Friday 30 September 2022

Coins of the Realm

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Coins with the Queen's head on will of course continue to circulate until they are eventually withdrawn.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

Wednesday 28 September 2022

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

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

Tuesday 27 September 2022

Queues and Cyphers

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

Meanwhile the new King has chosen his royal cypher – 

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

                                                                That's more like it. 

Monday 26 September 2022

Guess the Author

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


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

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

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

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

Thursday 22 September 2022


 The Johnson monument in Lichfield marketplace is now wearing the wreath that is hung on it on the great man's birthday every year (September 18th). Beneath the wreath is one of three reliefs depicting scenes from Johnson's Lichfield years: this one shows him being borne to school (Lichfield grammar school, which also produced David Garrick and Elias Ashmole) by his schoolmates, who had clearly formed an early estimate of his extraordinary gifts. The other two plaques depict his famous penance in Uttoxeter marketplace, where he stood bareheaded in the rain to atone for an early act of disobedience to his father, and, more surprisingly, the occasion on which he was taken by his father, at the age of three, to listen to Dr Sachaverell, a famous and controversial High Anglican clergyman, preaching in the cathedral. I've written before, on his birthday, about Johnson's birth and early years in Lichfield – here's the link...

Wednesday 21 September 2022


 That fine – I'd say great – American poet Kay Ryan is 77 today. Which seems strange – I always think of her as a young poet. Forever young. The best of her poems will surely live. 
Here, to mark her birthday, is one in which, as so often, she illuminates, in a small and simple poem, a Big Subject. Big, difficult and uncomfortable...

The Fabric of Life

It is very stretchy.
We know that, even if
many details remain
sketchy. It is complexly
woven. That much too
has pretty well been
proven. We are loath
to continue our lessons
which consist of slaps
as sharp and dispersed
as bee stings from
a smashed nest
when any strand snaps—

hurts working far past
the locus of rupture,
attacking threads
far beyond anything
we would have said

Monday 19 September 2022

Dignified, Efficient

 Strange times. Watching the Queen's state funeral, it seems clear that the Dignified elements of our constitution (in Bagehot's terms) are now the only properly Efficient ones, while the supposedly Efficient have only a threadbare and undeserved dignity. Which is perhaps only to say that, while all else might be in the process of falling apart and while little works as it's supposed to do, we still 'do this kind of thing very well'. Very well indeed.

Sunday 18 September 2022


 Talking of the death of George V, I had forgotten that John Betjeman, then a young man, wrote his own valedictory poem on the occasion...


“New King arrives in his capital by air” – Daily Newspaper

  Spirit of well-shot woodcock, partridge, snipe
Flutter and bear him up the Norfolk sky:
In that red house in a red mahogany book-case
The stamp collection waits with mounts long dry.

  The big blue eyes are shut which saw wrong clothing
And favourite fields and coverts from a horse;
Old men in country houses hear clocks ticking
Over thick carpets with a deadened force;

  Old men who never cheated, never doubted,
Communicated monthly, sit and stare
At the new suburb stretched beyond the runway
Where a young man lands hatless from the air.

The Norfolk sky and the red house refer to Sandringham, where the King – who loved tending his stamp collection almost as much as shooting game birds – died. With his death ended the Sandringham tradition of setting the clocks half an hour ahead of Greenwich Mean Time to allow more daylight for hunting and shooting. And with his death came a new world of airports and suburbs and men without hats.

There was also a popular piece of doggerel (not by Betjeman) about the King's physician: 

                                                     Lord Dawson of Penn
                                                     Has killed many men,
                                                     And that's why we sing, 
                                                     'God save the king'. 

'Gone from us but not forgotten'

 With impeccable timing, these two mourning cards for King George V fell out of one of my books (in the course of Mrs N's shelf-tidying) the other day. Someone back in 1936 must have slipped them in as a bookmark (or two). The verse is boilerplate stuff, but it does the job. 
George V was sent on his way by his physician, who injected morphia and cocaine to speed his death, thereby ensuring that it would be announced with due dignity in the morning papers rather than in 'the less appropriate evening journals'. When, earlier, the King had been assured that he would soon be recuperating in Bognor, he allegedly retorted: 'Bugger Bognor.' However, according to his physician, his last words were 'God damn you.' Scarcely an improvement. 
Both George V and Rudyard Kipling died in January 1936, followed in February by my grandfather, to whom both men were towering heroes. His sons took some comfort in the fact that he did not have to live long without them in his life. 

