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.

Monday, 31 October 2022

Rather Special

 Here (with a hat-tip to Struan Robertson) is something rather special – a unique musical encounter between the Byrds and the Earl Scruggs Band – with the background story provided by the man who managed to film it, despite the antics of one R. McGuinn. The music-making is just wonderful. Enjoy...

The Avenue

 All Hallows' Eve, and a big day for birthdays – notably John Keats (born 1795), the diarist and gardener John Evelyn (1620), and two painters of the Dutch Golden Age: Johannes Vermeer (1632) and, born in 1638, Meindert Hobbema. 
  A pupil of Jacob van Ruisdael, Hobbema was a fine landscape painter, with a particular gift for painting trees, an essential element in his best compositions. The most famous, and one of the greatest of all Dutch landscape paintings, is his extraordinary The Avenue at Middelharnis, one of the treasures of our own National Gallery. A strikingly geometrical composition, almost like an advanced exercise in perspective, it has long fascinated other artists, including Van Gogh. Oddly, The Avenue of Middelharnis was one of the paintings that haunted my boyhood, as it was reproduced in one of the books I browsed in endlessly (The Book of Everlasting Things? A Thousand Beautiful Things?). And another was Van Gogh's The Painter on the Road to Tarascon, a painting with something of a Middelharnis feel, which (this must have been in an encyclopaedia) I remember as being  represented in yellow, cyan and magenta to illustrate three-colour printing. The original went missing in the bombing of Germany during the Hitler War – a sad loss.

Sunday, 30 October 2022

A Late Butterfly and a Surprising Resemblance

 And in Lichfield this morning, walking by the remains of the medieval friary, I spotted something flying frenetically from ivy bush to old stone wall and darting around at speed in jagged circles. It was a Painted Lady! One of very few I've seen this year, and a very late one. There's nothing like a late butterfly to lift the heart (unless it's an early one as spring gets under way)...

   And then, in the sweetshop where I was buying a few Halloween treats for the grandchildren, the very nice woman behind the counter looked at me in a slightly startled manner and said, 'You look just like Sir Ian McKellen.' This was a new one on me. 'People must tell you that all the time, don't they?' she asked. Well, no, I replied truthfully, though I've been told I'm the living spit of many another thespian (most pleasingly Jimmy Stewart). 'Your height, your build,' she continued, 'the way you carry yourself.' Gulp. Do I carry myself like Ian McKellen? I had better work on that...

A Do and a Window

 So, after but one day of residence in Lichfield, it was off again, this time to Pangbourne on the Berkshire Thames, for a family do – not quite a wedding but a joyous celebration of a rather wonderful case of late love. We stayed overnight in what was very self-consciously a 'boutique hotel', where, to judge (perhaps unfairly) by the bedroom we were in, interior design had run riot, and the relentlessly pursued 'theme' (a wild mashup of Indian, Far Eastern and East Indian) prevailed over such old-school notions as comfort and amenity. Hotels these days mostly seem to fall into one of two camps: International Bland or Boutique Bonkers, with fewer and fewer in between these poles. By and large, I prefer the first; at least it's restful, which is rather the point of a hotel, isn't it?
  But enough of hotels. It was a gloriously sunny autumn afternoon when we arrived, and I was soon out for a look around the village – and, of course, the church, dedicated to St James the Less (as against St James the Least of All, one of the rivalrous churches in Augustus Carp, Esq, by Himself). This is Victorian, all but the tower, with a pleasant, if rather fussy, interior and some interesting tablets commemorating military men, including a young officer who died in Bengal and is remembered 'with deep love and affection' by an unrelated Major-General. But the glory of the church is the handsome East window, a blaze of light and colour, by the late Arts and Crafts stained-glass designer Karl Parsons. This too is a memorial window, to a member of the local Armstrong family and to all the men of the parish who died in the Great War. There's a detail from the central panels above, and another detail that made a rather lovely Christmas stamp in 1992, below. 

        And now it's Lichfield again, for rather longer this time... 

Sunday, 23 October 2022

The Last Day in the Old Home

 The painting above, The Last Day in the Old Home by Robert Braithwaite Martineau, was hugely popular with the Victorian public, who liked a picture that not only told a story but punched home a barrage of strong moral lessons. 
Chez Nige, I'm glad to say things don't look much like the scene depicted by Martineau, but today is indeed the last day in the old home before it's all packed up and carted away, mostly into storage. Mrs N and I will follow in due course and by Wednesday will have waved farewell to the suburban demiparadise and settled in the delightful 'city of philosophers', Lichfield, from where I shall resume my dispatches. Hasta la vista.

