Thursday 31 March 2022

Slim Volumes

 My preference for short books over long ones will be well known to regular readers of this blog. Here I am ten years ago arguing that the future surely belongs to shorter, smaller books. Of course this was more wishful thinking than prognostication, but it must be said that the range of well produced short books available is ever increasing – and I am glad of it. At present, extreme busyness (most of it family- and house-related) and much travelling to and fro by train, to say nothing of the urgent need to thin my overcrowded shelves, means that my reading is largely limited to short and easily portable volumes, and I am always on the look-out for more as I browse the charity shop shelves.
 The other day I picked up Him with His Foot in His Mouth, a Saul Bellow long-short story that I reread with pleasure. I always find Bellow enjoyable company, though I do wonder now if his larger, baggier novels are quite as wonderful as we thought they were when we first read them (of Seize the Day I have no doubts – surely a genuine classic, as is perhaps Mr Sammler's Planet). The Him with His Foot volume that I picked up is one of Penguin's series of well chosen offprints from its Modern Classics list, the Mini Modern Classics, one of several such series drawn from Penguin's enormous list. A complete collection of these miniature Penguins would amount to a microcosm of much of western literature, a whole library reduced to a few feet of shelving. 
  Also very recently, I came across Chekhov's long short story/novella, The Story of a Nobody (also known as An Anonymous Story and The Story of an Unknown Man), in a notably well produced slim volume published by Hesperus Press of London (motto and mission statement 'Et remotissima prope'), a company devoted to republishing neglected shorter fiction – generally 100 pages or less – by English and foreign-language writers. I shall be looking out for more from its list. Meanwhile, the 90-odd pages of The Story of a Nobody – Chekhov's only story set in St Petersburg – will keep me going a surprisingly long time, such is life at present. 
  Incidentally, my hero and role model Alfred E. Neuman makes an appearance in Him with His Foot in His Mouth, as he does in Kingsley Amis's One Fat Englishman. Bellow's narrator describes the friend of his youth (and enemy of his old age) Eddie Wallish as typically grinning 'like Alfred E. Neuman from the cover of Mad magazine, the successor to Peck's Bad Boy'. Peck's Bad Boy, I learn, was a popular fictional character created in the 1880s by one George Wilbur Peck. A mischievous prankster, he was described as a 'vicious little swaggerer' and 'no more than a callous brute' – so really not at all like the amiable Alfred E. 

Thursday 24 March 2022

Two Orchard Poems

 According to the National Trust (and they're right), apple orchards have been disappearing over the past century and more at an alarming rate. Radio 3 was playing a lot of orchard-related music this morning in response. So here are a couple of orchard poems – both American, both very fine, one a classic...

After Apple-Picking
by Robert Frost

My long two-pointed ladder's sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there's a barrel that I didn't fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn't pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.
And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
For all
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it's like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.

And a more recent one –

The Apple Orchard
by Dana Gioia

You won’t remember it—the apple orchard
We wandered through one April afternoon,
Climbing the hill behind the empty farm.

A city boy, I’d never seen a grove
Burst in full flower or breathed the bittersweet
Perfume of blossoms mingled with the dust.

A quarter mile of trees in fragrant rows
Arching above us. We walked the aisle,
Alone in spring’s ephemeral cathedral.

We had the luck, if you can call it that,
Of having been in love but never lovers—
The bright flame burning, fed by pure desire.

Nothing consumed, such secrets brought to light!
There was a moment when I stood behind you,
Reached out to spin you toward me . . . but I stopped.

What more could I have wanted from that day?
Everything, of course. Perhaps that was the point—
To learn that what we will not grasp is lost.


Wednesday 23 March 2022

Two Years Ago

 Today, I learn, was the second anniversary of the first  Covid lockdown – you know, the one that was going to 'flatten the curve' in a couple of weeks. What was I posting on this blog on that momentous day? Ah yes, an Edward Thomas poem and a bit of Vivaldi... The weather was glorious then, I remember, and so it is again this year. The difference is that the silent skies and all but car-free roads of the early days of Lockdown 1 are no more than a fragrant memory now.

Tuesday 22 March 2022

This Day

 On this day in 1599 was born, in Antwerp, Anthony Van Dyck, the brilliant portraitist who became one of those foreigners we English adopt from time to time to advance the progress of the arts in this country (see also Holbein, Rubens, Lely and a host of sculptors and monument makers). Thomas Gainsborough on his deathbed was heard to declare that 'We are all going to heaven, and Van Dyck is of the company.' A distinguished company it would have been...
  This is also the date on which, in 2022, my beloved daughter and grandsons Sam and Ethan arrive in England, having escaped Stalag NZ for a few weeks. It has been more than two years since we last saw them – far, far too long. 

