Wednesday 31 May 2023

For World No Tobacco Day

 Today is, believe it or not, World No Tobacco Day, an annual observance instituted in 1987 by the World Health Organisation, the outfit that steered us through the Covid business with such masterly calmness, consistency and unfailing expertise, hem hem. 
The day calls for a poem by way of a counterblast  – a light-hearted celebration of the joys of tobacco smoking by the minor poet and popular university wit Charles Stuart Calverley, the only man to have won the Chancellor's Prize for Latin verse at both Oxford and Cambridge. His 'Ode to Tobacco' (1862) can still be seen (as far as I know) on a bronze plaque on the wall of what in my day was still Bacon's tobacconist's in Cambridge. This shop, I seem to remember, also had a tobacco store Indian on display in those days (it was not my regular tobacconist's – I preferred the legendary Colin Lunn, a man of impeccable manners and the utmost discretion, whose shop stood on King's Parade).
Here is the 'Ode to Tobacco' – 

Thou, who when fears attack
Bidst them avaunt, and Black
Care, at the horseman's back
Perching, unseatest;
Sweet when the morn is gray;
Sweet when they've cleared away
Lunch; and at close of day
Possibly sweetest!

I have a liking old
For thee, though manifold
Stories, I know, are told
Not to thy credit:
How one (or two at most)
Drops make a cat a ghost,—
Useless, except to roast—
Doctors have said it;

How they who use fusees
All grow by slow degrees
Brainless as chimpanzees,
Meagre as lizards,
Go mad, and beat their wives,
Plunge (after shocking lives)
Razors and carving-knives
Into their gizzards.

Confound such knavish tricks!
Yet know I five or six
Smokers who freely mix
Still with their neighbours,—
Jones, who, I'm glad to say,
Asked leave of Mrs. J.,
Daily absorbs a clay
After his labours.

Cats may have had their goose
Cooked by tobacco juice;
Still, why deny its use
Thoughtfully taken?
We're not as tabbies are;
Smith, take a fresh cigar!
Jones, the tobacco jar!
Here's to thee, Bacon!

Monday 29 May 2023


 The new issue of Slightly Foxed, the refreshingly independent-minded literary quarterly, is out now, and is, as always, full of good stuff. Laura Freeman's piece on Hall's Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art  ('See Also Tortoise') actually inspired me to buy the book. There are also some reflections on Samuel Johnson and Lichfield by me...

