Tuesday 31 January 2023

'To profess what he does not mean, to promise what he cannot perform...'

 Reading this passage in one of Johnson' Rambler essays (No. 79), it is hard not to apply it to the present day, when we find ourselves ruled by a caste of 'experts' who are more often wrong than right, and by a deeply unimpressive political class who seem incapable of doing anything beyond firefighting and self-preservation: 

'The world has long been amused with the mention of policy in publick transactions, and of art in private affairs; they have been considered as the effects of great qualities, and as unattainable by men of the common level: yet I have not found many performances either of art or policy, that required such stupendous efforts of intellect, or might not have been effected by falsehood and impudence, without the assistance of any other powers. To profess what he does not mean, to promise what he cannot perform, to flatter ambition with prospects of promotion, and misery with hopes of relief, to soothe pride with appearances of submission, and appease enmity by blandishment and bribes, can surely imply nothing more or greater than a mind devoted wholly to its own purposes, a face that cannot blush, and a heart that cannot feel.' 

Sunday 29 January 2023


 Today I was in the cathedral again, for Candlemas, the service that commemorates the presentation of the infant Jesus in the temple (and the Purification of the BVM, if you like that kind of thing), and is also the hinge between Christmastide and Easter. It was a beautiful service, as ever, with the choir on top form. They sang, among other fine things, Tallis's O Nata Lux and Nicolas Gombert's Hodie Beata Virgo, a lovely piece which I don't remember hearing before. The Old Testament readings were, as so often, rather troubling, but the story of Simeon and Anna, as told in Luke, was as moving as ever: 'Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word...' We all processed with lighted candles to the font for the collect and Britten's A New Year Carol. The paschal candle was lit, the final prayers said, the organ struck up a Bach prelude and fugue (BWV545), and we were out into the chilly evening. There was still light in the sky, and the western horizon was turning a beautiful carmine pink. 

Saturday 28 January 2023

The Great Inhaler

 I see that the government, having nothing better to do, is thinking of banning the sale and use of nitrous oxide, the 'laughing gas' so popular with the nation's youth. Naturally, this news puts me in mind of inhaler extraordinaire Humphry Davy, the great chemist and inventor, who in his youth was swept away, like many others (Coleridge and Southey among them), by the craze for the newly discovered gas. Here is my account, from a few years back, of Davy's remarkable appetite for nitrous oxide: 

'At the Pneumatic Institute, the brainchild of Dr Thomas Beddoes (father of that strange poet Thomas Lovell Beddoes), in Bristol, the young scientific whiz kid Humphry Davy was throwing himself into the grand project of experimenting with Nitrous Oxide. The hope was that it would have near-miraculous therapeutic properties - and who knew what other uses - and Davy was keen to experiment on himself (as he had already done with Carbon Monoxide, with very nearly fatal results) to find out its effects.
 'After inhaling four quarts, Davy noted 'highly pleasurable thrilling, particularly in the chest and extremities. The objects around me became dazzling, and my hearing more acute... Sometimes I manifested my pleasure by stamping or laughing only; at other times, by dancing around the room and vociferating... This gas raised my pulse upwards of twenty strokes, made me dance about the laboratory as a madman, and has kept my spirits in a glow ever since.'
 No wonder he was keen to press on. 'Between April and June I constantly breathed the gas sometimes three or four times a day for a week... I have often felt very great pleasure when breathing it alone, in darkness and silence, occupied only by ideal existence.' What, he wondered, would be the effect of an overdose? After inhaling a full six quarts, he noted that 'the pleasurable sensation was at first local, and perceived in the lips and the cheeks. It gradually, however, diffused itself over the whole body, and in the middle of the experiment was for a moment so intense and pure as to absorb existence. At this moment, and not before, I lost consciousness; it was, however, quickly restored, and I endeavoured to make a bystander acquainted with the pleasures I experienced by laughing and stamping. I had no vivid ideas.'
 Pressing on, he was soon making use of a portable gas chamber designed by James Watt, which enabled him to inhale eight quarts over a planned 75 minutes before being released from the chamber (with his pulse at 124, his temperature 106 and his face bright purple) and given a top-up of 20 quarts of pure gas. 'The sensations were superior to any I ever experienced. Inconceivably pleasurable,' he noted. 'Theories passed rapidly thro the mind, believed I may say intensely, at the same time that everything going on in the room was perceived. I seemed to be a sublime being, newly created and superior to other mortals, I was indignant at what they said of me and stalked majestically out of the laboratory to inform Dr Kinglake privately that nothing existed but thoughts.'
 After some more experiments testing the effects of combining alcohol with nitrous oxide - it seems it's good for hangovers – Davy ended this self-experimenting phase, happily unscathed and with his mind sharper than ever.'

