Sunday 31 December 2023

Happy New Year

And so another year passes, and it's time to wish all who browse here a very happy and prosperous new year. For me, 2023 has been a somewhat challenging and unrestful year, thanks largely to all the time, energy and money that has had to be spent on making the new house habitable (now, thankfully, all but done). However, that has not been the whole story by any means, and there has been much happiness, love and laughter along the way. I have, as ever, a huge amount to be thankful for, and I am. I'm just hoping 2024 will be, well, a bit easier...
I shan't attempt my usual retrospective of the year: feel free to explore the past twelve months' posts for yourself. I hope they have given pleasure and perhaps, from time to time, some kind of sustenance; I've certainly enjoyed writing them. Again, happy new year!

Friday 29 December 2023

Rick Danko

 Rick Danko,  a founder member of The Band (bass, guitar, vocals, fiddle), would have been 80 today. Sadly he died aged only 56, but was lucky to have survived a car accident in 1968 in which he broke his neck and back in six places, spending months in traction (and delaying The Band's concert debut until a year after the release of their first album, Music from Big Pink). It was Danko who found the pink house on Parnassus Lane in Saugerties, New York, that became known as Big Pink, and it was there that The Band recorded what became known as the 'basement tapes' with Bob Dylan. On The Band's eponymous second album (surely one of the greatest ever made), Danko sang the lead vocal on 'When You Awake' – which is always worth another play...

Thursday 28 December 2023

Peak Doom?

 Well, here's a turn-up for the books – the RSPB, a conservation organisation whose status and influence is up there with the National Trust and the Church of England, has come up with 'Five reasons to be cheerful' about the state of the natural world. The world has, says the RSPB, 'every reason to be optimistic about the future of wildlife' (has anyone told St David of Attenborough?). The return of beavers and water voles to British waters and a resurgence of seabird populations on Lundy island are among the reasons cited for this unexpected outbreak of optimism, and it's heartening to hear some good news from the natural world for a change. But the RSPB is not alone in this change of tone: last year's annual report from Butterfly Conservation was also unexpectedly upbeat. Could it be that the conservationists are beginning to realise that the usual relentless bombardment of jeremiads is yielding diminishing, or negative, returns – not to mention the sad fact that it seems to have convinced the more impressionable that the world is about to burn to a crisp and a mass extinction event is going to wipe us all out any day now. Whatever the reason, it's good to have a bit of optimism on that front, and I'm hoping there will be more to come, that at last we might have reached Peak Doom. 
  Some things, however, never change, and prominent among them is the dear old BBC. Back in May 2021 the BBC board commissioned a survey to monitor its output and ensure that impartiality reigned and a wide range of viewpoints was represented. The results are now in, and show clearly that – and I know you're going to find this hard to believe – the BBC feeds its viewers (and listeners) 'a steady diet of woke bias', with slavery (i.e. Britain's historical role in the triangular trade tout court, nothing else) and issues of gender and race (only one attitude permitted) relentlessly overemphasised and shoehorned into all kinds of programmes. Who knew? And here is the BBC's response: 'Cherry-picking a handful of examples or highlighting genuine mistakes in thousands of hours of output does not constitute analysis and is not a true representation of BBC content. We are proud that our output seeks to represent all audiences and a range of stories and perspectives. Across the entirety of our services there will, of course, be occasions when people disagree with or want to challenge what they have watched or heard and we have well-publicised routes for them to do that.' So that's all right then, nothing to see here. The trouble is, I fear, that the BBC is now so completely imbued with woke bias that it sees its own worldview as simple, middle-of-the-road, non-controversial common sense, therefore those who dissent from it can only be crackpots, fanatics or ignorant deplorables. The result is that it simply cannot see its own bias, and, while it continues to exist in its present form, I don't suppose it ever will. 

Tuesday 26 December 2023

An Unexpected Call

 Walking in town this mercifully clear, sunny Boxing Day morning (yesterday was typical English Christmas weather – wet and warm), I was startled to hear a loud, almost comically harsh, croaking call, pitched, as it seemed, somewhere not very far above infrasound. It could only be one thing – and looking up and seeing a large black corvid settling in a cypress tree confirmed that it was indeed... a raven. A raven that was soon joined by another one, croaking every bit as loud, assertive and basso profondo as the first. So it would seem that the ravens have come into town. Formerly a bird of wild, rugged places – like the now thoroughly urban buzzard and red kite – ravens have been steadily extending their range, at least in the North and West (including, evidently, the West Midlands), but this was my first urban raven, and it came as something of a shock. Neither bird, I have to report, was quothing 'Nevermore'...

Monday 25 December 2023


 And here, to go with the above, is R.S. Thomas again, short and sharp and perfect...


The moon is born
and a child is born,
lying among white clothes
as the moon among clouds.

They both shine, but
the light from the one
is abroad in the universe
as among broken glass.

Sunday 24 December 2023

Happy Christmas

And now for something completely different... This is by way of wishing all who browse here a very Happy Christmas. (Adoration of the Shepherds, from the Wallace Collection, artist unknown?)

Saturday 23 December 2023

More Filth

 This saucy item turned up on my Facebook feed today. It's called Familiar Birds (Les Oiseaux Familiers) and it's by one Emile Friant (1863-1932), an accomplished painter whose works often look rather like Gustave Caillebotte and such, but who was versatile enough to turn his hand to this kind of arty pin-up. A bit of pre-Christmas cheer for the gentlemen...

Silverfish Minuet

 Call me weird but I've always found silverfish rather enchanting creatures. With their silvery, tapering bodies and fish-like movements, they live up to their name, and their unusual form speaks of their incredibly ancient origin, possibly as much as 400 million years ago, long before the age of the dinosaurs. 
I was fascinated by the silverfish in my boyhood home in Ealing, and now, many years later, I was delighted to find them in the flat in Lichfield (and even a few in the house – are they a Lichfield thing?). I know they are capable of damaging books (they like the taste of glue, as well as paper), but they've never given me any trouble on that front. And now I like them even more, having read in Wikipedia of their elegant courtship ritual. I quote: 
'Before silverfish reproduce, they carry out a ritual involving three phases, which may last over half an hour. In the first phase, the male and female stand face to face, their vibrating antennae touching, then repeatedly back off and return to this position. In the second phase, the male runs away and the female chases him. In the third phase, the male and female stand side by side and head to tail, with the male vibrating his tail against the female. Finally, the male lays a spermatophore, a sperm capsule covered in gossamer, which the female takes into her body via her ovipositor to fertilise her eggs.' 
A veritable minuet...

