Saturday 31 December 2022

New Year, Old Year

 As 2023 hoves improbably into view, it's time to take the annual look back at the Old Year...
   It was a momentous one for me and Mrs N, being the year in which we finally said goodbye to the Suburban Demiparadise and began a new life in Mercia's ecclesiastical capital, birthplace of Johnson, City of Philosophers etc, Lichfield. Getting from that A to that B has been a saga – The Merciad, you might call it, and it would be even more tedious than most sagas. I am not going to relate it here, but all that move-related and family-related busyness has certainly had an effect on the blog: I seem to have been reading fewer books than usual, there has been less in the way of nature notes, only one serious walk chronicled (and surprisingly few church visits) – and, for the first time since records began, not a single major art exhibition visited or reviewed.  But what have been the high points?
 Well, on the poetry front, I have been finding yet more to enjoy in Thom Gunn, admiring Charles Causley's later work, discovering Ned Balbo and Dick Davis. I was not disappointed by rereading Marilynne Robinson's classic Housekeeping, and among the books I enjoyed most were Javier Marías's The Infatuations, P.J. Kavanagh's memoir The Perfect Stranger, James Shapiro's Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? and Michael Wharton's The Missing Will. I completed the Auberon Waugh Project by reading, and enjoying, A Bed of Flowers. Any new books I read were for review elsewhere, but among them was one to cherish – C.B. Newham's Country Church Monuments. And I actually read one almost new novel, Sol Riviere's Dead Souls, and loved it. In the course of the year, I have had some wonderful musical moments, many of which I have posted here, and have repeatedly played Vikingur Olafsson's glorious Debussy Rameau CD. At present I am without a CD player, and with most of my books in storage. Not for long, I devoutly hope...
  In the wider world, the Platinum Jubilee and then the death and funeral of the Queen were huge events, and, I think, heartening in what they told us about the true nature of this much falsified, much vilified England. That the Queen's death marked the end of an era is a truism, but no less true for that: we live in a deeply changed world now, partly as a result of that loss, partly (I am convinced) by the endlessly ramifying and deepening destructive effects of the Lockdown Years – but this is not the time to dwell on that... In a narrower world, two big literary centenaries meant there was more of Kingsley Amis and even more of Philip Larkin than usual on this blog, and the Ralph Vaughan Williams sesquicentenary, fittingly celebrated on Radio 3, gave me much listening pleasure.  
  Pleasure is supposed to be what this blog, this 'hedonic resource', is all about, so that would be a good place to leave this retrospective, and wish to everyone who browses here a very happy and prosperous new year. Cheers!

Wednesday 28 December 2022

Vallotton at Etretat

 Born on this day in 1865 was the brilliant Swiss-French painter and printmaker Felix Vallotton, about whom I wrote at some length a while back, after seeing the eye-opening exhibition of his works at the Royal Academy. Above is a beautifully composed seaside view by Vallotton, painted at Etretat, where he also painted this simple beach scene, equally beautifully composed, of arrangements of colour rather than line. It put me in mind of a poem –

Neither Out Far Nor In Deep

The people along the sand
All turn and look one way.
They turn their back on the land.
They look at the sea all day.

As long as it takes to pass
A ship keeps raising its hull;
The wetter ground like glass
Reflects a standing gull.

The land may vary more;
But wherever the truth may be–
The water comes ashore,
And the people look at the sea.

They cannot look out far.
They cannot look in deep.
But when was that ever a bar
To any watch they keep?

Robert Frost

Tuesday 27 December 2022

Vintage Ties and Andy's Vacs

 This morning, spotting a site called Larkin With Women on the picture-sharing website Pinterest, I thought I'd have a look. It turned out to be devoted almost entirely to vintage ties and handbags (many of them available via Etsy and other online retailers), with a few photos of Larkin, with and without female company, added near the bottom as an apparent afterthought. Odd. However, as it's the festive season, it's definitely time to put up the cheering picture above, showing Larkin and Monica Jones really getting into the spirit. Nice tie he's wearing...

And another thing: last night I had a succession of strange dreams, all forgotten now, but all linked by the presence of Prince Andrew, the disgraced Duke of York, who, reasonably enough, had set up business selling vacuum cleaners door to door and from a small shop in the back streets of Cambridge, where he traded under the name Andy's Vacs. He seemed quite resigned to his fate, and had slimmed down noticeably. Pick the bones out of that, Herr Doktor Freud. 

Sunday 25 December 2022

Happy Christmas

 Wishing a happy Christmas to all who browse here.

(The painting is The Adoration of the Shepherds, generally attributed to Giorgione, though it might be an early Titian, or a collaboration, or even by someone else altogether. It's beautiful anyway, and it hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.)

Saturday 24 December 2022

'Hoping it might be so'

 It's the night of Christmas Eve, so heck, why not? It may be a bit sentimental, but it's a lovely poem, beautifully crafted (I love that 'flock' in the first stanza). It's 'The Oxen' by Thomas Hardy –

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel,

“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

'This is the month...'

 One of the pleasures of living in Lichfield is having a magnificent cathedral on the doorstep. At yesterday evening's festival of lessons and carols, the choir were in great form, singing not only the more traditional Christmas fare – enough in itself to reduce a grown man (me) to a quivering wreck – but also treating us to, among other things, Poulenc's Hodie Christus Natus Est, Stainer's lovely setting of How Beautiful Upon the Mountains, and a quite astonishing piece, God Is With Us, by John Tavener, adapted from the Orthodox Great Compline for Christmas Eve and featuring a tenor singing lustily from the pulpit and some of the most earth-shaking organ chords I have ever heard. And, as well as the usual Christmas readings, we had the opening stanzas of John Milton's great Christmas poem, 'On the Morning of Christ's Nativity' – what more could anyone ask?

This is the month, and this the happy morn,
      Wherein the Son of Heav'n's eternal King,
Of wedded Maid, and Virgin Mother born,
      Our great redemption from above did bring;
      For so the holy sages once did sing,
            That he our deadly forfeit should release,
            And with his Father work us a perpetual peace.

That glorious Form, that Light unsufferable,
      And that far-beaming blaze of Majesty,
Wherewith he wont at Heav'n's high council-table,
      To sit the midst of Trinal Unity,
      He laid aside, and here with us to be,
            Forsook the courts of everlasting day,
            And chose with us a darksome house of mortal clay.

Friday 23 December 2022

'Peace and goodwill, goodwill and peace...'

 'The time draws near the birth of Christ...'
One of the most moving and perfect sections of Tennyson's great poem of love and loss, In Memoriam A.H.H. – a work not short of moving and perfect passages – is the section numbered XXVIII. Tennyson, I take it, is either at his family home, Somersby rectory in the Lincolnshire Wolds, or  he is remembering or imagining himself back there at Christmastide. The 'four hamlets round' would be, I think, Bag Enderby (part of his father's parish), Stainsby, Salmonby and Ashby Puerorum (fine Lincolnshire names all). But then, I used to think that another great and famous passage from In Memoriam, 'Ring Out, Wild Bells', was also inspired by the ringing Wolds, but all the evidence suggests that it was, in that case, the bells of the abbey church at Waltham Abbey – a long, long way from Lincolnshire. 
'Sorrow touch'd with joy', or joy touched with sorrow – that's Christmas... 