Friday 16 September 2022

Mortimer & Whitehouse: Love and Death

 Talking of the river Dee (the Welsh Dee, that is), Bob Mortimer and Paul Whitehouse were on its beautiful banks in the first of a new series of Mortimer & Whitehouse: Gone Fishing tonight. Some people avoid this programme because they think it's about fishing. It isn't, although they do catch some fish (and release them unharmed) and what ostensibly draws them together on these little expeditions is the thrill of catching particular fish. But, as so often in male friendships, the fishing is, as Gary Louris said of his band Golden Smog, a way of expressing their mutual love without embarrassing themselves by saying 'I love you'. Gone Fishing is a show about love and death. As well as the obvious love between the endlessly engaging, accommodating Bob and the more difficult and prickly Paul, the whole thing, for all the joking and banter, takes place in the shadow – not yet long, not yet dark – of death: both men have had serious medical crises, and both are aware of the advancing years (they are in their sixties). This, unlike the love, is overtly recognised and discussed in the show's more serious moments, which are never long and usually defused by a joke, but always make their mark. Brilliantly edited and beautifully filmed, Mortimer & Whitehouse: Gone Fishing is one of the best things on television. If you haven't, do give it a try. 

Lost in Wales Again

 This week I managed to escape for a few days from the sturm und drang of moving house (a saga that is still by no means over) to join my brother and a couple of old friends for some walking in North Wales. On the first day, we set out from our base in 'the most beautiful city in the world' and headed for the extraordinary Pont Cysyllte Aqueduct – a World Heritage Site, no less, and one deserving of the accolade. Thomas Telford's aqueduct was built to carry the Ellesmere Canal over the waters of the River Dee, and it does it in spectacular style, over 19 tall flat-arched bays, at a height of 127ft. To walk across this astonishing, elegant and even beautiful aqueduct is a vertiginous experience, as the towpath, far from wide, runs next to and on a level with the canal, which is contained in what is essentially a long lead trough. Narrowboats pass within inches, and only a railing stands between the walker and the waters of the Dee so far below. The views are, as you'd expect, wide (and deep) and dramatic – and we were to see more such views as we climbed later into the hills above, then descended into the town of Llangollen, heaving with tourists but perfectly situated on the river. After lunch, it was back along the towpath of the tree-lined canal (where benches were frequent and welcome) all the way to the great aqueduct – a superb day's walking. 
    Alas, the same could not be said for our second day. The plan was to walk a stretch of the North Wales Pilgrims' Way, or Welsh Camino, which begins at Holywell and ends at Bardsey Island, burial place of 20,000 saints. We walked from the delightful village of Llanasa (a delightful village is something of a rarity in this part of Wales) to the start at Holywell, then on to the ruined abbey of Basingwerk, all of which sounds straightforward enough, especially as the Camino is waymarked and stiles are plentiful and well maintained. Soon, however, we found ourselves Lost in Wales again. Despite the fact that we are all very experienced walkers and at least two of us (not including me) are expert map readers with an excellent sense of direction, we were confounded again and again by footpaths whose only existence was as a dotted line on the map, paths that had clearly been diverted or done away with, too infrequent waymarks, and those notoriously long Welsh miles. Lunch was a selection of crisps and nuts in a large but entirely empty bar/grill attached to a caravan park. When a member of staff finally emerged from somewhere, we asked her if it was open, and she replied, with commendable frankness, 'Sort of'. But at least we got a drink. The afternoon's walk was equally difficult  – La diritta via was more than once smarrita – with the result that the Holy Well and the extraordinary late-15th-century building that houses it were already closed by the time we reached them. Still, the church (Georgianised) was open, and the organist was practising. As we entered and wearily seated ourselves, he was playing, maestoso, 'God Save the King'. 

Sunday 11 September 2022


Here's a thought from the physicist, astronomer, mathematician and thinker about science, James Hopwood Jeans, born on this day in 1877:

'The stream of knowledge is heading towards a non-mechanical reality; the Universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine. Mind no longer appears to be an accidental intruder into the realm of matter ... we ought rather hail it as the creator and governor of the realm of matter.'

That's from a book descriptively titled The Mysterious Universe, published in 1930.
And here is Jeans again, likening the universe to a work of art:

'Travelling as far back in time as we can brings us not to the creation of the picture, but to its edge; the creation of the picture lies as much outside the picture as the artist is outside his canvas. On this view, discussing the creation of the universe in terms of time and space is like trying to discover the artist and the action of painting, by going to the edge of the canvas. This brings us very near to those philosophical systems which regard the universe as a thought in the mind of its Creator, thereby reducing all discussion of material creation to futility.'

