Sunday 27 February 2022

Geffrye, Veldkamp, Goss

 Yesterday to Shoreditch to visit the Geffrye Museum, as it used to be known; it's now the Museum of the Home. It's a whole lot more user-friendly, family-friendly, high-tech and multi-media than it was when I was last there, but then that was upward of 30 years ago. The suite of domestic interiors from various periods that form the core of the museum occupy fine early 18th-cetury almshouses endowed by Sir Robert Geffrye, a wealthy merchant and Lord Mayor of London. He was also, like anyone with any money at that time, an investor in the Atlantic slave trade, and even had a share in the ownership of a slave ship. He is therefore in the crosshairs of the new iconoclasts, and plans are afoot to remove the statue of Geffrye that stands over the entrance to the chapel and put it somewhere less conspicuous where it can be 'contextualised'. I don't know if there are also plans to 'do a Jesus' and remove the very grand memorial plaque that is an equally conspicuous feature of the chapel interior, but if so, they will no doubt have the full backing of Justin Welby. It occurred to me recently that anyone with any money now, even if it's only in a basic pension fund, will almost certainly be investing in fossil fuel production. Could it be that future generations will judge us as harshly for that as the 'woke' of today judge historical figures for any investment in slavery? On present trends, I wouldn't rule it out...
  After the Geffrye, we (my cousin and I) walked along the canal towards St Pancras in dazzling low sunlight. Along the way, we dropped in on a canalside gallery, where there was an exhibition, titled Ghost Stories, of paintings by a young(ish) American-Dutch-Surinamese called Miko Veldkamp. I had never heard of him before, but liked much of what I saw. His paintings, quite large and freely painted, are a kind of palimpsest, with images from different times and places showing through the shimmering surface. In this they reminded me of the work of another young(ish) artist, Nick Goss, whose work I happened on at Pallant House a while ago, sharing space with the Harold Gilman exhibition, though Veldkamp's palette is generally much brighter. There is real beauty, or so it seems to me, in many of the paintings in Ghost Stories, and two or three I would happily have walked away with. It's good to know there are still artists who are painting seriously and well. That's one of Veldkamp's at the top, and you can read about him, and see more of his work, here, though his paintings don't reproduce well. You have to see them. 


Friday 25 February 2022

A Microscopic Contribution to Larkin Studies

 I'm reading Philip Larkin's first novel, Jill, published in 1946 and subsequently dismissed by its author as a piece of juvenilia best forgotten.  A harsh judgment, I think, but from what I've read so far it it is certainly not in the same league as his wonderful second novel, A Girl in Winter. The edition of Jill I'm reading (a Faber reissue of 1975) includes an amusing Introduction by Larkin, apparently written for a 1963 reissue, sharing his memories of wartime Oxford and the friends he made there, including of course Kingsley Amis. When Jill came out, Amis wrote in a letter that 'he had enjoyed it very much, adding that its binding reminded him of Signal Training: Telegraphy and Telephony, or possibly Ciceronis Orationes. Later he reported that he had seen a copy in a shop in Coventry Street between Naked and Unashamed and High-Heeled Yvonne.' But to my minuscule (and quite possibly not even original) contribution to Larkin studies...
  An early section of the novel looks back to the sixth-form years of its working-class (unheroic) hero, a scholarship lad from 'Huddlesford', who is being tutored, reluctantly and without much expectation of success, by a somewhat disaffected teacher called Mr Crouch. Here is Mr Crouch restoring order in the classroom...
'The faint hum of the classroom as the industrious worked and the idlers idled came suddenly to his ears, and he brought the flat of his hand down with a sharp smack on the desk.
  Everybody looked up.
  "There is too much chatter at the moment," he remarked evenly. "It will be very unpleasant for anyone I catch talking. Bleaney, come up here."'
Yes, Bleaney. There's a surname that must have lingered in Larkin's mind, returning to the surface as the curious but somehow appropriate name of the former tenant in that bleak poem, Mister Bleaney...

