Monday 31 October 2022

Rather Special

 Here (with a hat-tip to Struan Robertson) is something rather special – a unique musical encounter between the Byrds and the Earl Scruggs Band – with the background story provided by the man who managed to film it, despite the antics of one R. McGuinn. The music-making is just wonderful. Enjoy...

The Avenue

 All Hallows' Eve, and a big day for birthdays – notably John Keats (born 1795), the diarist and gardener John Evelyn (1620), and two painters of the Dutch Golden Age: Johannes Vermeer (1632) and, born in 1638, Meindert Hobbema. 
  A pupil of Jacob van Ruisdael, Hobbema was a fine landscape painter, with a particular gift for painting trees, an essential element in his best compositions. The most famous, and one of the greatest of all Dutch landscape paintings, is his extraordinary The Avenue at Middelharnis, one of the treasures of our own National Gallery. A strikingly geometrical composition, almost like an advanced exercise in perspective, it has long fascinated other artists, including Van Gogh. Oddly, The Avenue of Middelharnis was one of the paintings that haunted my boyhood, as it was reproduced in one of the books I browsed in endlessly (The Book of Everlasting Things? A Thousand Beautiful Things?). And another was Van Gogh's The Painter on the Road to Tarascon, a painting with something of a Middelharnis feel, which (this must have been in an encyclopaedia) I remember as being  represented in yellow, cyan and magenta to illustrate three-colour printing. The original went missing in the bombing of Germany during the Hitler War – a sad loss.

Sunday 30 October 2022

A Late Butterfly and a Surprising Resemblance

 And in Lichfield this morning, walking by the remains of the medieval friary, I spotted something flying frenetically from ivy bush to old stone wall and darting around at speed in jagged circles. It was a Painted Lady! One of very few I've seen this year, and a very late one. There's nothing like a late butterfly to lift the heart (unless it's an early one as spring gets under way)...

   And then, in the sweetshop where I was buying a few Halloween treats for the grandchildren, the very nice woman behind the counter looked at me in a slightly startled manner and said, 'You look just like Sir Ian McKellen.' This was a new one on me. 'People must tell you that all the time, don't they?' she asked. Well, no, I replied truthfully, though I've been told I'm the living spit of many another thespian (most pleasingly Jimmy Stewart). 'Your height, your build,' she continued, 'the way you carry yourself.' Gulp. Do I carry myself like Ian McKellen? I had better work on that...

A Do and a Window

 So, after but one day of residence in Lichfield, it was off again, this time to Pangbourne on the Berkshire Thames, for a family do – not quite a wedding but a joyous celebration of a rather wonderful case of late love. We stayed overnight in what was very self-consciously a 'boutique hotel', where, to judge (perhaps unfairly) by the bedroom we were in, interior design had run riot, and the relentlessly pursued 'theme' (a wild mashup of Indian, Far Eastern and East Indian) prevailed over such old-school notions as comfort and amenity. Hotels these days mostly seem to fall into one of two camps: International Bland or Boutique Bonkers, with fewer and fewer in between these poles. By and large, I prefer the first; at least it's restful, which is rather the point of a hotel, isn't it?
  But enough of hotels. It was a gloriously sunny autumn afternoon when we arrived, and I was soon out for a look around the village – and, of course, the church, dedicated to St James the Less (as against St James the Least of All, one of the rivalrous churches in Augustus Carp, Esq, by Himself). This is Victorian, all but the tower, with a pleasant, if rather fussy, interior and some interesting tablets commemorating military men, including a young officer who died in Bengal and is remembered 'with deep love and affection' by an unrelated Major-General. But the glory of the church is the handsome East window, a blaze of light and colour, by the late Arts and Crafts stained-glass designer Karl Parsons. This too is a memorial window, to a member of the local Armstrong family and to all the men of the parish who died in the Great War. There's a detail from the central panels above, and another detail that made a rather lovely Christmas stamp in 1992, below. 

        And now it's Lichfield again, for rather longer this time... 

