Tuesday 31 May 2022

Sickert, Tonks

 Born on this day in 1860 (in Munich, to a German-Danish father and English mother) was the painter Walter Sickert, who has appeared quite often on this blog, most recently  sporting his retired tug-boat captain look. He is in the same gear in the picture above, in which he is seen dozing companionably with his friend and coeval Philip Wilson Steer. Titled Sodales: Mr Steer and Mr Wilson, it was painted by Henry Tonks, 'the most renowned and formidable teacher of his generation', who, curiously, was a successful surgeon before switching to art. With his famously withering manner, hooded eyes and grim features, he seemed entirely cold and humourless, but some of his pictures, like the affectionate portrait above, belie that impression. As does this caricature of John Singer Sargent as a war artist (which Tonks also was) painting en plein air at the front...

Sunday 29 May 2022

Yours for a Bawbee, and All in a Good Cause...

 Here's something I spotted in a charity shop this morning – Border Songs and Other Verse by M.J.D. and W.G.M.D, published in 1914 by J. Maxwell & Son, printers and lithographers, of Dumfries. The price was sixpence, and it was being sold in aid of the War Relief Funds, part of a huge charity fundraising endeavour that continued throughout the Kaiser War. I had never seen a publication like this before, so naturally I bought it (for £1 – less than half the present value of that sixpence). It's a slim volume of just 24 pages, and many of the poems it contains are in the Walter Scott tradition, celebrating the history, lore and landscape of the Scottish Borders. However, there are also verses on more general subjects: 'September', 'Swallows', 'Breakers', 'The Song of the Heart', 'The Song of Life' – and a stirring celebration of Albanian freedom, 'Albania (Written During the Balkan War)'. These are all competently written, if very much of their time; some indeed had already appeared in various magazines. 
  This sonnet, with nothing of the Scottish Borders (or indeed Albania) about it, caught my eye. Its epigraph is taken from Dr Johnson's famous letter to Lord Chesterfield: 'The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labours, had it been early, it had been kind; but it has been delayed till I am indifferent and cannot enjoy it, till I am solitary and cannot impart it, till I am known and do not want it.' The poem has little to add, but it translates Johnson's sentiments neatly, if rather strenuously, into (Petrarchan) sonnet form – 

And this is Fame! and this is what I sought
And longed for with a yearning and a pain
That made my youthful years a weary strain!
And now the victory's won, the battle fought;
But I would gladly give what years have brought
To hear the long-hushed voices once again
In my old home, where only peace did reign,
And love and tenderness and kindly thought.
Too late has come the world's praise to me,
The hearts are still that would have throbbed with pride;
And now my tired heart only says "too late";
For Death has changed the nights and days to me.
Save hope of meeting there is nought beside,
And Name and Fame have come to me too late. 

Friday 27 May 2022

'No end of the cars'

 Back in the suburban demiparadise (maybe the hemidemiparadise now?) I'm constantly appalled, and all but deafened and choked, by the ever growing volume of traffic on the roads. A sweet and distant memory now are the car-free roads of lockdown, the quietness, the clean air... It seems that one of the many regrettable effects of the Covid panic was to scare people off public transport and back into their cars. 
 Traffic-choked roads, however, have been a feature of this country for a surprisingly long time. Rereading Philip Larkin's A Girl in Winter, I came across this passage, describing the countryside near London shortly before the Hitler War: 
'The main roads were full of cars and cyclists, the garages were all open, and every so often they would pass a tea garden with a sign, or a chalked board saying that fruit was on sale, plums or pears. There was no end of the cars. They streamed in both directions, pulled up by the roadside so that occupants could spread a meal, formed long ranks outside swimming pools...'
  The roads were every bit as congested in my Fifties childhood, and I remember sitting, bored and fretful, in many an endless traffic jam. I remember the tea gardens too (not many of those left now), and the roadside picnics. We had many such picnics en famille, brewing tea on a spirit burner  – a long job – in a small square kettle that was fitted into a cleverly designed leather canteen, with compartments for cutlery and blue plastic cups and plates. You would have to be mad, or addicted to petrol fumes – and, ideally, deaf – to hazard a roadside picnic now. As for the 'swimming pools', these would be the outdoor pools known as 'lidos' (pronounced 'lydo') that were very popular between the wars – of which, happily, a few remain. I remember one in particular: Ruislip Lido, which was (and is) a 60-acre lake with lido facilities (and a miniature railway). After a dip, we would often walk in the adjoining woods and, if we were lucky, have the magical experience of watching White Admirals flying. Maybe I should revisit those woods, before I leave the South. Or maybe not. 