‘This was Mr Bleaney’s room. He stayed
The whole time he was at the Bodies, till
They moved him.’ Flowered curtains, thin and frayed,
Fall to within five inches of the sill,

Whose window shows a strip of building land,
Tussocky, littered. ‘Mr Bleaney took
My bit of garden properly in hand.’
Bed, upright chair, sixty-watt bulb, no hook

Behind the door, no room for books or bags —
‘I’ll take it.’ So it happens that I lie
Where Mr Bleaney lay, and stub my fags
On the same saucer-souvenir, and try

Stuffing my ears with cotton-wool, to drown
The jabbering set he egged her on to buy.
I know his habits — what time he came down,
His preference for sauce to gravy, why

He kept on plugging at the four aways —
Likewise their yearly frame: the Frinton folk
Who put him up for summer holidays,
And Christmas at his sister’s house in Stoke.

But if he stood and watched the frigid wind
Tousling the clouds, lay on the fusty bed
Telling himself that this was home, and grinned,
And shivered, without shaking off the dread

That how we live measures our own nature,
And at his age having no more to show
Than one hired box should make him pretty sure
He warranted no better, I don’t know.

'The Bodies' refers to the section of a car factory where the bodies are assembled, though of course it carries other resonances in the poem. 'Plugging at the four aways' is a reference to that former national pastime, the football pools, 'aways' being away wins. The two closing stanzas of the poem are something of a tour de force, unfolding as one long sentence expressing a dread that is surely the narrator's own and wondering if Mr Bleaney felt it too, only to conclude with a shrugging 'I don't know'. Indeed. 

Wednesday 23 February 2022

A Bit of Handel

 As Handel was born on this day (in 1685), I'll take the opportunity to air this duet, one of the most beautiful ever written, IMHO...

Tuesday 22 February 2022

A Gill Commission

 On the 140th birthday of that controversial figure, Eric Gill ('A terrible man, a terrible man, a terrible, terrible, terrible man,' as Vic and Bob would put it), this alphabet – blameless, I trust – is a reminder of what a great letter designer he was. Amazingly, the lettering was designed for W.H. Smith & Co, who at the time (1903) had as their chairman St John Hornby, Arts and Crafts patron, lettering connoisseur and proprietor of his own private press, the Ashendene. He commissioned Gill to go to Paris, where W.H.Smith had a bookshop and English tearoom, and paint the fascia board lettering and other signage. Smith's continued to employ Gill to paint its lettering for a couple of years, but in 1905, to save money, they handed the job to their in-house signwriters. However, the company stuck to the Gill design for many years (before it began its long descent into a trashy snack emporium and low-grade stationer). Gill's lettering was in fact an early example of something we now take for granted – corporate identity. 

Monday 21 February 2022

Chamberlain's Butterfly

 This attractive Caribbean butterfly is Chamberlain's Yellow (Pyrisitia chamberlaini), and it is named after none other than Neville Chamberlain, the much maligned prime minister who tried to buy peace by appeasing Hitler (a policy supported by most of the population at the time). When Chamberlain was a young man, his father sent him to the Bahamas to establish a plantation that he hoped would revive the family fortunes. In the event, the plantation failed, but young Neville enjoyed himself exploring the insect life of the islands, especially the butterflies. Of those he collected, the yellow beauty above turned out to be a new species, initially assigned to the genus Eurema, then reassigned to Pyrisitia (you can never rely on binomials to stay the same for long). 
  Chamberlain remained a keen naturalist and, in particular, butterfly collector throughout his life. Despite his thoroughly urbanised appearance and trademark rolled umbrella, he was a countryman, while Stanley Baldwin, though blessed with the demeanour of a down-to-earth farmer, was no such thing. Chamberlain is said to have grumbled to a colleague that 'I know every flower; S.B. knows none. I shoot and fish; S.B. does neither. Yet he is known as the countryman and I as the townsman.' Chamberlain simply didn't look the part – and that, in politics as elsewhere, is half the battle. 
  Another leading politician with a serious interest in natural history was the great bird man Sir Edward Grey, about whom I have written before (here). And then there was Winston Churchill, a keen butterfly man, whose interest in the insects was, later in life, largely aesthetic. At Chartwell shortly before the war, he embarked on an ambitious project to breed and release the extinct (in Britain) Black-Veined White and the Continental Swallowtail. Despite the expert assistance of the well known 'butterfly farmer' L. Hugh Newman, these efforts ended ignominiously when the Chartwell gardeners cut down and burned the fennel plants on which the Swallowtail larvae were feeding, then mistakenly destroyed the muslin bags containing the Black-Veined White larvae. You can't win them all...