Thursday 21 December 2023

Schiff on Bach

 The pianist Andras Schiff turns 70 today, as was duly noted on Radio 3 this morning. This reminded me of a link sent to me a while back by the artist formerly known as Mahlerman, still a constant source of musical inspiration. An interview at the piano, in which Schiff talks about Bach and, toward the end, Beethoven, it is well worth watching if you have some free time over Christmas. Schiff's humility, particularly when discussing Bach, is striking, as is his quiet sense of humour. Here's the link...

Wednesday 20 December 2023

Haunting, Haunted

 The word 'haunting' is one that we perhaps reach for too easily when describing poems and other works of art (mea culpa). However, in the case of Walter de la Mare's best poetry, it is exactly le mot juste. The haunting quality of his verse surely has much to do with the haunted nature of the world he describes: his best poems have an eery, uncanny quality that is quite unique. Take this one, which I came across by chance today, a poem ostensibly about waiting at a railway junction, but of course about so much more. There are echoes of Robert Frost here, and Edward Thomas, but it is unmistakably De la Mare's own – and it is, yes, decidedly haunting...

The Railway Junction

From here through tunnelled gloom the track
Forks into two; and one of these
Wheels onward into darkening hills,
And one toward distant seas.

How still it is; the signal light
At set of sun shines palely green;
A thrush sings; other sound there’s none,
Nor traveller to be seen –

Where late there was a throng. And now,
In peace awhile, I sit alone;
Though soon, at the appointed hour,
I shall myself be gone.

But not their way; the bow-legged groom,
The parson in black, the widow and son,
The sailor with his cage, the gaunt
Gamekeeper with his gun,

That fair one, too, discreetly veiled –
All, who so mutely came, and went,
Will reach those far nocturnal hills,
Or shores, ere night is spent.

I nothing know why thus we met –
Their thoughts, their longings, hopes, their fate:
And what shall I remember, except –
The evening growing late –

That here through tunnelled gloom the track
Forks into two; of these
One into darkening hills leads on,
And one toward distant seas.

Monday 18 December 2023

A Whall Window

 Yesterday I visited St Oswald, Ashbourne, one of the finest town churches in Derbyshire (where I celebrated Advent last tear). My cousin and I paid our respects to poor Penelope Boothby, admired the (mostly) excellent Victorian stained glass, and, in particular, drank in the beauty of the window above, which commemorates the sisters Monica and Dorothea Turnbull, who died in a terrible domestic accident: a lamp held by their father burst into flames, setting fire to Dorothea's dress, and then Monica's, as she tried desperately to save her sister. The distraught parents commissioned Christopher Whall, a brilliant stained glass designer in the Arts & Crafts manner, and he delivered a window of rare beauty. The colours sing, and the drawing, particularly of the faces, is superb. Monica is shown as St Barbara, Dorothea as the saint of the same name, and between them is St Cecilia, falling asleep to the sound of celestial music. Beneath her is an image of the Celestial City, visible though a thicket of thorns. Needless to say, my photograph does scant justice to this magnificent window. 

Friday 15 December 2023

The Return of Chloris

 At this time of year, with the garden largely dormant or frost-blighted, the chief pleasure it affords is watching the flurries of birds jostling for a place at the feeders. I have what claims to be a totally squirrel-proof bird feeder, but I wouldn't be surprised if my squirrels find a way to breach its defences: they're all over it, testing it out, probing for a weak point, experimenting with different approaches. I suppose I should take my hat off to the resourceful little blighters, but I'm afraid that, despite having read this book, I still find the grey squirrel hard to like, and would sooner the birds had the feeders to themselves. Charm after charm of goldfinches  – 'proud tailors', as they are called in Staffordshire, according to Johnson's dictionary – are visiting, as well as tits blue, great, coal and long-tailed, sparrows, chaffinches, and the odd starling. But the happy surprise has been the large numbers of greenfinches coming to feed. Down south I had seen very few greenfinches since they suffered a dramatic population crash in the 1990s, the result of a parasite-borne disease. The greenfinch (which has the pleasing binomial Chloris chloris, from a Greek root meaning greenish yellow) is a beautiful bird – and, it has to be said, a pugnacious character that likes to have its own way at the bird feeder. It's a joy to see it back, and I hope it's busy repopulating the rest of the country. 

Wednesday 13 December 2023

According to Beryl

 On this day – St Lucy's Day, 'the year's midnight' – in 1784 Samuel Johnson, after many travails physical and mental, died. After his death, his body was opened and examined, and an autopsy report written. It was with this report, read by Beryl Bainbridge, that the 2001 Arena documentary According to Beryl, which I watched on BBC iPlayer last night, began. In the film Bainbridge talks about Johnson's last years, in particular his relationship with the Thrales, and about her Johnson-and-Thrale-themed novel, According to Queeney (which I wrote about here). Readings from Johnson's letters and personal writings, and from Bainbridge's novel, enlarge the narrative. It's a typically well made and illuminating Arena documentary, and the slightly dotty but endearing Bainbridge comes over well on television. Towards the end of her film she encounters Johnson's extraordinary death mask, which lives in the National Portrait Gallery. Shortly after Johnson's autopsy, his friend Sir Joshua Reynolds sent the cast maker from the Royal Academy schools to take a cast of the dead Johnson's face. The result [below] is, as Bainbridge points out, strikingly lifelike (though looking quiet unlike the standard image of Johnson) and extremely present: Johnson is very much there. And he looks happy and at peace. I hope he was playing with his childhood friends by the pools of Lichfield, or eating apples in his nurse's garden on George Lane...

