Saturday 31 December 2022

New Year, Old Year

 As 2023 hoves improbably into view, it's time to take the annual look back at the Old Year...
   It was a momentous one for me and Mrs N, being the year in which we finally said goodbye to the Suburban Demiparadise and began a new life in Mercia's ecclesiastical capital, birthplace of Johnson, City of Philosophers etc, Lichfield. Getting from that A to that B has been a saga – The Merciad, you might call it, and it would be even more tedious than most sagas. I am not going to relate it here, but all that move-related and family-related busyness has certainly had an effect on the blog: I seem to have been reading fewer books than usual, there has been less in the way of nature notes, only one serious walk chronicled (and surprisingly few church visits) – and, for the first time since records began, not a single major art exhibition visited or reviewed.  But what have been the high points?
 Well, on the poetry front, I have been finding yet more to enjoy in Thom Gunn, admiring Charles Causley's later work, discovering Ned Balbo and Dick Davis. I was not disappointed by rereading Marilynne Robinson's classic Housekeeping, and among the books I enjoyed most were Javier Marías's The Infatuations, P.J. Kavanagh's memoir The Perfect Stranger, James Shapiro's Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? and Michael Wharton's The Missing Will. I completed the Auberon Waugh Project by reading, and enjoying, A Bed of Flowers. Any new books I read were for review elsewhere, but among them was one to cherish – C.B. Newham's Country Church Monuments. And I actually read one almost new novel, Sol Riviere's Dead Souls, and loved it. In the course of the year, I have had some wonderful musical moments, many of which I have posted here, and have repeatedly played Vikingur Olafsson's glorious Debussy Rameau CD. At present I am without a CD player, and with most of my books in storage. Not for long, I devoutly hope...
  In the wider world, the Platinum Jubilee and then the death and funeral of the Queen were huge events, and, I think, heartening in what they told us about the true nature of this much falsified, much vilified England. That the Queen's death marked the end of an era is a truism, but no less true for that: we live in a deeply changed world now, partly as a result of that loss, partly (I am convinced) by the endlessly ramifying and deepening destructive effects of the Lockdown Years – but this is not the time to dwell on that... In a narrower world, two big literary centenaries meant there was more of Kingsley Amis and even more of Philip Larkin than usual on this blog, and the Ralph Vaughan Williams sesquicentenary, fittingly celebrated on Radio 3, gave me much listening pleasure.  
  Pleasure is supposed to be what this blog, this 'hedonic resource', is all about, so that would be a good place to leave this retrospective, and wish to everyone who browses here a very happy and prosperous new year. Cheers!

Wednesday 28 December 2022

Vallotton at Etretat

 Born on this day in 1865 was the brilliant Swiss-French painter and printmaker Felix Vallotton, about whom I wrote at some length a while back, after seeing the eye-opening exhibition of his works at the Royal Academy. Above is a beautifully composed seaside view by Vallotton, painted at Etretat, where he also painted this simple beach scene, equally beautifully composed, of arrangements of colour rather than line. It put me in mind of a poem –

Neither Out Far Nor In Deep

The people along the sand
All turn and look one way.
They turn their back on the land.
They look at the sea all day.

As long as it takes to pass
A ship keeps raising its hull;
The wetter ground like glass
Reflects a standing gull.

The land may vary more;
But wherever the truth may be–
The water comes ashore,
And the people look at the sea.

They cannot look out far.
They cannot look in deep.
But when was that ever a bar
To any watch they keep?

Robert Frost

Tuesday 27 December 2022

Vintage Ties and Andy's Vacs

 This morning, spotting a site called Larkin With Women on the picture-sharing website Pinterest, I thought I'd have a look. It turned out to be devoted almost entirely to vintage ties and handbags (many of them available via Etsy and other online retailers), with a few photos of Larkin, with and without female company, added near the bottom as an apparent afterthought. Odd. However, as it's the festive season, it's definitely time to put up the cheering picture above, showing Larkin and Monica Jones really getting into the spirit. Nice tie he's wearing...