The flamboyant Davy, whose lectures and spectacular demonstrations attracted huge audiences, was a Cornishman, and Cornwall remains very proud of him. Here is a link (hope it works) to a very jolly song about him by Brenda Wootton – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VpMZDQlRq5g

Friday 27 January 2023

Holocaust Memorial Day

 'To write poetry after Auschwitz is impossible,' as Theodor Adorno didn't say. What he did say was 'To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric', and he was later to modify even that statement. Not that it matters. Perhaps it would be truer to say that to write poetry about Auschwitz, i.e. about the Holocaust, is impossible, or all but impossible, and arguably barbaric too. The best art created from those unimaginably terrible events has tended to be documentary in nature, like the almost unbearable Shoah, Claude Lanzmann's nine-hour film.  Poetry, I think, can only approach such a subject obliquely; it is literally obscene, its proper place is offstage. To mark the day, here is Geoffrey Hill's very oblique Ovid in the Third Reich, in which he places the exiled Roman poet in Hitler's Germany, trying to live with his conscience, loving his work and his children, celebrating 'the love-choir', but knowing 'the ancient troughs of blood' are too near, and that he is among the damned, or something worse. He might be taken to represent all those 'ordinary Germans' who managed to live with an unspeakable, and unspoken, knowledge... 

I love my work and my children. God   
Is distant, difficult. Things happen.   
Too near the ancient troughs of blood   
Innocence is no earthly weapon.

I have learned one thing: not to look down
So much upon the damned. They, in their sphere,   
Harmonize strangely with the divine
Love. I, in mine, celebrate the love-choir.

The poem has an epigraph from Ovid's Amores – 'Non peccat, quaecumque potest peccasse negare, Solaque famosam culpa professa facit', which might be translated as 'He does not sin who can deny his sin, Only the admitted fault brings dishonour.'

See also today's Anecdotal Evidence

Thursday 26 January 2023

A Simian Nigel

 I was amused to learn that a newborn monkey belonging to an endangered species, the Cotton-Top Tamarin, has been given the 'endangered' name of Nigel. As an endangered Nigel, I have to applaud this gesture, though my own feelings about my Christian name are at best ambivalent, and I wouldn't be too sorry if it died out. Indeed, I have written about the Nigel question on this blog before, e.g. here and here... 