Tuesday 12 December 2023

Moore's Steam Roller

 This morning I happened upon this poem by Marianne Moore, intriguingly titled 'To A Steam Roller'. It is not, needless to say, an address to a piece of road-making equipment but a springy, pithy little poem about a more general and pervasive tendency  – very much apparent in the academic/critical mind – to crush the glittering particulars of life into a flattened, generalised amalgam. This is, of course, to be resisted.

The illustration
is nothing to you without the application.
   You lack half wit. You crush all the particles down
      into close conformity, and then walk back and forth 
         on them.

Sparkling chips of rock
are crushed down to the level of the parent block.
   Were not 'impersonal judgment in aesthetic
      matters, a metaphysical impossibility,' you

might fairly achieve
It. As for butterflies, I can hardly conceive
   of one's attending upon you, but to question
      the congruence of the complement is vain, if it exists.

Sunday 10 December 2023

Park Life

 With the world apparently trundling towards hell in an accelerating handcart, it is cheering to come across a good news story, so I was delighted to read that a new species of moth – one entirely new to science – has been discovered, in, of all places, a park in that 'queen of suburbs', Ealing. Indeed, it was found in the very park where, as a lad, I used to play with my brother and friends: Walpole Park, developed from the grounds of Sir John Soane's Pitzhanger Manor, which in my day was the public library (the park also, in my day, contained a small zoo or menagerie). The moth is a new species of microlepidopteron, so cannot be described by any stretch as spectacular – but that it should have been discovered at all, let alone in such a location, is quite astonishing: these things very rarely happen. Tachystola mulliganae  – named for Barbara Mulligan, the moth enthusiast who found it – belongs to a genus originating from Australia, and an unidentified microplepidopteron in the Natural History Museum's collection turned out to be an exact DNA match. That specimen was found back in 1886, in the Western Australian town of... Walpole. 
You can read the full story here.

Friday 8 December 2023

'A rushing music, seizing on her dance...'

 Among my birthday presents, and very welcome, was Christopher Lloyd's Edgar Degas: Drawings and Pastels, a handsome book that will give me hours of browsing pleasure. 

Among Degas's finest pastels – and unusual in showing a performance rather than rehearsals and behind the scenes action – is L'Etoile, a brilliant representation of a dancer caught in the brief ecstasy of inhabiting the dance before returning to the menacing darkness of backstage and the harsh realities of life as a dancer (and, very probably, prostitute: the two tended to go together at the time). Richard Wilbur catches the feel of the picture perfectly in his ekphrastic poem, 'L'Etoile'...

A rushing music, seizing on her dance,
Now lifts it from her, blind into the light;
And blind the dancer, tiptoe on the boards
Reaches a moment toward her dance's flight.

Even as she aspires in loudening shine
The music pales and sweetens, sinks away;
And past her arabesque in shadow show
The fixt feet of the maitre de ballet.

So she will turn and walk through metal halls
To where some ancient woman will unmesh
Her small strict shape, and yawns will turn her face
Into a little wilderness of flesh. 

Thursday 7 December 2023

Birthday, and a Walk

 Well, today another year has come full circle and I achieve (simply by virtue of staying alive) my 74th birthday, as does the great Tom Waits – happy birthday, Tom. Yesterday I was walking with the miraculously resurgent walking group – a short (but sometimes dauntingly muddy) church crawl in southern Northamptonshire, taking in the gloriously named villages of Potterspury, Yardley Gobion and Furtho, the last more a remnant than a village, with a still numinous 'redundant' church, a fine dovecote and the humps and tumps of a DMV (deserted medieval village). Platonic England, if ever I saw it...
  In Potterspury church we happened on the best kind of person you can hope to meet on a church crawl  – not an antiquarian windbag along the lines of the Rev. Lord Henry D'Ascoyne in Kind Hearts and Coronets: 'I always say that my west window has all the exuberance of Chaucer – without, happily, any of the concomitant crudities of his period.' No, this was an old man – 91 years old – who clearly loved his church, which he had been part of since he joined the choir as a boy back in 1940, and who knew every stone of it: indeed he had laid many of them himself, having repaved the whole of the nave and chancel (a six-month job for two men, and beautifully done). It is wonderful to meet someone like him, who in his person and his memories embodies so much of what the Church – specifically the English parish church – is all about. Let us hope it lasts a deal longer yet – or even, like my walking group, undergoes a miraculous resurgence: that would be something. 

Monday 4 December 2023


 Yesterday evening I attended my first Advent service in the cathedral (last year I was at St Oswald's, Ashbourne). It was an extraordinarily beautiful service, beginning, in customary fashion, in darkness, then gradually lit up by candles along the length of the nave and into the quire. The effect was glorious, as was the music that accompanied all this – Bach, Byrd, Palestrina, Weelkes and more, including the Great 'O' Antiphons (O Sapientia, O Adonai, etc). There were the usual Advent readings, and the traditional Advent carols. The choir were on brilliant form, divided between the west gallery and the quire, and as I listened I wondered once again how a Church with so much to offer in the way of beautiful music (and words), beautiful buildings and rich tradition should be in such a state of decline. No doubt there are all manner of reasons – the current rush into managerialism being one of them – but I wonder if the dear old C of E might be wiser to make the most of its rich heritage rather than strive for novelty and 'outreach'. I suspect beauty, spirituality and tradition might prove to have much stronger appeal than lame attempts to follow secular trends or reduce worship to happy-clappy simplicity: there might be more life in Larkin's 'moth-eaten musical brocade' than the Church itself suspects. Certainly the cathedral was packed full last night – so full that I had to sit against the wall of the south aisle (all the chairs were arranged facing the nave aisle, as there was a good deal of processing). The down side of this was that I became much colder than I realised, and I was unable to read the order of service, being too far from the nearest rank of candles. But it was a wonderful service, one of the best I have ever attended. And one of the musical highlights was this glorious piece by James MacMillan, a true modern classic...

Sunday 3 December 2023


 Advent, and snow on the ground.
Here is a bleakly beautiful Advent poem by – who else? – R.S. Thomas.

The Coming

And God held in his hand
A small globe.  Look, he said.
The son looked.  Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour.  The light burned
There; crusted buildings
Cast their shadows: a bright
Serpent. A river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
With slime.
               On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky.  Many People
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs.  The son watched
Them.  Let me go there, he said.