In Johnson's Footsteps

‘We’re thinking of moving,’ announced our son one evening last year. ‘To Lichfield.’ Lichfield! The name was music to my ears. I have long had a soft spot for that little gem of a cathedral city, once the ecclesiastical capital of Mercia, now a delightful Staffordshire market town. I would be more than happy to follow the son, daughter-in-law and three of the grandchildren to Lichfield (and my wife, less familiar with Lichfield, would follow them wherever they went anyway).
  They went, we followed, and now here we are, settling into life in a place very different from the south London suburb* that was our previous home. Why was I so keen to move here? The cathedral of course, with its three graceful spires rising over the waters of the Minster Pool, and the streets of Georgian brick and stone interspersed with half-timbering, the wonderful parks and open spaces, the gentle pace of life, the friendly openness of the people… And one very special reason: the evident pride the town takes in its most famous native son – Samuel Johnson.
  For years I have enjoyed Johnson’s writings – the Rambler essays, his life of Richard Savage, The Vanity of Human Wishes, even the great Dictionary – and, thanks to Boswell’s extraordinary Life, surely the most rounded and affectionate biography ever written, I have also loved him as a man, for all his faults. He could be overbearing, pompous and opinionated, yet he was also tender-hearted, affectionate, sympathetic, and well aware of his own shortcomings. To be living in the town where he was born and spent his formative years was a pleasing prospect, especially as he is still so very present there.
 Johnson, who once opined that ‘Every man has a lurking wish to appear considerable in his native place’, would be gratified to see that he still appears very considerable in Lichfield, where he was born in 1709. The city signs proudly declare Lichfield the ‘Birthplace of Samuel Johnson’, his statue stands in the marketplace, and, remarkably, his birthplace, which was his father’s bookshop, survives, and is now a Johnson museum – and a bookshop. There is even a Samuel Johnson Community Hospital – which would have pleased him, as he took a lively interest in ‘physic’ (medicine) and his father had a sideline in selling patent medicines.
 The Johnson statue looms large in the marketplace. Atop a tall plinth decorated with scenes from his Lichfield years, Johnson sits brooding, chin on fist, in a throne-like chair. When the statue was unveiled in 1838, it was regarded by some as insufficiently classical and heroic in style, but it conveys the introspective, melancholic aspect of Johnson’s personality rather effectively. Anyway, it is nicely offset by the statue at the other end of the marketplace – a jaunty figure, on a smaller scale, of (who else but) James Boswell. The birthplace museum, also on the marketplace, is a pleasing mix of original and reconstructed interiors, with steep narrow staircases and small rooms with creaking floors, displaying various items of Jonhsoniana, including the famous Nollekens bust, many books and pictures, and some of Johnson’s furniture and effects. And the second-hand bookshop downstairs is excellent.
 One of the rooms of the museum is the one in which Johnson was born. 'My mother had a very difficult and dangerous labour,' he wrote in a posthumously published memoir. 'I was born almost dead, and could not cry for some time. When [the man-midwife] had me in his arms, he said, "Here is a brave boy".' Johnson's father was that year Sheriff of Lichfield, and due to ride the Circuit of the County, a ceremonial occasion of great pomp. To celebrate his son's birth, 'he feasted the citizens with uncommon magnificence'.
 Soon after this, the baby Samuel was, 'by my father's persuasion', put out to a wet-nurse. Clearly his mother was not happy with this arrangement: 
'My mother visited me every day, and used to go different ways, that her assiduity might not expose her to ridicule; and often left her fan or glove behind her, that she might have a pretence to come back unexpected; but she never discovered any token of neglect. Dr Swinfen [a young doctor lodging with the Johnsons at the time of Samuel’s birth] told me, that the scrofulous sores which afflicted me proceeded from the bad humours of the nurse, whose son had the same distemper, and was likewise short-sighted, but in a less degree. My mother thought my diseases derived from her family. In ten weeks I was taken home, a poor, diseased infant, almost blind. I remember my aunt told me … that she would not have picked such a poor creature up in the street.'
 As well as the scrofula detected by Dr Swinfen – which left Johnson scarred and visually impaired for life – he later developed an alarming range of tics and twitches that might well have been a form of Tourette’s syndrome. He was also, from his youth, dogged by what we would now call depression.
 His was not a promising start in life, and his family circumstances were far from ideal. Johnson senior was a hopeless businessman who never thought to keep any kind of accounts, and as a result was in chronic financial difficulty. When asked in later life why he said little about his early years, Johnson replied, ‘One has so little pleasure in reciting the anecdotes of beggary’ – an exaggeration, but certainly the young Johnson lived in straitened circumstances. Although he was a brilliant scholar, the star pupil of Lichfield Grammar School, he was only able to take up a place at Pembroke College, Oxford, because of a timely bequest by an aunt. And even then, he had to return home after a little over a year, the money having run out. Several unhappy years followed, in which Johnson, trying to find a way ahead, became a schoolteacher, a job for which he was woefully unsuited.
 His great good fortune was to find love with Elizabeth Porter, the widow of a friend, who was 21 years his senior, but was happy to marry this impoverished young man, and was to be the love of his life, his ‘Tetty’, whose loss (she died in 1752) grieved him all his days. Elizabeth was a woman of property, and with the help of her capital, she and Johnson set up a school at Edial Hall, near Lichfield. Sadly it was a failure, never attracting more than a handful of pupils, but one of them was David Garrick, also an alumnus of Lichfield Grammar School, and later to be the most celebrated actor of his day. He and Johnson became firm friends and, when the school failed in 1737, they decided their best course would be to make their way to London in search of fame and fortune, or at least, in Johnson’s case, a decent income. Elizabeth would follow in due course, when Johnson had found his feet.
 It was a struggle, in the course of which Johnson saw much of the seamy side of London life and the lower depths of the literary world, the Grub Street of desperate hacks and dubious dealings – but his talent, as poet, essayist, biographer and novelist (Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia), won through, and he was soon embarked on what was to be a brilliant, if arduous, career. His future was clearly going to be in London, not Lichfield, where the literary scene was very much more limited. There, only one star shone at all brightly – Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles and himself a pioneer of evolutionary theory.
 Erasmus Darwin was a polymath – physician, naturalist, philosopher, inventor and poet – who presented his scientific findings to the world in (rather bad) verse, and was a leading light of the Lunar Society, an affiliation of scientists, philosophers, writers, engineers and businessmen that was at the heart of what we now call the Midlands Enlightenment. But that is another story (for which see Jenny Uglow’s excellent The Lunar Men) and one in which Johnson, as only an occasional visitor to Lichfield, played little or no part. On the few occasions when Johnson and Darwin, men of equally huge physique and presence, met, ‘mutual and strong dislike subsisted between them’, according to Anna Seward, the ‘Swan of Lichfield’, poetess and queen bee of the city’s litterati. The touchy Seward declared that she could not forgive Johnson his ‘many hints of Lichfield’s intellectual barrenness’. But did he really make such remarks, or did the Swan of Lichfield resent the great man’s pardonable reluctance to meet her, despite Boswell’s efforts to bring such a meeting about?
 At other times Johnson was certainly happy to sing the virtues of his native city, describing it as ‘a city of philosophers’, and on one occasion relating how ‘I lately took my friend Boswell and showed him genuine civilised life in a provincial town. I turned him loose at Lichfield, my native city, that he might see for once real civility.’ Lichfield is even honoured with a mention in Johnson’s Dictionary, under his definition of ‘lich’ (‘a dead carcase’): ‘Lichfield, the field of the dead, a city in Staffordshire, so named from martyred Christians. Salve magna parens [Hail, great parent].'
 Towards the end of his life, Johnson ensured that his parents were remembered with a suitably dignified stone slab, inscribed with a long Latin epitaph written by their son, in the floor of St Michael’s church in Lichfield (where another pair of literary parents – Philip Larkin’s – are buried in the graveyard). Johnson certainly loved London – and he could hardly have pursued his particular career anywhere else – but it is clear, too, that the city of his birth always had a place in his heart, and Lichfield, happily, seems to feel much the same way about him. As a new Lichfieldian and former Londoner, I am happy to find myself living in the city of his birth. Johnson famously said that ‘He who is tired of London is tired of life.’ I would update that to ‘He who is tired of London [as increasing numbers are] should seriously consider moving to Lichfield.’