Wednesday 25 May 2022


 This morning, wandering in the churchyard of St Michael's, Lichfield (where Dr Johnson's parents are buried, as well as some of Philip Larkin's forebears), I came across the grave of the Rev. John Louis Petit – a name that somewhere rang the faintest of bells. An informative board standing near the grave, and subsequent online delving, revealed that Petit, who was for a while curate of St Michael's, was a prolific and original topographical watercolorist, and a leading player in what might be called the architectural style wars of the early and pre-Victorian period. While Pugin and the Camden Society carried all before them, Petit argued strongly against the excesses of Gothicism, and in favour of minimal restoration of buildings (rather than wholesale Gothicising) and drawing on earlier styles – and on the architecture of other countries – to develop an original approach that did not ape the 'one true style', i.e.Gothic. In this he was, while the battle raged, on the losing side, with the big guns of the Gothic Revival (including, at the time, George Gilbert Scott) ranged against him. Developments later in the 19th century, with the work of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings and the growth of more relaxed and eclectic building styles, vindicated Petit's general ideas, but he was still destined to be largely forgotten by all but architectural historians. 
  As a watercolorist, Petit developed a style that combined accuracy with an attempt to convey the emotional impact of buildings. Many of his pictures look, by Victorian standards, unfinished, harking back to an earlier Romantic style. He used some of these paintings in his books and educational activities, and left vast numbers, often mixed in with work by his almost equally prolific sisters, at his death. They were soon widely dispersed, some were damaged and some lost, others sold off in batches at auction. Only in recent years have research and conservation efforts rescued some portion of his huge output and focused attention on the all but forgotten Petit. Above is his painting of Crowland Abbey in Lincolnshire.   

Sunday 22 May 2022

'Eagerly waiting for the five o'clock tea'

 I love this bit of crazy Portuguese artwork (by one Andre da Loba). It adorns a box containing a jar of delicious rosemary honey, bought for us (in London) by our daughter before she returned to New Zealand last month. The honey is lyrically described in four languages, one on each side of the box, and the English version reads 'SWEET GARNERED IN TRADITION, EAGERLY WAITING FOR THE FIVE O'CLOCK TEA'. Every bit as wacky as the picture... 

Thursday 19 May 2022

'The sound of failure'

I've always tended to prefer blurry and grainy photographs (black and white or early colour) to glossy, full-colour high-definition images, to prefer obsolescent tech to the latest thing, lo-fi to hi-fi, the rough-around-the-edges to the smooth and highly finished. It's something I never really thought about, regarding it as a simple matter of taste, perhaps related to a general preference for things of the past over things of the present. But someone who has thought about it is the musician Brian Eno, and I was delighted to come across this quotation today. These are, I think, wise words, identifying something real and generally unacknowledged: 

 'Whatever you now find weird, ugly, uncomfortable and nasty about a new medium will surely become its signature. CD distortion, the jitteriness of digital video, the crap sound of 8-bit – all of these will be cherished and emulated as soon as they can be avoided. It’s the sound of failure: so much modern art is the sound of things going out of control, of a medium pushing to its limits and breaking apart. The distorted guitar sound is the sound of something too loud for the medium supposed to carry it. The blues singer with the cracked voice is the sound of an emotional cry too powerful for the throat that releases it. The excitement of grainy film, of bleached-out black and white, is the excitement of witnessing events too momentous for the medium assigned to record them.'