Sunday 23 October 2022

The Last Day in the Old Home

 The painting above, The Last Day in the Old Home by Robert Braithwaite Martineau, was hugely popular with the Victorian public, who liked a picture that not only told a story but punched home a barrage of strong moral lessons. 
Chez Nige, I'm glad to say things don't look much like the scene depicted by Martineau, but today is indeed the last day in the old home before it's all packed up and carted away, mostly into storage. Mrs N and I will follow in due course and by Wednesday will have waved farewell to the suburban demiparadise and settled in the delightful 'city of philosophers', Lichfield, from where I shall resume my dispatches. Hasta la vista.

Friday 21 October 2022

Coleridge Unveiled

 Today, on the 250th anniversary of his birth, a statue of Samuel Taylor Coleridge was unveiled outside the (magnificent) church in his natal town of Ottery St Mary, Devon. The statue is by Nicholas Dimbleby, son of broadcasting legend Richard and brother of David and Jonathan (he is, by all accounts, the 'quiet one' of the three). This picture of the statue in the studio, before casting, shows it to better advantage, I think...

It shows the young poet and outdoor man, full of energy and promise and idealism (and sometimes touched by genius), rather than the bloated old windbag he became. (Seriously, has Biographia Literaria ever given anyone an iota of reading pleasure?). It's good to know there are figurative sculptors at work who can create convincing full-length public portrait sculpture of this quality. Why, one wonders, do those who clearly lack the ability get so many big commissions? The Diana statue?! The Lovers at St Pancras...?!
Never mind. Here is another by Dimbleby, his statue of Whistler on Chelsea embankment. 

Wednesday 19 October 2022

Joan Carlile

'There are mystically in our faces certain characters which carry in them the motto of our souls, wherein he that cannot read A, B, C may read our natures.' The best-known image of Sir Thomas Browne (born on this day in 1605) is taken from this double portrait of Lady Dorothy and Sir Thomas, painted by one Joan Carlile, who has the distinction of being one of the first British women to paint professionally. She was married to Lodowick  Carlile (or Carlell), a playwright and courtier, who under Charles I was Gentleman of the Bows and Groom to the King and Queen's Privy Chamber, and maintained the post of Keeper of the Great Forest at Richmond Park through the Commonwealth period, and with it the handsome residence of Petersham Lodge. The Carliles had three children, and are buried in Petersham churchyard. Of Joan Carlile's paintings, rather few survive, mostly portraits. As the Browne double portrait shows, her style borders on the naive, but is lively and charming. She was capable of working on a much larger scale, and the grandest of her surviving paintings, combining landscape with portraiture, shows The Carlile Family with Sir Justinian Isham in Richmond Park. Sir Justinian was a scholar and Royalist politician, and the painting hangs at his family seat, Lamport Hall in Northamptonshire. Joan Carlile is thought to be the figure at the far left. 

Monday 17 October 2022

'I think they should be discouraged'


Here is that fine poet Elizabeth Bishop, in a Paris Review interview in 1978: 'When I went to Vassar I took sixteenth-century, seventeenth-century and eighteenth-century literature, and then a course in the novel. The kind of courses where you have to do a lot of reading. I don't think I believe in writing courses at all. There weren't any when I was there. ...The word "creative" drives me crazy. I don't like to regard it as therapy. I was in the hospital several years ago and somebody gave me Kenneth Koch's book Rose, Where Did You Get That Red?* And It's true, children sometimes write wonderful things, paint wonderful pictures, but I think they should be discouraged. From everything I've read and heard, the number of students in English departments taking literature courses has been falling off enormously. But at the same time the number of people who want to get in the writing classes seems to get bigger and bigger.' I'm sure the situation she describes in the universities is the same, only more so, today. The overvaluing of 'creativity' and the undervaluing of reading, specifically as an essential bedrock for any attempt at creative writing, has had dire effects both on writing (especially poetry) and on education. While I wouldn't quite go along with actively discouraging children from writing (though there are plenty of adults who should be firmly discouraged), I certainly think teaching them to read books and learn from their reading should take precedence over any encouragement of creative writing. The playwright Tennessee Williams also took a dim view of creative writing classes, and had kept and reread Bishop's interview. In an interview with James Grissom in 1982, Williams gave his formula for learning to be a writer:
'Read. Read a lot. Go home. Be quiet. Write. Write some more. It will soon be discovered if you are a writer. Classes are not for discovery; they are for stipends.' * In which Koch seeks to show how great poetry can be taught in such a way as to help children write poetry of their own. Koch also co-edited a beautiful illustrated anthology of 'poems for young people', Talking to the Sun. The illustrations are all of paintings and other treasures of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the choice of poems is wide and wonderful.