Friday, 21 October 2022

Coleridge Unveiled

 Today, on the 250th anniversary of his birth, a statue of Samuel Taylor Coleridge was unveiled outside the (magnificent) church in his natal town of Ottery St Mary, Devon. The statue is by Nicholas Dimbleby, son of broadcasting legend Richard and brother of David and Jonathan (he is, by all accounts, the 'quiet one' of the three). This picture of the statue in the studio, before casting, shows it to better advantage, I think...

It shows the young poet and outdoor man, full of energy and promise and idealism (and sometimes touched by genius), rather than the bloated old windbag he became. (Seriously, has Biographia Literaria ever given anyone an iota of reading pleasure?). It's good to know there are figurative sculptors at work who can create convincing full-length public portrait sculpture of this quality. Why, one wonders, do those who clearly lack the ability get so many big commissions? The Diana statue?! The Lovers at St Pancras...?!
Never mind. Here is another by Dimbleby, his statue of Whistler on Chelsea embankment. 

Wednesday, 19 October 2022

Joan Carlile

'There are mystically in our faces certain characters which carry in them the motto of our souls, wherein he that cannot read A, B, C may read our natures.' The best-known image of Sir Thomas Browne (born on this day in 1605) is taken from this double portrait of Lady Dorothy and Sir Thomas, painted by one Joan Carlile, who has the distinction of being one of the first British women to paint professionally. She was married to Lodowick  Carlile (or Carlell), a playwright and courtier, who under Charles I was Gentleman of the Bows and Groom to the King and Queen's Privy Chamber, and maintained the post of Keeper of the Great Forest at Richmond Park through the Commonwealth period, and with it the handsome residence of Petersham Lodge. The Carliles had three children, and are buried in Petersham churchyard. Of Joan Carlile's paintings, rather few survive, mostly portraits. As the Browne double portrait shows, her style borders on the naive, but is lively and charming. She was capable of working on a much larger scale, and the grandest of her surviving paintings, combining landscape with portraiture, shows The Carlile Family with Sir Justinian Isham in Richmond Park. Sir Justinian was a scholar and Royalist politician, and the painting hangs at his family seat, Lamport Hall in Northamptonshire. Joan Carlile is thought to be the figure at the far left. 

Monday, 17 October 2022

'I think they should be discouraged'


Here is that fine poet Elizabeth Bishop, in a Paris Review interview in 1978: 'When I went to Vassar I took sixteenth-century, seventeenth-century and eighteenth-century literature, and then a course in the novel. The kind of courses where you have to do a lot of reading. I don't think I believe in writing courses at all. There weren't any when I was there. ...The word "creative" drives me crazy. I don't like to regard it as therapy. I was in the hospital several years ago and somebody gave me Kenneth Koch's book Rose, Where Did You Get That Red?* And It's true, children sometimes write wonderful things, paint wonderful pictures, but I think they should be discouraged. From everything I've read and heard, the number of students in English departments taking literature courses has been falling off enormously. But at the same time the number of people who want to get in the writing classes seems to get bigger and bigger.' I'm sure the situation she describes in the universities is the same, only more so, today. The overvaluing of 'creativity' and the undervaluing of reading, specifically as an essential bedrock for any attempt at creative writing, has had dire effects both on writing (especially poetry) and on education. While I wouldn't quite go along with actively discouraging children from writing (though there are plenty of adults who should be firmly discouraged), I certainly think teaching them to read books and learn from their reading should take precedence over any encouragement of creative writing. The playwright Tennessee Williams also took a dim view of creative writing classes, and had kept and reread Bishop's interview. In an interview with James Grissom in 1982, Williams gave his formula for learning to be a writer:
'Read. Read a lot. Go home. Be quiet. Write. Write some more. It will soon be discovered if you are a writer. Classes are not for discovery; they are for stipends.' * In which Koch seeks to show how great poetry can be taught in such a way as to help children write poetry of their own. Koch also co-edited a beautiful illustrated anthology of 'poems for young people', Talking to the Sun. The illustrations are all of paintings and other treasures of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the choice of poems is wide and wonderful.