The Ghost in the Garden

 At Christmas I was given a book that I had never heard of, and which turned out to be, for most of its length, a fascinating and absorbing read. The Ghost in the Garden by Jude Piesse is about Charles Darwin's childhood garden at The Mount, the family home in Shrewsbury, a garden of which only tantalising traces remain today. This garden, memories of it and impressions and ideas derived from it, followed the great naturalist through his life, Piesse argues. It was a kind of lost paradise, where he collected bird's eggs and pebbles, climbed trees, learned about flowers and insects and pigeons, and fished in the Severn, and it was also, with its ample evidence of the interconnectedness of all things in nature, a seedbed of Darwin's interests and theories. It was in his mind throughout the Beagle expeditions, as evidenced by letters to his sister, and when he created his new garden at Down House in Kent. It was at his childhood home that he wrote, in 1842, the first outline of his theory of how evolution worked. 'Darwin's childhood garden is not just Darwin's after all,' writes Piesse. 'It is a tangle of experiences that both shaped and exceeded him; a hatchway of interconnecting pathways – both man-made and natural – that lead into the future and back to the past.'
  Jude Piesse gives a vivid account of her explorations and researches, building a rounded picture of the life of the garden and of the young Darwin. All this is told in parallel to her return to Shrewsbury, her home town, her feelings for it, and, in particular, her new life as a mother – just the kind of thing that usually puts me off a book of this kind, but here it worked wonders. The author's rediscovery of a child's-eye view of the world through her own children's experience chimed perfectly with her exploration of the young Darwin's own discovery of the natural world around him. The weakness of the book is that, like so many, it is too long, so that towards the end Piesse seems to be following some pretty tenuous threads and bulking out her material. This is a shame, as the book as a whole does a great job in bringing Darwin's childhood garden to the fore as a hugely important influence in his life and work, and it does so in an imaginative and original manner. At three quarters of the length, it would have done the job even better. 

Monday 23 January 2023

Manet Day

 Edouard Manet's birthday has come round again – 191 today – and I nearly forgot to mark it. I'll post this one simply because I like it – the pink of the dress, the loose and easy brushwork, the girl's resigned expression, the feel of nothing much going on, just waiting, lighting a cigarette and forgetting about it... The picture, painted around 1877, is called in English Plum Brandy, but in French simply La Prune (the plum), and it depicts a plum soaking in brandy, a popular drink of the time (which the girl also seems to have forgotten about). My own idea of plum brandy is slivovitz, the fiery damson spirit that I discovered in Croatia in my youth, but that's another story...

Sunday 22 January 2023

'The Author of Little Jim'

 In Tamworth churchyard the other day, I noticed a rather imposing obelisk, and wondered who it commemorated. 'A talented man whose generous temperament found one of its favourite expressions in songs of patriotism and philanthropy,' said the inscription. He was, furthermore, 'The Author of "Little Jim"', and his name was Edward Farmer. (1809-1876). None the wiser, I dug around a little online and discovered that Farmer was the chief detective on the Midland Railway, who, when not fighting railway crime, wrote verses, some of which he published, and one of which – 'Little Jim, or The Collier's Dying Child' – was a huge hit. It is a classic piece of sentimental 'parlour poetry', made for recitation, and guaranteed to wring the heartstrings. Here it is – 

The cottage was a thatched one,
The outside old and mean,
Yet everything within that cot
Was wondrous neat and clean.

The night was dark and stormy,
The wind was howling wild;
A patient mother sat beside
The death-bed of her child.

A little worn-out creature –
whose once bright eyes were dim,
It was a collier’s only child,
They called him ‘Little Jim.’

And oh! to see the briny tears
Fast hurrying down her cheek,
As she offered up a prayer, in thought –
She was afraid to speak,

Lest she might waken one she loved
Far dearer than her life;
For she had all a mother’s heart,
Had that poor collier’s wife.

With hands uplifted, see, she kneels
Beside the sufferer’s bed;
And prays that He will spare her child,
And take herself instead.

She gets her answer from the boy,
Soft fall the words from him –
‘Mother, the angels do so smile,
And beckon Little Jim.

‘I have no pain, dear mother, now,
But oh! I am so dry;
Just moisten poor Jim’s lips once more;
And, mother, don’t you cry.’

With gentle, trembling haste she holds
A teacup to his lips;
He smiles to thank her, then he takes
Three tiny little sips.

‘Tell father, when he comes from work,
I said ‘Good-night’ to him,
‘And, mother, now I’ll go to sleep.’
Alas, poor little Jim,

She sees that he is dying,
That the child she loves so dear
Has uttered the last words she
May ever hope to hear.

The cottage door is opened,
The collier’s step is heard;
The father and the mother meet,
Yet neither speak a word.

He feels that all is over,
He knows his child is dead;
He takes the candle in his hand,
And walks towards the bed.

His quivering lip gives token
Of the grief he’d fain conceal;
And, see, the mother joins him,
the stricken couple kneel.

