Friday 30 June 2023

Two Slim Volumes

 Well, I have finished Helena, and an interesting reading experience it was. It felt to me like a novel of two halves, the earlier chapters, in which Waugh was pretty much free to make it up as he went along (the facts being so few), seeming much more like fully realised fiction, while the later chapters, as the more nearly historical Helena comes into focus, are more synoptic, seen, as it were, from a greater distance and in a broader perspective. Compared to the first half of the book, they also proceed at a much faster pace, telling the big story briskly and effectively – but in a very different manner from the presentation of Helena's early years. Helena remains a convincing portrait of the Roman world at the time of Constantine's conversion (if that is what it was) and confirmed what I have often thought about the astonishing success of Christianity in so easily overturning classical paganism – that it was little short of miraculous. 
  And now I've moved on to another slim volume, purchased from the same excellent charity bookshop – The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West (of whom I have only read The Fountain Overflows, which I greatly enjoyed). The Return of the Soldier has an intriguing premise: a soldier returns from the (Great War) front with a form of shell shock that has obliterated his memory of the previous 15 years. He has entirely forgotten his beautiful, if somewhat chilly wife Kitty, and he remembers his devoted cousin Jenny, who lives with Kitty, only as a childhood playmate. The love he does remember and yearns for is one of which neither wife nor cousin had an inkling – an inn-keeper's daughter, now a dowdy lower-class housewife, with whom he was briefly but idyllically in love as a young man. And now, thanks to his strange fugue, he still is.  What will happen when they meet? What will the women who love him do about it? Cleverly, West tells the story through the eyes of the cousin who adores our shellshocked hero, which gives an extra dimension to the narrative. It has certainly been a gripping read so far.

Thursday 29 June 2023

There and Back

 Yesterday I was obliged to go down to the sprawling megalopolis that is modern London, and out again to Heathrow to see Mrs N onto a flight for (ultimately) New Zealand. Although on the face of it all went smoothly, it was a grim experience. London seems to get noisier, more crowded, more alien and confusing every time I see it – such hordes of people ('So many, I had not thought death had undone so many'), all seemingly hurrying about some urgent private mission ('The creature has a purpose and his eyes are bright with it,' wrote Keats of a very much less populous city), so much noise and hustle, everything so hard to make sense of: what is the business of London? What are these people doing? Where does the money come from? It used to at least seem to make sense to me; now I find more and more things about London quite incomprehensible.
The view from the Heathrow Express was of acre after acre of mysterious box-like warehouses and 'hubs' of unidentifiable purpose, interspersed with vast construction sites building who knows what. Not so long ago much of this was Middlesex countryside; now it could be the outer sprawl of any city in the developed world.  London, a city I once loved, seems to have become foreign to me, a kind of Abroad but without the excitement or the pleasure. Perhaps I have become provincial? Am I a Mercian now? All I know is that coming back to Lichfield from London last night felt like a return to civilisation. And this morning I was cheered to see my first Ringlet of the butterfly year, on a scruffy grass bank in front of someone's house. That wouldn't happen in London. 

Sunday 25 June 2023

A Radical Act?

 'Collecting Old Books Is Now a Radical Act.' This headline in the magazine Spiked Online naturally caught my eye. The author, Philip Kiszely, argues that, with so much of the literature of the past – from Beatrix Potter to Roald Dahl, by way of Agatha Christie and Ian Fleming (Wodehouse has so far escaped, but is on the naughty step)  – being bowdlerised by the woke morality police within the publishing industry, the way to ensure the survival of those books as they were originally published is to buy them in unbowdlerised form and hang on to them, thereby 'doing [our] bit to conserve the culture'. And it will cost us next to nothing to buy up all those cheap paperback reprints from recent decades. 'Buying books is now a political act,' declares Kiszely, who advises us to be ready to hide those books away securely should the need arise. 'Who knows? In three years' time the sensitivity police may well be empowered to enter your house and audit the contents of your shelves. No kidding.' 
  Well, I guess he's not kidding, just overstating the case to give his piece more impact, but he does have a point. If books continue to be edited to conform to contemporary sensibilities, that is serious literary vandalism, and it could ultimately lead to the original versions becoming at best hard to find. It's nice to think that by enjoying ourselves browsing the shelves of second-hand bookshops we might ultimately be doing something socially valuable. Good for us.
  Here is a link to Kiszely's piece – 

Saturday 24 June 2023

The Great Man and A Hospital Visit

 Lichfield memorialises its most famous son in various ways, of which one of the more unlikely is the naming of its hospital – the Samuel Johnson Community Hospital. The great man would surely be pleased: he had a lifelong interest in 'physic' and was a keen amateur physician (in an age when the professionals were often dangerously incompetent – witness Dr Slop in Tristram Shandy). As he was in himself a walking compendium of maladies, Johnson's interest is perhaps not surprising. Today there is a whole subgenre of Johnson studies devoted to his various medical conditions, and it is often said that, had he lived in our times, they could have been accurately diagnosed and effectively treated. But without his daily afflictions, mental and physical, would Johnson have developed the extraordinary moral fortitude and strength of character that made him the man, and the writer, that he was? 
  Anyway, yesterday I had an appointment at the Samuel Johnson Community Hospital, a large modern building that looks much like any other modern hospital (though happily the much smaller older building is adjacent, and that is more pleasing to the eye – diapered brickwork, gatehouse and gabled range in Elizabethan style, George Gilbert Scott's very first commission). At this point my post becomes yet another tale of NHS confusion/incompetence, so feel free to stop reading here...
  Back in May I went to my GP practice, more in hope than expectation, to see if I could get an appointment. The only option short of a month-long wait was to avail myself of the Saturday GP service at the Samuel Johnson. I turned up, was duly checked over and sent for a blood test, which, the doctor told me, would be arranged by my practice. Back to the practice I went, only to be told that all blood tests were done at the Samuel Johnson. When I queried this it was simply reaffirmed, so I duly embarked on the process (all online, of course) of securing an appointment, cunningly ticking the box for 'Urgent'. This threw up a date some five weeks in the future, and that was the appointment I dutifully turned up for yesterday – only to be told (by a very nice and sympathetic member of staff, who was as bemused as I was) that the practice should indeed have done the blood test, and the service at the SJ is only for testees referred by consultants. Hey ho, it's back to the practice on Monday, drawing on my scant reserves of moral fortitude... 