The time draws near the birth of Christ:
      The moon is hid; the night is still;
      The Christmas bells from hill to hill
Answer each other in the mist.

Four voices of four hamlets round,
      From far and near, on mead and moor,
      Swell out and fail, as if a door
Were shut between me and the sound:

Each voice four changes on the wind,
      That now dilate, and now decrease,
      Peace and goodwill, goodwill and peace,
Peace and goodwill, to all mankind.

This year I slept and woke with pain,
      I almost wish'd no more to wake,
      And that my hold on life would break
Before I heard those bells again:

But they my troubled spirit rule,
      For they controll'd me when a boy;
      They bring me sorrow touch'd with joy,
The merry merry bells of Yule.

Wednesday 21 December 2022

Rembrandt and Dick Davis Again

 Here is another poem from Dick Davis's Seeing the World. In the collection, this one, naturally enough, follows 'Rembrandt's Return of the Prodigal Son'. In it, the dying Rembrandt looks back over his life and faces his approaching death. It is, I think, a wonderfully poised and moving poem, especially if you love Rembrandt's paintings (and who could fail to?)...

      Rembrandt Dying

      What have I known?
   The darkness I perceived
Beyond each face invades my mind,
      I have been shown
   The night of the bereaved 
   In which all men are blind.

      But I recall
   Old faces marred, their eyes
Outstaring that obscurity –
      Awaiting all
   Life yet may ask with wise,
   Unbroken dignity;

      And the young Jew
   Who was my Christ, in whose
As-if-omniscient, worn face
     Compassion grew – 
   Where patience could peruse
   The suffering of a race;

      And Hendrickje
   Who taught me tenderness,
So that the proof of all technique
      Was to convey
   Love's truths – light on a dress,
   Or on her turning cheek.

     All these are past – 
   The darkness wells in me;
Though grief and ignorance increase
      And must outlast
   My will, yet memory
   Is thankful for lost peace.

            [Rembrandt Self-Portrait, 1657. National Gallery of Scotland]

Tuesday 20 December 2022


 That fine pianist Mitsuko Uchida turns 74 today – hard to believe she's even older than I am. I once met her, in the Woman's Hour studio (no, I wasn't a guest; I was writing something about the programme, I think for the late lamented Listener). I was of course tongue-tied and totally overawed, but I did manage to bandy a few civilities with her before she went in to be interviewed. I remember that she seemed surprisingly slight physically, as is often the way with performers, and that she drank green tea. There you are: The Mitsuko Uchida I Knew.
I have a couple of her CDs which I cherish and play quite often: the three last Beethoven sonatas, and Schubert's D899 impromptus. Here she is playing the G flat impromptu. (Music lovers might like to compare her version with Dinu Lipatti's, which I posted recently: Lipatti makes lighter work of it, with a wonderful flowing cantabile, but Uchida's interpretation works perfectly on its own terms.)

Monday 19 December 2022

More Filth

And still it comes. The latest specimen of high-toned vintage porn to turn up on my Facebook feed is this, Girl with a Mirror by one John William Godward. This scene from an imaginary classical world is very much in the manner of Alma-Tadema, and Godward was indeed a protégé of that master of marble and flesh. From what I've seen of his work online, Godward seems to have been gifted in the same line, though he lacks the master's exquisite delicacy of touch and is even more inclined to titillating effects, making much use of diaphanous fabrics. Godward was quite successful – at least until the coming of modernism made his (and all the Victorian Classicists') style hopelessly unfashionable – but he had a sad life. According to Wikipedia, 'the overbearing attitude of his parents made him reclusive and shy later in adulthood', and when he moved to Italy with one of his models, his family, who disapproved strongly of his pursuing an artistic career, cut him off completely, even removing his image from family photographs. Godward committed suicide in 1922, thereby bringing further shame on the family, who promptly burned all his papers and effects. Like all those High Victorian Dreamers, he was by then an all but forgotten figure, but, like them, he was later rediscovered, and his pictures now fetch high prices. One of his best-known paintings, Dolce Far Niente, with its obvious echoes of Frederic Leighton's Flaming June, is now in the collection of Lord Lloyd Webber, no less.

Sunday 18 December 2022

Dick Davis

 This blog has featured too little poetry recently, in large part because nearly all my books are still in storage. However, I recently got my hands on a slim volume by Dick Davis, Seeing the World (1980), and it has not disappointed. Davis is one of those gifted poets who will never be fashionable: even his name is against him (someone should write a thesis on the effect of a good/bad name on writers' literary success – would Louis de Bernière have done so well if he was called Dave Smith?). Davis is also an unfashionable kind of poet – a formalist, like Thom Gunn (a better name), and, like Gunn, a disciple of the eternally unfashionable Yvor Winters. Also like Gunn, Davis was a product of Cambridge (King's, my old college, in Davis's case) – not that that is necessarily a springboard to oblivion. 
Anyway, here is a rather beautiful poem from Seeing The World, this one inspired by one of Rembrandt's intensely moving late masterpieces. I think it perfectly captures the essence of the painting – 

Rembrandt's Return of the Prodigal Son

Age instinct with wisdom, love, bends towards
The sensual man, the penitent, and clasps
Him lightly by the shoulder-blades. In rags
The latter kneels and rests his close-cropped head
Against the Father’s chest. Some watch, and one,
Whose face is lit, old as the Father, looks
With unobserved compassion at the scene.

His comprehension is the artist’s own:
His silence and the Father’s flood the frame
But cannot quite subdue the young man’s sobs,
The fixed, sad past; the waste that love would heal.

And here is another fine ekphrastic poem from Seeing the World, this one inspired by a Guardi painting that hangs in the National Gallery, A Caprice with Ruins on the Seashore – 

On a Painting by Guardi

  Slowly the chill lagoon
Returns to flood these noisome ponds;
  Grotesque, dense weeds festoon
The ruined arch with airy fronds

   In whose shade scavengers
– Tenacious as the trailing weeds –
  Time's ghostly avatars,
Indifferent to the grace that feeds

  Their chance cupidity,
Draw strength from glory in decay.
  Great Mutability,
All here declares your mordant sway.

  I gaze, hardly aware
Of this overt, didactic aim:
  Rather the misty air,
The blank, amorphous shore proclaim

  An eye in love with blurred
And insubstantial forms, a mind
  By evanescence stirred – 
A suppliant of the undefined,

  The pale marsh-haze of noon;
And one who in each breeze could see
  – Ruffling the chill lagoon –
The tremor of mortality.