With hearts bowed down in sorrow,
They humbly ask of Him
In Heaven, once more to meet again.
Their own poor ‘Little Jim.’

There were a great many poems on this theme in Victorian times, and it is easy to mock such work – indeed it was much mocked and parodied in its time (e.g. 'I have no pain now, mother dear, But Oh I am so dry; Connect me to a brewery, And leave me there to die.').  However, such harrowing but comforting verse surely gave real solace to parents living in a time when the death of a child, or of several children, was something that many, perhaps most, would have to endure and somehow make sense of, and survive. 'Little Jim' probably did more good work in the world than many far better poems.  

Friday 20 January 2023


 And now David Crosby has gone to join the great celestial jam session. Having more than earned his title as 'rock's most unlikely survivor', he finally made it to the age of 81. He was undeniably a hugely talented musician, with a gift for vocal harmony that seemed almost supernatural. Here, as a memorial, is one of his best songs, taken from his first solo album, If I Could Only Remember My Name. A poignantly beautiful song of disillusionment, and a warning against gurus who claim to have an answer for everything, it was originally written for George Harrison (according to Crosby). That's Jerry Garcia on pedal steel, Phil Lesh on bass, and Graham Nash and Joni Mitchell joining in on harmony vocals. What more could you ask?

Thursday 19 January 2023

'They are far away in time...'

 Here, to celebrate the birthday (in 1839) of Paul C├ęzanne, is one of his most famous paintings (or rather sets of paintings; there are several versions – this is the one in the Courtauld's collection). And here is the poem R.S. Thomas wrote about it (collected in Between Here and Now, 1981)...

The Card Players

And neither of them has said:
            Your lead.
                        An absence of trumps
will arrest movement.

Knees almost touching,
hands almost touching,
                        they are far away
in time in a world
                         of equations.

                        The pipe without
             smoke, the empty
             bottle, the light
on the wall are the clock
             they will go by.
                                 Only their minds
                                 lazily as flies
round and round the inane
problem their boredom
                            has led them to pose.


Wednesday 18 January 2023


 Another saddening death – the writer Jonathan Raban, who has died at the age of 80. There's a good obituary here. I can't pretend to have read much of his work, but I did greatly enjoy his fascinating account of the betrayal of early 20th-century settlers in rural Montana, Bad Land, and wrote about it on this blog – here's the link.

Monday 16 January 2023

His Bright Designs

 Yesterday I attended my first Johnson Society meeting – in fact the first of their winter lectures in some while, thanks to the Covid panic. It was a fascinating talk by Freya Johnston, an Oxford professor of English Literature, titled, rather cryptically, 'Johnson's Designs', but also going under the title of 'The Unwritten Life of Samuel Johnson' ('Is there any?' remarked the lady sitting next to me.) Projected images, mostly of written pages, accompanied and illustrated the lecture, and there were a few technical glitches, whistles and bursts of feedback, to keep us entertained. There were around 50 people in the hall, and others were watching and listening remotely, via Zoom. 
The lecture took off from a recollection of Dr Samuel Parr, a now forgotten writer once known as 'the Whig Johnson', who claimed that he had long planned to write a life of Johnson, his hero, and that, if he had done, it would have been the finest thing he ever wrote. But he didn't – and that was the point: this lecture was all about works projected but never undertaken, a theme close to Johnson's heart, or his troubled conscience. At the core of the talk was a small notebook left among Johnson's papers, titled 'Designs'. It lists what appear to be works Johnson might have intended to write, but, for whatever reasons, never did (among them, oddly, a History of the Revival of Learning, which Johnson, in his Lives of the Poets, claims that Collins also intended to write and never did). 
Johnson's life does seem to have been unusually full, even for a professional writer, of works projected but never written, and his personal writings are correspondingly full of self-criticism for his procrastination and idleness. Despite his great achievements – not least the Dictionary – Johnson seems always to have been conscious of the great ocean of things undone all around him, of the labyrinth of paths not taken. This great rolling sentence from the Rambler (no. 8) sums it up: 

'If the most industrious and active of mankind was able, at the close of life, to recollect distinctly his past moments, and distribute them, in a regular account, according to the manner in which they have been spent, it is scarcely to be imagined how few would be marked out to the mind, by any permanent or visible effects, how small a proportion his real action would bear to his seeming possibilities of action, how many chasms he would find of wide and continued vacuity, and how many interstitial spaces unfilled, even in the most tumultuous hurries of business, and the most eager vehemence of pursuit.'