Sunday 16 October 2022

No Humans Standing

 I feel I really ought to say something about recent events in the corridors of power (as they once were, before the financial markets and the media took command). But what is there left to say? Perhaps the most depressing aspect of it all is that it seems to have left no humans standing. Hunt, Sunak and Starmer – and indeed La Truss – are clearly CGI simulations, as are most of those around them. I have a suspicion Kwarteng might possibly be a human (at least he was a classicist rather than yet another PPE product), but now we'll never know. It could well be that Boris Johnson, for all his only too evident faults, was the last human in British politics. Which is why his lot were elected with such a thumping majority, and why they'll lose next time, and why no one really cares any more...
Maybe it really is time for the resurgent SDP (the party Rod Liddle's always on about) to sweep to power?

On a happier note, today is the birthday of the great illustrator and bringer of joy Edward Ardizzone (born 1900), who gets mentioned quite often on this blog. I have fond memories of this exhibition from six years ago. 

Wednesday 12 October 2022

Another Big One

 Today was one of the year's big cultural anniversaries – the 150th of the birth of Ralph Vaughan Williams, born on this day in 1872 in the village of Down Ampney, Gloucestershire, where his father (who died two years later) was the vicar. I have opined on this blog that, for me, he was the greatest English composer since Purcell, and I don't see myself changing that opinion. Here, to mark the great day, is one of my favourites, Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus, which does wonderful things with the folk tune to which RVW also set the hymn 'I heard the voice of Jesus say' – 

Tuesday 11 October 2022

'I learned a lot about anatomy but didn't find the book'

 'When you are growing up, there are two institutional places that affect you most powerfully: the church, which belongs to God, and the public library, which belongs to you.'
These wise words were spoken (in an interview) by erstwhile hard-living, hell-raising wild man of rock Keith Richards. He is well known to be a bibliophile with an extensive personal library (extending across several of his homes), and in 1998 he hit the headlines when he fell off his library steps (I like to imagine him wearing a smoking jacket and cap when this happened). Richards broke three ribs and punctured a lung in the fall, and afterwards remarked, 'I was looking for Leonardo da Vinci's book on anatomy. I learned a lot about anatomy but didn't find the book.'
At one time Richards decided to get his burgeoning library properly organised, and seriously considered taking a professional course in the mysteries of the Dewey decimal system, but he gave up the idea in favour of organised chaos, the default position of most bookmen. I wonder if he has a copy of that indispensable vade mecum My Duties As My Own Librarian by Arthur H. Jenn and Edward P. Gray...

Monday 10 October 2022

Singing Doughty in the Bath

Reading my latest charity bookshop purchase – Ariel: A Literary Life of Jan Morris, by Derek Johns (with line drawings by Jan Morris) – I learn that Morris early in his career fell under the spell of Charles Doughty's Travels in Arabia Deserta. This is one of those books that is deeply enchanting to some and quite unreadable to others. James (as he then was) Morris was very much in the former camp: 'It called to me out of desert lands,' Jan recalled in an interview, 'but its meanings were less seductive to me than its sensually exciting rhythms ... For years I used to sing its opening paragraph in the bath, to a melody of my own invention.' That would have been something to hear... 
This is that opening paragraph:

'A new voice hailed me of an old friend when, first returned from the Peninsula, I paced again in that long street of Damascus which is called Straight; and suddenly taking me wondering by the hand, "Tell me (said he), since thou art here again in the peace and assurance of Ullah, and whilst we walk, as in the former years, toward the new blossoming orchards, full of the sweet Spring as the garden of God, what moved thee, or how couldst thou take such journeys into the fanatic Arabia?"'