Saturday 17 December 2022

Concluding Postscript

Well, I have at last finished The Missing Will, and I promise this will be the last you hear from me on the subject. So... A couple of things: 
   Here is Michael Wharton (still some years before his newspaper career began) meeting Helga Greene, ex-wife of Sir Hugh Greene, who became Director-General of the BBC. Helga, who is very wealthy, very socialist and 'rather stern', interrogates Wharton about his politics: 'When I told her my political views, which were as decidedly "right-wing" as they always had been, she obviously did not believe me. She was one of those people whom I came to think of later as "Hampstead thinkers"; it was typical of them that they simply did not believe that a person who seemed intelligent and educated could have opinions different from their own.' I think it's more a question of 'could not' than 'did not believe', and it's a mentality that I've come across many times, particularly in phases of my life and career when I have enountered the Guardianista-BBC Massive in all its adamantine smugness. It long ago broke out from Hampstead and has become vastly more pervasive since Wharton's time, with all manner of dire consequences. I think it explains why the BBC is incapable of perceiving its own bias: since it is not seriously possible for an intelligent person to see the world in any other way, the Corporation's projection of its own world view is, to those involved, simply a projection of factual reality, not of opinion. 
   Wharton did manage to do quite a lot of work for the BBC in the Forties and Fifties, but soon fell foul of the Marxists who ran the Northern Region's Features Department and was 'let go' without ceremony. 'When I took my leave of Denis Mitchell [head of the department] he did not rise from his chair or make the least gesture of goodwill. Was I not a self-declared reactionary and enemy of the human race?' The Northern Marxists, unlike the Hampstead lot, had found themselves able to believe that he had views radically different from their own, and they had purged him accordingly.
  Even so, Wharton later found himself working (if that's not too strong a word) for the Talks Department in London, a department addicted to meetings and conferences (as was almost every part of the BBC I knew, for a mercifully short period, three decades later). He and his friend John Davenport found these meetings excruciatingly boring:
'One somnolent, sultry summer afternoon, when John and myself, after a certain amount of drinking, were at one of the interminable "Talks" meetings ... he suddenly fell asleep and rolled off his chair onto the floor. There he remained, snoring horribly, until the end of the meeting. Nobody took any notice. For the "Talks" producers, this tasteless incident simply had not happened.' Oddly, I got exactly the same reaction when, at a BBC meeting one morning, when I was still half asleep, I dropped a full cup of coffee onto the splendid carpet of the Broadcasting House council chamber, where the dark liquid spread out to form an impressive stain. This too, it seemed, had not happened. 
  Enough. I'll end by simply quoting the final paragraph of The Missing Will
'So, on New Year's Day, 1957, after a sleepless night of confused celebration, I sat down for the first time at my desk in the Daily Telegraph with one of the most appalling hangovers I have ever had in my life, and without a single idea in my head. I would have been incredulous, if not appalled, if I had been told I would still be there 28 years later, still spinning the faded dream with which this book began.' 

Friday 16 December 2022

'(I have always greatly disliked writing)'

This startling throwaway remark, complete with parentheses, is to be found in The Missing Will (yes, I'm still reading it) by Michael Wharton, a man who must have written, whether he liked it or not, several million words (for publication) across seven decades. There is certainly so sign of his dislike of writing in anything he published, including The Missing Will, but I think he is telling the truth here, rather than striking a word-weary pose. I haven't written as many words as Wharton, but have certainly churned out great quantities of prose over the years, the bulk of it routine journalism of one kind and another, and I must say that I have rarely taken pleasure in the act of writing. For me – and I suspect for many others – the pleasure lies not in writing but in having written, especially if what I have written turns out readable and says what I intended it to say. Similarly, although I must have read many millions of words and thousands of books, I cannot honestly say I find the act of reading, in itself, gives me much pleasure; again it is the having read, having enjoyed and absorbed whatever was to be gleaned from the reading, having added something to the store, even if it is destined to be remembered only as a kind of faint after-image. The act of reading itself strains the eyes (and sometimes the brain), can be surprisingly tiring (or so I find) and of course can involve, even in the best literature, enduring some pretty tedious longueurs. Maybe, despite appearances, I'm not cut out for the life of reading and writing, though I cannot imagine living without them. I might even finish The Missing Will one day.

Wednesday 14 December 2022

Art and Arthur

 I found this story –  'Soho police force entry to help woman, only to find artwork' (I think the comma is necessary) – amusing and revealing, so, my brain being otherwise, for various reasons, too scrambled for much in the way of serious thought or communication,  I pass it on here, embedded in a sentence clotted with subordinate clauses but still, I trust, comprehensible. 'Revealing', you say? Ah yes, revealing of the lamentable condition of the 'art' world: the 'art sprinkle' provided by a model of a woman with her head in a bowl of soup was intended 'to make people smile, or to horrify, to get a reaction and to grab people's attention' – I'm sure Raphael and Titian were thinking along very similar lines. The gallery owner didn't want to have a £20,000 table without 'something funny or distressing to complement it'. Well, quite.  So the 'art sprinkle' was to get people into a shop full of trendy kitsch objects and flog an overpriced table. That's today's 'art' world for you. 
  In other news, I was sad to hear of the death of Victor Lewis-Smith, writer, journalist, producer, satirist, prankster etc, at the age of only 65 (and in Bruges, oddly). He has been well obituarised in the newspapers, and even on Radio 3 this morning. One prank of his that I don't think was mentioned in the obits and that I'll always cherish was the occasion when, as producer of Radio 4's civilised (if plug-heavy) talk show Midweek, he replaced, for one week only, the cosy and safe presenter Libby Purves with the archetypal cockney knucklehead Arthur Mullard. He got away with it too – those were different times.

Monday 12 December 2022

'a great and wonderful innocence'

 In one of the more serious moments (and there are some) in Michael Wharton's often funny, sometimes lyrical and always disarmingly honest autobiography, The Missing Will, he has this to say of his fellow recruits on his first wartime posting:
'We were a very mixed lot. But in those early days we had one overriding interest. No, it was not beating Hitler and suppressing the Nazis. I doubt if I ever heard, either then or later, any such sentiments expressed. There may have been soldiers who talked in such Churchillian terms. If so, I did not meet them. There was merely a sense of being part of a great Necessity, whose purpose, neither questioned nor spoken of, was to prevent our country being changed by foreigners, whoever they might be, into something different from what it was. There was a great and wonderful innocence about these men, an absence of envy and mean class hatred. There were those, as I know now, who saw in the war a means of changing that innocence and decency, and to a large extent succeeded.' 
Allowing for Wharton's rather too indulgent attitude to the Nazis (he saw Soviet Communism as the greater danger), I think there is a lot of truth in his observation, and I have heard it echoed in the testimony of many who fought in that war, especially in its early stages: they did not see it in terms of a great struggle against Fascism, but rather as a necessary defensive action to preserve the country they loved against the very real threat that everything they most valued about it would be destroyed by foreign aggressors. This love of country has been seriously underestimated (and undervalued) by the political class in recent times.  Rationalists, technocrats and 'anywhere people', they simply cannot see it as anything more than a marginal and tiresome relic of former times. As they were to discover when the Brexit referendum blew up in their faces, love of country and resentment of foreign influence is still, despite everything, a potent force, even in a world where the 'innocence and decency' Wharton detected have indeed been seriously corrupted.  

Sunday 11 December 2022

Italic Winter

 I missed Emily Dickinson's 192nd birthday yesterday, but will mark it one day late with a poem that fits the season and the weather: Britain is having a taste of proper winter this year (must be that global warming), and outside my window snow – soft, small and reluctant to lie – is falling, and the roofs and paths are white. As one who takes no pleasure in being cold, I find it hard to agree that 'Winter is good', but Dickinson makes her case, in her unique style ('italic' indeed! Here it seems to mean astringent or something of the kind). The season is certainly 'welcome when he goes'...

