with clerical collar and, heaven help us all, a matching pair of black shorts. Are these now standard clerical issue? If so, the world has surely gone to the dogs. I remember a previous Rector, from not so many years ago, who knew how to dress the part (he was very 'High'), swanning around the village in his long, flowing cassock, wearing or carrying his biretta. I believe he even had buckled shoes. He would certainly not have been seen dead wearing a clerical vest with shorts. 

And finally – a new word: 'spuddling'. This verb, long obsolete but surely due for revival, means to work with every sign of busyness but feebly and ineffectively. I've seen a good deal of spuddling in my time (and done some too) and I'm sure there is still plenty of it going on. (The root meaning is to dig up stubble and weeds after a harvest, hence to shallowly dig or stir up in an unsystematic manner.) 

Monday, 13 June 2022

The Silver Age

More evidence of what a fine poet Thom Gunn was. This one, evocative and enigmatic, could almost be an Auden, or even a Cavafy. Note the inconspicuously clever construction: each line of each stanza rhymes or half-rhymes with the corresponding line in all the other stanzas, and each stanza ends with the word 'moonlight'. The effect is strangely haunting (well, I find it so)...

The Silver Age

Do not enquire from the centurion nodding
At the corner, with his head gentle over
The swelling breastplate, where true Rome is found.
Even of Livy there are volumes lost.
All he can do is guide you through the moonlight.

When he moves, mark how his eager striding,
To which we know the darkness is a river
Sullen with mud, is easy as on ground.
We know it is a river never crossed
By any but some few who hate the moonlight.

And when he speaks, mark how his ancient wording
Is hard with indignation of a lover. 
'I do not think our new Emperor likes the sound
Of turning squadrons or the last post.
Consorts with Christians, I think he lives in moonlight.'

Hurrying to show you his companions guarding,
He grips your arm like a cold strap of leather,
Then halts, earthpale, as he stares round and round.
What made this one fragment of a sunken coast
Remain, far out, to be beaten by the moonlight?

Sunday, 12 June 2022

'The careering of a not too captive balloon'

 I've been reading a small book called The Essential Shakespeare by John Dover Wilson, a name I vaguely remembered from my Eng Lit days as a prominent Shakespeare scholar. This little book was first published in 1932, and the 1967 edition I have was the 15th printing, so clearly it was a success, and it's easy to see why: it's lively, very readable, short of course, and it gives as plausible an account as any of Shakespeare the man. 'Here, in a nutshell, is the kind of man I believe Shakespeare to have been,' writes Dover Wilson in his Preface. He explores the works through the man and the man through the works, filling the biographical gaps with reasonable conjectures. His approach is set in deliberate opposition to those critics who were inclined to view Shakespeare's works as texts standing quite independent of their maker, to be studied in isolation from biographical context. Like virtually all Shakespeare scholars, Dover Wilson delights in differing from his fellow Shakespeareans, but in this instance fate has robbed him of one opportunity: 'I had hoped,' he writes, 'to break a lance with an old friend from Cambridge days, Lytton Strachey, in the last chapter, which was first written as a reply to his brilliant essay, Shakespeare's Final Period. But just as I was going to press, he laid his pen aside to join "the loveliest and the best", and I have removed all traces of disagreement except one nameless reference.' Oh well, there you go. 
  I read in Wikipedia that Dover Wilson's textual work (notably on The New Shakespeare) 'was characterised by considerable boldness and confidence in his own judgment', which is a nice way of putting it. A less kind judgment was passed by one of his enemies, W.W. Greg, who referred to Dover Wilson's ideas as 'the careering of a not too captive balloon in a high wind.' Be that as it may, I enjoyed reading The Essential Shakespeare, and, if you want your Shakespeare in a nutshell, you could hardly do better. 

Thursday, 9 June 2022


 Born on this day in 1597 was the extraordinary Dutch painter of church interiors, Pieter Jansz Saenredam. His paintings of churches scraped and stripped of all ornament by Protestant zeal have a remarkably potent presence, and are much more than mere architectural studies: they are fully achieved paintings. Although Saenredam measured his subjects with minute care, when he came to making the final picture he had no qualms about distorting the image for dramatic effect, making piers soar higher, creating a quality of cool level light that goes beyond naturalistic presentation into something more suggestive of the sublime, and introducing artfully placed figures for pictorial effect. It is unlikely that any real church interior, even a Dutch one, ever looked quite like a Saenredam, and there are certainly no paintings quite like his, so full of light and air, so rewarding (and calming) to look at. Happily the National Gallery has two Saenredams: the one above is of the Grote Kerk in Haarlem, the artist's home town. 

Monday, 6 June 2022


 There is only one reason to mark the birthday (in 1918) of the comic actor Kenneth Connor, stalwart of many a Carry On film: he is the subject of a particularly fine footnote. It occurs in Roger Lewis's hugely enjoyable biography of another Carry On stalwart, Charle Hawtrey: to the name 'Kenneth Connor' is appended the following note – 
'What a pain in the arse he is. The only person I know who can abide Connor's going-to-pieces, swallowing-hard, nervous-wreck act is Jonathan Coe, who wrote an entire novel on the subject, What a Carve-Up! (1994). His The House of Sleep (1997) was filled with allusions to Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, the Baker Street set for which at Pinewood was used for exterior views of the Hawtrey character's boarding house in [Carry On at YourConvenience. I await Coe's homage to The Shoes of the Fisherman, no doubt to be called Kiss My Ring!'