Happily Doughty does not seem to have had much effect on Morris's literary style. A more benign influence was surely Kinglake's Eothen, the first book Morris read on the Middle East, an idiosyncratic and hugely enjoyable masterpiece. Here is the opening paragraph of Eothen:

 'At Semlin I still was encompassed by the scenes and the sounds of familiar life; the din of a busy world still vexed and cheered me; the unveiled faces of women still shone in the light of day. Yet, whenever I chose to look southward, I saw the Ottoman's fortress – austere, and darkly impending high over the vale of the Danube – historic Belgrade. I had come, as it were, to the end of this wheel-going Europe, and now my eyes would see the splendour and havoc of the East.'

That seems to me rather more musical than Doughty's paragraph, but I wouldn't care to sing either in the bath. 

Sunday 9 October 2022

Lush Life

 Until I happened to hear it on Radio 3 yesterday (at which point I suspended all activity and listened awestruck until it was over), I had somehow never come across Billy Strayhorn's brilliant song 'Lush Life', nor this perfect rendition of it by Ella Fitzgerald, with Duke Ellington (though I believe she had a different accompanist on the Radio 3 version). Listen and marvel at the sheer artistry of all concerned...

'those brilliant creatures...'

 This has been a beautiful autumn (here in the Southeast at least), with plenty of warmth and mellow sunshine, to say nothing of a prodigious abundance of conkers and just about every other tree fruit.
Here is a fittingly seasonal poem, a well-known and rather beautiful one, by Yeats (of the baleful influence)...

The Wild Swans at Coole
The trees are in their autumn beauty,	 
The woodland paths are dry,	 
Under the October twilight the water	 
Mirrors a still sky;	 
Upon the brimming water among the stones	         
Are nine and fifty swans.	 
The nineteenth Autumn has come upon me	 
Since I first made my count;	 
I saw, before I had well finished,	 
All suddenly mount	  
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings	 
Upon their clamorous wings.	 
I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,	 
And now my heart is sore.	 
All's changed since I, hearing at twilight,	  
The first time on this shore,	 
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,	 
Trod with a lighter tread.	 
Unwearied still, lover by lover,	 
They paddle in the cold,	  
Companionable streams or climb the air;	 
Their hearts have not grown old;	 
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,	 
Attend upon them still.	 
But now they drift on the still water	  
Mysterious, beautiful;	 
Among what rushes will they build,	 
By what lake's edge or pool	 
Delight men's eyes, when I awake some day	 
To find they have flown away?

Coole Park was in Yeats's day the home of Lady Gregory, who entertained the poet there and assiduously looked after him – so much so that he once said of her, 'I doubt I should have done much with my life but for her firmness and care.' Coole Park is today a nature reserve, part of an important wetland system, but its literary associations remain in evidence, and the Autograph Tree – a Copper Beech on which Lady Gregory's literary guests carved their initials – still stands. To judge by the photograph below, one George Bernard Shaw was especially determined to make his mark. No surprise there.

Saturday 8 October 2022

Hail Again, Zog!

 Today being the birthday of King Zog of Albania (born 1895), and your humble servant being embroiled yet again in house move-related busyness, I take the liberty of reprinting a piece I posted on this day in 2009 –

'Today is the birthday of the self-proclaimed King Zog of Albania (born 1895), a glamorous, high-living figure who reigned as constitutional monarch from 1928 to 1939, replaced Islamic law with a Swiss-style civil code, survived more than 50 assassination attempts – in one of which he exchanged fire with his would-be assassins – invented the Zogist salute (right hand flat over the heart, palm facing downwards), was deposed by Mussolini, and ended his days as a Riviera recluse.
The throne of Albania seems for a while to have exerted a strange fascination. The cricketer – or rather, in John Arlott's phrase, 'the most variously gifted Englishman of any age' – C.B. Fry claimed he was offered it while on League of Nations business in Geneva in 1920. He might well have been – but one Otto Witte, a German circus acrobat and fantasist, claimed to have gone one better and been crowned King of Albania in 1913. Noting his resemblance to a nephew of the Sultan who had been invited by some Albanian Muslims to assume the throne, Witte travelled to Albania with a sword-swallower friend, and was duly acclaimed as King by local troops. In the five days before his ruse was discovered, he enjoyed the delights of the harem and took the opportunity to declare war on Montenegro. Unsurprisingly, no evidence was ever found to support Witte's story –but the Berlin police allowed him to describe himself as 'former King of Albania' on his identity card. I wouldn't be surprised if Albania's national hero, Norman Wisdom*, regales his captive audience at the twilight home where he now resides with tales of how he too was offered the throne of Albania.'