Winter is good — his Hoar Delights
Italic flavor yield
To Intellects inebriate
With Summer, or the World —

Generic as a Quarry
And hearty — as a Rose —
Invited with Asperity
But welcome when he goes.

Friday 9 December 2022

A Birthday, A Theoretical Move, and a Missing Will

 On Wednesday it was (as my more calendar-minded readers might be vaguely aware) my birthday, the date on which Tom Waits and I hit the age of 73. It was probably less of a surprise to Tom, who was, he claims, born old, feeling from his earliest years like a gnarled veteran from another time (and developing a voice to fit: Waits in his twenties sounded like anyone else in their seventies). The day turned out to be too busy for blogging: as well as the traditional pomp and pageantry of a Nige birthday, there was also the little business of our having taken possession, at last, of a house in Lichfield. The possession, however, is so far looking like a legal fiction, as the previous owner, having grievously underestimated the time required for packing and moving house, was, when last heard of, still busy clearing the place. Happily we have the Lichfield flat to live in while we wait – and, less happily, we have been too busy with other things to do anything about this bizarre situation. Perhaps at the weekend we'll manage to get across the threshold – or maybe next week, who knows...
   Meanwhile, I have been managing to find odd moments of reading time, and have embarked on the autobiography I recently mentioned – The Missing Will by Michael Wharton. Who could resist a memoir whose first chapters are titled 'The Deformative Years' and 'Whining and Dining' (the latter covering Oxford and after)? Wharton's Oxford years were devoted to getting drunk, striking poses of various kinds, and committing acts of extreme foolishness, while attending no lectures and very few tutorials, handing in heavily plagiarised essays, and reading anything but what was on the curriculum. Very much like my own Cambridge years in fact, mutatis mutandis. I have to say that, so far, The Missing Will is proving one of the most entertaining autobiographies I have read in recent years.

Tuesday 6 December 2022

Ahoy, Pugwash Fans

 A word of warning for fans (and I know there are still many of them) of the classic animation, Captain Pugwash. Recently Mrs N bought a DVD of what seemed to be the real thing, but, watching it yesterday, I discovered it was an ugly, modern, computer-generated creation with absolutely none of the charm of the hand-made, cardboard-cut-out original. Worse, it had an impeccably 'diverse' multiethnic cast of characters (each of them displaying stereotype characteristics which could surely be described by the critical as 'racist'). Being an Englishman, Pugwash himself was portrayed as an effete poltroon, rather than the Falstaffian anti-hero he is – greedy, cowardly, but full of martial bombast and ever ready with a tale of his own exemplary heroism. I'll waste no more time on this hideous travesty. Happily, if you look hard, original episodes can still be found online and, if you're lucky, even on disc. And the books are still available – beautifully drawn and designed by Pugwash's creator, John Ryan, and full of great stories. Yesterday our four-year-old grandson enjoyed his first Pugwash book so much that he insisted on repeated readings and could hardly be parted from it. And he enjoyed one of the old black-and-white episodes. A boy of taste and discernment.

Sunday 4 December 2022


 I've only just heard the sad news of the death of the artist Tom Phillips (who died on the 28th November). I think I've mentioned his great work, A Humument, a few times on the blog, where I have also written about his fine  edition of Waiting for Godot. He is one of the dwindling number of contemporary artists whose death feels like a real loss. There's an excellent tribute to Phillips in Apollo magazine – link here.
And here, by way of illustration, is Phillips's portrait of Iris Murdoch, posed in front of Titian's late masterpiece, The Flaying of Marsyas

A Doorway into the Past

 I noticed this curious survival when I was waiting for a bus in Burton-upon-Trent. Inset into the wall of a large Primark (a budget fashion emporium, m'Lud), it bears the date 1593 and was, I subsequently discovered, a doorway to Dame Paulet's almshouses, a charitable institution that housed and supported five elderly, deserving poor women of the town at the expense of Dame Elizabeth Paulet. This wealthy widow was born into the Blount family, her father being the MP for Burton, and her second husband was Sir Thomas Pope, a big landowner and prominent public servant who founded Trinity College, Oxford. Her third husband was Sir Hugh Paulet, who was, among other things, Governor of Jersey. Dame Elizabeth outlived them all, having borne no children, and on her death was buried with her second husband in the chapel of Trinity College. 
  The gateway bears the Blount arms, over the curious inscription 'No Domi Ni', the result of a mistake: when the much eroded doorway was being restored in the 1930s, the stonemason misread 'Anno Domini' as 'No Domini', then decided to make it more symmetrical for appearance sake. The tablet within the door frame carries a bland inscription commemorating the redevelopment of the town centre in 1974 (of which the less said the better). More conspicuous now is a heartfelt graffito – 'Squat the Lot'.
  History – it's all around us... 

Friday 2 December 2022


 On this day in 1950, the great Romanian pianist Dinu Lipatti died, aged just 33, from complications of Hodgkin's Disease. Although his career began early – he performed the Grieg piano concerto to acclaim at the age of 13 – he didn't leave many recordings behind, and there is no video footage of him playing. He gave his final concert at the Besançon festival in September 1950, just weeks before his death. Although he was clearly ill and suffering from a high fever, he played a demanding programme of Bach, Mozart, Schubert and Chopin. However, he found himself too exhausted to play the last of the 14 Chopin waltzes and substituted a piece with which he was particularly associated – Bach's 'Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring' in Myra Hess's beautiful transcription. Here, from that final concert, is his masterly performance of Schubert's G flat Impromptu. Enjoy...

Thursday 1 December 2022

Under the Lights Again

 Last year, my photograph of Dr Johnson brooding under the Christmas lights in Lichfield marketplace was looked at by many more people than ever read any of my other posts. So, in the hope of repeating the welcome uptick, I've photographed him again, this time from a different angle. Behind him is the church of St Mary (quality Victorian work by Fowler of Louth, with a steeple by G.E. Street), which now houses the public library and, at clerestory level, a very pleasant café and cultural 'hub', with views of the chancel and the upper reaches of the nave. The fine bas-relief on the statue's plinth shows Johnson's act of penitence in Uttoxeter marketplace, where he stood bare-headed in the rain to atone for an incident in his teenage years, when he refused to man the family bookstall there in place of his sick father:  'Pride was the source of that refusal, and the remembrance of it was painful. A few years ago I desired to atone for this fault. I went to Uttoxeter in very bad weather and stood for a considerable time bareheaded in the rain on the spot where my father’s stall used to stand. In contrition I stood, and I hope the penance was expiatory.'

Wednesday 30 November 2022

Oscar Wilde Memorialised

 It was on this day in 1900 that Oscar Wilde died, at the age of 46, in a cheap hotel in Paris, having lost his 'duel to the death' with the wallpaper. Perhaps the best account of his final days (in terms of truth if not of strict factual accuracy) is to be found in Peter Ackroyd's early novel, The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde (1983), a brilliant piece of literary ventriloquism. When Wilde died (of meningitis, brought on by an ear infection), shortage of funds meant that his body was buried cheaply in the Cimetière de Bagneux, southwest of Paris, but when royalties started coming in again, the devoted Robbie Ross bought a plot in the more fitting Père Lachaise. Here Wilde's remains were reburied and, a couple of years later, a rather hideous Art Deco/Assyrian monument, sculpted by Jacob Epstein, was erected to mark the spot. This raised eyebrows, even among Parisians, because the angel figure on the monument was generously endowed with male genitalia. At one point the authorities even draped a tarpaulin over the offending area. In later years Wilde's memorial became a hugely popular attraction, and visitors took to kissing it with such enthusiasm that it was permanently covered with red lipstick marks, hard to remove and damaging to the stone. In the late 1990s the monument, after being thoroughly cleaned and restored, was further protected by a glass barrier, installed largely at the expense of the office of public works in Dublin (Ireland always cherishes its literary offspring once they are safely dead). As for the history of those scandalous genitalia, I wrote about that on this date some years ago...