Anyway, I greatly enjoyed this first meeting, and am looking forward to the next.


Sunday 15 January 2023

The Ivor Cutler I Knew

Ivor Cutler, the Scottish poet, singer (in a style entirely his own), humorist, writer, artist, eccentric, what have you, was born 100 years ago today. I quite enjoyed some of his work – lugubrious monologues, even more lugubrious songs accompanied by harmonium – but a little Cutler goes a long way, I find. My only direct contact with the man was unexpected: when I was working at Radio Times, I would get frequent, rather tiresome calls from him, grumbling obsessively about something to do with the listings for Radio London, I can't remember what, nor was it a matter of any moment. He appeared to be completely serious, but I guess it might have been one of his less funny jokes. Another persistent and tiresome caller (and letter writer) to Radio Times was one Cyril Henty-Dodd, who had been briefly very famous indeed as the DJ and chat show presenter Simon Dee. A funny old world was Radio Times...

Friday 13 January 2023

The Other Jack London

 Born on this day in 1905 was Jack London – not that Jack London, author of White Fang, The Call of the Wild etc, but a British athlete of whom I am surprised we haven't heard more, in these times when black achievement in any field is so diligently celebrated. London was born in Guyana (British Guiana as it was then), came to London as a child, then moved back to Guyana, before returning to England and studying at the Regent Street Polytechnic. There his athletic prowess soon became apparent, he was elected captain of the sports club in 1922, and was an early adopter of starting blocks (as against digging footholds – it seems a no brainer now). A few years later, London ran the 100 metres in 10.7 seconds, winning both the 100m and 200m races in international competition with France. Then, at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, he equalled the Olympic 100m record and won silver in the final, as well as bronze in the 4x100m relay. He was, it seems, the first black British Olympian. A year later, he became the first British runner to win the AAA's 100 yards title since the famous Harold Abrahams (see Chariots of Fire).  
  After he retired from athletics, having sustained a leg injury, things took a really quite surprising turn, as he became an entertainer, recording his occupation as 'pianist' in 1930 when he married his first wife. He played piano in the original cast of Noel Coward's Cavalcade, and – here's where it does get a bit weird – he had a leading role in a Will Hay comedy, Old Bones of the River, a spoof of Edgar Wallace's Sanders of the River. In this, a Professor Tibbets, representative of the Teaching and Welfare Institution for the Reformation of Pagans (T.W.I. R.P.), arrives in Africa to spread education and enlightenment among the natives. London plays M'Bapi, half-brother of the tribal chief Bosambo, who distinguishes himself first by tricking Tibbets into importing a gin still, then by leading a revolt against Bosambo, and helping to rescue a baby from being sacrificed. Rather surprisingly, Old Bones of the River is available on YouTube. I fancy time will not have been kind to it...
  As for Jack London, he seems to have ended up as a porter at St Pancras Hospital, and to have died suddenly of a subarachnoid haemorrhage. A few years ago, his Olympic medals turned up on Antiques Roadshow, brought in by his great niece, and were subsequently sold at auction. 

