Saturday 30 July 2022

More Moore

 Born on this day in 1899 was the great accompanist Gerald Moore. I've written about him, and his rather unusual career path, before (e.g. here), but am happy to take any opportunity to enjoy again the special magic that occurred whenever Moore was at the piano with one of his favourite singers. It was never more magical than when the singer was Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who said of Moore: 'There is no more of that pale shadow at the keyboard; he is always an equal with his partner.' In this recording of two Schubert lieder, both men are on top form. The piano introduction to 'Der Lindenbaum' is especially wonderful. As ever, Fischer-Dieskau just stands and delivers – but what a voice! That he maintained it through 35 years of heavy smoking is little short of miraculous...

Thursday 28 July 2022

They Tell Me There's a Lot of It About

 Sorry to hear that the versatile comic actor and performer Bernard Cribbins has died, albeit at the ripe old age of 93. Among his many talents was a gift for old time music hall. Here he is in a classic performance from that TV stalwart of yesteryear, The Good Old Days, chaired by Leonard Sachs. Enjoy...

Wednesday 27 July 2022

When Emus Attack

 'Man fleeing Wiltshire crash scene attacked by emus' – that's the kind of headline I like. And it's a good story (leaving aside the crash itself, which must have been quite terrifying for those who witnessed it). If you vault into a field while fleeing the scene of an accident, you really don't expect to come under attack from emus, least of all in Wiltshire. I like the quote from the chef who gave chase: 'One of them went into the field, and tried to be a bit aggressive towards the emus. The emus were curious and they started pecking away at him, which he didn't take to.' Well, you wouldn't really, would you...
  Les Murray has a bravura description of an emu in his poem 'Second Essay on Interest: The Emu' –

'Weathered blond as a grass tree, a huge Beatles haircut
raises an alert periscope and stares out
over scrub. Her large olivine eggs click
olily together; her lips of noble plastic
clamped in their expression, her head-fluff a stripe
worn mohawk style, she bubbles her pale blue windpipe: 
the emu, Dromaius novaehollandiae,
whose stand-in on most continents is an antelope,
looks us in both eyes with her one eye
and her other eye, dignified courageous hump,
feather-swaying condensed camel, Swift Courser of New Holland...'

Monday 25 July 2022

Neither of the Above

 Perhaps I'm being a simpleton in asking this question, but why on earth are the (pathetic) debates between the (pathetic) candidates for the Conservative leadership being broadcast to the nation on primetime TV? Of course the winner will be, by default, Prime Minister (heaven help us), but the electorate in this contest is not the viewing (and voting) nation but only the membership of the Conservative party (180,000, is it?)? The rest of us have no dog in this fight. And I suspect that, after a few more weeks of this ghastly, infantile campaign, the verdict of many party members, let alone the rest of us, will be a very clear 'neither of the above'.

Sunday 24 July 2022

Porter and Bach

No apologies for returning again to Peter Porter, the Australian expat poet who seems in danger of being forgotten, despite writing some of the best verse of his time. 
Two themes very prominent in Porter's work were death and music – and, less obviously, religion, which for him was the link between the two: 'I think I was six when first I thought of death./I've been religious ever since./Good taste lay in wait and showed me avenues of music.' This poem, taking its title from the final lines of Larkin's 'Toads Revisited' ('Give me your arm, old toad;/Help me down Cemetery Road.'), was new to me, as was the Bach church cantata at its core.

Down Cemetery Road

The wind brings the Sunday bells. Come to church,
good people. But for me they're simulacra
of the great bell in my chest, clouting out the end.

This comes of keeping one's nose to the moral North
where gods go when they die. Oh how pleased
they are to leave their Babylonian captivity.

And how strange that religion comes from the East
where tourists see only commerce – fanaticism
seeking blue-eyed converts in the claggy fens.

But not the point of this poem. The chorale of Bach's
which moves me most is a tune of 1713,
a real contemporary, Liebster Gott, wann wird ich sterben?

The tune is Daniel Vetter's, the treatment Bach's.
There's the soft flush of earth when corpse and men
move among the matutinal flowers.