Saturday 2 December 2023


 The cold snap has well and truly arrived, with clear blue skies and deep frost, and this morning an arrestingly beautiful combination of mist and hoarfrost – the first I've seen in some while. The particular beauty of hoarfrost lies in the way it gives a silver-white lining to every leaf and twig and blade of grass – and spiderweb. Suddenly it becomes apparent how abundant and ubiquitous spiderwbebs are, and what an amazing feat of engineering each one is. When the lines of a web are rimed and thickened with hoarfrost, its's easier to see how, from the spider's point of view, web building is not a delicate affair but sheer hard work. As Kay Ryan puts it, beautifully, in her poem 'Spiderweb' – 

'From other
angles the
fibres look
fragile, but
not from the
spider’s, always
hauling coarse
ropes, hitching
lines to the
best posts
possible. It’s
heavy work
fighting sag,
winching up
give. It
isn’t ever
to live.'

Thursday 30 November 2023

Practical Criticism the Shane MacGowan Way

 Reading an obituary of the Pogues front man Shane MacGowan, who despite everything made it to the age of 65, I learned much of interest – English prep school, followed by Westminster! Who knew? – but what most struck me was the story, told by a former girlfriend, that Shane lost several of his front teeth attempting to eat The Beach Boys Greatest Hits, Volume 3. I'd like to think this was an act of truly practical criticism – that particular LP is not regarded as much of an addition to the Beach Boys oeuvre, and the record company only released it to make up for disappointing sales of the previous album, Friends. However, MacGowan was under the influence of LSD at the time, and that might be sufficient explanation. 
 Eating as practical criticism, though, surely has some possibilities – eating books (or at least taking a few bites) being the obvious example. I can't find, or call to mind, a single case of this happening (anyone?), but I rather wish I'd thought of it in my student days, when it might have enlivened a dreary tutorial. In my library days, I did have a colleague who in meetings had a habit of munching on the minutes (before his leveraged retirement). There are a couple of cases of bibliophagy in the Bible – one, involving a scroll rather than a codex, is in Ezekiel, the other in Revelations, where an angel tells John to eat a 'little book', assuring him that 'it shall make thy belly bitter, but it shall be in thy mouth sweet as honey' (and so it proved).
  Anyway, I'm looking forward to hearing Fairy Tale of New York – almost the only secular Xmas song that doesn't set my teeth on edge – even more often than usual this Christmas. 

Wednesday 29 November 2023

'Not to be here, Not to be anywhere'

 On this day in 1977, Philip Larkin signed off on 'Aubade', reckoned by many (including Frank Wilson Of Books Inq)  to be his last great poem. He had worked on it for some while, and completed it after the death of his mother, probably the most significant woman in his life. 'Aubade' is certainly his bleakest and most direct expression of the timor mortis that haunts so much of his verse, and Larkin himself described it, aptly enough, as his 'in-a-funk-about-death' poem. His particular, horribly acute fear is simply of extinction, of ceasing to exist. As Larkin acknowledges, this is not a rational fear – 'No rational being can fear a thing it will not feel' – but that doesn't make the terror any less real. While some of us might find 'the anaesthetic from which none come round' quite a comforting notion, it clearly scares the living daylights out of Larkin – 'Not to be here, Not to be anywhere'. There is, of course, more to this poem than the poet's death funk: it is exquisitely wrought and framed to perfection, and it ends on one of Larkin's most beautiful stanzas...

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.   
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.   
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.   
Till then I see what’s really always there:   
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,   
Making all thought impossible but how   
And where and when I shall myself die.   
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse   
—The good not done, the love not given, time   
Torn off unused—nor wretchedly because   
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;   
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,   
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,   
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,   
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,   
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill   
That slows each impulse down to indecision.   
Most things may never happen: this one will,   
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without   
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave   
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.   
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,   
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,   
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring   
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

Tuesday 28 November 2023

More Music

 For some reason – I hope simply the sublime beauty of the music – my post of Wilhelm Kempff playing the slow movement of the Hammerklavier – attracted more views than anything I've put up in recent times. So I'll try another piece of sublime music, which I just caught on Radio 3. It's Benjamin Appl singing Schubert's 'Im Abendrot' in an orchestral arrangement by Max Reger. Does it top Fischer-Dieskau or Hans Hotter with Gerald Moore at the piano? Does it matter? It is one of Schubert's most beautiful songs, and that is surely enough.
Unfortunately I cannot lift this version from YouTube, but this link should take you there...

Sunday 26 November 2023

Under the Lights

 Johnson is sitting, brooding and unimpressed, under his Christmas lights again, and this year I was there to see them being turned on, as our granddaughter was singing carols with her school before the big switch-on. As usual, the sight and sound of children singing the Christmas favourites (especially Little Town of Bethlehem, Silent Night and, yes, Away in a Manger) filled my eyes with tears and my heart with a familiar potent cocktail of love and memories and thankfulness. I managed to maintain my composure, but there will be more to draw the tears and challenge my composure, with Advent a week away... Christmas is for me the most emotionally affecting, and perhaps the most profoundly meaningful, time of the liturgical year. (Just to be clear, I mean Christmas, not Xmas, the consumerist horror show that unfortunately coincides with it.)

Meanwhile, I have seen my first snowdrop of the year – of next year, rather (or my last of this year?). This was on Friday, so it would have been the 24th of November, which is ridiculous – especially as I'd seen a Red Admiral, full of vigour, only the day before. This week's cold snap will send the last butterflies into hiding, but won't trouble that precocious snowdrop – and should bring the redwings flying in with it. This late November/ early December cold snap seems to be the one sure thing about the British weather: it happens just about every year, regardless of climate change, global warming or whatever, even if the ensuing winter is mild – but no one seems to have noticed.


Saturday 25 November 2023

'The most magnificent monologue'

 Born on this day in 1895 was the German pianist Wilhelm Kempff, one of the great performers of Beethoven and Schubert. Here he is playing the slow movement, Adagio Sostenuto, from Beethoven's monumental Hammerklavier sonata, which Kempff described as 'the most magnificent monologue Beethoven ever wrote'. When he was in Finland, Sibelius asked him to play this movement, and when he had finished Sibelius said, 'You did not play that as a pianist, but rather as a human being.' It is a movement of profound, ethereal beauty. Enjoy...