* 'South London suburb'? Is that any way to talk of the erstwhile 'suburban demiparadise'?

Saturday 27 May 2023

To Satan in Heaven

 Time for a poem...
This is by Donald Justice – a plea for forgiveness addressed not to God but to Satan. Which might seem perverse, but isn't there something very approachable about Satan, something rather attractive and compelling, something indeed like us? It is certainly easier for us to recognise ourselves in him than in God. For all his ill doing, he is the undoubted hero of Paradise Lost (and, as William Booth observed, he had all the best tunes). As an incarnation of evil, I don't think he was ever very convincing, and the efforts of hellfire Christians to terrify believers with the prospect of eternal punishment were (are?) morbid, wrong-headed and probably owing more to Zoroastrianism and neurosis than to anything in Jesus's teachings. Or so it seems to me. But I digress. 
I love the image at the end of this subtle and supple poem, so unlike any other butterfly imagery in verse, where butterflies are invariably images of liberation, aspiration and transcendence, not weary creatures of downward yearning, wishing themselves back in the cocoon, or even caught in 'the looping net'. 

To Satan in Heaven

Forgive, Satan, virtue's pedants, all such
As have broken our habits, or had none,
The keepers of promises, prize-winners,
Meek as leaves in the wind's circus, evenings;
Our simple wish to be elsewhere forgive
Shy touchers of library atlases,
Envious of bird-flight, the whale's submersion;
And us forgive, who have forgotten how,
The melancholy who, lacing a shoe,
Choose not to continue, the merely bored,
Who have modelled our lives after cloud-shapes;
For which confessing, have mercy on us,
The different and the indifferent,
In inverse proportion to our merit,
For we have affirmed thee secretly, by
Candle-glint in the polish of silver,
Between courses, murmured amenities,
Seen thee in mirrors by morning, shaving,
Or head in loose curls on the next pillow,
Reduced thee to our own scope and purpose,
Satan, who, though in heaven, downward yearned,
As the butterfly, weary of flowers,
Longs for the cocoon or the looping net.

Thursday 25 May 2023


 And still the deaths keep on coming... The latest batch includes George Logan (Dr Evadne Hinge of the fondly remembered musical duo Hinge and Bracket), Rolf Harris (of whom the less said the better) and, I learn today, Tina Turner and Kenneth Anger. I hadn't thought of Anger for a long while, and I guess I assumed he was dead (he was 96 years old so that was reasonable enough). I remember, from my days as an achingly trendy young cinĂ©aste, sitting through his arcane experimental films – Fireworks, Scorpio Rising, Invocation of the Pleasure Dome and the rest – in a state of awe-struck reverence to which boredom and incomprehension might well have contributed something. Heaven knows what I'd make of them now... 
As for that fine woman Tina Turner, her post-Ike style of high-octane, high-energy, high-decibel can belto was not my cup of tea, but her (and Ike's) work with Phil Spector was another matter. My first listen to the seven-inch single of River Deep, Mountain High was one of the most thrilling, horripilating musical experiences of my adolescence (and I had a few – that was the golden age of the single). Tina was perhaps the only singer who could meet Spector's wall of sound on equal terms, and the result was something quite extraordinary. River Deep is surely one of the greatest singles ever cut – but there's also this little number. Turn up the volume...