Bells like teeth touching, the towers of Leipzig
carving a Lutheran world in friendly slices,
that warm sententiousness we know as death.

Almost chirpy music, but don't ask the corpse
his view. Perhaps he sees that transcendental
radish bed promised by the tame Tibetans.

After a lifetime of blood letting, we deserve
a vegetable future. The flutes and oboes pilfer grief,
we have earned this joyful gruesomeness.

I think I was six when first I thought of death.
I've been religious ever since. Good taste
lay in wait and showed me avenues of music.

Which opened on the road to Leipzig's cemetery,
the alder trees in leaf and the choristers
waiting for their dinner. Herrscher ├╝ber Tod und Leben!

We Northerners are really Greek. Stoic, old
and held by oracles. Tears are running down like soot.
My daily prayer, Mach einmal mein Ende gut!

And here is the cantata. The glorious opening section is, I think, especially beautiful. That repeated flute motif, in which the same note is played 24 times, suggests the sound of a bird – perhaps the alarm call of a blackbird – but surely also refers to the 24 tolls of the bell that were rung at someone's death in the Leipzig of Bach's time...

Friday 22 July 2022

Dawn on This Bay

 Born on this day in 1844 was William Archibald Spooner, the famously absent-minded Oxford don after whom the Spoonerism – as in 'It is kisstumary to cuss the bride' – was named. Spooner himself, an albino with poor eyesight, spent 60 years of his life in the service of New College, Oxford (where he was the first non-Wykehamist undergraduate), and was the very image of the unworldly bachelor don, but was actually a married man with five children, one of whom went on to found a large engineering firm and another of whom was a successful portrait painter. He was not very pleased to be associated with the Spoonerism, many of the most famous examples of which were invented by Oxford wags and others. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations has only one authenticated Spoonerism: 'The weight of rages will press hard upon the employer'. Spooner himself confessed to 'Kinquering Congs their titles take'. Invented Spoonerisms include 'I am tired of addressing beery wenches', 'The Lord is a shoving leopard' and 'You have hissed all my mystery lectures, and were caught fighting a liar in the quad'. 
  Personally, I find the stories of Spooner's absent-mindedness (no doubt equally apocryphal) rather more entertaining. One has him inquiring of an undergraduate, 'Was it you or your brother who was killed in the war?' In another he invites a colleague to tea 'to welcome Stanley Casson, our new Archaeology fellow'. 'But, sir,' the man replies, 'I am Stanley Casson.' 'Never mind,' says Spooner. 'Come anyway.' 
Then there was the long sermon he (allegedly) preached, to an understandably bemused congregation, all about Aristotle. Descending from the pulpit when it was over, he was suddenly struck by a thought, climbed back up and announced, 'I'm sorry – did I say Aristotle? I meant Saint Paul.'  

Wednesday 20 July 2022

'He sleeps among the dull of ancient days'

 I was pleased (and rather surprised) to see that the distinction of recording the hottest temperature ever in the UK (40.3C) was achieved yesterday by the village of Coningsby in Lincolnshire. Coningsby is just the kind of quiet, unassuming, more or less nondescript Mercian village that I like. Its church, St Michael's, has a one-handed clock, the dial of which is painted onto the tower, which, unusually, has an arched passageway passing under it, part of a footpath from the high street to the old school.
 The Rector here in the 1720s was one Laurence Eusden, the nation's youngest ever Poet Laureate, and one of its least distinguished. Appointed at the age of 30, on the strength of an ode celebrating the Lord Chamberlain, Lord Newcastle's marriage, he succeeded the rather more distinguished Nicholas Rowe, and held the office for 12 years, enduring much derision. His reputation continued to fall after his death. In his Lives of the Poets, Johnson wrote that 'the Laureateship was in this instance preserved and handed down by perhaps our worst poet'. Johnson's brief account of Eusden's poems is peppered with phrases such as 'far-fetched flatteries', 'fulsome fustian' and 'servile adulation and tiresome triplets'. At Coningsby, Eusden took to drink, but still managed to make a translation of Tasso. He died in 1730. 
'The reader,' Johnson concludes, 'will, we fear, agree with us that more than enough has been said of this versifier. Though a clumsy courtier, his flatteries gained for him in that era patronage. In the present one, his powers of puffery would have been turned to a different account. He might have exhausted imagination in celebrating the virtues of blacking, or the praises of cheap clothing.'
'Know, Eusden thirsts no more for sack or praise;
He sleeps among the dull of ancient days.'
(Pope, The Dunciad

Monday 18 July 2022

One for the Heatwave...