And here is a cautionary observation:

'Science should leave off making pronouncements; the river of knowledge has too often turned back on itself.'

Saturday 10 September 2022

Nimrod/ Lux Aeterna

 For obvious reasons, we've heard a lot of this great English melody lately. Indeed, at the Proms, the Philadelphia Orchestra played it impromptu when news of the Queen's death came through. This vocal arrangement, written by John Cameron, and performed here by the wonderful Voces 8, is, I think, extraordinarily beautiful. If you have any tears left...

Friday 9 September 2022

Ned Balbo

 Thanks (not for the first time) to the one and only Patrick Kurp, I have discovered another really good American poet, one whose existence I was quite unaware of. Ned Balbo, whose name reads like an anagram, is an active, even prolific, poet, translator and essayist. His books are hard to get over here (except at ruinous prices), but happily he is well represented online.
Here is a well managed and rather beautiful villanelle (not the most fashionable of verse forms nowadays) –

Stella's Children Look Out from a Photo Faded Gold
for my adoptive mother Betty and her siblings

No matter where you vanished, you’re vanished still.
Astonished, pointing out your childhood face,
whatever I felt, I know I always will

remember your words: That’s me. The car was full—
Prop Model T: three boys, two girls, your mother’s trace
of a cold smile vanishing…Vanishing still,

that bygone era, pale and possible
in the grim-faced slow-exposure photo’s glaze-
to-gold. What I feel now I always will:

displaced. Gently, you spoke, the silent reel
that carried your memory forward brought no grace—
No matter. When you vanished, you vanished. Still,

I see them through your eyes: Eddie’s motorcycle
blasted in war, Henry’s shell-shocked gaze
(who knows what his captors did?), Al’s loss of will

in a bottle’s presence, living in basement rubble;
even Vera, whose loss refused all solace
… No matter when, they vanished. They’re vanished still.
Whatever you felt, I felt, and always will.

(You can see the photograph of the family group in the prop car here.)

I find the poem very moving, and it put me in mind of Donald Justice's 'Thinking About the Past', especially the closing lines –

Certain moments will never change, nor stop being—
My mother's face all smiles, all wrinkles soon;
The rock wall building, built, collapsed then, fallen;
Our upright loosening downward slowly out of tune—
All fixed into place now, all rhyming with each other.
That red-haired girl with wide mouth—Eleanor—
Forgotten thirty years—her freckled shoulders, hands.
The breast of Mary Something, freed from a white swimsuit,
Damp, sandy, warm; or Margery's, a small, caught bird—
Darkness they rise from, darkness they sink back toward.
O marvellous early cigarettes! O bitter smoke, Benton...
And Kenny in wartime whites, crisp, cocky,
Time a bow bent with his certain failure.
Dusks, dawns; waves; the ends of songs...

And here is another by Ned Balbo, an unrhymed sonnet called 'The Sugar Thief' –

If it was free, you taught, I ought to grab it
as you did: McDonald’s napkins, pens,
and from the school where you were once employed
as one of two night shift custodians,
the metal imitation wood wastebasket
still under my desk. But it was sugar
that you took most often as, annoyed
on leaving Dunkin’ Donuts, pancake house,
and countless diners, I felt implicated
in your pleasure, crime, and poverty.
I have them still, your Ziploc bags of plunder,
yet I find today, among the loose
change in my pockets, packets crushed or faded—
more proof of your lasting legacy.

If your interest is piqued, you can find more poems by Ned Balbo here.  

Thursday 8 September 2022

'She did not change'

 Well, it has happened. The Queen, being mortal after all, has died. It is deeply sad news, not least for all that dies with her – that iron sense of duty and responsibility, that fortitude, reticence and emotional restraint, all those features of an England now lost. Not to mention the accumulated wisdom and experience of a long, long reign. What now? Well, I looked forward, with some trepidation, at the time of the last Jubilee – here's what I wrote then...

'Happily there has been plenty of public rejoicing, thanksgiving and street partying, but somehow the whole affair, for me at least, is tinged with sadness – the sadness of an approaching end. The fact that the Queen is so obviously ailing is of course unsurprising, but the prospect it opens up is none the less unsettling: that soon she will no longer be here, that the next monarch (or two) will have nothing like her moral stature, self-control or fortitude. The Queen has always been there, all through my 70 years of remembered life (Coronation Day is among my earliest memories). As Larkin put it, 'In times when nothing stood But worsened or grew strange, There was one constant good – She did not change.'