Saturday 19 February 2022

The Shortest Way to Winchester

 For some unknown reason, I keep getting quotations from Bertrand Russell flung at me via Facebook, complete with photographs of the man, looking superior and sucking on a pipe  – not the best way to start the day. Today's quotation was rather good though – well, it made me smile – so I'll share it here, even if the sharing does condemn me to a lifetime of Bertrand bombardment via Facebook:

'These modern philosophers remind me of a shopkeeper of whom I once asked the shortest way to Winchester. He called to a man in the back premises:
'Gentleman wants to know the shortest way to Winchester.'
'Winchester?' an unseen voice replied.
'Way to Winchester?'
'Shortest way?'

He wanted to get the nature of the question clear, but took no interest in answering it. This is exactly what modern philosophy does for the earnest seeker after truth. Is it surprising that young people turn to other studies? '

Well, quite. 

Friday 18 February 2022

'Following a short address by the President and the inspection of a ruin...'

 I am reading, for pleasure and research, David Easton Allen's The Naturalist in Britain: A Social History (1976), a ground-breaking (and notably well written) work that takes as its epigraph an utterance of Ralph Waldo Emerson: 'All the facts in natural history, taken by themselves, have no value, but are barren like a single sex. But marry it to human history, and it is full of life.' Well, Allen's book certainly is.
  In his chapter on the formation of field clubs, those popular and characteristic features of natural history in this country, Allen notes the British taste for 'a curious mixture of gravity and gaiety, a blend of the formal with the informal'. Ever eager to form clubs and societies of the like-minded, the British would invariably lay down an impressive formal framework of meetings, minutes, regalia, collections and proceedings, while at the same time providing ample opportunity for convivial gaiety. With 'exact limits drawn and observed between private and public business', there was scope for plenty of fun under the guise of instruction and self-improvement. Picnic outings, open to both sexes, were especially popular, and Allen gives an account of one that was held in 1861 in Bradgate Park by the Leicester Literary and Philosophical Society:
'Some 70 or 80 members and their guests assembled at the gates and, after being officially welcomed by the Mayor, marched into the Park with the Volunteer Rifle Band at their head. Following a short address by the President and the inspection of a ruin, lemonade, apple wine and sherry were freely distributed, the band struck up a lively air and a number of the company danced. An open-air lecture on 'The Geology of Leicestershire' came next, for which the speaker was given three cheers. An excellent tea was then 'partaken of with vigour' at a nearby inn, after which there was another lecture (three cheers again) followed by more dancing; until finally, towards dusk, no doubt thoroughly exhausted, the party broke up and the members made for home.' 
  The presence of ladies on these occasions was not to everyone's taste. When Charles Kingsley (the famous author and muscular Christian) came to Chester as Canon of the cathedral, he founded the Chester Society of Natural Science, Literature and Art. This proved to be a runaway success, and the Society's excursions attracted many wives, daughters and girlfriends, much to the disgust of Kingsley, who was once heard to remark: 'Those good ladies quite spoilt my day – but what can you do? When they get to a certain age you must either treat them like duchesses or sh-sh-shoot them!' (He had a slight stammer that he never quite shook off.)
  However, there was no way of keeping the ladies away from the fun, and the field clubs' grand social occasions continued to offer a wonderful blend of edification and entertainment, lavish hospitality and good cheer. The programme for a 'conversazione' held by the Oswestry and Welshpool Naturalists' Field Club and Archaeological Society in 1864 gives a flavour of what the amateur naturalist might expect from a field club beano in those happy times: 
6.15  MUSIC (Instrumental): Trio – Flute, Violin and Pianoforte; Mr Whitridge Davies, Mr A. Davis and Mr Oswald Davies.
6.45  PAPER, by the President – On Ornithology, Illustrated.
7.0  MUSIC (Instrumental): Violin Solo – Mr Charles Eyeley.
7.30  PAPER, by the Vice-President – How I learnt to see.
7.45  MUSIC (Instr.): Pianoforte Solo – Mr Sloman, Mus. Bac. Oxon. 
8.15  PAPER, by the Rev. D.P. Lewis – On Bronzes found near Pool Quay. Illustrated.
8.30  MUSIC (Vocal): Glee – Sir Knight, Sir Knight – Glee and Madrigal Society.
9.00  PAPER, by Mr D.C. Davies – A quarter of an hour in Old Oswestry  Gravel Pit.
9.15  MUSIC (Instrumental): Cornet Solo – Mr J. Evans.
9.45  PAPER, by Mr A.W. Dumville – The new metal magnesium. With experiments.
10.0  MUSIC (Vocal): Part Song – O, who will o'er the downs so free – Glee and Madrigal Society. 
                                            GOD SAVE THE QUEEN'