Thursday 23 November 2023

'Only the next room of the dream'

 In 1961 there was a bit of a scandal at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York when three of their most prized Etruscan antiquities turned out to be modern fakes. Among them was a fearsome eight-foot-high figure of a warrior (whose armour did not extend to his genitals) that was one of the Met's most popular and striking exhibits. Its exposure as a forgery inspired Howard Nemerov to write this lament: 

To Clio, Muse of History

One more casualty,
One more screen memory penetrated at last
To be destroyed in the endless anamnesis
Always progressing, never arriving at a cure.
My childhood in the glare of that giant form
Corrupts with history, for I too fought in the War.

He, great male beauty
That stood for the sexual thrust of power,
His target eyes inviting the universal victim
To fatal seduction, the crested and greaved 
Survivor long after shield and sword are dust,
Has now become another lie about our life.

Smash the idol, of course.
Bury the pieces deep as the interest of truth
Requires. And you may in time compose the future
Smoothly without him, though it is too late
To disinfect the past of his huge effigy
By any further imposition of your hands.

But tell us no more
Enchantments, Clio. History has given
And taken away; murders become memories,
And memories become the beautiful obligations: 
As with a dream interpreted by one still sleeping,
The interpretation is only the next room of the dream.

For I remember how
We children stared, learning from him
Unspeakable things about war that weren't in the books;
And how the Museum store offered for sale
His photographic reproductions in full colour
With the ancient genitals blacked out. 

[I found this in The Winter Lightning: Selected Poems, published in the UK by Rapp & Whiting. A volume in the Poetry USA Series, it looks exactly like a Grove Press Evergreen Original. I don't think I've come across any of this series before.]

Tuesday 21 November 2023

Elagabalus Gets Her Pronouns

 I see that the North Hertfordshire Museum has decided, on advice from the historical experts of (ahem) Stonewall and the LGBT wing of Unison, that the emperor Elagabalus was 'transgender' and will be referred to by his 'preferred pronouns' – she, her, etc. – in the museum's extensive display of Elagabalus-related material, i.e. one silver denarius. 
  Elagabalus has come down to posterity as one of the most thoroughly depraved and useless of all the Roman emperors, but as he only ruled for four years, did little of much note, and was assassinated at the age of 18, there really isn't much to go on. The historians, notably Cassius Dio and Herodian, piled in on Elagabalus in grand style, accusing him of all the effeminate depravity to be expected of a product of 'the soft luxury of Asia' (Elagabalus was of Syrian origin), but, like most Roman historians, they were seriously biased and unreliable. This, however, did not stop Gibbon from taking their word for it – and he also drew on the even more unreliable Historia Augusta in forming his damning assessment of Elagabalus. ‘It may seem probable,' he writes, 'that the vices and follies of Elagabalus have been adorned by fancy and blackened by prejudice. Yet, confining ourselves to the public scenes displayed before the Roman people, and attested by grave and contemporary historians, their inexpressible infamy surpasses that of any other age or country.' Well, there you go.
  What is interesting (in a depressing mind of way) about this is that it illustrates how a historical villain can be transformed into a hero/victim (the terms are all but interchangeable) in today's all-embracing binary system of Oppressor/Oppressed. Elagabalus, by being assigned to a gender category unknown to the Romans, becomes one of the Oppressed, is given a protected status, and rewarded with his – sorry, her – preferred pronouns. I'm sure he/she would be very grateful. 

Monday 20 November 2023

'The rest was poetry'

 The latest issue of the literary quarterly Slightly Foxed marks its twentieth anniversary – surely a cause for celebration – and I was happy to find a piece I'd written on A Girl inWinter in it, along with many other goodies, including a lovely appreciation of J.L. Carr by Ursula Buchan, William Palmer on The Best of Myles, and Jonathan Law on Christopher Neve's Unquiet Landscape – a piece that actually inspired me to buy the book (this often happens with Slightly Foxed). Here is me on A Girl in Winter – but do buy the magazine; it's well worth it...