And another thing: last night I had a succession of strange dreams, all forgotten now, but all linked by the presence of Prince Andrew, the disgraced Duke of York, who, reasonably enough, had set up business selling vacuum cleaners door to door and from a small shop in the back streets of Cambridge, where he traded under the name Andy's Vacs. He seemed quite resigned to his fate, and had slimmed down noticeably. Pick the bones out of that, Herr Doktor Freud. 

Sunday 25 December 2022

Happy Christmas

 Wishing a happy Christmas to all who browse here.

(The painting is The Adoration of the Shepherds, generally attributed to Giorgione, though it might be an early Titian, or a collaboration, or even by someone else altogether. It's beautiful anyway, and it hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.)

Saturday 24 December 2022

'Hoping it might be so'

 It's the night of Christmas Eve, so heck, why not? It may be a bit sentimental, but it's a lovely poem, beautifully crafted (I love that 'flock' in the first stanza). It's 'The Oxen' by Thomas Hardy –

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel,

“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

'This is the month...'

 One of the pleasures of living in Lichfield is having a magnificent cathedral on the doorstep. At yesterday evening's festival of lessons and carols, the choir were in great form, singing not only the more traditional Christmas fare – enough in itself to reduce a grown man (me) to a quivering wreck – but also treating us to, among other things, Poulenc's Hodie Christus Natus Est, Stainer's lovely setting of How Beautiful Upon the Mountains, and a quite astonishing piece, God Is With Us, by John Tavener, adapted from the Orthodox Great Compline for Christmas Eve and featuring a tenor singing lustily from the pulpit and some of the most earth-shaking organ chords I have ever heard. And, as well as the usual Christmas readings, we had the opening stanzas of John Milton's great Christmas poem, 'On the Morning of Christ's Nativity' – what more could anyone ask?

This is the month, and this the happy morn,
      Wherein the Son of Heav'n's eternal King,
Of wedded Maid, and Virgin Mother born,
      Our great redemption from above did bring;
      For so the holy sages once did sing,
            That he our deadly forfeit should release,
            And with his Father work us a perpetual peace.

That glorious Form, that Light unsufferable,
      And that far-beaming blaze of Majesty,
Wherewith he wont at Heav'n's high council-table,
      To sit the midst of Trinal Unity,
      He laid aside, and here with us to be,
            Forsook the courts of everlasting day,
            And chose with us a darksome house of mortal clay.

Friday 23 December 2022

'Peace and goodwill, goodwill and peace...'

 'The time draws near the birth of Christ...'
One of the most moving and perfect sections of Tennyson's great poem of love and loss, In Memoriam A.H.H. – a work not short of moving and perfect passages – is the section numbered XXVIII. Tennyson, I take it, is either at his family home, Somersby rectory in the Lincolnshire Wolds, or  he is remembering or imagining himself back there at Christmastide. The 'four hamlets round' would be, I think, Bag Enderby (part of his father's parish), Stainsby, Salmonby and Ashby Puerorum (fine Lincolnshire names all). But then, I used to think that another great and famous passage from In Memoriam, 'Ring Out, Wild Bells', was also inspired by the ringing Wolds, but all the evidence suggests that it was, in that case, the bells of the abbey church at Waltham Abbey – a long, long way from Lincolnshire. 
'Sorrow touch'd with joy', or joy touched with sorrow – that's Christmas... 

The time draws near the birth of Christ:
      The moon is hid; the night is still;
      The Christmas bells from hill to hill
Answer each other in the mist.

Four voices of four hamlets round,
      From far and near, on mead and moor,
      Swell out and fail, as if a door
Were shut between me and the sound:

Each voice four changes on the wind,
      That now dilate, and now decrease,
      Peace and goodwill, goodwill and peace,
Peace and goodwill, to all mankind.

This year I slept and woke with pain,
      I almost wish'd no more to wake,
      And that my hold on life would break
Before I heard those bells again:

But they my troubled spirit rule,
      For they controll'd me when a boy;
      They bring me sorrow touch'd with joy,
The merry merry bells of Yule.