Monday 21 March 2022


 Talking of great Ukrainians, here is some touching and rather wonderful footage of the composer Valentin Silvestrov playing the piano at home, first warming up with a little Bach (the first Prelude of the Well-Tempered Clavier), then playing one of Schumann's Bunte Blätter... 

Silvestrov, now 84, lives in Kyiv. Here is his beautiful and all too timely choral piece, Prayer for Ukraine...

Sunday 20 March 2022


 No better time than the present to celebrate a great Ukrainian – Sviatoslav Richter, one of the most extravagantly gifted pianists who ever lived. He was born on this day in 1915 in the city of Zhytomyr in northwest Ukraine (then part of the Russian Empire, later of the Soviet Union). Richter – an intensely private man who almost never gave an interview – preferred concert performance to studio recording, and in his later career liked to appear at short notice in small venues, where a single light trained on the score and the keyboard ensured that the music had full attention. 
One of the most cherished LPs of my  boyhood was Richter's recording of Beethoven's Pathétique and Appassionata sonatas (the one pictured above). But here he is playing Schubert's Wanderer Fantasy, a piece so technically demanding that it often defeated its composer. Richter, with his formidable technique, makes it sound so easy...

Saturday 19 March 2022

'Scripts co-authored by Nietzsche and Barbara Cartland...'

 In a lecture on 'The Relation of Wise Art to Wise Science', published in The Eagle's Nest, Ruskin describes a bullfinch's nest, the 'first story' of which had been built entirely of 'withered stems of clematis blossom'. These were 'interwoven lightly, leaving the branched heads all at the outside, producing an intricate Gothic boss of extreme grace and quaintness, apparently arranged both with triumphant pleasure in the art of basket-making, and with definite purpose of obtaining ornamental form'.
  Did the bird have any such purpose, or was nothing going on beyond the merely instinctive? Addressing his audience, Ruskin supposes that 'the only error which, in the present condition of natural history, you are likely to fall into, is that of supposing that a bullfinch is merely a mechanical arrangement of nervous fibre, covered with feathers by a chronic cutaneous eruption; and compelled by a galvanic stimulus to the collection of clematis'. Writing at a time when science, as a laboratory-based specialism, was only just gaining force, Ruskin – ever the prophet – could see already the baneful possibilities in a reductionist, mechanistic science divorced from human realities, or indeed the realities of nature as it actually is, living organisms as they actually are. 
  He goes on: 'You would be in much greater, as well as in a more shameful, error, in supposing this, than if you attributed to the bullfinch the most deliberate rivalship with Mr Street's prettiest Gothic designs. The bird has exactly the degree of emotion, the extent of science, and the command of art, which are necessary for its happiness.' This is to reject reductionist and mechanistic explanations of the bullfinch's behaviour, but without embracing anthropomorphism, despite the use of the words 'emotion', 'science' and 'art': the bird has exactly what is necessary to its own happiness, no more, no less, and it is not working for our human delight. It is not, and cannot be, an artist in the sense that 'Mr Street' (G.E. Street, Gothic architect) is. If only the extravagantly praised wildlife documentaries of today were as adept at resisting the lure of anthropomorphism. 
  I came across this quotation (or part of it) in Richard Mabey's Nature Cure (2006), which is at once an account of the author's recovery from a depressive breakdown, and a meditation on the relationship between man and nature. At one point he seeks solace in watching wildlife documentaries on TV. He is, by and large, appalled by what he sees, even in the classier, Attenborough-fronted productions: 'Sequences of carnivores pursuing game seemed like endlessly repeated film-looops, and caricatures of the complexities of life in the wild. Birds had miniature cameras strapped to their backs so that we could 'share their view of the world'. Animated models of dinosaurs and cavemen, acting to scripts co-authored by Nietzsche and Barbara Cartland, sped through agonising family dramas towards their preordained destinies. Almost every programme, however honourably intended, seemed bent on belittling the natural world, putting it firmly in its place.'
  Mabey wonders what the makers of these films think they are doing: 'Do they view the world much as the eighteenth-century makers of 'cabinets of curiosities' did, as a collection of diversions and amusements, to be attractively presented behind glass? Do they really believe that technological translation of the natural world – Slower! Closer! Bigger! – help us understand how we fit into it? Ironically, the aim of what have come to be called 'blue-chip' documentaries is to avoid any sense that human beings impinge on the natural world at all, or are even part of the same biosphere, despite the fact that the whole exercise of commercial film-making, its insistence that nature is all object not subject, its manipulation of storylines, its knowing explaining-away of the complexities of behaviour, amounts to the most comprehensive impingement imaginable?' 
  Amen to all that – and wildlife documentaries have only got worse in the years since then...