  As a child I, like others of my generation, subconsciously identified the Queen with my mother, and that has given the relationship a particular emotional charge. And it seems I'm not the only one who feels this way about our monarch. Rather to my surprise, the Spectator's Low Life correspondent Jeremy Clarke is also in thrall. Looking back to his childhood home, where Karsh's 1951 portrait of the then Princess Elizabeth hung in a place of honour, he writes: 'As a child I counted it great good fortune to be born the subject of a queen, and one so beautiful. The feeling has increased, with the additional wonder that she has ruled over me with integrity and humility until she is the only one left in the kingdom – the one righteous individual staying God's hand against us in our iniquity.' I wouldn't quite go along with that last phrase, but I know just what he means. It is at the least a case of 'Après elle le déluge'. The end of an age, and of a deeply admirable human type, is drawing near.'

And now it has come. 


 The last time I had been to Clandon Wood natural burial site, it was to enjoy the beauty of the place, and in particular its butterflies*. Yesterday I was there for a very different, desperately sad reason – a memorial service for a remarkable young woman who in her childhood was like a beloved granddaughter to us. She was the daughter of the friend whose funeral we attended only last year. A lovely, talented and much loved girl, she somehow came to feel herself alone, cut off and desolate beyond help, and in the end, like her mother, she could no longer bear the pain of living. 
  This memorial for the daughter was every bit as beautiful and moving as the funeral service for the mother. There was no overt religious content, but it was perfectly judged for the occasion, and again the eulogies – from her twin brother, sisters and father – were perfect: loving, eloquent and true. How they got through them without breaking down I don't know – such courage... Video footage of the children playing brought back so vividly, so heartbreakingly, those happy days of our surrogate grandparenthood. We filed out to the strains of Bridge Over Troubled Waters. I can't remember when I last felt so sad or wept so many tears. May she rest in the deepest peace – and may she know how much, and by how many, she was loved. 
  Outside, it was a day of sunshine and sudden vertical showers. A few late butterflies were flying – a Speckled Wood, some washed-out Meadow Browns, those indefatigable Whites. Season's end.

[*See also the chapter 'Of Death and Butterflies' in this book]

Tuesday 6 September 2022

Good Booker News!

 I've just heard that Alan Garner has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, thereby becoming the oldest author ever to be so honoured  – and surely one of the best. He is also the only British writer on this year's list, and his shortlisted book, Treacle Walker, is commendably brief, at just 15,000 words. If Garner wins, he'll be accepting the award on his 88th birthday. All of this strikes me as a rare bit of Booker-related good news.
Here's a rather remarkable picture of Garner in his younger days, endorsing a ginger ale...

Sunday 4 September 2022

Back to Nature

It occurs to me that this year the blog has been unusually thin on Nature Notes, in particular my usual excited reports of butterfly sightings. There have been various reasons for this, chief among them the fact of much toing and froing between London and the 'city of philosophers', and all the associated busyness – time- and energy-consuming and often frustrating – of trying to find a house to buy. With all this going on, I have been roaming the Surrey hills and downs far less often than I would have done in a normal year (those hills and downs that might soon be looming in my memory like Housman's blue remembered hills). It has also been, undeniably, a funny year, dominated in the South by some spells of ferocious heat and a persistent drought. The heat, it seems, was sometimes too much even for butterflies, and, combined with the searing drought, certainly had dire effects on the food plants and even the early life stages (larvae, pupae) of many species. These factors, and other oddities of this year's weather, perhaps explain the lack of abundance that I've written about before (both this year and last, as it happens) – a lack of abundance that seems to have prevailed across most of the insect kingdom this summer: could this be the 'insect apocalypse' of which we have been warned? I devoutly hope not, and that a more 'normal' spring and summer next year, with decent amounts of rain, will bring the numbers back up. 
   Happily, the lack of abundance (of butterflies) was not in evidence in Derbyshire, where I have spent the past few days. Yesterday, when the sun was out, I saw in one spot a fine gathering of numerous Tortoiseshells, Red Admirals and Commas (not Peacocks – they've had a bad summer) feeding eagerly on Buddleia, as well as a late but bright Common Blue, a particularly beautiful Green-Veined White and a Brimstone, not to mention late Speckled Woods still wearily on the wing. I have had few such experiences down South this year, where the only reliable abundance has been of Small Whites, still flying everywhere, full of life. On the other hand, there have certainly been moments of more general abundance, especially before the drought really began to kick in, and, in the places where they can be found, Chalkhill Blues have been as numerous as ever, and I have seen more of those beautiful Dark Green Fritillaries than ever before. So yes, a funny old year, presumably my last in these parts: next year I hope to be roaming the Staffordshire countryside to see what I can find...