I had been reading Philip Larkin’s poetry for years before, quite recently, I decided to have a look at his novels. I knew he had published a couple in his early years: Jill (1946) and A Girl in Winter (1947). I knew too that, in their Oxford days and for some while after, Larkin saw himself as primarily a novelist, while his friend Kingsley Amis regarded himself as primarily a poet (how wrong they were). What I did not know was that, of Larkin’s novels, the second, A Girl in Winter, far from being an early misfire, is, well, a bit of a masterpiece.
 It was a good thing I read the second first, because if I had started with Jill I might not have bothered to pursue Larkin the novelist any further. He himself all but disowned Jill, regarding it as a piece of juvenilia, best forgotten, though he acknowledged that it offers an evocative portrait of wartime life in Oxford and is a kind of prototype for many a later tale of a working-class lad’s misadventures at university. It is also worth reading for its vivid descriptions of a bombed industrial town (clearly drawing on Larkin’s hometown of Coventry). However, as a novel, Jill is unconvincing, and certainly gives no hint of what was to come with A Girl in Winter, a work that is not only quite unlike its predecessor but unlike anything else in English fiction. 
 A Girl in Winter doesn’t read as if it was written by a man, and certainly not by a man as plain-spoken, curmudgeonly, misanthropic, sexist, and all the rest of it, as the Philip Larkin of popular imagination. Reading A Girl in Winter ‘blind’, with no knowledge of its authorship, I doubt if more than one in ten would identify its writer as male, and I doubt if one in a hundred would guess the name of Larkin. It’s a work of great emotional sensitivity and powerful empathy, written entirely from the perspective of the young woman at its heart. That young woman is Katherine Lind, whom we first meet as a wartime refugee working as a library assistant in a provincial northern, or midland, town: the town is not specified (it could well be Coventry), nor is Katherine’s country of origin. Small internal clues suggest that it is Germany, and that she is probably Jewish, though that too is never stated. 
 A Girl In Winter is simply constructed, in three parts. The outer two, set in the town where Katherine is living and working, form a stretch of 12 hours or so on a cold, foggy Saturday in wartime, while the middle section takes us back six years to an English summer in rural Oxfordshire. The wartime Saturday is, for Katherine, a working day, and she is clearly unhappy in her work under a peculiarly unpleasant and officious librarian, Mr Anstey, portrayed with real venom by Larkin, who had no doubt come across an Anstey or two in his library career (I was a librarian once, and I recognise the type). 
 This particular morning, Katherine is detailed to escort home a dislikeable girl, Miss Green (those were formal times), who has a raging toothache. Part one of the novel simply follows their journey across town, in the course of which Miss Green's condition worsens, while Katherine comes into focus as someone whose emotions are, like the townscape, frozen. Why this is so remains, throughout the novel, a story that is never quite told, though the war has obviously forced her to leave her home country and the life she had there. Whatever the source of the winter in Katherine's soul, the turning point of the first part of the novel is a memorable scene in a municipal park when, suddenly, she sees the tiresome Miss Green as a human being rather than a burden, and compassion becomes a possibility: 
‘Till then she had seen only her ugliness, her petulance, her young pretensions. Now this faded to unimportance and she grasped for the first time that she really needed care, that she was frail and in a remote way beautiful. It was so long since she had felt this about anyone that it came with unexpected force: its urgency made her own affairs, concerned with what might or might not happen, bloodless and fanciful. This was what she had not had for ages, a person dependent on her.’ 
 We also learn in part one that Katherine has been in touch with an English family with whom she stayed six years earlier, before the war. There is a note at her dismal 'digs' from the son, Robin, who says he is visiting that day, an encounter that Katherine is now keen to avoid. Why? The back story to that makes up part two of the novel, set in the sunshine and rain of an English summer, in the course of which Katherine falls in love with the reserved and very 'English' Robin, then out of love with him. Katherine finds the experience of meeting and living with his family – and working out what his strange, unhappy elder sister is up to – confusing and unsettling. Larkin traces the movements of Katherine’s emotions with great sensitivity, until finally, standing by the river on her last evening in England, she finds some resolution:
 ‘The water was the colour of pewter, for the afterglow had faded rapidly and left a quality of light that resembled early dawn. It had drawn off the brightness from the meadows and stubble-fields, that were now tarnished silver and pale yellow, and the shadows were slowly mixing with the mist. In this way the edges of her emotions had blurred, and they now overlaid each other like planes of water running over wet sand, the last expenditure of succeeding waves. There was no discord in them: she felt at peace.’ 
As that passage suggests, there is much fine descriptive writing in A Girl in Winter, a novel in which weather, landscape and townscape are always to the fore, from its beginning – describing a day of lying snow with more expected – to its end, when the snow is finally falling (as at the end of James Joyce’s The Dead – did Larkin have that in mind?). 
 From prewar summer it's back to wartime winter for the final third of the book. Here the threads of plot from the first part – Robin’s impending visit, an inadvertent handbag swap – are resolved (the latter, slight and unpromising as it might seem, leading Katherine to a quite unexpected and deeply sad discovery). There’s not a lot of plot in A Girl in Winter: its essence lies in the creation of atmosphere and the tracing of nuances of emotion, especially in exploring Katherine's alienation, the way her feelings, and the world around her, move in and out of focus. For all its fine descriptive passages, this is not a typical 'poet's novel', introspective, showily written and dripping with ‘sensibility’; it’s too firmly grounded in the kind of grim provincial reality that was the seedbed of Larkin’s genius, and the author keeps himself firmly out of it. 
 Where did A Girl in Winter come from? What could have inspired such an atypical work? Possibly its origins lie in an unhappy visit Larkin made to prewar Germany with his father, an admirer of Hitler. They stayed in the resort of Königswinter, and Larkin’s original title for the novel was The Kingdom of Winter. Could Katherine’s numb desolation in wartime England be a version of the young Larkin’s misery in that German resort? Even if that is the case, we still don’t know who, if anyone, was the model for Katherine Lind. Larkin, typically, left no clues. 
 A Girl in Winter has been described as ‘the most underrated work in the Larkin canon’ and ‘a harbinger of greatness’. Andrew Motion, Larkin’s biographer, characterised it as ‘a beautifully constructed, funny and profoundly sad book’. It’s hard to see where he found the ‘funny’, but profoundly sad it certainly is. However, the shimmer and music of Larkin’s descriptive prose tell another story, of life and possibility and hard-won hope. It’s a shame this novel is not better known; if it has been buried under the great edifice of Larkin’s poetry, it should be brought up from the basement and read again as one of his most interesting pieces of work. 
 Why did he write no more novels? It seems he did have at least one other in mind, the third part of a very loosely conceived trilogy, in which Jill represented innocence, A Girl in Winter the loss of innocence, and the one that remained unwritten marking a return to life. However, he gave up on ever writing that third work, or any other fiction. Perhaps he simply lacked material for sustained fiction, or, more likely, he was by then realising where his true vocation lay. Either way, there were to be no more novels: after A Girl in Winter, the rest was poetry.

Saturday 18 November 2023


 I was sorry to discover, belatedly, that the poetry anthologist Anne Harvey, whom I knew slightly, has died. Of her many anthologies, one I have found particularly rewarding is Elected Friends: Poems For and About Edward Thomas, which I recommend to anyone with an interest in that great poet, and about which I wrote here and here.
And here is an affectionate obituary of Anne Harvey by Susan Bailes.