Sunday, 16 October 2022

No Humans Standing

 I feel I really ought to say something about recent events in the corridors of power (as they once were, before the financial markets and the media took command). But what is there left to say? Perhaps the most depressing aspect of it all is that it seems to have left no humans standing. Hunt, Sunak and Starmer – and indeed La Truss – are clearly CGI simulations, as are most of those around them. I have a suspicion Kwarteng might possibly be a human (at least he was a classicist rather than yet another PPE product), but now we'll never know. It could well be that Boris Johnson, for all his only too evident faults, was the last human in British politics. Which is why his lot were elected with such a thumping majority, and why they'll lose next time, and why no one really cares any more...
Maybe it really is time for the resurgent SDP (the party Rod Liddle's always on about) to sweep to power?

On a happier note, today is the birthday of the great illustrator and bringer of joy Edward Ardizzone (born 1900), who gets mentioned quite often on this blog. I have fond memories of this exhibition from six years ago. 

Wednesday, 12 October 2022

Another Big One

 Today was one of the year's big cultural anniversaries – the 150th of the birth of Ralph Vaughan Williams, born on this day in 1872 in the village of Down Ampney, Gloucestershire, where his father (who died two years later) was the vicar. I have opined on this blog that, for me, he was the greatest English composer since Purcell, and I don't see myself changing that opinion. Here, to mark the great day, is one of my favourites, Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus, which does wonderful things with the folk tune to which RVW also set the hymn 'I heard the voice of Jesus say' – 

Tuesday, 11 October 2022

'I learned a lot about anatomy but didn't find the book'

 'When you are growing up, there are two institutional places that affect you most powerfully: the church, which belongs to God, and the public library, which belongs to you.'
These wise words were spoken (in an interview) by erstwhile hard-living, hell-raising wild man of rock Keith Richards. He is well known to be a bibliophile with an extensive personal library (extending across several of his homes), and in 1998 he hit the headlines when he fell off his library steps (I like to imagine him wearing a smoking jacket and cap when this happened). Richards broke three ribs and punctured a lung in the fall, and afterwards remarked, 'I was looking for Leonardo da Vinci's book on anatomy. I learned a lot about anatomy but didn't find the book.'
At one time Richards decided to get his burgeoning library properly organised, and seriously considered taking a professional course in the mysteries of the Dewey decimal system, but he gave up the idea in favour of organised chaos, the default position of most bookmen. I wonder if he has a copy of that indispensable vade mecum My Duties As My Own Librarian by Arthur H. Jenn and Edward P. Gray...

Monday, 10 October 2022

Singing Doughty in the Bath

Reading my latest charity bookshop purchase – Ariel: A Literary Life of Jan Morris, by Derek Johns (with line drawings by Jan Morris) – I learn that Morris early in his career fell under the spell of Charles Doughty's Travels in Arabia Deserta. This is one of those books that is deeply enchanting to some and quite unreadable to others. James (as he then was) Morris was very much in the former camp: 'It called to me out of desert lands,' Jan recalled in an interview, 'but its meanings were less seductive to me than its sensually exciting rhythms ... For years I used to sing its opening paragraph in the bath, to a melody of my own invention.' That would have been something to hear... 
This is that opening paragraph:

'A new voice hailed me of an old friend when, first returned from the Peninsula, I paced again in that long street of Damascus which is called Straight; and suddenly taking me wondering by the hand, "Tell me (said he), since thou art here again in the peace and assurance of Ullah, and whilst we walk, as in the former years, toward the new blossoming orchards, full of the sweet Spring as the garden of God, what moved thee, or how couldst thou take such journeys into the fanatic Arabia?"'

Happily Doughty does not seem to have had much effect on Morris's literary style. A more benign influence was surely Kinglake's Eothen, the first book Morris read on the Middle East, an idiosyncratic and hugely enjoyable masterpiece. Here is the opening paragraph of Eothen:

 'At Semlin I still was encompassed by the scenes and the sounds of familiar life; the din of a busy world still vexed and cheered me; the unveiled faces of women still shone in the light of day. Yet, whenever I chose to look southward, I saw the Ottoman's fortress – austere, and darkly impending high over the vale of the Danube – historic Belgrade. I had come, as it were, to the end of this wheel-going Europe, and now my eyes would see the splendour and havoc of the East.'

That seems to me rather more musical than Doughty's paragraph, but I wouldn't care to sing either in the bath. 

Sunday, 9 October 2022

Lush Life

 Until I happened to hear it on Radio 3 yesterday (at which point I suspended all activity and listened awestruck until it was over), I had somehow never come across Billy Strayhorn's brilliant song 'Lush Life', nor this perfect rendition of it by Ella Fitzgerald, with Duke Ellington (though I believe she had a different accompanist on the Radio 3 version). Listen and marvel at the sheer artistry of all concerned...