Wednesday 16 February 2022

Porter at the Shrine

As today is the birthday of Peter Porter (born 1929), I shall fire another small shot in my forlorn campaign to keep the name of this extravagantly gifted poet alive. Here is one of his church poems (the best of which is surely 'An Angel in Blythburgh Church'). St Candida and Holy Cross, Whitechurch (more usually Whitchurch) Canonicorum,  is an impressive church, mostly Early English and Perpendicular, known locally as the Cathedral of the Vale (Marshwood Vale in Dorset). What makes it unique is that it is the only English parish church in which a saint's shrine, complete with relic, has survived in situ the otherwise total destruction of such treasures in the Reformation. It might have escaped simply because it is so plain and inconspicuous; it could easily be taken for some kind of supplementary altar or table. 

Devotees of the saint could place their limbs in the oval openings to bring them into the force field of her bones and affect healing. Porter, it seems, presented something more unusual to the shrine (in another version of the poem, the relevant line, in the fourth stanza, is bowdlerised as 'my love-starved body, for fear and doubt'). 
As so often with Porter's poems, the casual tone belies a tight formal structure: each stanza consist of two cross-rhymed quatrains, all in iambic pentameter. It was first published in his 1970 collection, The Last of England.

At Whitechurch Canonicorum

This is a land of permutating green
and can afford its pagan ghostly state. 
Only from the recurring dead between
the well-dark hedge and talking gate
can mystery come, the church's graveyard,
where now the sun tops the stones and makes
shadows long as a man work as hard
to live as he did, rotting there till he wakes.

That he will wake to trumpets they believed
or tried to who bought him ground to hold.
His dead eye takes in the high coiffure of leaves, 
the pebble-dash tower, the numbers in gold
upon the clock face. For once he has reason –
this undistinguished church, whose frown
lies in the lap of Dorset rebuking each season
its appropriate worldliness, has a saint, pale and home-grown.

St Candida, white in her Latin and cement tomb,
has lived here since rumour was born.
A woman's pelvis needs only the little room
of a casket to heal the flesh it was torn
from: an enlightened bishop lifted up her lid
and pronounced her genuine, a lady's 
bones who if she healed as they say she did
I ask to help me escape the further elbowing of Hades.

I tried to put once, while no one was about,
in the holes for the petitioners' limbs,
the crotch of my trousers, for love locked out
not impotence, and spoke to that air which held hymns
like amber from the stained-glass sides
a prayer to the saint to be given love 
by the person I loved. That prayer still resides
there unanswered. I gave the iron-studded door a shove

and stood again among the unsaintly dead.
St Candida is also St Wite,
the Latin derived from the Saxon misread,
the death clothes she sings in as bitter
to her as when her saintly heart stopped.
England has only two saints' relics confirmed
and hers are one. Three times now I've dropped
by at Whitechurch and asked her her easiest terms

for assistance. The old iron trees tend to roar
in the wind and the cloud seems unusually low
on the fields, even in summer. The weight of before
stands here for faith; so many are born and go
back, marvellous like painting or stones:
I offer my un-numinous body to the saint's care
and pray on my feet to her merciful bones
for ease of the ulcer of feeling, the starch of despair.