Wednesday 21 December 2022

Rembrandt and Dick Davis Again

 Here is another poem from Dick Davis's Seeing the World. In the collection, this one, naturally enough, follows 'Rembrandt's Return of the Prodigal Son'. In it, the dying Rembrandt looks back over his life and faces his approaching death. It is, I think, a wonderfully poised and moving poem, especially if you love Rembrandt's paintings (and who could fail to?)...

      Rembrandt Dying

      What have I known?
   The darkness I perceived
Beyond each face invades my mind,
      I have been shown
   The night of the bereaved 
   In which all men are blind.

      But I recall
   Old faces marred, their eyes
Outstaring that obscurity –
      Awaiting all
   Life yet may ask with wise,
   Unbroken dignity;

      And the young Jew
   Who was my Christ, in whose
As-if-omniscient, worn face
     Compassion grew – 
   Where patience could peruse
   The suffering of a race;

      And Hendrickje
   Who taught me tenderness,
So that the proof of all technique
      Was to convey
   Love's truths – light on a dress,
   Or on her turning cheek.

     All these are past – 
   The darkness wells in me;
Though grief and ignorance increase
      And must outlast
   My will, yet memory
   Is thankful for lost peace.

            [Rembrandt Self-Portrait, 1657. National Gallery of Scotland]

Tuesday 20 December 2022


 That fine pianist Mitsuko Uchida turns 74 today – hard to believe she's even older than I am. I once met her, in the Woman's Hour studio (no, I wasn't a guest; I was writing something about the programme, I think for the late lamented Listener). I was of course tongue-tied and totally overawed, but I did manage to bandy a few civilities with her before she went in to be interviewed. I remember that she seemed surprisingly slight physically, as is often the way with performers, and that she drank green tea. There you are: The Mitsuko Uchida I Knew.
I have a couple of her CDs which I cherish and play quite often: the three last Beethoven sonatas, and Schubert's D899 impromptus. Here she is playing the G flat impromptu. (Music lovers might like to compare her version with Dinu Lipatti's, which I posted recently: Lipatti makes lighter work of it, with a wonderful flowing cantabile, but Uchida's interpretation works perfectly on its own terms.)

Monday 19 December 2022

More Filth

And still it comes. The latest specimen of high-toned vintage porn to turn up on my Facebook feed is this, Girl with a Mirror by one John William Godward. This scene from an imaginary classical world is very much in the manner of Alma-Tadema, and Godward was indeed a protégé of that master of marble and flesh. From what I've seen of his work online, Godward seems to have been gifted in the same line, though he lacks the master's exquisite delicacy of touch and is even more inclined to titillating effects, making much use of diaphanous fabrics. Godward was quite successful – at least until the coming of modernism made his (and all the Victorian Classicists') style hopelessly unfashionable – but he had a sad life. According to Wikipedia, 'the overbearing attitude of his parents made him reclusive and shy later in adulthood', and when he moved to Italy with one of his models, his family, who disapproved strongly of his pursuing an artistic career, cut him off completely, even removing his image from family photographs. Godward committed suicide in 1922, thereby bringing further shame on the family, who promptly burned all his papers and effects. Like all those High Victorian Dreamers, he was by then an all but forgotten figure, but, like them, he was later rediscovered, and his pictures now fetch high prices. One of his best-known paintings, Dolce Far Niente, with its obvious echoes of Frederic Leighton's Flaming June, is now in the collection of Lord Lloyd Webber, no less.

Sunday 18 December 2022

Dick Davis

 This blog has featured too little poetry recently, in large part because nearly all my books are still in storage. However, I recently got my hands on a slim volume by Dick Davis, Seeing the World (1980), and it has not disappointed. Davis is one of those gifted poets who will never be fashionable: even his name is against him (someone should write a thesis on the effect of a good/bad name on writers' literary success – would Louis de Bernière have done so well if he was called Dave Smith?). Davis is also an unfashionable kind of poet – a formalist, like Thom Gunn (a better name), and, like Gunn, a disciple of the eternally unfashionable Yvor Winters. Also like Gunn, Davis was a product of Cambridge (King's, my old college, in Davis's case) – not that that is necessarily a springboard to oblivion. 
Anyway, here is a rather beautiful poem from Seeing The World, this one inspired by one of Rembrandt's intensely moving late masterpieces. I think it perfectly captures the essence of the painting – 

Rembrandt's Return of the Prodigal Son

Age instinct with wisdom, love, bends towards
The sensual man, the penitent, and clasps
Him lightly by the shoulder-blades. In rags
The latter kneels and rests his close-cropped head
Against the Father’s chest. Some watch, and one,
Whose face is lit, old as the Father, looks
With unobserved compassion at the scene.