* Now no longer with us. Wisdom's films were the only Western movies the dictator Enver Hoxha allowed to be shown in Albania. This was perhaps to kill off any desire in the population to defect to the West. 

Wednesday 5 October 2022

A Fire and a New World

This remarkable painting of spectators watching a fire raging through the San Marcuola district of Venice is a late work by Francesco Guardi, born on this day 310 years ago. Guardi used to get lumped in with Canaletto as another accomplished vedutista, but it soon became apparent that he was a much more interesting and original figure than that. Many of his paintings are 'caprices', imaginary scenes built around an architectural landscape of his own invention rather than what was before his eyes. With his free brushwork and subdued palette, he created a pictorial world far removed from Canaletto's crisply linear topographical works, something closer to Piazzetta
  I would place the picture above with Domenico Tiepolo's The New World (below) as one of the great paintings of the Venetian decadence. Both show the backs of a gawping crowd, gawping at the last novelties and spectacles of a world that is passing away, a decadent, outworn society amusing itself as it awaits its inevitable fate (The New World was completed in the year in which Venice fell to Napoleon). Both are infused with a very Venetian melancholy, the feeling of Browning's 'A Toccata of Galuppi's'. 'Dust and ashes, dead and done with, Venice spent what Venice earned...'

Sunday 2 October 2022


 On the radio this morning, I heard the creator of the recent BBC TV series Marriage talking about the show and its divisive effect on viewers and critics, many of whom loved it and many of whom, myself included, were deeply unimpressed. He seemed like a nice chap, and I warmed to him as he talked feelingly about the dire state of TV drama and its ever increasing distance from anything like life as it is actually lived and people as they actually are. Marriage was a well intentioned attempt to return TV drama to something like real life – but I still think (having somehow ended up watching the whole series) that it was a failure, largely because it was, as so many viewers pointed out, dull. But let's be clear about the nature of that dulness: it was not dull because nothing happened. As someone once said, Waiting for Godot is a play in which 'nothing happens – twice', but it is an enthralling drama and has become a classic. In TV drama, I remember another series in which virtually nothing happened – Roger and Val Have Just Got In, with Dawn French and Alfred Molina. That was ten years ago now, but it still lingers in my memory, and it was utterly gripping at the time. Why? Because the characters at the centre of it (in fact the only characters we see) were so fully imagined and compellingly drawn, as well as brilliantly acted; the script made us believe in them, and want to know what was going on between them – what had happened, why were they the way they were? The direction and editing were tight, intensifying our interest in this seemingly ordinary couple doing nothing very much, and the script said enough and said it naturally, without the contrived pauses, silences and aborted utterances that were so plentiful in Marriage. There, the script was too sketchy to carry much weight,  and the characters too felt sketched in rather than fully realised. As for the direction, with its endless longueurs, this did nothing to dispel the sense of dulness – not the dulness of nothing happening but the dulness of a drama that is ultimately underdeveloped, underimagined.   
  On the radio, the show's creator told how he wrote Marriage during lockdown, just as he was discovering for the first time the music of Bach, which he now listens to to the exclusion of almost anything else. Another reason to warm to him. What a shame he didn't use some Bach as the music for Marriage, rather than that bizarre 'To the side, to the side' business that broke in at the end of every episode. 

Saturday 1 October 2022


 Born on this day in 1903 – in Kyiv, as it happens – was the pianist Vladimir Horowitz (pictured above, cutting a rug at Studio 54 in 1978). A dazzlingly virtuosic player, he became ever more the showman as his career progressed, but he had his quieter moments, and did much to bring Scarlatti's extraordinary body of work to the attention of the concert-going public. Here he is playing Scarlatti's beautiful B minor sonata...