'those brilliant creatures...'

 This has been a beautiful autumn (here in the Southeast at least), with plenty of warmth and mellow sunshine, to say nothing of a prodigious abundance of conkers and just about every other tree fruit.
Here is a fittingly seasonal poem, a well-known and rather beautiful one, by Yeats (of the baleful influence)...

The Wild Swans at Coole
The trees are in their autumn beauty,	 
The woodland paths are dry,	 
Under the October twilight the water	 
Mirrors a still sky;	 
Upon the brimming water among the stones	         
Are nine and fifty swans.	 
The nineteenth Autumn has come upon me	 
Since I first made my count;	 
I saw, before I had well finished,	 
All suddenly mount	  
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings	 
Upon their clamorous wings.	 
I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,	 
And now my heart is sore.	 
All's changed since I, hearing at twilight,	  
The first time on this shore,	 
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,	 
Trod with a lighter tread.	 
Unwearied still, lover by lover,	 
They paddle in the cold,	  
Companionable streams or climb the air;	 
Their hearts have not grown old;	 
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,	 
Attend upon them still.	 
But now they drift on the still water	  
Mysterious, beautiful;	 
Among what rushes will they build,	 
By what lake's edge or pool	 
Delight men's eyes, when I awake some day	 
To find they have flown away?

Coole Park was in Yeats's day the home of Lady Gregory, who entertained the poet there and assiduously looked after him – so much so that he once said of her, 'I doubt I should have done much with my life but for her firmness and care.' Coole Park is today a nature reserve, part of an important wetland system, but its literary associations remain in evidence, and the Autograph Tree – a Copper Beech on which Lady Gregory's literary guests carved their initials – still stands. To judge by the photograph below, one George Bernard Shaw was especially determined to make his mark. No surprise there.

Saturday, 8 October 2022

Hail Again, Zog!

 Today being the birthday of King Zog of Albania (born 1895), and your humble servant being embroiled yet again in house move-related busyness, I take the liberty of reprinting a piece I posted on this day in 2009 –

'Today is the birthday of the self-proclaimed King Zog of Albania (born 1895), a glamorous, high-living figure who reigned as constitutional monarch from 1928 to 1939, replaced Islamic law with a Swiss-style civil code, survived more than 50 assassination attempts – in one of which he exchanged fire with his would-be assassins – invented the Zogist salute (right hand flat over the heart, palm facing downwards), was deposed by Mussolini, and ended his days as a Riviera recluse.
The throne of Albania seems for a while to have exerted a strange fascination. The cricketer – or rather, in John Arlott's phrase, 'the most variously gifted Englishman of any age' – C.B. Fry claimed he was offered it while on League of Nations business in Geneva in 1920. He might well have been – but one Otto Witte, a German circus acrobat and fantasist, claimed to have gone one better and been crowned King of Albania in 1913. Noting his resemblance to a nephew of the Sultan who had been invited by some Albanian Muslims to assume the throne, Witte travelled to Albania with a sword-swallower friend, and was duly acclaimed as King by local troops. In the five days before his ruse was discovered, he enjoyed the delights of the harem and took the opportunity to declare war on Montenegro. Unsurprisingly, no evidence was ever found to support Witte's story –but the Berlin police allowed him to describe himself as 'former King of Albania' on his identity card. I wouldn't be surprised if Albania's national hero, Norman Wisdom*, regales his captive audience at the twilight home where he now resides with tales of how he too was offered the throne of Albania.'

* Now no longer with us. Wisdom's films were the only Western movies the dictator Enver Hoxha allowed to be shown in Albania. This was perhaps to kill off any desire in the population to defect to the West. 

Wednesday, 5 October 2022

A Fire and a New World

This remarkable painting of spectators watching a fire raging through the San Marcuola district of Venice is a late work by Francesco Guardi, born on this day 310 years ago. Guardi used to get lumped in with Canaletto as another accomplished vedutista, but it soon became apparent that he was a much more interesting and original figure than that. Many of his paintings are 'caprices', imaginary scenes built around an architectural landscape of his own invention rather than what was before his eyes. With his free brushwork and subdued palette, he created a pictorial world far removed from Canaletto's crisply linear topographical works, something closer to Piazzetta
  I would place the picture above with Domenico Tiepolo's The New World (below) as one of the great paintings of the Venetian decadence. Both show the backs of a gawping crowd, gawping at the last novelties and spectacles of a world that is passing away, a decadent, outworn society amusing itself as it awaits its inevitable fate (The New World was completed in the year in which Venice fell to Napoleon). Both are infused with a very Venetian melancholy, the feeling of Browning's 'A Toccata of Galuppi's'. 'Dust and ashes, dead and done with, Venice spent what Venice earned...'