Thursday 16 November 2023

Si Monumentum Requiris

 Ever since my book* was launched on a startled world – four years ago now! – I have lived in mild dread that, on a church crawl somewhere, I'll come across a truly splendid 17th-century monument that I absolutely should have included in it. So far, this hasn't happened – or rather it hadn't until yesterday, when, on a pleasant sunny walk in Buckinghamshire countryside (surprisingly close to Milton Keynes), I was astonished to come across this very fine monument from the 1670s, which clearly belongs in my book (in the chapter winningly titled 'What Happened? (In which Much Ground is covered and the Author's Prejudices stand Revealed)'. A monument from this period is the last thing you'd expect to find in Bucks – let alone one of this quality. Standing in the chancel of St Simon and St Jude, Castlethorpe, it commemorates Sir Thomas Tyrrell, politician and judge (and Parliamentarian, but clearly his Puritan leanings did not extend to monumental masonry), and it shows him in his judge's robes. But, for all the grandeur of its framing, this is a tender and affecting composition, showing the grieving widow, with (delicately carved) tears visible in her eyes, cradling her dying husband as he rests his head in her lap. 
  Why did I know nothing of this one? Doing a bit of research when I got home, I found that it is indeed little known: Pevsner speaks well of it (and attributes it conjecturally to the London sculptor Jasper Latham; others have suggested William Stanton), but it has no mention in Mrs Esdaile, and only a fleeting reference in Brian Kemp's more compendious English Church Monuments. Neither is it featured in that wondrous volume Country Church Monuments, and I had never seen a photograph of it. 
It really should be better known, especially as it was recently restored and cleaned and is now looking its very best. Happening upon it so unexpectedly was yet another of those glorious surprises that make church crawling such an endlessly rewarding pursuit.

* The Mother of Beauty: On the Golden Age of Church Monuments, and Other Matters of Life and Death. Still available on Amazon, or direct from the author: email

Tuesday 14 November 2023

Julie Manet

 Born on this day in 1878 was Julie Manet, daughter of Eugène Manet (brother of the more famous Edouard) and the painter Berthe Morisot. Sadly both her parents died when she was in her teens, leaving her an orphan at 16. The poet Stéphane Mallarmé became her guardian, and she received support from friends, including Renoir, and family. At 21 she married the painter and art collector Ernest Rouart, in a double ceremony in which one of her cousins married the poet Paul Valéry. Julie lived into the 1960s, dying at the age of 87. Her teenage diaries, published in English as Growing Up with the Impressionists, are said to give a notably vivid and spontaneous account of life among all those artists and poets, including records of lively conversations about the Dreyfus affair. I must keep an eye open for it...
  The young Julie was strikingly pretty, and of course much painted, especially by her mother and Renoir. The sketch above, showing her sitting on a watering can, is by her uncle Edouard.

Monday 13 November 2023

My Original Sin

 I am aware of 'original sin', that rather unhelpful Christian doctrine (I speak as a Pelagian in the English tradition), but until today I had no idea there was such a thing as 'original antigenic sin'. Apparently the term was coined in 1960, in a paper by one Thomas Francis Jr, 'On the Doctrine of Original Antigenic Sin'. It's to do with the body's response to infections, and has been summarised thus: ' The imprint established by the original virus infection governs the antibody response thereafter. This we have called the Doctrine of the Original Antigenic Sin' – which seems a pretty tenuous link to Augustine's doctrine, but it's certainly a catchy name. Anyway, thanks to 'original antigenic sin', there is good news (for some of us): recent research suggests that having had lots of doses of the common cold in our early years, and later, might well give a useful level of protection against the dreaded SARS-CoV-2 virus, aka Covid. I've long suspected this myself – it was one of the more marginal reasons I decided against getting vaccinated – and I wonder if it might account for my own apparent immunity (or near immunity: if I had Covid, I didn't really notice). I spent much of my boyhood and youth catching every conceivable form of the common cold, some of which hung around miserably for weeks on end. If that was my 'original antigenic sin', it seems to have paid off – which is more than can be said for Augustine's version.  

Sunday 12 November 2023

The War in the Air

 Howard Nemerov – a poet I'm only just beginning to discover – served in the war as a pilot in both the Royal Canadian Air Force and the US Army Air Force. This poem, I think, is a fitting one for Remembrance Sunday...

The War in the Air

For a saving grace, we didn't see our dead,
Who rarely bothered coming home to die
But simply stayed away out there
In the clean war, the war in the air.

Seldom the ghosts come back bearing their tales
Of hitting the earth, the incompressible sea,
But stayed up there in the relative wind,
Shades fading in the mind,

Who had no graves but only epitaphs
Where never so many spoke for never so few:
Per ardua, said the partisans of Mars,
Per aspera, to the stars.

That was the good war, the war we won
As if there was no death, for goodness's sake.
With the help of the losers we left out there
In the air, in the empty air.

Friday 10 November 2023

New Zealand's Coppers, Firbank's Plaque

 I have many fond memories of Wellington (a city I'll probably never see again, as daughter and family are leaving New Zealand for Canada), and among them are, of course, some butterfly memories: of Monarchs and Yellow Admirals and, at the less spectacular end of the scale, Common Coppers. I remember the first thrill of discovering that there was a thriving colony of these little beauties living among the Wire Vines on the land between the New World supermarket and Te Papa museum. I wrote about this happy discovery at the time, and about the fact that there might be as many as 25 other New Zealand Copper species yet to be identified. And today I discover from the new issue of Butterfly magazine that a research project is under way in New Zealand – the Butterfly Discovery Project – whose first mission will be, yes, to identify new species of Copper. 
  Apparently the reason so many Coppers have remained unidentified has its origins in Cook's Endeavour voyage, from which the first collected specimens were brought back to England – and promptly sold to a trader. No original specimen has ever been located, and all that survives is a 1775 painting in William Jones's Icones. From this image (in scientific terms, an iconotype) the great naturalist Fabricius concluded that there was but one species of New Zealand Copper, Lycaena salustius. Well, since then the number has swollen to four, and, thanks to the Butterfly Discovery Project, it looks set to grow considerable larger. As a result, New Zealand, with its poor tally of butterfly species (26 listed in Wikipedia), might end up with a number not far short of the UK's 60ish. 