Monday 28 November 2022

'Every error denoting a feverish attempt...'

 On this day in 1817, Keats completed the first draft of his 'trial' poem Endymion, writing at the foot of it, 'Burford Bridge Nov. 28 1817'. He was staying at what was then the Fox and Hounds inn, but is now the Burford Bridge hotel, the core of the building not much changed from the days when Keats stayed there, in a room overlooking the garden. As I've written elsewhere, the young poet was enchanted by Box Hill, a place that I, too, fondly remember from many a butterfly-hunting walk in those days – now fully two months distant – when I was a Surrey suburban southerner, before Mercia claimed me for its own. 
  When the final version of Endymion was published in April 1818, it carried a positively apologetic preface by Keats, who seemed already to have outgrown it. It begins:

'Knowing within myself the manner in which this Poem has been produced, it is not without a feeling of regret that I make it public.
What manner I mean, will be quite clear to the reader, who must soon perceive great inexperience, immaturity, and every error denoting a feverish attempt, rather than a deed accomplished.'

Later, he declares: 

'The imagination of a boy is healthy, and the mature imagination of a man is healthy; but there is a space of life between, in which the soul is in a ferment, the character undecided, the way of life uncertain, the ambition thick-sighted: thence proceeds mawkishness, and all the thousand bitters which those men I speak of must necessarily taste in going over the following pages.'

Oddly, I used that passage as the epigraph for my first and last attempt at a novel, a work that certainly showed how right Keats was... He concludes: 

'I hope I have not in too late a day touched the beautiful mythology of Greece, and dulled its brightness: for I wish to try once more, before I bid it farewell.'

Try he did, and with wonderful results.


Friday 25 November 2022


 This kind of filth keeps turning up on my Facebook feed – heaven knows why... Worse things too, in the way of simpering soft porn by French academic painters of the 19th century and their ancien régime predecessors. The above picture, however, is good English filth, by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema – 'Alma-Tad of the Royal Acad', as I like to think of him – who was actually Dutch but settled in England and became a giant of the British art scene. Ruskin declared him 'the worst painter of the 19th century', though he must have overlooked a lot of competition to arrive at that judgment. Alma-Tad was certainly a master of female flesh and antique marble, with a formidable technique, and his paintings must have given many a Victorian gentleman a lot of not wholly artistic pleasure. 
As for the picture above, it is titled 'A Favourite Custom' – the custom being, apparently, to frolic saucily in the frigidarium, splashing one another with water and taking care to show oneself to advantage from before and behind. The setting is an idealised version of the Stabian baths at Pompeii, and when the painting went on show in 1909 it was such a hit that it was immediately bought for the nation. It now hangs in the Tate, no doubt with a minatory caption to ensure that no one actually enjoys it. 

Thursday 24 November 2022

Wharton's World

In happier times, English newspapers (and indeed magazines) found space for more than a dash of humour in their pages. J.B. Morton's 'Beachcomber' column was not the only one of its kind, and of the others the doyen was undoubtedly the Telegraph's 'Way of the World' Column, bylined 'Peter Simple'. This, for much of its long life, was written by one Michael Wharton, a man whose political views were off any known scale but could perhaps be summed up as feudal (one of his inventions was the Reactionary Times and Feudal Herald newspaper). Fortunately, he had a true gift for humorous writing that was often (unlike much 'humorous' writing) actually funny – and he had a comic invention every bit as fertile as Morton's, but with less of the Goonish whimsy and more genuine satire.
  His cast of characters included the ghastly champagne socialist Mrs Dutt-Pauker of Hampstead, Dr Spacely-Trellis, the go-ahead Bishop of Bevindon, Lt Gen.'Tiger' Nidgett of the Royal Army Tailoring Corps, psychoanalyst Dr Heinz Kiosk, J. Bonington Jagworth of the Motorists' Liberation Front, the '25-stone, iron-watch-chained, crag-visaged, grim-booted' Alderman Jabez Foodbotham, and dozens of others. And he created a grand dystopian world for them all to live in, based firmly on contemporary reality as he saw it. Some of his fantasies now seem remarkably prescient: take his 'prejudometer', an anti-racist instrument that took precise readings of degrees of racial prejudice, and could be turned on the user until 'at 3.6 degrees on the Alibhai-Brown scale, it sets off a shrill scream that will not stop until you've pulled yourself together with a well chosen anti-racist slogan'. Check your privilege, indeed. Or there's the vibrant Aztec community of Nerdley, constantly asserting their inalienable right to commit human sacrifice on state-funded stepped pyramids.
  For 30 years from 1957, Wharton wrote his column for the Daily Telegraph, working in a tiny, cell-like office with room only for him, a small secretary and a fire escape. His last column was written as the workmen were unscrewing the bronze nameplates from the old Telegraph building on Fleet Street, preparatory to moving to Docklands and a new newspaper world that Wharton would have found unbearable. However, the Sunday Telegraph managed to woo him back, as did the Daily soon after. He filed his last column in 2006,  a few days before he died, aged 92. His successor, for a while, was Auberon Waugh. There is an anthology of Wharton's Peter Simple columns, The Stretchford Chronicles, with an introduction by Kingsley Amis. And there are two volumes of Wharton's autobiography, which sound so intriguing that I've bought the first (The Missing Will) online. I'll report back on that...


Monday 21 November 2022

Morton and Thomas: Workers

 Partick Kurp writes today about J.B. Morton, best known to English readers as 'Beachcomber', whose humorous newspaper columns ran for half a century in the Daily Express. I must have read a few of them towards the end of his long career, but I remember him chiefly for the radio and TV adaptations of his work, which did not much amuse me. Evelyn Waugh said he had 'the greatest comic fertility of any Englishman', and he certainly created a huge repertory company of comic characters for his columns – Mr Justice Cocklecarrot and the 12 litigious red-bearded dwarves, Dr Strabismus of Utrecht (Whom God Preserve), Captain Foulenough, Roland Milk (a poet), Lord Shortcake, Dr  Smart-Alick, Prodnose, and countless others – but his kind of humour, prefiguring The Goon Show, is really not to my taste (nor is The Goon Show). For American readers, I imagine, the whole world of Beachcomber would be almost entirely incomprehensible. There is a great story about Morton, though. A bit of a prankster, he once covered Virginia Woolf's doorstep with dozens of quart bottles of brown ale (note for American readers: this was the most proletarian of English drinks). Hats off to him for that. 
  Patrick (as well as posting the excellent comic poem, 'Tripe') speaks admiringly of Morton's phenomenal work rate. This set me thinking of Edward Thomas's Stakhanovite labours as a hack writer, desperately trying to support his family, before Robert Frost and the war made a poet of him. Jean Moorcroft Wilson, in her biography, estimates that, for 14 gruelling years, Thomas was writing book reviews – substantial book reviews – at the rate of one every three  days. And between 1910 and the beginning of 1913, while he was still churning out the reviews, thirteen books were published under his name. They don't make them like Thomas – or Morton – any more. 