Wednesday 24 May 2023

Apocalypse Not Yet

 News of the imminent Insect Apocalypse, about which St David Attenborough was warning us recently (citing a decidedly dubious research finding – where's the BBC's 'Reality Check' when you need it?), doesn't seem to have reached the insects of Lichfield. Tiny flying things of all descriptions are swarming everywhere, and on many of the town's paths pedestrians are reduced to sweeping their hands to and fro like windscreen wipers to clear a passage through the airborne biomass. I've had insects flying into my eyes and mouth and settling on my clothes – they're inescapable. A few I can identify, including the lovely little Alder Leaf Beetle [below], which is everywhere just now (Lichfield is a well watered city with many fine alder trees). Most, however, remain unidentified flying objects, very tiny, abundant and ubiquitous ones. Happily this wealth of insect life has drawn the swifts back to town, after a slow start with only occasional sightings. Now they are circling overhead, gratefully hoovering up all that airborne protein. Summer is on its way.

Monday 22 May 2023

Marcelle Meyer

 This crowded portrait by Jacques-Emile Blanche (Dieppe's finest) shows the pianist Marcelle Meyer surrounded by five of the group of composers known as Les Six, plus Jean Cocteau and Jean Wiener. I must admit I had never heard of Marcelle Meyer until I was looking for different versions of Rameau's keyboard works – he's a composer I'm rather obsessed with – and discovered that she had made two remarkable recordings of Rameau in 1946 and 1953, and that they are available on double CD. I am now thoroughly immersed in that double CD (listening to music is one thing I can do in my depleted postviral condition – yes, it's still going on) and I am hugely impressed by her artistry: 'an imperious, serene sound imagination', as the translated liner notes say. Also 'a miracle of curved fluidity, polyphonic depth, variety of timbres and attacks'. Well, yes, true enough. She certainly brings Rameau fully alive, making the music sound fresh and new-minted. Here she is with 'Les Tendres Plaintes' – enjoy...


Sunday 21 May 2023

Martin Amis

 The news of Martin Amis's death came as an awful shock. Quite irrationally, I'd always thought of him as a young writer, even though I knew he was my age. And at my age, of course, people quite often die. Martin actually lived a little longer that his father  – and surely no one was thinking of Kingsley as a young writer by the time he died... 
There will be tributes and assessments everywhere today, I'm sure. I'm not going to join in, partly because I have read nothing of his for years, apart from his memoir Experience. I will only say that I'll always be grateful to Martin Amis for gifting me some of the most intensely pleasurable reading experiences of my life in those scabrous, flashy, ultra-stylised early novels – back in the day, when he and I were both young. RIP.

Saturday 20 May 2023


 Finding myself lately with little energy for more demanding work, thanks to a particularly stubborn 'bug', I have been compiling, at a leisurely pace, an Index of Names and Places (and a few other things) for that 'odd book', The Mother of Beauty. It's been a long time since it came out, and I don't suppose anyone cares any more, but I did feel, and still do, the lack of an index, and I know there were readers who felt the same. So now I've gone ahead and done it, and I must admit I rather enjoyed doing it; I found it quite a relaxing and even therapeutic occupation.
  It's a fairly basic index, with none of the fun and games that make some indexes such enjoyable reading – this one, for example (see para. 4), or indeed the index to that imperishable classic, Me Cheeta. Chapter 8 of that book is devoted to one of Cheeta's bĂȘtes noires, Esther Williams – but the entire chapter has been 'removed for legal reasons', leaving only the title ('F*cking Bitch'). In the index, however, the entry for 'Williams, Esther' gives us a comprehensive rundown of the chapter in all its libellous glory. Clever stuff.
  My index, on the other hand, is purely utilitarian (though I did get a small thrill of pleasure from writing 'Parsons, Gram ....... 199'). It exists in the form of a PDF which can be sent as an attachment to anyone who might want it. Printed out, it amounts to four pages, which could tuck into the back of the book easily enough. If anyone is interested (a big 'if', I suspect), please email me ( and I'll reply with the index attached. 

Thursday 18 May 2023

From Ripley to the Gate of Angels

 Slow reader that I am, I'm still with Penelope Fitzgerald's biography of Edward Burne-Jones.
I was intrigued to come across this passage on page 230: 
'When, during the nineties, bicycling divided the nation into those who could and those who couldn't, Burne-Jones, like Whistler (but unlike Balfour and Henry James), gave up the attempt to learn; but he did so with some regret, having heard of two young bicyclists, a man and a woman, perfect strangers, who "crashed at Ripley, were picked out of a hedge, and woke up to find themselves in the same bed".'
The quoted passage is from the studio diaries of Thomas Rooke, Burne-Jones's studio assistant – and the incident described is an exact pre-echo of the opening of Fitzgerald's penultimate novel, The Gate of Angels (though the location is changed from Ripley to Cambridge). The idea must have been fermenting in her mind for the 15 years between the publication of the Burne-Jones biography and that strange and wonderful novel. (Sensational reports of bicycling accidents – preferably involving the fair sex – were apparently a staple of 1890s journalism, much to the annoyance of the cycling fraternity.)