'The heat has come down handsomely upon Lahore: the temperature, even in a room fanned by a punkah, is 95°F and an ill omened pillar of dust is skirmishing outside under an orange coloured sky. The clouds are so low down and so metallic in appearance that one feels as if they could be rapped with the knuckles, and if this were done they would ring like saucepans...' 
That's the teenage Rudyard Kipling writing home to his mother and sister from the scorching summer heat of Lahore (then in India, now in Pakistan). Already the assistant editor of the Civil & Military Gazette, Kipling was left holding the fort while most of his colleagues had decamped to the cool hill country for the summer. Suffering from night terrors and an entirely reasonable fear of cholera, young Rudyard found it all but impossible to sleep, so took to wandering the streets of the Old City at night. This was an unthinkable thing for a respectable white man to do, but it brought him into intimate contact with Indian street life – loud, colourful, chaotic, sometimes menacing – and furnished him with much material not only for his newspaper but for the short stories he was already writing (and, especially, Kim). Those nocturnal wanderings, like the epic night walks of Dickens through London, seem to have done much to fire his creative imagination. In the course of them the teenage Kipling also habitually availed himself of Lahore's prostitutes, and discovered the pleasures of opium and hashish – all apparently without a qualm. The heat can do strange things to a man... 
Incidentally, the drink that got the British through all that Indian heat was weak whisky and soda, the 'chota peg'. Churchill carried on drinking it through most of his life. Cheers!

Saturday 16 July 2022

The Faultless Painter

 Born on this day in 1486 was Andrea del Sarto, the 'faultless painter' as Browning (following Vasari) calls him. Browning's dramatic monologue in Andrea's voice is a fascinating poem, one of the best of its kind – full text here. Taking his lead from Vasari – an unreliable source, but what can you do? – Browning explores the relationship between the painter and his faithless, frivolous wife, and relates his passivity to the weakness of ambition that allowed him to be overshadowed by his contemporaries Leonardo, Raphael and Michelangelo (surely the most daunting set of rivals any artist could have). All this is probably very unfair on the Andrea del Sarto of real life, but at least posterity now recognises him as a hugely accomplished, important, influential (and, yes, faultless) painter. 
The intense, uneasy, exquisitely painted portrait above is in the National Gallery. Titled Portrait of a Young Man, it could well be a self portrait. It certainly makes a perfect match with Browning's poem.
London also has one of his Madonnas – the beautiful Virgin and Child with the Infant Baptist in the Wallace Collection (below). 

Friday 15 July 2022

Another Cloud

 Talking of clouds, here's a painting that, I think, perfectly illustrates Larkin's 'high-builded cloud moving at summer's pace'. The depth and luminosity of that summer sky is extraordinary. The painting, Noon, Bratsevo (1866), is by Ivan Shishkin, a highly accomplished landscape painter whose work is often almost photorealist in its sharpness and precision, but with a romantic flavour, especially when he is painting his beloved forest scenes. This kind of 'poetic realism' was always a strong force in Russian art, and, alas, all too easily mutated into the propagandistic kitsch of 'socialist realism'. Nowadays, to judge by what I see online, Russian 'neo-impressionism' seems to be all the rage. Some of that is pretty kitsch too.
Here is the Larkin image in context – 

'Cut grass lies frail:
Brief is the breath
Mown stalks exhale.
Long, long the death

It dies in the white hours
Of young-leafed June
With chestnut flowers,
With hedges snowlike strewn,

White lilac bowed,
Lost lanes of Queen Anne's lace,
And that high-builded cloud
Moving at summer's pace.'