His comprehension is the artist’s own:
His silence and the Father’s flood the frame
But cannot quite subdue the young man’s sobs,
The fixed, sad past; the waste that love would heal.

And here is another fine ekphrastic poem from Seeing the World, this one inspired by a Guardi painting that hangs in the National Gallery, A Caprice with Ruins on the Seashore – 

On a Painting by Guardi

  Slowly the chill lagoon
Returns to flood these noisome ponds;
  Grotesque, dense weeds festoon
The ruined arch with airy fronds

   In whose shade scavengers
– Tenacious as the trailing weeds –
  Time's ghostly avatars,
Indifferent to the grace that feeds

  Their chance cupidity,
Draw strength from glory in decay.
  Great Mutability,
All here declares your mordant sway.

  I gaze, hardly aware
Of this overt, didactic aim:
  Rather the misty air,
The blank, amorphous shore proclaim

  An eye in love with blurred
And insubstantial forms, a mind
  By evanescence stirred – 
A suppliant of the undefined,

  The pale marsh-haze of noon;
And one who in each breeze could see
  – Ruffling the chill lagoon –
The tremor of mortality.

Saturday 17 December 2022

Concluding Postscript

Well, I have at last finished The Missing Will, and I promise this will be the last you hear from me on the subject. So... A couple of things: 
   Here is Michael Wharton (still some years before his newspaper career began) meeting Helga Greene, ex-wife of Sir Hugh Greene, who became Director-General of the BBC. Helga, who is very wealthy, very socialist and 'rather stern', interrogates Wharton about his politics: 'When I told her my political views, which were as decidedly "right-wing" as they always had been, she obviously did not believe me. She was one of those people whom I came to think of later as "Hampstead thinkers"; it was typical of them that they simply did not believe that a person who seemed intelligent and educated could have opinions different from their own.' I think it's more a question of 'could not' than 'did not believe', and it's a mentality that I've come across many times, particularly in phases of my life and career when I have enountered the Guardianista-BBC Massive in all its adamantine smugness. It long ago broke out from Hampstead and has become vastly more pervasive since Wharton's time, with all manner of dire consequences. I think it explains why the BBC is incapable of perceiving its own bias: since it is not seriously possible for an intelligent person to see the world in any other way, the Corporation's projection of its own world view is, to those involved, simply a projection of factual reality, not of opinion. 
   Wharton did manage to do quite a lot of work for the BBC in the Forties and Fifties, but soon fell foul of the Marxists who ran the Northern Region's Features Department and was 'let go' without ceremony. 'When I took my leave of Denis Mitchell [head of the department] he did not rise from his chair or make the least gesture of goodwill. Was I not a self-declared reactionary and enemy of the human race?' The Northern Marxists, unlike the Hampstead lot, had found themselves able to believe that he had views radically different from their own, and they had purged him accordingly.
  Even so, Wharton later found himself working (if that's not too strong a word) for the Talks Department in London, a department addicted to meetings and conferences (as was almost every part of the BBC I knew, for a mercifully short period, three decades later). He and his friend John Davenport found these meetings excruciatingly boring:
'One somnolent, sultry summer afternoon, when John and myself, after a certain amount of drinking, were at one of the interminable "Talks" meetings ... he suddenly fell asleep and rolled off his chair onto the floor. There he remained, snoring horribly, until the end of the meeting. Nobody took any notice. For the "Talks" producers, this tasteless incident simply had not happened.' Oddly, I got exactly the same reaction when, at a BBC meeting one morning, when I was still half asleep, I dropped a full cup of coffee onto the splendid carpet of the Broadcasting House council chamber, where the dark liquid spread out to form an impressive stain. This too, it seemed, had not happened. 
  Enough. I'll end by simply quoting the final paragraph of The Missing Will
'So, on New Year's Day, 1957, after a sleepless night of confused celebration, I sat down for the first time at my desk in the Daily Telegraph with one of the most appalling hangovers I have ever had in my life, and without a single idea in my head. I would have been incredulous, if not appalled, if I had been told I would still be there 28 years later, still spinning the faded dream with which this book began.' 