Tuesday 15 February 2022

Kenneth Rowntree and Drowned Derbyshire

 In December 1939, three months into the war, Kenneth Clark, then Director of the National Gallery, had a brilliant idea: to send artists out to all corners of the land to create 'a pictorial Domesday of pre-war Britain' – a Britain that might soon be lost, either to German invasion or simply to the march of 'progress'. Clark approached the American-backed Pilgrim Trust and the Ministry of Labour, and proposed a scheme that would keep needy artists employed and, he hoped, 'save the whole tradition of English art'. His visionary scheme, now called Recording Britain, was soon under way, and by 1943 some 1,500 topographical watercolours had been produced by more than 60 artists, including John Piper, William Russell Flint, S.R. (Stanley) Badmin, Barbara Jones – and Kenneth Rowntree, whose name has been popping up in my corner of Facebook lately.   
  Rowntree, a friend of the now more famous Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden, and for a while one of the Great Bardfield artists, was a talented and versatile painter who worked in several styles – never a good idea if you've got an eye on posterity. As an accomplished watercolorist, he was a natural for the Recording Britain project, and Rowntree was soon in action, responding to a request from Derbyshire county council – the only one in England to put in a plea for a specific record to be made in its county. The Derwent Valley Water Board was going to build a third dam in the upper valley, which would create the massive Ladybower Reservoir  – and, in the process, drown a large area of land, including the villages of Ashopton and Derwent and several farms. Rowntree's commission was to paint whatever caught his eye before it disappeared under the waters. The result was at once a charming set of watercolours and a poignant record of a small world about to be lost...

This is the Smoke Room (ah, those were the days) of the Ashopton Inn, the kind of plain unspoilt pub interior that was once standard but is now harder to find, even in Derbyshire –

And here are two of the farms that would soon be submerged: Grainfoot Farm in Derwentdale –

And Underbanks Farm in Woodlands Valley, under a hillside already scarred by the deep furrows in which the Water Board would plant regiments of Sitka Spruce –

Here is a view in Ashopton village, showing the old toll bar house – 

And here is the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, built in 1840. The final service was held there on 25 September, 1939, and the last hymn sung was 'The Day Is Dying in the West'... 

The buildings of Ashopton were demolished before the reservoir was filled and now lie buried under deep silt, but much of the village of Derwent was left intact, including the church clock tower, which rose clear of the water until 1947, when it was demolished as a hazard. In unusually dry summers, what remains of the village is exposed to view again – most recently in 2018, when hundreds of curious visitors flocked to Ladybower to marvel at the haunting spectacle of the drowned village's return. 


Sunday 13 February 2022

Marías, I Just Read a Book by Marías...