Wednesday 13 July 2022

Wool sack clouds and mare blobs

 Born on this day in 1793 was John Clare, briefly famous in his day as a 'peasant poet', then forgotten about until the early 20th century, and now perhaps rather overpraised for poetry that is decidedly patchy, though at its best eloquent and moving. As a nature poet, he certainly had the advantage of close contact and deep-rooted knowledge, though he was not above a bit of high-toned waffling (no doubt what his early public wanted of him). His poetry is rich in (Northamptonshire) dialect words, and opens a window on a rural way of life that was, as Clare was all too painfully aware, already disappearing. Here, seasonally, is his joyful  'I love to see the summer', a kind of sonnet but written entirely in rhyming couplets –

I love to see the summer beaming forth

And white wool sack clouds sailing to the north

I love to see the wild flowers come again

And mare blobs stain with gold the meadow drain

And water lilies whiten on the floods

Where reed clumps rustle like a wind shook wood

Where from her hiding place the Moor Hen pushes

And seeks her flag nest floating in bull rushes

I like the willow leaning half way o'er

The clear deep lake to stand upon its shore

I love the hay grass when the flower head swings

To summer winds and insects happy wings

That sport about the meadow the bright day

And see bright beetles in the clear lake play

'White wool sack clouds' for the woolly cumulus of summer is good (better than Hopkins's 'silk-sack clouds' in 'Hurrahing in Harvest'). 'Mare blobs' are the yellow, water-loving flowers we now call Marsh Marigolds. The 'insects happy wings' no doubt include those of butterflies, which Clare celebrated in verse more than once, though even he seems to have seen them largely in generic (and symbolic) terms, never mentioning or describing any particular species. 

Sunday 10 July 2022

Frost Tries to Disappear

 I'm reading (for review) a couple of new books on wetlands – marsh, fen, bog, swamp, mire, etc. In one of them I came across a tale from Robert Frost's early life that I don't remember hearing before – his youthful journey into the poetically named Great Dismal Swamp (a still large area of wetland that straddles Virginia and North Carolina). The young poet was suffering from a bad case of thwarted love, and his intention was apparently to disappear into the swamp and never come out again. His sweetheart, Elinor White, was at college in New York, where, he feared, she was in danger of forgetting about him and dallying with other men. To make sure of winning her heart, he travelled overnight from Massachusetts and turned up unannounced at her college, clutching one of two specially made copies of his first collection of verse and bearing the good news that one of his poems (the rather dreadful 'My Butterfly') had been accepted for publication. Elinor sent him packing, citing the college rules about male visitors, and Frost, heartbroken, tore up his copy of his poems and resolved to disappear, never to be seen or heard of again. Hence the journey to the Great Dismal Swamp. 
   Arriving by ship at Norfolk, Virginia, Frost walked out to the village of Deep Creek, then took the road into the heart of the swamp, walking by moonlight and taking to plank boardwalks when the road ran out. This was dangerous stuff, but the young poet survived unscathed and, by the time he saw a light – the light of a lock-keeper's cottage – he was ready to abandon his suicidal venture. He got a lift on a canal boat to the nearest town, and embarked on a three-week journey back to Massachusetts, some of it on freight trains in the company of hobos. From Baltimore, he wired his mother for the money to buy a ticket home. And the following year he married Elinor. They were together for 43 years.


 So, a heatwave comes, and suddenly sparseness gives way to abundance. At least for the swifts, which had been worryingly quiet and/or absent so often in May and June, and are back in numbers, screaming and chasing each other full pelt across the suburban skies. And for the butterflies, whose numbers had been so low in spring and early summer, and which are now abundant again – not the same butterflies, but the grassland species that have benefitted from the earlier wet weather making the grass grow lush. I sometimes wonder if, despite my generally sceptical views on 'climate change' etc, I have nevertheless absorbed a touch of catastrophic thinking, leading me to overreact to temporary sparseness, even though I know that abundance will likely follow – especially once we get some proper summer weather.
   Yesterday, visiting a favourite local patch of clay grassland, I found it alive with Ringlets, Gatekeepers, Meadow Browns, Marbled Whites and Skippers (Small and, for those who like nice distinctions, Essex). There were also, as I had hoped, Purple Hairstreaks to be spotted in the oak trees. Today I was briefly on chalk downland and found almost as much abundance, with the added bonus of beautiful Dark Green Fritillaries (they're having a very good year) and my first Chalkhill Blue of the season. There will be more. 