Friday 16 December 2022

'(I have always greatly disliked writing)'

This startling throwaway remark, complete with parentheses, is to be found in The Missing Will (yes, I'm still reading it) by Michael Wharton, a man who must have written, whether he liked it or not, several million words (for publication) across seven decades. There is certainly so sign of his dislike of writing in anything he published, including The Missing Will, but I think he is telling the truth here, rather than striking a word-weary pose. I haven't written as many words as Wharton, but have certainly churned out great quantities of prose over the years, the bulk of it routine journalism of one kind and another, and I must say that I have rarely taken pleasure in the act of writing. For me – and I suspect for many others – the pleasure lies not in writing but in having written, especially if what I have written turns out readable and says what I intended it to say. Similarly, although I must have read many millions of words and thousands of books, I cannot honestly say I find the act of reading, in itself, gives me much pleasure; again it is the having read, having enjoyed and absorbed whatever was to be gleaned from the reading, having added something to the store, even if it is destined to be remembered only as a kind of faint after-image. The act of reading itself strains the eyes (and sometimes the brain), can be surprisingly tiring (or so I find) and of course can involve, even in the best literature, enduring some pretty tedious longueurs. Maybe, despite appearances, I'm not cut out for the life of reading and writing, though I cannot imagine living without them. I might even finish The Missing Will one day.

Wednesday 14 December 2022

Art and Arthur

 I found this story –  'Soho police force entry to help woman, only to find artwork' (I think the comma is necessary) – amusing and revealing, so, my brain being otherwise, for various reasons, too scrambled for much in the way of serious thought or communication,  I pass it on here, embedded in a sentence clotted with subordinate clauses but still, I trust, comprehensible. 'Revealing', you say? Ah yes, revealing of the lamentable condition of the 'art' world: the 'art sprinkle' provided by a model of a woman with her head in a bowl of soup was intended 'to make people smile, or to horrify, to get a reaction and to grab people's attention' – I'm sure Raphael and Titian were thinking along very similar lines. The gallery owner didn't want to have a £20,000 table without 'something funny or distressing to complement it'. Well, quite.  So the 'art sprinkle' was to get people into a shop full of trendy kitsch objects and flog an overpriced table. That's today's 'art' world for you. 
  In other news, I was sad to hear of the death of Victor Lewis-Smith, writer, journalist, producer, satirist, prankster etc, at the age of only 65 (and in Bruges, oddly). He has been well obituarised in the newspapers, and even on Radio 3 this morning. One prank of his that I don't think was mentioned in the obits and that I'll always cherish was the occasion when, as producer of Radio 4's civilised (if plug-heavy) talk show Midweek, he replaced, for one week only, the cosy and safe presenter Libby Purves with the archetypal cockney knucklehead Arthur Mullard. He got away with it too – those were different times.

Monday 12 December 2022

'a great and wonderful innocence'