Sunday, 2 October 2022


 On the radio this morning, I heard the creator of the recent BBC TV series Marriage talking about the show and its divisive effect on viewers and critics, many of whom loved it and many of whom, myself included, were deeply unimpressed. He seemed like a nice chap, and I warmed to him as he talked feelingly about the dire state of TV drama and its ever increasing distance from anything like life as it is actually lived and people as they actually are. Marriage was a well intentioned attempt to return TV drama to something like real life – but I still think (having somehow ended up watching the whole series) that it was a failure, largely because it was, as so many viewers pointed out, dull. But let's be clear about the nature of that dulness: it was not dull because nothing happened. As someone once said, Waiting for Godot is a play in which 'nothing happens – twice', but it is an enthralling drama and has become a classic. In TV drama, I remember another series in which virtually nothing happened – Roger and Val Have Just Got In, with Dawn French and Alfred Molina. That was ten years ago now, but it still lingers in my memory, and it was utterly gripping at the time. Why? Because the characters at the centre of it (in fact the only characters we see) were so fully imagined and compellingly drawn, as well as brilliantly acted; the script made us believe in them, and want to know what was going on between them – what had happened, why were they the way they were? The direction and editing were tight, intensifying our interest in this seemingly ordinary couple doing nothing very much, and the script said enough and said it naturally, without the contrived pauses, silences and aborted utterances that were so plentiful in Marriage. There, the script was too sketchy to carry much weight,  and the characters too felt sketched in rather than fully realised. As for the direction, with its endless longueurs, this did nothing to dispel the sense of dulness – not the dulness of nothing happening but the dulness of a drama that is ultimately underdeveloped, underimagined.   
  On the radio, the show's creator told how he wrote Marriage during lockdown, just as he was discovering for the first time the music of Bach, which he now listens to to the exclusion of almost anything else. Another reason to warm to him. What a shame he didn't use some Bach as the music for Marriage, rather than that bizarre 'To the side, to the side' business that broke in at the end of every episode. 

Saturday, 1 October 2022


 Born on this day in 1903 – in Kyiv, as it happens – was the pianist Vladimir Horowitz (pictured above, cutting a rug at Studio 54 in 1978). A dazzlingly virtuosic player, he became ever more the showman as his career progressed, but he had his quieter moments, and did much to bring Scarlatti's extraordinary body of work to the attention of the concert-going public. Here he is playing Scarlatti's beautiful B minor sonata...

Friday, 30 September 2022

Coins of the Realm

 First the cypher, now the coins. A 50p piece and a £5 coin have been minted with the head of our new King in profile, facing left (to alternate, as is traditional, with the right-facing Queen).  The designs are pleasing, the abbreviated royal titles are all present and correct, and Charles was probably right to keep to the English form of his name. As for the face, it seems to me very well done – naturalistic enough, but with a certain regal presence. I see the image was created (from photographs, rather than a sitting) by the sculptor Martin Jennings – his first coin commission. Jennings is the man who made two of the country's finest public portrait sculptures (both of them wearing raincoats)  – John Betjeman at St Pancras and Philip Larkin in Hull. He seems to be just as good working on a much smaller scale. 
Coins with the Queen's head on will of course continue to circulate until they are eventually withdrawn. It will be like the old days, when in my boyhood coins from all previous reigns back to Victoria (except Edward VIII) were in circulation, and it was still possible to get a badly worn Victorian 'bun penny' in your change. Today's coinage is less sturdy stuff, and is not expected to last more than 20 years. 
(PS: The BBC News piece I've linked to contains a very strange use of the word 'effigy'. I'm sure no effigy was made of Charles.)

Wednesday, 28 September 2022

'A rapture none but a naturalist can ever know...'