Sunday 13 March 2022

'He found in stones the sermons he had already hidden there'

 On the recommendation of a blog friend, I recently bought a pleasingly plump, long-out-of-print volume called The Frank Muir Book, the work of that fine humorist and writer (whose autobiography, A Kentish Lad, is well worth reading). Subtitled 'An Irreverent Companion to Social History', The Frank Muir Book is a treasure house of quotations, many of them indeed decidedly irreverent, compiled from a wonderfully wide range of sources and linked by Muir's witty and concise commentary. The quotations are arranged in six categories: Music, Education, Literature, Theatre, Art, and Food and Drink. It's a perfect bedside book, ideal for dipping into, but in practice I have been so drawn into the Literature section that I am reading it sequentially (and slowly, in bed), all the time coming across unfamiliar and surprising material. For example, here are four quotations, all new to me, embedded in the pages dedicated to Wordsworth: 

'In Wordsworth's poetry [writes Muir] nature was not a painted backdrop, or a colour photograph, but an experience. He had a great number of experiences in the Lake District:

   Wordsworth went to the lakes, but he was never a lake poet. He found in stones the sermons
   he had already hidden there. 
                                    Oscar Wilde The Decay of Lying

Classicists found little pleasure in Wordsworth's nature poetry:

   Dank, limber verses, stuft with lakeside sedges,
   And propt with rotten stakes from rotten hedges.
                                    Walter Savage Landor

And William Blake nearly died from the effects of a preface: 

   What appears to have disturbed his mind, on the other hand, is the preface to The Excursion.
   He told me six months ago that it caused him a bowel complaint which nearly killed him.
                                    Henry Crabb Robinson. Letter to Dorothy Wordsworth, Feb. 1826

.... He lived with his wife, but his intimate was really his sister Dorothy who, after a slight leaning towards Coleridge, became almost morbidly devoted to her brother, and vice versa.
   Wordsworth was a sturdy, clumsy figure with a large nose and burning eyes; he had no sense of smell:

   The languid way in which he gives you a handful of numb unresponsive fingers is very significant.
                                    Thomas Carlyle.'

And so on... I am enjoying this bedtime reading very much.

Saturday 12 March 2022

Ignorant Imbecility

 As England's (former) go-to monument man, I like to keep an eye on the (former) Church of England's activities in the field of woke iconoclasm, as it agitates for the removal of all monuments they deem morally troubling. I've written on this before – most recently here – and I thought nothing could surprise me, but the latest story is simply flabbergasting. St Paul's Cathedral plans to erect a highly conspicuous monument to an industrial-scale slave trader and brutal tyrant. Here is Robert Tombs's account of the sorry affair in The Spectator...

The sheer ignorant imbecility of Welby and Co's posturing was never more starkly exposed.

Friday 11 March 2022

Little Sampford

The world is too much with me just now, getting and spending – well, spending anyway. I had never realised quite how complicated, frustrating and mystifying a process it would be, taking possession of a small flat and dealing with utility companies, all of which, like so many other once solid things, seem to exist only in cyberspace. A telephone conversation with a broadband supplier, as represented by an obliging young lady whose first language was clearly not English, took up over an hour of my time yesterday and by the end of it I was drained and fast losing the will to live. Then there's all the stuff required to furnish and equip said flat. As I'm also feeling the effects of what might be a mild but weirdly attenuated version of Omicron (though I've never tested positive) – effects that are most definitely not conducive to intellection – I am seeking out images rather than words for my consolation. Edward Bawden, always so cheering and so cheeringly English, fits the bill nicely. Above is his watercolour of Little Sampford church, near Saffron Walden, a lovely, unimposing Essex church of flint and stone rubble, with a little brick. It was built mostly in the fourteenth century, the tower in two stages, probably punctuated by the Black Death. The chancel was rebuilt in the fifteenth century, along with the North porch, and the brick South porch was added in the seventeenth, when the nave roof was also renewed. The church has a splendid Perpendicular West window and a fine screen. Essex has a wealth of churches at least as attractive and interesting as this – it doesn't make it into Simon Jenkins's Thousand Best Churches – but its quiet charm is perfectly caught in Bawden's painting. 
  There is also an interesting monument – a free-standing affair showing one Bridget Peck, who died in 1712, reclining more or less at her ease, blank-eyed in the manner of the time, with an open book in her lap. It's not a bad piece of work (sculptor unknown), but seems to be in a sorry state...