Friday 8 July 2022


 Today is the bicentenary of the death of Percy Bysshe Shelley. A suicidally reckless swimmer – as was Swinburne, who, despite his puny build, would happily throw himself into the roughest of seas – Shelley died by water, but not in a swimming accident. He 'drowned when the boat he was sailing was caught in a sudden storm, and his body was washed up ten days later at Viareggio, along with his two sailing companions. They were identifiable only by their clothes – and, in Shelley’s case, a volume of Keats [Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St Agnes, and Other Poems, 1820] that he had crammed into his pocket. With the help of Italian soldiers who were on hand, guarding the bodies, Trelawny [writer, adventurer and friend of poets] built the funeral pyre and set it alight, while his friends Byron and Leigh Hunt looked on. The fierce heat of blazing resinous pine took Trelawny by surprise and drove the onlookers away to a safe distance. As the flames began to die down, Trelawny poured on frankincense and salt, then wine and oil, in the manner of the ancient Greeks, and that was that. The three men then took a long swim out from the shore, and, in one final romantic gesture, Trelawny seized Shelley’s heart from the embers of his pyre. (That heart now resides in the Shelley family vault at St Peter’s, Bournemouth, along with the body of Mary Shelley and the remains of her parents, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, dug up from the churchyard of Old St Pancras.)'
That account of the improvised funeral is from this, hem hem, highly recommended book. There is a fuller account of the much mythologised occasion in Philip Hoare's curiously titled RisingTideFallingStar
To mark the bicentenary, commemorative events are planned at the Keats-Shelley House in Rome (about which I wrote something a few years ago).  

Wednesday 6 July 2022

'It's just not a word I like'

I just came across this quotation from my exact coeval Tom Waits: 
'I don’t have fun. Actually, I had fun once, in 1962. I drank a whole bottle of Robitussin cough medicine and went in the back of a 1961 powder-blue Lincoln Continental to a James Brown concert with some Mexican friends of mine. I haven’t had fun since. It’s just not a word I like. It’s like Volkswagens or bellbottoms, or patchouli oil or bean sprouts. It rubs me up the wrong way. I might go out and have an educational and entertaining evening, but I don’t have fun.' No doubt Waits was stringing an interviewer along when he came out with this, but I can see his point. There is something tiresome about the constant celebration and pursuit of 'fun', a thing that often turns out in practice to be anything but (and yet one feels obliged to pretend it is, as promised, fun). As Johnson observed: 'Nothing is more hopeless than a scheme of merriment.'

Tuesday 5 July 2022

The Great Joy

 Ten years ago today, I became a grandfather. Sam, the first of what was to become a fine tally of five delightful grandchildren, was born to our daughter in Wellington, where he was to be joined two and a half years later by a brother, Ethan. Meanwhile, in England, our daughter-in-law brought the sole granddaughter, Summer, into the world, to be followed after a long interval by William, now three, and Jack, just two years younger. Being a grandfather has been the great joy, and the great adventure, of my later years. It's true what they all say: it brings all the pleasures and rewards of parenthood (including falling in love with each baby as it comes along, though 'they' don't usually say that), but with the added bonus of being able to give the children back to their parents at the end of the day. And it's true what they also say – that grandchildren keep you young, though it's in spirit rather than body; being an active grandparent to young children is nothing if not tiring. But it is all energy well spent. Indeed it could hardly be better spent. Happy birthday, Sam!