 Having enjoyed a couple of novels by the Spanish writer Javier Marías – this and this – not long ago, I wasn't going to walk on by when I spotted another of his, The Infatuations, on the shelves of a Lichfield charity shop. It's an unfortunate title, the attempted translation of an untranslatable word, enamoramiento, meaning something like the process of falling in love. 'Infatuation' leaves out love and introduces an element of foolishness or delusion, but there is no noun, singular or plural, in English for falling in love. 
  But that is beside the point. The Infatuations is an enigmatic, hypnotically readable tale of love, murder and mystery told in the first person by a female narrator, María Dolz (whose Christian name almost replicates her creator's surname). The entire story is told through her perception of what is happening around her, fragmentary and baffled as it is. Although she has a (one-sided) love affair with one of the protagonists, she remains outside, the detached observer, trying to make sense of an increasingly mysterious and sinister situation.  She thinks, she thinks at great length, her thoughts enclosed in quotation marks as if they were speech. And her thoughts, like everything else in this novel, come in long, rolling, perfectly constructed sentences. At one point she even invents an extended, entirely conjectural, beautifully phrased dialogue between two of the characters, which draws the reader on for page after elegant page. Only later does the relevance of this imagined conversation become apparent. 
  The whole action of the novel is one long, evolving thought process, which begins with María watching a couple, evidently very happily married, whom she sees every morning in the Madrid café where she takes her breakfast. She is on nodding terms with them, nothing more, but the daily sighting cheers her and she likes to speculate about their happy life together (she is herself single). Then, one morning, they aren't there. Soon afterwards, María makes a shocking discovery: the husband has been murdered, stabbed on the street by a deranged vagrant. How could such a thing happen? How will his widow survive the loss? Is there more to this apparently random murder than meets the eye? For the rest of the novel, we follow María as she teases out some answers to these questions – or fails to – and the picture becomes at once clearer and more mystifying, the situation less resolvable. It's a fascinating process, expertly orchestrated by Marías, and I found it utterly absorbing, right to the end.
 The ghost of Macbeth hovers over The Infatuations, as it does (more obviously) over A Heart So White, but the strongest literary presence is a novella by Balzac, Colonel Chabert, about a Napoleonic officer apparently killed in battle who returns from the dead to find his wife remarried. This is discussed, more than once, at length. Also present is The Three Musketeers, specifically the grisly incident when Athos, in an earlier life, discovers his wife's criminal past and hangs her from the nearest tree (as she goes on to become Milady de Winter, this death too lacks finality). María works in publishing, a profession of which, in its present condition, she takes a dim view, regarding her firm's authors as a tiresome, vain and talentless bunch. One of them, permanently convinced he is about to win the Nobel prize – so convinced that he has his speech prepared, in Swedish – might even be a mocking self-portrait of Marías, an obviously Nobel-worthy writer who has yet to get the call from Stockholm. 
  This very fine, highly distinctive novel gave me a lot of reading pleasure – what more can you ask? I'm glad I spotted it, shelved among the run-of-the-mill Fiction A-Z, on that charity bookshop shelf. 

Thursday 10 February 2022

Another Boris commemorated

 I like this story of an outbreak of spontaneous Dadaism in a Russian museum. 'Vandalism' it might be, but the picture looks no worse, and perhaps rather better, for those drawn-on eyes. But what is this Yeltsin Centre in Yekaterinburg? The Boris Yeltsin Presidential Centre is, I learn, a 'social, cultural and educational centre' that commemorates the first (and drunkest) President of the Russian Federation, and was named the best museum in Europe by the Council of Europe.
The museum has nine rooms or 'days', through which the visitor takes a journey of discovery, from the Labyrinth of Russian History to the Hall of Freedom. Here are two mystifying images from Day Two: August Coup d'Etat –

What is going on there? In the next one, maybe Yeltsin has had a drink or two –

And here is Day Three: Unpopular Measures –

and Day Six: Presidential Marathon...

Perhaps you have to be Russian...

Wednesday 9 February 2022

Welby Wades In Again

 I see that the CEO of CofE Inc, Justin Welby, is doubling down on his support of the new iconoclasts who are seeking the removal of monuments to those they see, in their superior 21st-century wisdom, as morally tainted. Welby should not be surprised that it's taking a while to remove Jesus College's memorial plaque to its benefactor Tobias Rustat to a safe space where it can be surrounded by a cordon sanitaire of 'interpretative' material: the Church of England, quite rightly, makes the removal of monuments a long-drawn-out and difficult process, involving much consultation, a 'faculty', and the potential for court action at two levels. 
  Rustat's 'sin' was that he had a small amount of his money invested in the Royal Africa Company, as did just about everyone who had any serious money in those times (either that or the South Sea Company, both of them involved in slave trading). His memorial plaque – a fine piece of work by Grinling Gibbons – celebrates not his remote connection with slavery (why would it?) but his large-scale, public-spirited philanthropy, from which Jesus College benefited on a grand scale. As all the world surely knows, the college is now awash with Chinese money, sourced from a regime that routinely enslaves large numbers of its citizens. This fact apparently counts for nothing against the supposed offence caused to some tender sensibilities by a plaque commemorating a great philanthropist who died more than three centuries ago. 
  Incidentally, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the orphan son of a clergyman, was a beneficiary of a Rustat Scholarship. While at Jesus, he won the Browne gold medal for an ode attacking the slave trade. 