Wednesday 18 May 2022

Johnson as Kangaroo

 One of the most endearing things about that endlessly complex man, Samuel Johnson, was his capacity for childlike exuberance, even downright silliness (something he shared with Keats). Perhaps, in Johnson's case, it was a counterweight to the depression that always threatened to drag him down to the depths. Boswell more than once notes the Doctor's fondness for rolling down hills, with every evidence of enjoyment, and there's another delightful instance of his exuberance that was not recorded at the time by Boswell, but finds its place in the Life. It happened at an inn in Inverness when he and Boswell were on their way to the Hebrides. The Rev. Alexander Grant, who was there, reported that Johnson 'was in high spirits. In the course of conversation he mentioned that Mr Banks [the famous botanist Joseph Banks, who travelled on Cook's first voyage] had, in his travels in New South Wales, discovered an extraordinary animal called the Kangaroo. The appearance, conformation and habits of this quadruped were of the most singular kind: and in order to render his description more vivid and graphic, Johnson rose from his chair and volunteered an imitation of the animal. The company stared; and Mr Grant said nothing could be more ludicrous than the appearance of a tall, heavy, grave-looking man like Dr Johnson standing up to mimic the shape and motions of a kangaroo. He stood erect, put out his hands like feelers, and, gathering up the tail of his huge brown coat so as to resemble the pouch of the animal, made two or three vigorous bounds across the room!'

Monday 16 May 2022


 Born on this day in 1862 was Margaret Fountaine, a woman who has been aptly described as ‘one of the strangest lepidopterists Britain has ever produced’. A Norfolk clergyman’s daughter, she was brought up conventionally enough, but, having had her heart broken by an Irish singer whom she pursued all the way to Ireland, she left England to travel in search not of love but of butterflies – a pursuit that was to lead her through various parts of Europe, Africa, the Middle East, India, the Far East, the Americas and the Antipodes. A dauntless traveller who seemed to fear nothing and to thrive in the most basic living conditions, she probably covered more ground than any lepidopterist has ever done, even in the age of jet flight. Though she sent frequent reports to the entomological journals, it was her other, more private writings that were to secure her posthumous fame...
  When she died – in 1940, while hunting butterflies in Trinidad – she left her collection of some 22,000 specimens to Norwich Castle Museum, and with it a mysterious black box which, she stipulated, was not to be opened until April the fifteenth, 1978. The day came, the box was duly opened, and it was found to contain twelve thick volumes of her journal, covering six decades and more of her life – and containing an astonishingly frank account of her emotional life, notably her relationship with her Syrian dragoman (guide, interpreter and, in Margaret Fountaine’s case, a great deal more). Khalil Neimy had fallen in love with her on their first meeting, despite being fifteen years her junior, and he became her ‘dear companion, the constant and untiring friend’ on her travels for many years. They exchanged rings, and planned to marry and settle in America, but Khalil sadly died on a return visit to Syria in 1929. Wisely, in view of the attitudes that prevailed at the time, they kept their feelings concealed from the world, and Margaret Fountaine equally wisely chose to keep her intimate diaries under embargo until the hundredth anniversary of the date on which she began writing them. When their contents became known, they caused a stir far beyond the world of lepidoptery, and their contents were adapted into two successful books by W.F. Cater: Love among the Butterflies and Butterflies and Late Loves. Margaret Fountaine became, along with Eleanor Glanville (whose life even inspired a romantic novel, Lady of the Butterflies by Fiona Mountain), one of the two romantic heroines of butterfly collecting – and that is two more than there are romantic heroes among the men.