 'The death of the butterfly is the one draw back to an entymological [sic] career...'
So reflects Margaret Fountaine, the dauntless and altogether extraordinary Victorian butterfly collector, about whom I have written here before. She has only recently discovered the love of butterflies that has lain dormant in her till she is in her late twenties, and is indulging her newfound passion (for butterflies, that is, not her latest crush) in the countryside outside Florence. A short while before, she recalls, 'All of a sudden a large butterfly of the Vanessa tribe whirled high above my head. "A Red Admiral," I think to myself, but that was no Red Admiral, and with a rapture none but a naturalist can ever know I recognise no other than a Camberwell Beauty.' 
  I am finally reading Love Among the Butterflies: The Travels and Adventures of a Victorian Lady, Margaret Fountaine, edited by W.F. Cater from Miss Fountaine's extraordinarily candid diaries, and first published in 1980 after a very successful serialisation in the Sunday Times. It is a superb editing job, Cater reducing the voluminous diaries to something grippingly readable – a page-turner indeed – with his own elegant linking passages maintaining the flow, and Victorian-style chapter headings ( Astonishing forwardness; An unseemly letter – and a smuggled one; Impropriety penalised – tears of despair; Horrors of intemperance – the vanishing chorister; A bold resolution – cupidity and passion...')  drawing the reader into the next part of the story. I am greatly enjoying the ride.
  The awakening of Margaret Fountaine's dormant passion for butterflies occurred in the fittingly Nabokovian setting of a mountain valley in Switzerland, in the countryside near the village of Saint-Jean. Nabokov lived on the Swiss riviera from 1961 to his death in 1977 and spent much of his non-writing time blissfully chasing butterflies, especially his beloved Blues, in the mountain pastures.  

Tuesday, 27 September 2022

Queues and Cyphers

There was an unusually long queue in the supermarket – so long that the head of it was out of sight. 'Oh well,' said the man ahead of me, 'so long as the Queen's coffin's at the end of it...' A nice example, I thought, of stoical English humour, and of our mastery of the art of queuing, in which we surely lead the world. Those days of patient, good-humoured queuing to silently file past the royal catafalque showed the watching world how these thing should be done, as did the impeccably managed pageantry that accompanied the funeral itself. I found it gratifying that we can still do these things so well (largely, I suspect, because much of the organisation is in the hands of the armed forces), and the behaviour of the queues showed that English decency, quiet humour and restraint – three of the late Queen's signal virtues – still thrive in the population at large. As so often, the impression of the nature of this country given by the commentariat and the media, especially social media, is wide of the reality. Not that this lesson will have been learned; we are already back to business as usual. 

Meanwhile the new King has chosen his royal cypher – 

That's a Tudor crown, rather than the St Edward's crown that surmounted his mother's cypher. Let's hope that means he's serious about being Defender of the Faith. As for the cypher, it's serviceable and effective, but I was hoping for a little more dash. Here is what his predecessor Queen Anne managed to do with only the letters A and R to work with –

                                                                That's more like it. 

Monday, 26 September 2022

Guess the Author

 It's time for a poem. Without prior knowledge (or recourse to Google), I doubt many people would guess the author of this one – 


The wind blew all my wedding-day,
And my wedding-night was the night of the high wind;
And a stable door was banging, again and again,
That he must go and shut it, leaving me
Stupid in candlelight, hearing rain,
Seeing my face in the twisted candlestick,
Yet seeing nothing. When he came back
He said the horses were restless, and I was sad
That any man or beast that night should lack
The happiness I had.

                                   Now in the day
All's ravelled under the sun by the wind's blowing.
He has gone to look at the floods, and I
Carry a chipped pail to the chicken-run,
Set it down, and stare. All is the wind
Hunting through clouds and forests, thrashing
My apron and the hanging cloths on the line.
Can it be borne, this bodying-forth by wind
Of joy my actions turn on, like a thread
Carrying beads? Shall I be let to sleep
Now this perpetual morning shares my bed?
Can even death dry up
These new delighted lakes, conclude
Our kneeling as cattle by all-generous waters?

Well, it is Philip Larkin, here clearly in thrall to 'Yeats of the baleful influence'* and writing in a lyrical neo-romantic vein. He signed off on 'Wedding-Wind' on this day in 1946, and it appeared first in the typescript In The Grip of Light, then in XX Poems (1951) and again in The Less Deceived (1955). Clearly Larkin was not ashamed of it – nor need he have been: it is beautiful in its way (a way very different from the mature Larkin), evocative and tender, with happiness and delight, infrequent visitors to Larkin's world, allowed an outing. At the time he wrote this, he would have been working on A Girl in Winter, which also sees the world wholly through a woman's eyes – something Larkin was very good at, but did less and less as his art became more masculine and bluff. 

* 'Who are the great poets of our time, and what are their names?
    Yeats of the baleful influence, Auden of the baleful influence, Eliot of the baleful influence...'
Kenneth Koch 'Fresh Air'