Tuesday 8 February 2022

Something Beautiful

John Ruskin's luminous and beautiful 'View of Amalfi' (1844). Watercolour, pencil and ink.
Ruskin was born on this day in 1819.  

Monday 7 February 2022

'There is nothing about it...'

 If the past two years have taught us anything (and I don't suppose they have), it is that we cannot see any distance into the future, cannot know what is coming next.
On this date two years ago I would have been only  few days back from my latest sojourn with the family in Wellington, with the happy prospect of many more to come as the years rolled by. As things turned out, it was almost certainly the last I will ever see of New Zealand, a country now firmly closed to the outside world (in the interests of an insane, self-defeating zero-Covid policy), and no longer a place where my daughter and her family, who once loved it, can bear to live. Later this year they are returning to the relative sanity of England.
All of which goes to show... Well, that the future is unknowable. Here is Les Murray – 

The Future

There is nothing about it. Much science fiction is set there

but is not about it. Prophecy is not about it.

It sways no yarrow stalks. And crystal is a mirror.

Even the man we nailed on a tree for a lookout

said little about it; he told us evil would come.

We see, by convention, a small living distance into it

but even that’s a projection. And all our projections

fail to curve where it curves.  
                                                It is the black hole

out of which no radiation escapes to us.

The commonplace and magnificent roads of our lives

go on some way through cityscape and landscape

or steeply sloping, or scree, into that sheer fall

where everything will be that we have ever sent there,

compacted, spinning – except perhaps us, to see it.

It is said we see the start.  
                                          But, from here, there’s a blindness.

The side-heaped chasm that will swallow all our present

blinds us to the normal sun that may be imagined

shining calmly away on the far side of it, for others

in their ordinary day. A day to which all our portraits,

ideals, revolutions, denim and dishabille

are quaintly heartrending. To see those people is impossible,

to greet them, mawkish. Nonetheless, I begin:

‘When I was alive – ’  
                                      and I am turned around

to find myself looking at a cheerful picnic party,

the women decently legless, in muslin and gloves,

the men in beards and weskits, with the long

cheroots and duck trousers of the better sort,

relaxing on a stone verandah. Ceylon, or Sydney.

And as I look, I know they are utterly gone,

each one on his day, with pillow, small bottles, mist,

with all the futures they dreamed or dealt in, going

down to that engulfment everything approaches;

with the man on the tree, they have vanished into the Future.

Sunday 6 February 2022


 Today is the centenary of the birth of Denis Norden, comedy writer, long-time TV and radio fixture and contributor to the gaiety of nations. With his friend and writing partner Frank Muir, he wrote the classic radio comedy Take It From Here! and for years they appeared together on civilised radio shows such as My Word and My Music (those were the days). For years he was reluctant to write an autobiography, as Frank Muir had written so much about him in his own (excellent) autobiography, A Kentish Lad. Denis thought a slim volume titled The Bits that Frank Left Out would have limited appeal, but he did eventually publish a book of autobiographical sketches called Clips from a Life
Like Frank Muir – and unlike so many of today's celebrities – Denis Norden was a well-rounded individual with a well-furnished mind and wide experience of life. In the war he served, like Muir, in the Royal Air Force, where he began to write material for stage shows. In the course of preparing one such show in 1945, he and fellow performers Eric Sykes and Ron Rich headed for a nearby prison camp in search of lighting equipment. The camp turned out to be Bergen-Belsen, only recently liberated by the Allies and still presenting a horrifying spectacle of suffering. Norden and his two friends organised a food collection among their comrades to help to feed the starving inmates: 'We told everyone you've never seen anything like it, and everybody in the unit contributed whatever spare food they had, or had been sent from home, and we took it along there.' He realised later that this probably was not the right thing to do, but any feeling person would surely have done the same. 
Denis Norden died in 2016 at the ripe old age of 96. 