Sunday 15 May 2022

'An affair of places'

 Talking of butterflies – yesterday morning, a summer-like day of blue skies and strong sunlight, I made my way to one of my regular local patches to see what was flying. Surely there would be plenty on the wing on such a day, I imagined – but when I got there, I found nothing resembling abundance. I upped my species tally by spotting my first Small Heath, Common Blue and Small Blue of the year (the last a speciality of this particular site) – but only one of each, and scarcely more than one of anything I saw: three or four Small Coppers was the best of it. Such sparseness at this time of year, when things should be really livening up, is worrying. I do hope the next couple of months bring more of the glorious abundance that is one of the joys of being among butterflies. 
  As I wandered about this patch of Surrey downland, which for me is full of happy memories of family times as well as lepidopteral delights, I reflected that this time next year (even at the present glacial rate of progress) I shall be exploring fresh woods and pastures new as I investigate the butterflies of Staffordshire. I fancy I might miss those Surrey downs and hills more than anything else about living down here. As Wallace Stevens wrote (in Adagia): 'Life is an affair of people not of places, but for me life is an affair of places and that is the trouble.' 

Friday 13 May 2022

Why Butterfly?

 Why are butterflies called butterflies? It's a question I'm often asked (once my obsession becomes known) and one to which there seems to be no simple answer – or is there?
  Various theories have been advanced. One of the more plausible is that butterflies are named after the butter-yellow (or, in the male, sulphur-yellow) Brimstone, often the first butterfly to be seen in spring. Others have suggested that the name was inspired by butterflies' apparent interest in buttermilk, which does seem to attract some butterflies' attention if it's exposed in the open. There was a folk belief that witches took the form of butterflies and helped themselves to milk and butter. However, if a butterfly devoted its whole life to consuming dairy products, it would scarcely manage more than a few thimblefuls. Butterflies don't eat at all – they're not physically equipped for it; they only drink. All their eating is done at the larval stage – which makes it even stranger that some sources suggest the possibility (based on an Old Dutch word, 'boterschijte') that butterflies are so named because their excrement resembles butter. Butterflies don't excrete or egest anything, except sometimes a little water if they're overfull, so that theory sounds wildly fanciful. 
  In all this puzzlement and conjecture, did no one think to consult Johnson's Dictionary? There the curious reader will find this definition: 'A beautiful insect, so named because it first appears in the beginning of the season for butter.' The season for butter: I must admit that it had never occurred to me that there was a season for butter-making, but that was indeed the case until late in the 18th century, when changes in animal husbandry and improved breeds of cattle made milking and butter-making possible all year round. So there you have it: a butterfly is the insect that flies during the butter season – which extended roughly from March to September, as does the butterfly season. No doubt debate will continue, but it seems to me that Johnson this time got it right. The same cannot be said, however, for his definition of a caterpillar: 'A worm which, when it gets wings, is sustained by leaves and fruits.'  
  Among the most charming, if  not entirely reliable, of Johnson's animal definitions is 'Elephant': 'The largest of all quadrupeds, of whose sagacity, faithfulness, prudence, and even understanding, many surprising relations are given. He is supplied with a trunk, or long hollow cartilage, like a large trumpet, which hangs between his teeth, and serves him for hands: by one blow with his trunk he will kill a camel or a horse, and will raise a prodigious weight with it...' And I like his 'Lion': 'The fiercest and most magnanimous of four-footed beasts.' And here is 'Goldfinch': 'A singing bird, so named from his golden colour. This is called in Staffordshire a Proud Taylor.' I must remember that the next time I'm admiring the numerous goldfinches of Lichfield.