Talking of butterflies, I was pleased to learn, from a piece by Alan Hollinghurst in the Spectator, that Ronald Firbank now has a Blue Plaque in London, on a house on Curzon Street, where the compulsively peripatetic author roosted for a couple of years with his mother and sister. Hollinghurst is a huge fan of Firbank, and his Spectator piece rightly stresses his importance as an influence – on Evelyn Waugh, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Muriel Spark, Joe Orton, Noel Coward, even Henry Green. He deserves to be recognised as a more than a 'queer icon', though he will always be a cult writer, read by few. I've always had a soft spot for Firbank myself: indeed, when going through some of my old papers recently, I found my undergrad dissertation on him (and it wasn't as bad as I expected it to be). I'm glad he has a plaque; his final resting place is 'far away from his country'

Thursday 9 November 2023

A Literary Centenary

 I missed most of Radio 3's Shakespeare Day, marking the 400th anniversary of the First Folio (I was in transit – Worthing again) but saw enough of BBC2's Shakespeare: Rise of a Genius to know it was best avoided (i.e. about 5 minutes). There's another literary anniversary today, of infinitely less significance but worth marking – the centenary of the birth of poet James Schuyler, a leading light of the 'New York School'. He wrote a handful of fine poems, including this one – 

Fauré's Second Piano Quartet

On a day like this the rain comes
down in fat and random drops among
the ailanthus leaves—'the tree
of Heaven'—the leaves that on moon-
lit nights shimmer black and blade-
shaped at this third-floor window.
And there are bunches of small green
Knobs, buds, crowded together. The
rapid music fills in the spaces of
the leaves. And the piano comes in,
like an extra heartbeat, dangerous
and lovely. Slower now, less like
the leaves, more like the rain which
almost isn’t rain, more like thawed-
out hail. All this beauty in the
mess of this small apartment on
West Twentieth in Chelsea, New York.
Slowly the notes pour out, slowly,
more slowly still, fat rain falls.

And here is the slow movement, Adagio non Troppo, from that quartet – a movement described by Copland as 'a long sigh of infinite tenderness, a long moment of quiet melancholy and nostalgic charm'...

Wednesday 8 November 2023


 Here is my latest contribution to Literary Review, that uniquely excellent magazine, which, as ever, I urge you to buy and/or subscribe to. Fire Weather: A True Story from a Hotter World was quite a read, telling an astonishing story – that of the Fort McMurray fire – which I had somehow never heard before...

  'Does the name Fort McMurray mean anything to you? I must admit that, until I read this book, I had only a vague idea of the place as a remote mining town somewhere in northern Canada. What I now know is that Fort McMurray is a large, sprawling urban area (not technically a city but it ought to be) in the boreal forest of Alberta, and its mining activities – extracting oil from bitumen – are on such a gigantic scale that they can be seen from six thousand miles up in space, at which height they are the only visible signs of human activity. And this whole vast area was consumed, in May 2016, by a fire the like of which had never been seen before in an urban setting – a wildfire that burned for months, spreading at terrifying speed, creating its own weather, and achieving such destructive force that it could make a house and all its contents vaporise in five minutes, leaving only a hole in the ground and a few scraps. The fire destroyed almost everything in and around the town, burnt more than two thousand square miles of forest, and in the end was the costliest natural disaster in north American history. Miraculously, no one died: nearly ninety thousand people managed to escape by car along traffic-choked roads, with fire raging all around them, smoke reducing visibility to almost nothing, and the air full of blazing embers.
  The full dramatic story of the Fort McMurray fire is vividly told in John Vaillant’s impressive new book (which follows The Tiger and The Golden Spruce). Before he gets down to the events of 2016, he relates the history of the area, back to the days of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and of the exploitation of bitumen, initially as a raw material, then as a source of oil. To get from bitumen to usable petroleum is no easy matter, demanding complex processing on a massive scale, using colossal, fantastically powerful machinery, for scraping, digging, hauling and crushing – bulldozers that can plough down a forest like mowing a lawn, dump trucks weighing four hundred tons unloaded, crushers that can devour a city bus in three seconds. This is what has created the bleak, devastated wasteland that surrounds Fort McMurray – ‘mile upon mile of black and ransacked earth pocked with stadium-swallowing pits and dead, discoloured lakes’, lakes full of contaminated water and industrial effluent. Even those who work on it compare this landscape to Tolkien’s Mordor, the realm of Sauron.
 Vaillant’s description of the Fort McMurray operation is embedded in a broader consideration of the central role of fire, of combustion, in the modern world, where a single car running at normal speed generates around ten thousand combustions per minute. ‘Observed by visitors from another planet,’ Vaillant writes, ‘humans could easily be mistaken for a global fire cult – the dutiful keepers of a trillion flames.’ And where there is fire, of course, there is risk of destruction, potentially on a terrible scale. This is especially true of what is known to planners as the WUI, the wildland-urban-interface, where town and countryside meet – just the kind of environment people want to live in, and, if that countryside is highly combustible forest, just about the most dangerous. Fort McMurray grew up amid the boreal forest, and boreal forest lives and dies, literally, by periodically catching fire, often on a huge scale. When temperatures are freakishly high and humidity freakishly low, and when a wind is whipping up, the forest is a tinderbox – and so, as Fort McMurray learned, is any town in the vicinity.
 These were just the conditions that prevailed around Fort McMurray when a fast-growing fire was spotted southwest of the town, one that, despite the best efforts of eighty firefighters, two bulldozer groups and several water bombers, proved impossible to contain. This was the beginning of the great fire that the author chronicles day by day, often hour by hour, as it moved in and devoured the town and all that lay around it. Vaillant tells the story through a detailed narrative of events as they unfolded, and through eye-witness testimony, including that of a man who, in impossible conditions, decided to take a stand and save his home. His story, and that of several others, is edge-of-seat stuff, and one is left marvelling not only at the sheer force and scale of the fire but at the courage and endurance of so many – residents and firefighters alike – and the barely believable fact that everyone got out of it alive. I could have done with rather fewer journalistic thumbnail sketches of the dramatis personae – ‘a solidly-built Albertan whose bespectacled eyes peered out from beneath a high, clean-shaven dome’ – but this is a great piece of storytelling, well paced and relentlessly gripping.
 After all this action, the next section of the book, tracing the history of climate science and of attempts to deal with a warming Earth, is quieter, though Vaillant, who sees such events as the Fort McMurray fire as omens of worse to come, infuses it with full-on apocalyptic urgency. A true believer in the ‘settled science’ of catastrophic anthropogenic climate change, he tells a tale of disinterested science nobly overcoming ignorance and obstruction, ignoring the darker alternative story of science hardening into something worryingly like quasi-religious dogma. But never mind – this is a remarkable, often thrilling book, one that would surely give any reader a deeper understanding of the nature of fire, and of its awesome, terrifying power.'