 In one of the more serious moments (and there are some) in Michael Wharton's often funny, sometimes lyrical and always disarmingly honest autobiography, The Missing Will, he has this to say of his fellow recruits on his first wartime posting:
'We were a very mixed lot. But in those early days we had one overriding interest. No, it was not beating Hitler and suppressing the Nazis. I doubt if I ever heard, either then or later, any such sentiments expressed. There may have been soldiers who talked in such Churchillian terms. If so, I did not meet them. There was merely a sense of being part of a great Necessity, whose purpose, neither questioned nor spoken of, was to prevent our country being changed by foreigners, whoever they might be, into something different from what it was. There was a great and wonderful innocence about these men, an absence of envy and mean class hatred. There were those, as I know now, who saw in the war a means of changing that innocence and decency, and to a large extent succeeded.' 
Allowing for Wharton's rather too indulgent attitude to the Nazis (he saw Soviet Communism as the greater danger), I think there is a lot of truth in his observation, and I have heard it echoed in the testimony of many who fought in that war, especially in its early stages: they did not see it in terms of a great struggle against Fascism, but rather as a necessary defensive action to preserve the country they loved against the very real threat that everything they most valued about it would be destroyed by foreign aggressors. This love of country has been seriously underestimated (and undervalued) by the political class in recent times.  Rationalists, technocrats and 'anywhere people', they simply cannot see it as anything more than a marginal and tiresome relic of former times. As they were to discover when the Brexit referendum blew up in their faces, love of country and resentment of foreign influence is still, despite everything, a potent force, even in a world where the 'innocence and decency' Wharton detected have indeed been seriously corrupted.  

Sunday 11 December 2022

Italic Winter

 I missed Emily Dickinson's 192nd birthday yesterday, but will mark it one day late with a poem that fits the season and the weather: Britain is having a taste of proper winter this year (must be that global warming), and outside my window snow – soft, small and reluctant to lie – is falling, and the roofs and paths are white. As one who takes no pleasure in being cold, I find it hard to agree that 'Winter is good', but Dickinson makes her case, in her unique style ('italic' indeed! Here it seems to mean astringent or something of the kind). The season is certainly 'welcome when he goes'...

Winter is good — his Hoar Delights
Italic flavor yield
To Intellects inebriate
With Summer, or the World —

Generic as a Quarry
And hearty — as a Rose —
Invited with Asperity
But welcome when he goes.

Friday 9 December 2022

A Birthday, A Theoretical Move, and a Missing Will

 On Wednesday it was (as my more calendar-minded readers might be vaguely aware) my birthday, the date on which Tom Waits and I hit the age of 73. It was probably less of a surprise to Tom, who was, he claims, born old, feeling from his earliest years like a gnarled veteran from another time (and developing a voice to fit: Waits in his twenties sounded like anyone else in their seventies). The day turned out to be too busy for blogging: as well as the traditional pomp and pageantry of a Nige birthday, there was also the little business of our having taken possession, at last, of a house in Lichfield. The possession, however, is so far looking like a legal fiction, as the previous owner, having grievously underestimated the time required for packing and moving house, was, when last heard of, still busy clearing the place. Happily we have the Lichfield flat to live in while we wait – and, less happily, we have been too busy with other things to do anything about this bizarre situation. Perhaps at the weekend we'll manage to get across the threshold – or maybe next week, who knows...
   Meanwhile, I have been managing to find odd moments of reading time, and have embarked on the autobiography I recently mentioned – The Missing Will by Michael Wharton. Who could resist a memoir whose first chapters are titled 'The Deformative Years' and 'Whining and Dining' (the latter covering Oxford and after)? Wharton's Oxford years were devoted to getting drunk, striking poses of various kinds, and committing acts of extreme foolishness, while attending no lectures and very few tutorials, handing in heavily plagiarised essays, and reading anything but what was on the curriculum. Very much like my own Cambridge years in fact, mutatis mutandis. I have to say that, so far, The Missing Will is proving one of the most entertaining autobiographies I have read in recent years.

Tuesday 6 December 2022

Ahoy, Pugwash Fans

 A word of warning for fans (and I know there are still many of them) of the classic animation, Captain Pugwash. Recently Mrs N bought a DVD of what seemed to be the real thing, but, watching it yesterday, I discovered it was an ugly, modern, computer-generated creation with absolutely none of the charm of the hand-made, cardboard-cut-out original. Worse, it had an impeccably 'diverse' multiethnic cast of characters (each of them displaying stereotype characteristics which could surely be described by the critical as 'racist'). Being an Englishman, Pugwash himself was portrayed as an effete poltroon, rather than the Falstaffian anti-hero he is – greedy, cowardly, but full of martial bombast and ever ready with a tale of his own exemplary heroism. I'll waste no more time on this hideous travesty. Happily, if you look hard, original episodes can still be found online and, if you're lucky, even on disc. And the books are still available – beautifully drawn and designed by Pugwash's creator, John Ryan, and full of great stories. Yesterday our four-year-old grandson enjoyed his first Pugwash book so much that he insisted on repeated readings and could hardly be parted from it. And he enjoyed one of the old black-and-white episodes. A boy of taste and discernment.