Here is an extract from her epitaph: 'She was a mother wise as SHE WAS FRUITFUL, INDEED AT HER DECEASE SHE LEFT 2 SONS & 8 DAUGHTERS, and to this task, she exercised herself with no little success, WHICH HAD TIME ALLOWED WOULD HAVE BECOME GREATER STILL. In these pursuits engaged, neither desirous, nor yet fearful of the grave, only ripened for heaven and observant of its counsels, being 31 years of age, she died on the 14th day of June in the year of Our Lord 1712.'
Fruitful indeed, poor woman. 

Wednesday 9 March 2022

Birthday Boyo

 Born 80 (yes, 80 – how old does that make you feel?) years ago today was John Cale, the most interesting and musically gifted of the Velvet Underground (among many other things). He was born in Garnant, Carmarthenshire, in the Amman valley, to an English-speaking coal miner and a Welsh-speaking primary school teacher. Something of a musical prodigy, he was playing viola in the National Youth Orchestra of Wales at the age of 13, and that was just the beginning of a long career that has taken in rock, classical, avant garde, experimental and electronic music. Here, to mark his 80th birthday, is one of his most overtly Welsh pieces, the rather beautiful Child's Christmas in Wales, inspired of course by Dylan Thomas, but we can forgive him that. Listen out for Lowell George's slide guitar...

Sunday 6 March 2022

Sickert as a Sickert

This bearded old cove with the air of a retired tug-boat skipper, sporting jaunty red shoes and a jaunty red cravat, is none other than that giant of early 20th-century English art Walter Sickert. The portrait is by the doyen of the Dieppe art scene Jacques-Emile Blanche, who has paid his sitter (stander) the compliment of adopting something of Sickert's own free, dabbing style, making, you might say, a Sickert of Sickert. 
The two artists were born within a year of each other and died in the same year (1942). While both were living in Dieppe they were for quite a long time on friendly terms, but the prickly and secretive Sickert was never easy to get on with, and was always inclined to drop old friends (including, notoriously, Oscar Wilde). When Sickert was first in Dieppe, the well connected Blanche gave him much help and encouragement, getting his paintings exhibited in Parisian galleries, securing commissions for him, and buying large amounts of his work himself. However, this did not prevent Sickert later treating his benefactor shabbily, and dismissing both his art and his personality. In 1909 he wrote to the wife of one of his patrons: 
'You may not, probably do not know that in a sense I have treated Blanche who is a very old friend very badly ... The peculiar angle of his somewhat gossipy mind, and ... pushing character of his art politics, which happen to be diametrically opposed to mine, decided me that it was absolutely necessary for my peace & comfort to avoid him & his friends as much as I could. He is a little too officious, kindly officious, but too inconvenient & too compromising. Fortunately the reality of my incessant occupation has enabled me to avoid many people I used constantly to see, without apparent unkindness ... I have even written displeasing things about Blanche’s work in my articles.'
Charming – and sadly typical of Sickert's behaviour.  
The painting above, painted in 1935 when both artists were in their mid-70s, is in the collection of the Manchester Art Gallery. 

Saturday 5 March 2022


 I heard this on Radio 3 the other day, and it struck me as rather beautiful. Also, of course, appropriate for these disordered times. It's Zoltan Kodaly's Wish for Peace... 

Friday 4 March 2022


 Let us illustrate our difficulties (as Nabokov says somewhere – Transparent Things?). 
As readers with long memories and high boredom thresholds will know, I am intending to move to the city of Samuel Johnson – Lichfield. It has had the odd mention on this blog; indeed my post showing Johnson under the Christmas lights had more views than anything else I've posted recently. Anyway, for the past seven months – yes, seven months – we have been trying to buy a small flat pleasingly located in Lichfield's conservation area, to serve as a pied à terre and operational base from which to search for a suitable house. Buying said flat has been a tortuous and frustrating process indeed, but yesterday 'completion' was finally achieved, and on Monday I shall pick up the keys. Throughout this long drawn out saga, two young ladies – one at the solicitors, one at the estate agents – have diligently kept me informed of every twist and turn. Yesterday, talking to me on the phone, the young lady from the agents was effusively thankful – because I had replied to each of her emails with a brief thank-you. This, she assured me, is unheard-of: nobody does it, and she was delighted that I habitually did. This got me thinking (or as near to thinking as I can manage in my yoghurt-brained condition): why is it that, as email has made communication easier and faster than it has ever been – all but instantaneous indeed – so many find it too much of an effort to send a quick thank-you (the work of a few seconds) or even an equally quick acknowledgment of receipt? Publishers (with, in my experience, one exception) and literary agents are among the worst offenders, but they are by no means alone. Is there something about email, the medium itself, that makes people disregard the very basics of communication, not to mention good manners? If so, what is it? A kind of unreality perhaps? Has communication simply become too easy, with the result that nobody feels the need to make the slightest effort, even for a few seconds? Thank you for reading this, if you have.