The Cholera Monument

 In the early Seventies I lived for a year in Sheffield (working at the university library), but as far as I recall I never visited the Norfolk Park area of the city, high on one of Sheffield's seven hills, with grand views all around. I certainly have no recollection of the Cholera Monument which, along with its landscaped grounds and woodland, is now apparently a source of civic pride, signposted from some distance away. The pride is well placed: the monument is an elegant, understated pre-Victorian Gothic landmark, an early work by M.E. Hadfield (who was to become one of the city's leading architects), completed in 1835. It commemorates the 402 people who died in the cholera epidemic that hit Sheffield in 1832. A plaque at its foot notes that the foundation stone was laid by 'the poet James Montgomery'. 
  James Montgomery? He was a Scottish-born poet, writer and newspaper editor who was raised in the Moravian church, settled in Sheffield, was twice jailed for sedition, and campaigned against various social ills in verse and prose. One of his early successes was The Wanderer of Switzerland (1806), a poem in six parts addressing the French annexation of Switzerland in seven-syllable cross-rhymed quatrains – tempted? Me neither. When Montgomery died, a monument was erected in his memory at a cost of £1,000, raised by public subscription – that's well over £100,000 in today's money.
  Further investigation of the Cholera Monument and the nearby almshouses – also in a pleasingly plain Gothic style – was cut short by a violent hailstorm that suddenly blew in from the West on a ferocious and bitterly cold wind. By the time we (my cousin and I) had taken shelter in a café that was about to close but took pity on us, I was just about as cold as I have ever been in my life. I think I am still recovering.

Wednesday 2 February 2022


 Two great violinists were born on this date – Fritz Kreisler in 1875 and Jascha Heifetz in 1901. Both took the art of violin playing to new heights – Kreisler with his warmth and expressiveness of tone, Heifetz with his dazzling technique and almost superhuman virtuosity, as demonstrated in this recording (taken from a radio broadcast) of Kreisler's Recitative and Scherzo...  

The first time Kreisler saw Heifetz playing was at a private matinee in 1912. Then 11 years old, Heifetz was already a seasoned performer (he once told one of the Marx Brothers that he'd been earning his living as a musician since he was seven, eliciting the reply 'Before that, I suppose, you were just a bum'). On hearing the young Heifetz play, Kreisler said to all present, 'We may as well break our fiddles across our knees.' Here is, ahem, 'historic footage' of that encounter...

Tuesday 1 February 2022

Wordle, Wardle

 So the New York Times has bought the hugely successful online word game Wordle. To me this smacks of desperation, the last throw of a publication that can no longer be regarded as a serious newspaper – but it could well work, especially when the Times starts charging for it, as it surely will. Anyone who's worked in newspapers knows that puzzles, horoscopes and perhaps the sports pages are what really sell papers, not all that worthy, toiled-over editorial. Make a mistake in a news story – it happens all the time – and chances are it will be barely noticed, but make a mistake in a crossword clue and all hell breaks loose.  So it look as if, in the interests of survival, the Times will end up as a word game with a newspaper attached. 
  Wordle is a simple and elegant game, and its inventor deserves his lucky break. It reminded me of the game of 'word golf' – a descendant of Lewis Carroll's 'word ladders' – that turns up more than once in Nabokov. In Pale Fire the narrator notes some of his records – 'Hate to Love in three, Lass to Male in four, and Live to Dead in five (with "Lend" in the middle)' (changing one letter at a time). 
  The inventor of Wordle rejoices in the name of Wardle (appellative determinism?) – which will remind any cricket lover of the great spin bowler of the Fifties Johnny Wardle. A Yorkshire star (inasmuch as they had 'stars' in those days), he published an article in the Daily Mail in 1958, criticising the club's committee. For this effrontery he was dropped by both Yorkshire and the MCC. How very different from the response a couple of years ago to Azeem Rafiq's complaints... Times change.