Wednesday 11 May 2022

Olafsson Rameau

 Since buying his revelatory CD, Debussy Rameau, I've become mildly obsessed with the Icelandic pianist Vikingur Olafsson. His Bach interpretations have deservedly won him great acclaim, and his exploration of Rameau's piano works in relation to those of his musical successor and admirer, Claude Debussy, should raise his reputation even higher. One of the highlights of an album full of wonders is Olafsson's transcription of Rameau's 'EntrĂ©e pour les Muses, les Zephyres, les Saisons, les Heures et les Arts' from his last opera, Les BorĂ©ades. I've posted this glorious piece in its original form before – here – and below is Vikingur Olafsson playing his equally beautiful version, with bonkers video embellishments, courtesy of Deutsche Grammophon: 

Tuesday 10 May 2022

Jarvis Atingle

 Yesterday, on one of my increasingly rare forays into the woke world of Radio 4, I caught a bit of Jarvis Cocker's new series, Good Pop Bad Pop, a kind of music-themed memoir. Jarvis is a natural radio man, always worth a listen, so I hung around until the dreaded Woman's Hour took over. What caught my ear was Cocker's description of 'the tingle', which is the physical sensation that something special in music (or other arts, no doubt) triggers in the region of the upper spine and back of the head. This sounded familiar – of course, 'the tingle' was Nabokov's index of true art too. Here's one of his several utterances on the subject: 'A wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine. It is there that occurs the telltale tingle even though we must keep a little aloof, a little detached when reading.' (from Lectures on Literature). 
Unfortunately, the particular tingle that Cocker was remembering – the first he recalls – was occasioned by the ludicrous Peter Sarstedt song 'Where Do You Go To, My Lovely?' Jarvis was set atingle by the line 'I can look inside your head', which, after a string of 'na-na-na's, ends the song.  In mitigation it must be stated that this song was released (and stayed at number one for four weeks) in 1969, when young Jarvis was barely six years old. He can be forgiven that early tingle. 

Sunday 8 May 2022

Not Yet

 Spring may be arriving in England three weeks earlier than it used to (according to this) – or even a month earlier (according to this) – but clearly no one has told the swifts. These magical birds have been arriving in my neighbourhood on or around the same date for as long as I can remember, sometimes putting in an early appearance in the last days of April, but usually making it in the first few days of May (always, in recent years, by the 7th). This year I was quietly confident that, encouraged by the recent warm weather, they would be, if anything, a little early. But no: here we are on the afternoon – a glorious sunny afternoon – of the 8th, and still not a swift in sight. I do hope nothing has gone wrong on their inward journey... I also hope that, by the very act of writing this, I have ensured that the next time I set foot outside the house I shall see a swift circling above me and instantly experience again that unique lift of the heart and soul – a thrill that is like no other 'first', however late it comes. 

Friday 6 May 2022

'The little lives of earth and form...'

 On this day in 1977, Philip Larkin wrote one of those tender little lyrics that are among the most cherishable of his late works –

The little lives of earth and form,
Of finding food, and keeping warm,
    Are not like ours, and yet
A kinship lingers nonetheless:
We hanker for the homeliness
    Of den, and hole, and set.

And this identity we feel
– Perhaps not right, perhaps not real –
    Will link us constantly;
I see the rock, the clay, the chalk,
The flattened grass, the swaying stalk,
    And it is you I see.

Here are two more, written in February 1979, short, concentrated and almost sweet, the work of a poet whose best works might be behind him (apart from 'Aubade'), but who is still a master craftsman –

New eyes each year
Find old books here,
And new books, too,
Old eyes renew;
So youth and age
Like ink and page
In this house join,
Minting new coin. 

The daily things we do
For money or for fun
Can disappear like dew
Or harden and live on.
Strange reciprocity:
The circumstance we cause
In time gives rise to us,
Becomes our memory.