And here's a footnote on Lawrence Alma-Tadema, a painter who keeps popping up on this blog (here, here and here, for example). Fitzgerald mentions 'Alma-Tadema's cheerful concerts, where "Tad" had frightened Paderewski [the distinguished pianist] terribly by letting off a clockwork tiger under his chair'. They were a boisterous lot, those Victorian artists, much given to silly games and practical jokes. Burne-Jones was happy to join in the silly games, but of practical jokes, surely the lowest form of humour, he was the long-suffering butt rather than the practitioner. He was no Alma-Tad.

Tuesday 16 May 2023

The Stones and Brian Jones

 Last night I watched Nick Broomfield's big feature-length documentary about The Stones and Brian Jones – and Lord, it made for intensely sad viewing.
  Jones was clearly a deeply troubled young man who never really got over his difficult relationship with his parents – who, like many parents at the time, were by turns bewildered, worried and utterly infuriated by their strange son and his refusal to 'do the right thing'. Perhaps they were right to be worried, as the unfolding life of the musically gifted Jones developed into a hideous melodrama of self-destruction that was only ever likely to end in his early death. The film was rich in remarkable archive and interview material, ranging from the early days of the Rolling Stones' tumultuous, riot-inducing success (Beatlemania was a vicarage tea party by comparison) to the grim endgame in which Brian, by now too drugged and drunk to perform, was sacked from the band that he had founded. It was clear that Jones could be very sweet, especially in his younger days, and he was obviously vulnerable, but, as more than one voice attested, he was capable of being gratuitously cruel to others, and his record as a parent – fathering five (or was it six?) children by different mothers and having nothing to do with any of them – was lamentable. Maybe if he hadn't got so heavily into so many drugs, things might have turned out differently – but wasn't he always going to take that route, especially at that time and in that milieu? How would I – how would many of my coevals – have coped in those circumstances? Would we have survived? 
  Towards the end of the film a heart-breaking letter from his father to Brian is quoted, in which Jones senior, reaching out to his son, blames himself for throwing the 17-year-old Brian out of the house, an act for which he has never been able to forgive himself. But would things have been any different if that particular incident had never happened? It was not his fault. It wasn't even Brian's fault, or not entirely: if he hadn't hit such an insane level of fame and success with the Stones, and so suddenly, things might have played out very differently, and he might not have ended up at the age of 27 face down in his swimming pool. Talking of which, I was expecting, in view of the scale of the documentary, a rather fuller treatment of Jones's death (and the conspiracy theories that still swirl around it). But there was a little footage of the funeral, with Jones's parents looking completely broken, and some from the Hyde Park concert, with Jagger's reading of 'Adonais', and the notorious butterfly release – a subject about which I have written in both The Mother of Beauty and my forthcoming book on butterflies (scheduled publication date the Twelfth of Never, or maybe I'm being unduly pessimistic). 
  The Stones and Brian Jones is available on iPlayer, but believe me, it does not make cheering viewing.

Sunday 14 May 2023

Fanny Mendelssohn: 'Too much of all that a woman ought to be'?

 The gifted composer and pianist Fanny Mendelssohn, sister of Felix, died on this day in 1847, of a stroke – the same affliction that had killed both her parents, and was to carry off her brother less than six months later. 
Fanny Mendelssohn is one of many women composers who have benefited in recent years from increasing interest, new research and a range of initiatives, by Radio 3 among others, to belatedly give them their due. Fanny collaborated creatively with her brother, who generally supported her efforts, but only up to a point: 'From my knowledge of Fanny,' he wrote witheringly, 'I should say she has neither inclination nor vocation for authorship [i.e. publishing under her own name]. She is too much all that a woman ought to be for this. She regulates her house, and neither thinks of the public nor of the musical world, nor even of music at all, until her first duties are fulfilled. Publishing would only disturb her in these,  and I cannot say that I approve of it.' No wonder Fanny had little confidence in her composing abilities, and was content to let Felix pass off works written by her as his own. 
Most of her compositions were songs, but among her more substantial works was a String Quartet in E flat. Here is the beautiful, sad third movement...