Sunday 4 December 2022


 I've only just heard the sad news of the death of the artist Tom Phillips (who died on the 28th November). I think I've mentioned his great work, A Humument, a few times on the blog, where I have also written about his fine  edition of Waiting for Godot. He is one of the dwindling number of contemporary artists whose death feels like a real loss. There's an excellent tribute to Phillips in Apollo magazine – link here.
And here, by way of illustration, is Phillips's portrait of Iris Murdoch, posed in front of Titian's late masterpiece, The Flaying of Marsyas

A Doorway into the Past

 I noticed this curious survival when I was waiting for a bus in Burton-upon-Trent. Inset into the wall of a large Primark (a budget fashion emporium, m'Lud), it bears the date 1593 and was, I subsequently discovered, a doorway to Dame Paulet's almshouses, a charitable institution that housed and supported five elderly, deserving poor women of the town at the expense of Dame Elizabeth Paulet. This wealthy widow was born into the Blount family, her father being the MP for Burton, and her second husband was Sir Thomas Pope, a big landowner and prominent public servant who founded Trinity College, Oxford. Her third husband was Sir Hugh Paulet, who was, among other things, Governor of Jersey. Dame Elizabeth outlived them all, having borne no children, and on her death was buried with her second husband in the chapel of Trinity College. 
  The gateway bears the Blount arms, over the curious inscription 'No Domi Ni', the result of a mistake: when the much eroded doorway was being restored in the 1930s, the stonemason misread 'Anno Domini' as 'No Domini', then decided to make it more symmetrical for appearance sake. The tablet within the door frame carries a bland inscription commemorating the redevelopment of the town centre in 1974 (of which the less said the better). More conspicuous now is a heartfelt graffito – 'Squat the Lot'.
  History – it's all around us... 

Friday 2 December 2022


 On this day in 1950, the great Romanian pianist Dinu Lipatti died, aged just 33, from complications of Hodgkin's Disease. Although his career began early – he performed the Grieg piano concerto to acclaim at the age of 13 – he didn't leave many recordings behind, and there is no video footage of him playing. He gave his final concert at the Besançon festival in September 1950, just weeks before his death. Although he was clearly ill and suffering from a high fever, he played a demanding programme of Bach, Mozart, Schubert and Chopin. However, he found himself too exhausted to play the last of the 14 Chopin waltzes and substituted a piece with which he was particularly associated – Bach's 'Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring' in Myra Hess's beautiful transcription. Here, from that final concert, is his masterly performance of Schubert's G flat Impromptu. Enjoy...

Thursday 1 December 2022

Under the Lights Again

 Last year, my photograph of Dr Johnson brooding under the Christmas lights in Lichfield marketplace was looked at by many more people than ever read any of my other posts. So, in the hope of repeating the welcome uptick, I've photographed him again, this time from a different angle. Behind him is the church of St Mary (quality Victorian work by Fowler of Louth, with a steeple by G.E. Street), which now houses the public library and, at clerestory level, a very pleasant café and cultural 'hub', with views of the chancel and the upper reaches of the nave. The fine bas-relief on the statue's plinth shows Johnson's act of penitence in Uttoxeter marketplace, where he stood bare-headed in the rain to atone for an incident in his teenage years, when he refused to man the family bookstall there in place of his sick father:  'Pride was the source of that refusal, and the remembrance of it was painful. A few years ago I desired to atone for this fault. I went to Uttoxeter in very bad weather and stood for a considerable time bareheaded in the rain on the spot where my father’s stall used to stand. In contrition I stood, and I hope the penance was expiatory.'