Thursday 12 January 2023

Silver Lining

 Saddening to hear that the great guitarist Jeff Beck is dead – at a respectable age (78), but it still comes as a shock, like most of the deaths of those who were part of the music world of our youth (which was at times pretty much the whole world of our youth).  Beck was born in the same South London/Surrey suburb where I went to school, adjacent to the Suburban Demiparadise, and in the days of his fame we would see him from time to time on visits home, usually in an expensive car, sometimes accompanied by an expensive woman, or sometimes his producer Micky Most. Those of my friends more serious about such matters than I was, worshipped him for his guitar skills, some ranking him superior even to Jimmy Page (who said no to joining the Yardbirds and recommended Beck for the group). 
Jeff Beck never had any sustained big-time commercial success, probably because he was too protean, forever changing his style, always exploring what the guitar could do. However, in 1967, he did have a big hit single, with this irresistible floor-filler. When this platter hit the turntable, even the most achingly cool (or pathologically self-conscious) among us might find ourselves on our feet and punching the air – even, in extremis, wigging out to the guitar solo – before resuming our state of cool inertia...

Monday 9 January 2023


 Yesterday evening I was back in the cathedral, for an Epiphany carol service with readings. The story of the Magi visiting the baby Jesus has never quite rung true (or made much sense) to me: it seems to be there mostly to bring the narrative into line with 'the scriptures' and to clear the way for the spreading of Christ's message into the wider (i.e. gentile) world. Epiphany also brings in the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, and his first miracle, the turning of water into wine at the Cana wedding feast. One of the highlights of the cathedral service was the choir's performance of Richard Allain's short but powerful Cana's Guest. Here it is performed by another cathedral choir –

Cana's Guest was written for a wedding, and it put me in mind of Richard Wilbur's lovely, loving 'Wedding Toast', written for his son's wedding:

'St John tells how, at Cana’s wedding feast,
The water-pots poured wine in such amount
That by his sober count
There were a hundred gallons at the least.
It made no earthly sense, unless to show
How whatsoever love elects to bless
Brims to a sweet excess
That can without depletion overflow.
Which is to say that what love sees is true;
That this world’s fullness is not made but found.
Life hungers to abound
And pour its plenty out for such as you.
Now, if your loves will lend an ear to mine,
I toast you both, good son and dear new daughter.
May you not lack for water,
And may that water smack of Cana’s wine.'

Cana's Guest was followed by a reading of T.S. Eliot's 'The Journey of the Magi', a great poem which for me rings  truer than the biblical accounts of this mysterious event. 
    At the end of the service, the congregation was asperged, i.e. sprinkled with holy water, from one side by the Dean's aspergillum, from the other by a water-dipped bunch of hyssop. We left refreshed. 

Saturday 7 January 2023


 Today I became a fully paid-up, card-carrying member of the Johnson Society (headquarters the Johnson Birthplace Museum, Breadmarket Street, Lichfield). Along with my membership card and welcoming letter came a copy of the Transactions for 2021, which I look forward to dipping into. It includes pieces on the planting of the latest clone of 'Johnson's Willow' (a tree near his father's parchment works of which Johnson was especially fond), with a new commemorative poem; on the inventor and maker John Rowley, another great Lichfieldian; on Johnson's prose style; on his attitudes to women; on Hester Piozzi's marginalia in Johnson's Letters ('many Bitter recollections'); and much else. As these volumes retail in the museum shop for £5, I have already recouped half the membership fee. I look forward to the lectures scheduled to take place in Lichfield, and to the birthday celebrations and the annual supper. I don't belong to many societies – indeed scarcely any – but I'm glad to have joined this one. 

Friday 6 January 2023

Lavinia Fontana

 Talking of women artists, as we almost were the other day, this extraordinary picture turned up on Facebook yesterday – I can't remember where, or apropos of what, nor can I find it again. At first glance I thought it was some kind of funerary monument to a dead child, but a minute later I realised it was an extraordinary realistic painting of a definitely alive baby, lying on a child-sized bed of remarkable opulence. It is in fact the so-called Portrait of a Newborn Child in a Crib by Lavinia Fontana, a Bolognese mannerist painter active in the late 16th and early 17th century and renowned in her day for her portraits and, to a lesser extent, her religious paintings. She was the daughter of a well known painter, Prospero Fontana, which must have helped her early career, but from what I've seen of her work online, she had more than enough talent to succeed on her own.
  This supposed portrait of a newborn child is, of course, no such thing: the baby is several weeks old (and one wonders what kind of crib it is that has the baby lying on top, liable to roll over the edge). Everything about the picture – from the pearl necklace to the superfine bedclothes and the expensively worked bed – is designed to affirm the child's high status, but the baby looks out at the world as any baby would, with a calm, level, curious stare. This must surely have been painted from a real child, and Lavinia Fontana had plenty of experience of those, giving birth to eleven children, of whom, sadly, only three survived her. In a surely almost unique arrangement (at the time), her husband not only acted as her agent, securing her commissions, but also took care of most of their domestic arrangements, leaving Lavinia free to paint. Below is one of her rather wonderful self portraits...