Sunday 20 November 2022

'Be British, boys'

 This imposing statue – which, when I first saw it, I took for George V – is of Edward Smith, the captain of the Titanic, who went down with his ship in 1912. It stands in Lichfield's delightful Beacon Park, and is the work of Kathleen Scott, the talented widow of Scott of the Antarctic. According to the official account, Lichfield was chosen as the location for Smith's statue because the Captain was a Staffordshire man and Lichfield is the centre of the diocese. Cynical locals say it was because no one else would have the statue: respect for Smith as a national hero was not universal, and there were rumours (almost certainly untrue) that he attempted to save his life rather than go down with his stricken ship. None of this is reflected in the plaque on the statue's granite plinth, which talks of his 'bequeathing to his countrymen the memory & example of a great heart, a brave life and a heroic death'. It also quotes his supposed last words: 'Be British.' The full version is 'Be British, boys. Be British!' and the words were apparently invented for him by the myth-making British newspapers. Fair enough.
   I paused to admire the Captain's statue while on my morning walk today, before heading out into Lichfield's circumambient (as the city's most famous son might have put it) countryside. It was a gloriously sunny morning, and I followed paths across bumpy pastureland and fallow fields, past Lady Muriel's Belt (a curiously named wood) and Leamonsley House, by Sloppy Wood (another curious name), and back into town, and to Lichfield's premier tourist attraction – Waitrose. There I noticed a fine range of interesting vermouths on sale, something you rarely see in England. I stood a while, impressed but paralysed by indecision, then moved on...

Saturday 19 November 2022

Jake's Progress

 Lurking unnoticed on one of the digital platforms  (All 4 in fact, which can be viewed free) is a drama series I fondly remember, and which I thought had disappeared for good. Jake's Progress by Alan Bleasdale, first shown in 1995, starred Robert Lindsay and Julie Walters on top form, with a fine support cast and a truly astonishing performance by Barclay Wright as the child around whom the action revolves, the eponymous Jake. Jake is, it's fair to say, troubled and difficult, and only his father, Jamie, has an apparently good relationship with him. Whether that relationship is actually good for Jake, or for anyone else, is another matter. Jamie Diadoni is a feckless manchild, incapable of bearing any responsibility, and living largely in a fantasy world built out of his former, failed career as a rock singer. Like the father in Christina Stead's The Man Who Loved Children, he is in alliance with his child against the adult world and all its demands. Jamie has looks and charm galore, and is able to turn on the latter dazzlingly enough to sustain his marriage to Julie, who is obliged to work all hours as a nurse while he lives the life of a 'house husband' and indulges his musical fantasies. It is all too clear that Jake has grown to hate his mother – all the more so when she gets pregnant and the prospect of a sibling looms – and his maternal grandmother, who is indeed pretty monstrous, as played by Dorothy Tutin. When Jamie and Julie's debts, about which Jamie is of course in total denial, finally become unsustainable, their precarious situation is clearly heading for big trouble. What form it might take is hinted at when a palm reading friend finds something deeply troubling in Jamie's near future...
   Having watched the first couple of hours of Jake's Progress, for the first time since the 1990s, I am hugely impressed, by the acting, the unobtrusively clever direction, and most of all by Bleasdale's brilliant script, with its pinpoint dialogue and complete understanding of the medium. According to Bleasdale, this drama grew out of his shock when, as an only child, he discovered the depths of rivalry and even hatred between his own children – a shock that was only reinforced when he had to rescue a neighbour's child from being burned alive by an elder sibling. The series nearly never happened because no suitable actor could be found for Jake's part. Then, at the last minute, Barclay Wright turned up and, in the event, delivered something that is surely one of the best child performances ever screened. Sadly, and surprisingly, his subsequent acting career never amounted to much. As for Bleasdale, who in my opinion is the equal of any TV dramatist (Dennis Potter included), he tends to be bracketed under 'social realism' and remembered chiefly for Boys from the Blackstuff, rather than Jake's Progress (which doesn't even have a Wikipedia entry) or the great state-of-the-nation drama GBH, or even The Monocled Mutineer. In 1999 he made a controversial adaptation of Oliver Twist (which I loved), with an entirely new backstory for Oliver, and before that a curious misfire, Melissa, inspired by a Francis Durbridge thriller, his last work for Channel 4. Bleasdale, once such a major figure, had nothing on television in the new millennium until, in 2011, he made a fine two-parter, The Sinking of the Laconia, dramatising the Laconia incident of 1942. It seems a shame, to put it mildly, that such a prodigiously gifted dramatist should have spent so much of his later career absent from our screens. If you want a reminder of just how good he was – and how good TV drama can get – seek out Jake's Progress while it's there. Like so much of the best television, it wouldn't get made today.

Tuesday 15 November 2022

'No killing the Oxfordian thesis'

 The other night on Sky Arts there was a documentary titled Shakespeare: The Man Behind the Name. This, it turns out, is a repackaging of an earlier film, Nothing Is Truer than Truth, and presents the case (such as it is) for Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford – described as an 'A-list party boy on the continental circuit' – having written the works of 'Shakespeare', a name he took to disguise his bisexuality (?!). Sadly, such big names as Mark Rylance and Derek Jacobi endorse this view, and teaching and researching it are now considered academically respectable. 
  Of course, it is perfectly possible to believe sincerely that the man known as William Shakespeare did not write the works attributed to him, but to do so, one must jettison all the documentary and other evidence to the contrary, and entirely disregard the historical, literary, political and cultural context of Shakespeare's time, replacing it with a wholly anachronistic idea of authorship and 'autobiography' (something that, in the modern sense, didn't even exist in Shakespeare's day). One must, in other words, maintain oneself in a condition of profound ignorance about almost everything but one's chosen candidate for 'the man behind the name' (for which, by the way, if one must make it an aristocrat, William Stanley, Earl of Derby, is a much more plausible candidate). One must also entirely devalue that which makes Shakespeare uniquely Shakespeare – his imagination. As James Shapiro writes towards the end of Contested Will, 'What I find most disheartening about the claims that Shakespeare of Stratford lacked the life experience to have written the plays is that it diminishes the very thing that makes him so exceptional: his imagination.'
  But there you are. It seems there's no killing the Oxfordian thesis. It goes from strength to strength, cheerfully flying in the teeth of every new finding of genuine Shakespearean research. It could even be that, as the sea of general ignorance continues to spread, Shakespeare will end up as one of those historical figures of whom everyone 'knows' one thing, and that one thing wrong: Prince Albert wore a penis ring, Mozart was buried in a pauper's grave, and Shakespeare's works were written by the Earl of Oxford. 