Thursday 11 May 2023

The Piper of Dreams

 This painting – The Piper of Dreams by Estella Canziani – was the subject, or one of the subjects, of a fascinating talk on Radio 3 last night (in the often rewarding slot labelled The Essay). I had never heard of it or knowingly seen it before, but this was a picture that made a huge impact in its day – its day being 1915, when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy and created a sensation. Reproduced in various formats and in huge numbers by the Medici Society, it found its way to many parts of the world, eclipsing even Holman Hunt's The Light of the World in popularity, and, in particular, it gave solace to soldiers in the trenches and to their families. It is hard, now, to see quite why, but presumably it had something to do with the peaceful English woodland setting, the otherworldly, magical feel of the image – and those fairies that are flying around the piper and cavorting on the forest floor. This other world, on the edge of material reality and outside of time, could hardly have been further from the grim realities of life in the trenches, and perhaps there was some kind of consolation in those fairy presences. 
  The vogue for fairy painting, having taken off in the mid-Victorian period with the likes of Richard 'Dicky' Doyle and John Anster Fitzgerald ('Fairy Fitzgerald'), had never really gone away, and fairies were very much, as it were, in the air in the Great War period: the famous Cottingley fairy photos, fakes that took in many people, including Conan (nephew of Dicky) Doyle, were taken in 1917, the same year as Liza Lehmann's much-parodied song 'There Are Fairies at the Bottom of Our Garden'. Not long after the war, the Flower Fairies books of Cecily Mary Barker began to be published with great (and lasting) success. But The Piper of Dreams also relates to another curious obsession of the time –  with the piping faun of the forest, Pan, who turns up in the writings of Oscar Wilde, Arthur Machen, Saki, Eleanor Farjeon and a host of others, including even E.M. Forster (The Story of a Panic, 1911). His most memorable appearance, perhaps, is in the weirdly incongruous  'Piper at the Gates of Dawn' interlude in The Wind in the Willows. What is it with us Brits? Supposedly hard-headed empiricists, we seem always to have been addicted to fantasy and enchantment, to imagined pasts that never existed, to myth and mystification, to talking animals and creatures of magic – hence, I suppose, our world-conquering fantasy literature, from Lewis Carroll to J.K. Rowling, by way of Narnia and the Riverbank, Middle Earth and the world of Beatrix Potter. And those are just the highlights...
  As for Estella Canziani, fairies were by no means her only line: she painted portraits and landscapes, and was an interior decorator, travel writer and folklorist, especially of northern Italy. She lived all her life (1887-1964) at the very illustrious address of 3 Palace Green, in the grounds of Kensington Palace. 

Wednesday 10 May 2023

An Opening

 It was on this day in 1824 that the National Gallery opened to the public – not in its present building, but in a quite inadequate town house at 100 Pall Mall. Already by this stage 'the nation' (i.e. the government) had failed to buy a succession of major collections as they became available, but one it did acquire was that of the banker John Julius Angerstein, and it was his Pall Mall house that duly became the first National Gallery. 
  More purchasing opportunities were to be missed over the coming decades, but things changed when Sir Charles Eastlake was appointed its director. He was a man whose taste ran to the Northern and Early Italian 'primitives', and one of the beneficiaries of his purchases in that line was Edward Burne-Jones. As a young man, he studied Van Eyck's Arnolfini Marriage obsessively (he told his wife in the year of his death that 'his whole life long he had hoped to do something as rich and deep in colour as the Arnolfini, and now it was too late'), also Botticelli's Virgin and Child, the golden Filippo Lippi Annunciation, Fra Angelico's Christ Glorified in the Courts of Heaven and the mysterious Piero de Cosimo now known as A Satyr Mourning over a Nymph [below]. 'In front of these pictures,' writes Penelope Fitzgerald in her excellent biography, 'the shade of the young Burne-Jones, in his soft hat, must still hover.' A pleasing thought for my next visit to the dear old National Gallery, whenever that might be – soon, I hope...

Monday 8 May 2023

The Struggles of a Bestselling Author

 The other day, half listening to the radio, I caught part of an interview with Lee Child, who is, I understand, one of the top-selling authors in the world, thanks to his wildly successful Jack Reacher thrillers. At one point he was talking about the mechanics of writing his books, and my ears pricked up. Apart from some early efforts in longhand, he has always, he told the interviewer, written his books on Microsoft Word (me too, Lee, with somewhat less commercial success). He used to be able to do this quite easily, but thanks to endless updates and 'improvements', he now finds himself unable to navigate what used to be simple tasks, notably pagination. Since the latest updates, he simply cannot work out how to paginate his headers. So here's what he does: he works with his previous novel as his document, deleting the text, leaving the pagination intact, and inserts his new copy into the old document. Result: a new novel, duly paginated. Ingenious, but hardly what Microsoft had in mind, I imagine.
   This was good to hear, after the blood, sweat and tears I shed over Word in the course of writing The Mother of Beauty (evidence of which can be seen by the sharp-eyed in certain, er, irregularities in layout, etc). I thought it was just me – but no: here is a massively successful bestselling author defeated by Word and driven to desperate improvisation to overcome the difficulties it throws in the writer's path. Perhaps he should get his pen out and revert to his original method... Why is it that every update and 'improvement' – of practically anything – only seems to make life more difficult?