Wednesday 4 January 2023

James Bond, Maths Madness

 It's James Bond's birthday today. Not Ian Fleming's odious creation, but the blameless ornithologist (born 1900) who wrote the definitive Birds of the West Indies. His name was purloined by Fleming (who had Birds of the West Indies on his bookshelves at his Jamaican home) because the author thought it sounded suitably 'ordinary' and masculine for his spy hero. Fleming seems not to have bothered to tell the ornithologist, but he did let Bond's wife know. The real Jame Bond only became aware of his fictional namesake when 007 began to make a splash, and he thought the whole thing was rather a good joke. When he and his wife visited Fleming unexpectedly in 1964, they all got on famously, and the author signed a  copy of You Only Live Twice (first edition) for 'the real James Bond'. It sold at auction in 2008 for $84,000. At their meeting, the following exchange took place – 
BOND: 'I don't read your books. My wife reads them all, but I never do.'
FLEMING: 'I don't blame you.'

Also today, we were given a tantalising glimpse of Rishi Sunak's vision for Britain – compulsory maths lessons for all up to the age of 18. One hardly knows what to say [that never stops you – Ed.]. In view of the chronic shortage of teachers, especially maths teachers (who even in my day were not, shall we say, the cream of the profession), this is unlikely ever to be implemented. But leaving that aside, Sunak and co seem not to realise that there are people – myself included –  for whom maths, beyond a certain basic level, is always going to be an impenetrable mystery, however many lessons have to be endured*. I scraped an O-level, but already much of what was on the syllabus was quite incomprehensible to me. Forcing me to endure any more lessons would have been a total waste of everybody's time and energy. Sunak could more usefully concern himself with the low levels of basic numeracy and literacy apparent much farther back in the system. Once these have been improved, the curriculum can be stripped back to essentials – literature, history, music, art and philosophy, all properly taught (with sciences available for those who want them). This will never happen.

* My father was one who believed that anyone could be taught to understand maths, if it was expressed clearly enough. In particular he was convinced that he could teach anyone the differential calculus in ten minutes. Rashly he tried this on my brother and me. Met with our blank (unfeigned) incomprehension, he eventually retired from the field.  

Monday 2 January 2023

Without Men?

 Not long ago the main display window of Lichfield's Waterstones was piled high, appropriately enough, with copies of Penelope Lively's novel The Road to Lichfield. Now, however, it is full of copies of something very different – The Story of Art Without Men by one Katy Hessel. 
  I am very glad that the role of women in art is being more fully explored; it's a fascinating story, and some very fine women artists are now getting their due. But really – the story of art without men? That's just silly and provocative, isn't it?  And I do wonder, looking at that Waterstones window (and indeed at certain shelves within), what it must feel like to be young man today, constantly being told that you are irrelevant, redundant or marginal, and that your masculinity is 'toxic'. It's hard enough to grow up male without that kind thing to contend with. 
  As in art, so in music: I'm delighted that so many more very fine women composers are now getting their due. Radio 3 has been doing great work on that front. As I surfaced this morning, something rather lovely was playing on that network... What was it, I wondered? Schumann perhaps? Wait a minute – it sounds a bit like Bach now... I wasn't far off with my first thought – it was this beautiful little Prelude and Fugue by Clara Schumann. Enjoy.