Wednesday 4 May 2022

The Narrowing Ground

 Following on from my last post – it's worth noting that my own university, Cambridge, decided more than a hundred years ago that works published at any date up to the present might be included in the syllabus for what is whimsically called the English Tripos. I don't think there were any immediate ill effects of this bold move (though further down the line there might well have been), and the change was welcomed at the time by the rather improbable Professor of English, Sir Arther Quiller-Couch ('Q'), who wrote: 'I think it is time to hint at least that the Modern and Medieval Languages Board intend to justify by practice what they meant when, in framing the separate English Tripos, they so far ignored academic tradition and dared the rage of schoolmasters – which, like that of sheep, is terrible – as to open the study of English down to our own times, declining to allow that any past date could be settled, even by university statute, as the one upon which English literature took to its bed, and expired, and was beatified.' 
 Well, in his day there were no signs that English literature might have taken to its bed and expired, but can we be so sure today? With the publishing industry monolithically 'woke' and a vast range of subject matter, language and attitudes effectively outlawed, what are the chances of literary fiction good enough to become classic ever getting published? Time and again, reading classic (or at least excellent) novels from the twentieth century, the worrying thought crosses my mind: 'Would this get published today?' The answer is very often No: too 'difficult', too unusual, no obvious commercial appeal, too problematic and liable to offend against contemporary pieties – in other words, quite unsafe in every way. Would any publisher today stick with Ivy Compton-Burnett year after year? Would most of Evelyn Waugh's and Kingsley Amis's novels, and a good many of Philip Larkin's poems, get published by any mainstream publisher today? When the permitted ground is as narrow as it is today, English literature could well take to its bed and expire, or at least wither on the vine. It might already have happened in the field of humorous writing: in 2018 the Bollinger Wodehouse Prize for Comic Writing was not awarded at all, so dismally low was the standard of the supposedly humorous works submitted. And this comes as no surprise: wherever genuinely funny writing is happening now, it is not often in book form, or even print; increasingly it is being driven to the fringes of the online world. Real comedy, being more than most forms 'liable to offend', is not likely to find a place in today's po-faced, narrowly restrictive publishing world; nor is fiction that does not conform to the political and emotional correctness that is now de rigueur. This is a sad look-out – but at least we still have the riches of former, freer times to sustain us. For now. 

Sunday 1 May 2022

'For pleasure and edification, not for points credit'

 In 'Culture High and Dry', the first in a collection of essays and lectures published as The Culture We Deserve, the historian Jacques Barzun laments the loss of a broad-based common culture in which all who were likely to take an interest in such matters could be assumed to have a fairly firm bedrock of knowledge and appreciation of literature and the arts (and history, the subject of a later essay). In an age of increasing specialism and declining educational standards, this bedrock can no longer be taken for granted, and the consequences, as Barzun realised, are potentially dire.
  Barzun reminds us that 'the idea of studying literature, studying past art is extremely recent. Down to the 1850s there were no courses in those subjects; they were not subjects at all. And even after they came in, as a hoped-for antidote to science and political economy, nobody believed that contemporary art and literature should or could be studied.' It was assumed that contemporary artists and writers 'would be read or followed by the public for pleasure and edification, not for points credit'. Those interested would 'undergo at first hand, without pedagogy, the formative impress of the latest phase of culture ... As things stand now, the new is brought on campus and dissected before the body has had time to cool.' All is grist to the academic mill, since the various forms of critical analysis deployed bear less and less relation to the work under dissection, the thing itself and how it is experienced, still less to its quality, a concept long ago devalued and jettisoned. Thus academic discourse drifts loose from its ostensible subject and becomes hermetic, and indeed incomprehensible to all but a few academic specialists.
  This is a sad state of affairs, but also, as Barzun, in his civilised, understated way, notes, downright dangerous. When academic analysis comes adrift from its subject and when increasing numbers of students have no deep roots in or knowledge of a wider culture, criticism lies open to any ideology that cares to ride a coach and horses through it. Barzun published these essays in 1989, when he was already in his 80s. Although he lived to the extraordinary age of 104 (dying in 2012), he was at least spared the sight of Critical Race Theory and 'decolonisation' rampaging through an academe of 'safe spaces' and 'trigger warnings', proving his own, very different warnings all too well founded.