Monday 14 November 2022

'Literature appears to have come to an end'

 The 'Books of the Year' features in the more polite newspapers and magazines keep on coming (which is a bit hard on anyone publishing a book in December). As usual, they are best ignored, consisting largely, as they do, of log-rolling, showing-off and polite genuflections to worthy titles that few, including those recommending them, have actually read. However, I was idly glancing at the Spectator's latest batch of 'Books of the Year' when I came across this:

'I'm not saying you have to go back to 1979 and Barbara Windsor's Book of Boobs for a guarantee of excellence ('My boobs will give everyone hours of fun' – which they did), but literature appears to have come to an end. Nothing that's reached me in recent times do I wish to keep on the shelf and reread; nothing of the calibre of Kingsley Amis, Beryl Bainbridge or Muriel Spark exists. I'm sorry she died and everything, but I did think Hilary Mantel frightfully overpraised. Her novels will be placed by history next to Mrs Humphrey Ward's – stock impossible to shift in antiquarian bookshops.'

Blimey. This outspoken fellow is none other than Roger Lewis, whose biography of Charles Hawtrey I greatly enjoyed. He is perhaps a little hard on Hilary Mantel, though I do suspect that some of her earlier novels – eclipsed by the monstrous success of the Wolf Hall trilogy – might be worthier candidates for survival than those three fat volumes. How refreshing it is, though, to read someone's honest – and, I fear, accurate – assessment of the state of things, especially embedded in the annual gushfest of a 'Books of the Year' roundup. Having said which, I must admit that I'm actually buying one of the books recommended...

Thursday 10 November 2022

The ! etc.

 There's a fascinating piece in the current Literary Review about, among other things, 'the evolution of the exclamation mark'. It's written by Florence Hazrat, who has made a speciality of this useful, expressive and much maligned punctuation mark, and is the author of An Admirable Point: A Brief History of the Exclamation Mark! In her Literary Review piece, she takes a look at Jane Austen's punctuation, and the great gulf between her manuscripts as written and her books as published, with respectable full stops, semicolons and quotation marks replacing the dashes, underlinings, abbreviations and exclamation marks of the handwritten original – and, in the process, squeezing much of the life out of her style. Here is a passage from Persuasion, as Austen wrote it: 

'You should have distinguished – replied Anne – You should not have suspected me now; – The case so different, & my age so different! – If I was wrong, in yeilding to Persuasion once, remember that it was to Persuasion exerted on the side of safety, not of Risk. When I yeilded, I thought it was to Duty – But no Duty could be called in aid here. – In marrying a Man indifferent to me, all Risk would have been incurred, & all Duty violated.'

How very much livelier – more readable, indeed – that is than the tidied-up published version. Just imagine if Laurence Sterne had submitted to such 'correct' editing – what would survive? As a long-term fan of the dash and defender of the exclamation mark, I would far sooner read Jane Austen in the manuscript original, with all its brio and immediacy, than in the staid 'corrected' version. Is it possible to do so? Only, it seems, in the very expensive five-volume set of Jane Austen's Fiction Manuscripts edited by Kathryn Sutherland. A shame. 

Wednesday 9 November 2022

Anthony Asquith

 Today is the 120th birthday of the film director Anthony Asquith. His background was extremely posh, even by today's showbiz standards: he was the son of prime minister Herbert Asquith and his wife Margot, and a product of Winchester and Balliol. It seems he entered the film business partly to distance himself from his background and forge a very different path. After leaving university he spent six months in Los Angeles as a guest of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, learning how the film industry worked. Asquith was an alcoholic and, very probably, gay and closeted, but he had an extremely productive career, and left a distinguished legacy of well made, well acted films, from adaptations of his friend Terence Rattigan's The Winslow Boy, French Without Tears and The Browning Version to Pygmalion (Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller) and the Anglo-American wartime drama The Way to the Stars. But his finest achievement was surely The Importance of Being Earnest (1952), one of the best adaptations of a stage play ever made. Here is the classic scene in which Edith Evans's Lady Bracknell interrogates Michael Redgrave's Jack Worthing. Enjoy...

[Historical footnote: As Home Secretary, Anthony Asquith's father signed the order for the arrest of Oscar Wilde in 1895.]

The Future of Tourism?

 The walk to Waitrose – a mile of winding riverside, with willows and alders, reeds and abundant, clamorous waterfowl – is one of the everyday pleasures of living in Lichfield. And arriving there is certainly a pleasanter experience than arriving at most supermarkets. Today I learn, from one of the cashiers (all of whom are friendly and talkative, but not to excess),  that Waitrose is now on the Lichfield tourist trail. Frequent parties of tourists, having marvelled dutifully at the cathedral, descend on the store to sample its very different delights. Is this, I wonder, the future of tourism? Will the Lichfield Heritage Trail be extended to include Waitrose? 

Saturday 5 November 2022

Sigmund Freud, Oxfordian

 I used to think that Nabokov's epithet for Sigmund Freud, 'the Viennese quack', was a little harsh. Having been obliged to read Freud at university (bizarrely, as part of a course on  'The English Moralists'), I found him sometimes impressive, if usually wrong-headed. Since then, having read more about Freud and his methods, particularly his early experiments on 'hysterical' women, I have inclined more to Nabokov's characterisation. Now, in the course of reading James Shapiro's Contested Will, I discover that Freud – whose Oedipal interpretation of Shakespeare I never bought – was an 'Oxfordian', convinced that the works of 'Shakespeare' were in fact written by Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford. Oh dear. This notion, based largely on the researches of the unfortunately named John Thomas Looney, became a loudly buzzing bee in Freud's bonnet, and he never lost an opportunity of pressing Looney's 'Shakespeare' Identified on reluctant recipients. One such was Freud's most devoted disciple, Ernest Jones. In a particularly deplorable episode, Freud responded to the terrible news that Jones's beloved daughter had died, not with the consoling thoughts Jones was pleading for, but with a recommendation that he take his mind off his troubles by investigating Looney's claims about Shakespearean authorship. 
  This callousness silenced even Jones for more than a month, and he hinted at his disappointment  when he did write back. But the hint was lost on Freud, who was more concerned to profess himself 'dissatisfied' by Jones's failure to be suitably impressed by Looney's theory, and treated him to a further lecture on why he and Looney were right. To the end of his days, Freud remained convinced that the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare. Here the Viennese quack becomes the Viennese crackpot.

Thursday 3 November 2022

Serendipitous Reads

My recent reading has been largely dictated by charity-shop serendipity, which is not a bad method (or lack of). Having never read any Rosamond Lehmann, I snapped up a copy of her The Swan in the Evening, which I found to be a fascinating mixture of a memoir of her early years – very sharply and vividly written – and an account of the sudden, shocking death of her beloved daughter, Sally. What happened after Sally's death left her firmly convinced that survival after physical death is a fact of life – but The Swan in the Evening is no spiritualist tract; Lehmann is far too intelligent, and too good a writer, for that. It is simply an account of her own experiences and what she drew from them – consolation of course, but also a new way of looking at the world and the nature of reality. It's an extraordinary book, and would be worth reading just for the recollections of Rosamond's childhood. 
  Next came Ariel: A Literary Life of Jan Morris by Derek Johns, which made a brief appearance on this blog (here).
  Then a book that might be seen as a kind of sequel to The Swan in the EveningThe Perfect Stranger by P.J. Kavanagh, who was Sally Lehmann's husband. Once again it is partly an autobiography and partly a memorial to Sally, but the difference is that Kavanagh's autobiog occupies nearly all the book, and Sally's death occurs right at the end, with nothing about what happened after. The book is in part the story of a truly extraordinary love – one that suddenly made sense of a life that, until he met Sally, had made very little – but it is also a remarkably honest, often funny account of a life that seemed to buffet Kavanagh from one adventure, or stretch of stupefying boredom, to another without much input from him: a Butlin's holiday camp, Switzerland, Paris, war in Korea, Oxford, Barcelona, and finally Java, where Sally died. 
  Here's one of the funnier passages. Kavanagh is trying to get into the BBC (always good for a laugh) and has presented them with a couple of ideas –