Sunday 7 May 2023


 News comes today of the death of the pianist Menahem Pressler, just months short of his 100th birthday. Pressler was born in Germany but fled with his parents in 1939, initially to Italy, then to Palestine. His grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins were all to die in concentration camps. 
Having successfully launched himself as a pianist in postwar America, Pressler joined the Beaux Arts Trio in 1955 and remained with it right through to its dissolution in 2008. Here is a taste of Pressler with the great trio, in their last year together, performing the opening movement of Dvorak's wonderful 'Dumky' Trio...


 Here's a first: this morning I learn that I have violated Blogger Community Guidelines, and as a result one of my posts has been 'unpublished'. Lordie, what had I done? Was it something I wrote during the great Covid panic? No, nothing of the kind: the offending post was headed 'Beddoes', was related to the poet and physician Thomas Lovell Beddoes, and seemed to consist almost entirely of links. So I can only assume that one of those links contained some kind of malware or virus – how odd. Happily there is still some Beddoes content on the blog, including this mini-anthology from June 2017, headed 'Beddoes: Algae and Pearls': 

Born on this day in 1803 was the death-obsessed poet Thomas Lovell Beddoes (son of the founder of the fun-loving Pneumatic Institute). He spent much of his troubled, rather short life abroad, studying and practising medicine, apparently in the hope of finding physical evidence of the immortal soul, and writing lyrical pieces, often fragmentary, and tragic dramas in a heightened Jacobean mode.
  As a dramatist, he lacked all the essentials (as did so many would-be playwright poets of the Romantic period) - but the best of his lyrics are something else, something quite unique. Edmund Gosse, in the preface to his 1890 edition of Beddoes' works, puts it like this: 'At the feast of the muses he appears bearing little except one small savoury dish, some cold preparation, we may say, of olives and anchovies, the strangeness of which has to make up for its lack of importance. Not every palate enjoys this hors d'oeuvre, and when that is the case, Beddoes retires; he has nothing else to give. He appeals to a few literary epicures, who, however, would deplore the absence of this oddly flavoured dish as much as that of any more important piece de resistance.' Ezra Pound talks of Beddoes in terms of 'a mass of algae and pearls' and 'the odour of eucalyptus or sea wrack'...
 This is his best-known, most anthologised lyric, a thing of seamless perfection:


If there were dreams to sell,
     What would you buy?
Some cost a passing bell;
     Some a light sigh,
That shakes from Life's fresh crown
Only a roseleaf down.
If there were dreams to sell,
Merry and sad to tell,
And the crier rung the bell,
     What would you buy?


A cottage lone and still,
     With bowers nigh,
Shadowy, my woes to still,
     Until I die.
Such pearl from Life's fresh crown
Fain would I shake me down.
Were dreams to have at will,
This would best heal my ill,
     This I would buy.


But there were dreams to sell,
     Ill didst thou buy;
Life is a dream, they tell,
     Waking, to die.
Dreaming a dream to prize,
Is wishing ghosts to rise;
     And, if I had the spell
     To call the buried, well,
     Which one would I?


If there are ghosts to raise,
     What shall I call,
Out of hell's murky haze,
     Heaven's blue hall?
Raise my loved longlost boy
To lead me to his joy,
     There are no ghosts to raise;
     Out of death lead no ways;
     Vain is the call.


Know'st thou not ghosts to sue?
     No love thou hast.
Else lie, as I will do,
     And breathe thy last.
So out of Life's fresh crown
Fall like a rose-leaf down.
     Thus are the ghosts to woo;
     Thus are all dreams made true,
     Ever to last!

  Here is Beddoes in livelier, but more macabre mode:

Old Adam, the carrion crow,
The old crow of Cairo;
He sat in the shower, and let it flow
Under his tail and over his crest;
And through every feather
Leak'd the wet weather;
And the bough swung under his nest;
For his beak it was heavy with marrow.
Is that the wind dying? O no;
It's only two devils, that blow,
Through a murderer's bones, to and fro,
In the ghosts' moonshine.

Ho! Eve, my grey carrion wife,
When we have supped on king's marrow,
Where shall we drink and make merry our life?
Our nest it is queen Cleopatra's skull,
'Tis cloven and crack'd,
And batter'd and hack'd,
But with tears of blue eyes it is full:
Let us drink then, my raven of Cairo!
Is that the wind dying? O no;
It's only two devils, that blow
Through a murderer's bones, to and fro,
In the ghosts' moonshine. 

  Here is one of Beddoes' favourite forms - a 'dirge':

If thou wilt ease thine heart 
Of love and all its smart, 
Then sleep, dear, sleep; 
And not a sorrow 
Hang any tear on your eye-lashes; 
Lie still and deep, 
Sad soul, until the sea-wave washes 
The rim o’ the sun to-morrow, 
In eastern sky. 