Sunday 3 July 2022

The Strange Fate of Mr Hardy's Heart

 Browsing in one of my late uncle's very well organised scrapbooks (mostly newspaper cuttings about politics and theatre, alas), I came across a splendidly macabre tale of what happened – or might have happened – to Thomas Hardy's heart after he died. Hardy, bleak atheist (or God-hater) though he was, wanted to be buried in the churchyard of Stinsford, Dorset (the Mellstock of his Wessex), 'unless the Nation strongly desires otherwise' – which inevitably it did, demanding a Westminster Abbey burial. So it was decided that Hardy's heart would be taken for burial in Stinsford churchyard and the rest of his body cremated for an urn burial at the Abbey.
When Hardy died at his home in Dorchester (the hideous Max Gate), his heart was duly removed and the undertaker Charles Hannah, who had buried both Hardy's parents, wrapped it in a tea towel and placed it for safe keeping in a biscuit tin. Alas, the tin proved less than secure, and a household cat managed to get the lid off and eat the greater part of the heart (cats, for the record, are averse to human flesh – unlike dogs – but will eat human offal). Charlie Hannah, discovering this, took an executive decision. 'Mr 'Ardy wanted 'is 'eart buried at Stinsford,' he declared, 'and buried at Stinsford Mr 'Ardys 'eart shall be.' With which he wrung the poor cat's neck and crammed it back into the biscuit tin, which now contained Mr 'Ardy's 'eart nestled in the stomach of a dead cat. If this it true, then that curious combination is what was interred, with due ceremony, in Stinsford churchyard (in the grave of Emma, Hardy's much-wronged first wife). It would explain why, instead of being presented for burial in the modestly sized urn prepared for the occasion, Hardy's heart was buried in a polished wooden box large enough to contain biscuit tin, cat, heart and all. So the story may well be true. Either way, Hardy would surely have relished the tale. 

Friday 1 July 2022

'It made me extremely happy...'

 Acting on a hot tip from a trusted source, I did something I rarely do these days: I read a new work of fiction. Well, almost new – Sam Riviere's Dead Souls was published last year – but since then, after a slow start, it has, I gather 'taken New York by storm'. If so, that's a surprise because it is, among other things, a very English work set in a very English scene – specifically the English poetry scene. Not, however, the English poetry scene as we know it, but strangely transformed into an exaggerated, hypertrophied version of itself by developments in what we must take to be the near future, as it is much like the present, only that bit worse. In particular, a piece of software, the QACS (quantitative analysis and comparison system), capable of detecting plagiarism, or rather duplication, in any writer's works and thereby triggering a career-ending pile-on, has had devastating effects on prose fiction, leaving only the poets standing – or, in many cases, falling victim. Solomon Wiese, a poet who thought he had found a way around the software – and was not in any normal sense plagiarising – is a recent casualty, and it is his story, told in the course of one night in the bar of the Travelodge by Waterloo Bridge (which, we are told, has an all-night licence and is therefore a magnet for poets), that forms the bulk of Dead Souls. Listening to Solomon Wiese's tale is an unnamed narrator who is a poetry editor and translator and has just delivered a reading of works by an absent Ukrainian poet to an audience none of whom, the narrator realises, actually wants to be there, but all of whom feel obliged to show their faces and maintain their positions in the fiercely competitive and fissiparous world of the English poetry scene. Solomon Wiese's tale – indeed the whole novel – is told in one unbroken paragraph, conventionally punctuated but tending towards very long sentences, often packed with subordinate clauses, qualifications and clarifications, and anchored periodically by the reminder 'Solomon Wiese said' (in the manner of the 'Austerlitz said' at the end of the torrential sentences in Sebald's Austerlitz).  This way of writing reminded me strongly of another novel I read recently – Javier Marias's The Infatuations – and, as with the Marias, I enjoyed being carried along on these great surging rollers of prose. As a satire, Dead Souls is gloriously bitter and very funny, increasingly funny as it (and the night in the Travelodge bar) goes on. It's a thoroughly unusual novel, English in its subject matter but in style and spirit very far from what we might expect of a contemporary English novel. It is rather wonderful that such a big mainstream  house as Weidenfeld & Nicolson should have published it – hats off to them, and to Sam Riviere for having produced something so bracingly original and so hugely enjoyable. 
The back jacket is covered with blurbs so peppered with reviewers' adjectives that I suspected they might all be part of the satire (alas, they are not) – 'Mordant, torrential, incantatory, Bolano-esque, Perec-ian' ... 'Beautiful, intricately humane and gut-wrenchingly funny' ... 'Sublime, legendary, delightfully unhinged'... 'Whip-smart, razor-sharp, wise-funny'... I'd agree with one blurber's conclusion, though: 'It made me extremely happy, and I dreaded it ending.' Me too.