'They seemed enthusiastic, sent me away to work the ideas over. I did so – more enthusiasm – I even met the big boss, who delivered an impromptu lecture on the Medium (there was much talk of the Medium in those days) which finished up: "I don't care what it is – Hamlet or I Love Lucy – the script is télevision" (the pros always call it télevision while the rest of the world says televísion) "the script is Tee Vee if you can see it – er – see it – er – visually! ... Isn't that so?" Four heads in the room nodded together like metronomes, four pairs of eyes fastened themselves sightlessly on toe-caps or on the ceiling, lost in wonder at the profundity of this thought."
[I don't remember there being two ways of pronouncing television – the pros' version has prevailed.]

 A little later he tries radio: 

'I did a feature for sound radio on the Pre-Raphaelites. Spent weeks on the British Museum on that, found some interesting stuff and fell in love with Morris. I showed the long-hand draft to a Features producer – more enthusiasm – he stuffed it in his pocket and we went off to celebrate on the strength of it, until I had to drop out through lack of cash. When I next succeeded in tracking him down he confessed that at some stage of the celebration after I'd left him he'd lost it.'

[In the end Kavanagh was given a job as an Assistant Floor Manager in Television – one for which he was spectacularly unsuited. Such is the BBC.]

  And now I'm reading James Shapiro's Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? (found in charity shop this week). This is a terrific read – 'Riveting', Hilary Mantel called it, and she's not far wrong – and offers fascinating insights into the origins and development of the curious, remarkably tenacious idea that the 'man from Stratford' could not possibly have written the works of Shakespeare. Spoiler alert: he did. 

Tuesday 1 November 2022


 In the latest issue of Literary Review – out today – I rave about a wonderful new book, Country Church Monuments by C.B. Newham. This is a subject that is, of course, right up my street. The review goes something like this (but do buy the magazine – it's the best of its kind and deserves more readers)... 

 This big, hefty book – two inches thick and weighing something over two kilograms – fills a big gap. It fills it handsomely, authoritatively, and on a grander scale than I would have thought possible in today’s publishing climate. Its subject is one of this country’s greatest, but least appreciated and most widely dispersed, treasures: the wealth of fine monumental sculpture that has survived in our parish churches, often in remote and out-of-the-way locations where none but the dedicated church crawler is likely to come across it.
Until now, this treasure has, for the most part, been rather sketchily documented, in Pevsner’s Buildings of England and in a few historical and thematic surveys, notably Mrs Esdaile’s pioneering English Church Monuments, 1510 to 1840 and Brian Kemp’s more recent English Church Monuments, neither of which focuses specifically on the monuments in our country churches. But now we have this compendious, lavishly illustrated volume devoted entirely to just those monuments. I have seldom felt such a thrill of pleasure at the arrival of a review copy.
 C.B. Newham was just the man to write this book. He has a prodigious wealth of knowledge about English and Welsh parish churches, is Director of the Parish Church Photographic Survey, and has an archive of more than half a million photographs to draw on, the product of visits to nearly nine thousand churches. More than 365 of these photographs – all full-page and in full colour, each a master class in how to photograph a monument – are included in this volume. They illustrate monuments in 365 churches, all of them in rural parishes or small towns (under 10,000 in population) and outside the orbit of the M25. The choice is, as Newham candidly acknowledges, ‘completely subjective’, though many of these monuments – for example the Montagu memorials at Warkdon, Nollekens’ monument to Maria Howard at Wetheral, Stone’s masterpiece (the monument to Elizabeth, Lady Carey) at Stowe-Nine-Churches – would be on anyone’s list. For myself, I’d have included, among others, the haunting monument to Sir Adrian Scrope at South Cockerington, Epiphanius Evesham’s Hawkins monument at Boughton-under-Blean, and the moving memorial to the Bray children at Great Barrington. But then, what would I have dropped? Beyond a certain point, these things are indeed subjective, and there is such a wealth to choose from.
 Happily, Newham writes fluently and readably, so his book is as enjoyable to read as it is to handle and look at. It begins with an introduction that includes a short history of the development of church monuments from medieval times to the modern era (a period sadly lacking in good monuments). On the current wave of iconoclasm – seeking to remove monuments to people who have offended against present-day norms – Newham writes: ‘We should not expect all monuments to have been set up to entirely morally admirable people, even if they stand in a place of Christian worship. If, on the basis of contemporary moral judgments, we deface monuments or cause them to be taken down, then the debate is stifled and the opportunity to learn from past mistakes is lost. Our future is nothing without our past.’ Indeed. He is not hopeful – who could be? – when he considers the future of our parish churches, but he is heartened by the fact that, in general, our monuments are in good condition, thanks to grants, money-raising campaigns and the efforts of special-interest groups, and some village churches are finding a new lease of life as venues for community activities or local services such as post offices or part-time shops.
 The body of the book is essentially a gazetteer, divided into eight English regions plus Wales, with a short description of each monument and biographical information on the person memorialised (something rarely supplied in Pevsner). The arrangement within each region is chronological, and each monument is numbered, rather pleasingly, in red. At the end of each regional section come the photographs illustrating its monuments, with those red numbers again. This arrangement, once you’ve got the hang of it, makes the book easy to navigate. After the photograph of monument number 365 – an interesting 20th-century ceramic memorial from St Mary, Tenby – comes a section containing short biographies of each sculptor whose work has won a place in the 365. Then the churches featured are listed by county – historical county, that is: hence Great Mitton, home to some remarkable Sherburne monuments, is listed under Yorkshire West Riding, not Lancashire.
 After a list of ‘Monument Storehouses’, churches with especially large numbers of monuments, Newham addresses an issue of pressing interest to all church crawlers and monument seekers: church access. We are all familiar with the frustration of finding churches locked, sometimes with a list of contacts or the name of a key holder, sometimes with no information at all. ‘When it comes to locking churches,’ Newham writes, ‘in most cases there is very little reason for doing so.’ As he points out, the company that insures most of the churches of England and Wales actually recommends that churches be left open during the day, as this makes them less, not more, vulnerable to theft and vandalism. As a way of facilitating access to churches, Newham has developed an app called Keyholder which allows users to record their visiting experiences, give tips on how to obtain access, and share photographs. This covers more than 15,000 churches and has access information for over 80 per cent of them.
But back to the book: with some notes on the care of monuments, a glossary and an index, this splendid volume ends. Or almost: there are also a couple of pages of acknowledgments, in the course of which Newham tells the encouraging story of how this book came about, after the author was contacted by a publisher at Penguin who had heard about his project of photographically recording every rural parish church in England, and wondered if there was a book in it. There certainly was, and a magnificent book it is – a tremendous achievement, a thing of beauty, and a volume that should have a place on every church lover’s shelves.