But wilt thou cure thine heart 
Of love and all its smart, 
Then die, dear, die; 
’T is deeper, sweeter, 
Than on a rose bank to lie dreaming 
With folded eye; 
And then alone, amid the beaming 
Of love’s stars, thou ’lt meet her 
In eastern sky. 

  And here's another dirge celebrating the romantic allure of death:

We do lie beneath the grass
In the moonlight, in the shade
Of the yew-tree. They that pass
Hear us not. We are afraid
They would envy our delight,
In our graves by glow-worm night.
Come follow us, and smile as we;
We sail to the rock in the ancient waves,
Where the snow falls by thousands into the sea,
And the drowned and the shipwrecked have happy graves.

  Finally, one more - an exquisite lyric that might have come straight from a Jacobean (even a Shakespearean) drama:

The swallow leaves her nest,
The soul my weary breast;
But therefore let the rain
On my grave 
Fall pure; for why complain?
Since both will come again
O'er the wave.

The wind dead leaves and snow
Doth hurry to and fro;
And, once, a day shall break
O'er the wave, 
When a storm of ghosts shall shake
The dead, until they wake
In the grave.

  The death-loving Beddoes took his own life (with poison) in Basel, at the age of 45, having written the same day to his executor, Revell Phillips: 'I am food for what I am good for - worms.'

Saturday 6 May 2023

Vast and Musical

 Well, that's done then. The new King is duly crowned. Vivat Rex! 
As I watched the grand ceremony unfolding in Westminster Abbey, a line of Larkin's kept floating into my mind. It's in his bleak late masterpiece 'Aubade', where he describes religion as 'that vast moth-eaten musical brocade' (no consolation to the thanatophobic Larkin). The line is less about religion itself, I think, than the church and its ceremonial, specifically the Church of England. Well, what was on display in the Abbey today was certainly musical, and vast, but it hardly seemed to me moth-eaten: indeed it came across surprisingly spruce and fresh and vital, perhaps because we haven't seen this particular ceremony for 70 years. 
  Musical it assuredly was, quite magnificent from the pre-service concert right through to the last note. And vast? Yes, the vastness was in the setting, the whole context – that soaring, lofty interior (so French, and yet so English), all that continuity, stretching back 'God knows how long', those centuries of history and tradition embedded in the building and the ceremony; the regalia, the costumes, the carefully structured language, the choreography, the beauty of a crowning which begins with the monarch presenting himself as a servant, and continues with the ancient magic of an anointing – and, beyond the ceremony itself, the context of the wider world in which the monarchy continues to function and evolve, forever changing, forever the same. The figure at the centre of all this seemed in himself touchingly small and wan, out of scale with the grandeur and pomp of the occasion, all that vastness. But who wouldn't be? It is the institution that matters, not the individual, and today's ceremony seemed to me, in its indirect, very English way – more magical (and musical) than logical – to be an eloquent argument for the continuation of that strange, irrational but somehow durable (and, I think, immensely valuable) thing, the British constitutional monarchy. God save the King! 

Thursday 4 May 2023

'Those who did not throw decanters were in a minority'

Lately, of necessity, I've been in transit rather a lot, mostly by train. Fortunately I have a nice fat book to keep me entertrained (a happy typo!): Penelope Fitzgerald's biography of Edward Burne-Jones (1975 – her first published title) – yes, I'm back among the ladies, and also, I suppose, back to my desultory project of reading all of Penelope Fitzgerald backwards. Edward Burne-Jones is an elegant, fluent and hugely skilful biography, handling masses of material with ease and keeping the reader (this one, anyway) turning the pages happily. As with her novels, she immerses us in a rounded, wholly convincing past world. Here is a vivid passage from early on, after Edward Jones (not yet Burne-Jones), a solitary young man with an impoverished Birmingham background, has met William Morris at Exeter College, Oxford, where the two very different men took to each other instantly and embarked on their lifelong collaborative mission...

 According to Mackail, 'the coarseness of manners and morals' at Exeter ' was 'distressing in the highest degree' to Morris. Burne-Jones, curiously enough, perhaps because he was used to Saturday nights in Birmingham, seems to have minded it less. 'One night a man threw a heavy cut-glass decanter of port at someone sitting next to me,' he told Rooke, 'and it went between us both and smashed to pieces on the wall behind, so that we were both drenched in port ,shirts and faces and all over our clothes, as though we were covered with blood.' What impressed Burne-Jones was that the man responsible, who had to be dragged forcibly out of Hall, later became 'a high dignitary of the church'. Those who did not throw decanters were in a minority. William Richmond, the painter, visited his elder brother at Exeter in 1854: 'My brother did not belong to the aesthetic set ... and among them two of them were pointed out to me as special oddities ... These were William Morris and Edward Jones.'