Thursday 22 June 2023


 I am reading what is probably Evelyn Waugh's least characteristic and most nearly forgotten novel, Helena (1950), his sole excursion into the genre of historical fiction – and, oddly, the novel Waugh regarded as his best work. So far, I've found that the most striking thing about it is how un-Wavian it seems: apart from the author's pugnacious Preface, it could have been written by almost any good historical novelist of the time, and I should think very few, reading it 'blind', would guess that it was Waugh. It tells the story of the Dowager Empress Helena, mother of Constantine, who is remembered chiefly for her great pilgrimage to the Holy Land, where she found pieces of the True Cross, and built churches at Bethlehem and Olivet. Otherwise little is known of her life and origins – which gives Waugh scope to build his own version of her biography. Helena is of course elegantly written, and its portrayal of the period of what some historians call the Constantinian Shift – with the great Empire weakened, corrupted and a long way past its great days, and Christianity still inchoate but strangely potent – seems convincing. And there are occasional touches of wit, even satire (it's thought that Waugh's portrayal of Helena's husband, the chilly military careerist Constantius, is based on Bernard Montgomery).
  I particularly enjoyed this passage. Lactantius, the 'Christian Cicero', is talking with Helena, now divorced from Constantius, and Minervina, divorced from Constantine, in the Empress's court at Trèves, where Lactantius is officially tutoring Constantine's son Crispus (who will in due course by killed by his father) ...

'It needs a special quality to be martyr – just as it needs a special quality to be a writer.  Mine is the humbler role, but one must not think it quite valueless ... You see, it is equally possible to give the right form to the wrong thing, and the wrong form to the right thing. Suppose that in years to come, when the Church's troubles seem to be over, there should come an apostate of my own trade, a false historian with the mind of Cicero or Tacitus and the soul of an animal,' and he nodded towards the gibbon who fretted his golden chain and chattered for fruit. 'A man like that might make it his business to write down the martyrs and excuse the persecutors. He might be refuted again and again, but what he wrote would remain in people's minds when the refutations were quite forgotten. That is what style does – it has the Egyptian secret of the embalmers. It is not to be despised.'

What historian could Waugh possibly have had in mind?

Tuesday 20 June 2023

Oases in the Unhuman World

 Lately I've been obliged to pay a few visits to my mobile phone providers' high-street shop. Each time I've been struck by the preponderance of bewildered oldsters (myself included) among the customers – and, thinking about it, I'm not at all surprised. These poor souls (myself included) are navigating a strange, recalcitrant and often downright incomprehensible world – that brave new one that came in with digital technology, the only technological development in my time that really did change things, often (as we're now discovering) very much for the worse. As no one could have failed to notice, more and more of the straightforward world we once knew and took for granted has gone, transplanted into the baffling, often inaccessible world of the 'online'. And as that process carries on inexorably, more and more of us are getting left behind, sometimes only in particulars, sometimes altogether.
  I am no stranger to the computer and mobile phone, but I find this new world hard enough to navigate – quite often impossible. For those older and even less tech savvy than me, and/or for those who simply don't have the technology and are living 'offline', things are far worse. These people are gradually being edged out, disenfranchised and rendered helpless in even the routine things of everyday life. A technology that was supposed to make life easier (aren't they all?) has made life in many respects very much harder, and for a growing number all but impossible. So much of the world we knew is now only accessible online: if you can't handle it, you're lost. All that was solid melts into air... Here's a simple particular: I've made several attempts to get my hands on a 'club card' for a supermarket in which I often shop (and which is full of good deals available only to cardholders). Initially I tried to get an actual physical card, but there now seems to be no way of doing that, so I resigned myself to getting 'the app' – except that that too proved impossible, as the website either refused to recognise me (or the password it had itself given me) or denied me access. I gave up, as I have given up on many similar online occasions: life is too short, and dealing with the online world too irksome. 
  This great migration to cyberspace is, it seems to me, part of an accelerating process of dehumanising – a process that was turbocharged by the great Covid panic and the inhuman measures imposed on us in that terrible period (to no good effect, as we now know). Today so much everyday business, often lengthy and unavoidable, can now be conducted without at any point making contact with an actual human being or hearing an actual human voice; indeed this is fast becoming the norm. Much business can only be undertaken it you have a mobile phone and/or computer; there is no other way. This is why there are so many of us bewildered oldsters in the phone shops: these oases are still, thank heavens, manned by living human beings. And, in the case of my particular shop, those humans are friendly, helpful and patient. The human world survives – but for how much longer? It's just as well that the rising generations seem to spring from the womb already armed with a formidable ability to navigate the online world. They're going to need it.

Saturday 17 June 2023

Swann's Way

 Talking of Flanders and Swann, Donald Swann – the bespectacled pianist with the agreeable tenor voice – had always struck me as an archetypally English figure, the specific English archetype being the amiable, bespectacled curate (C of E, of course). Then I noticed that his middle name was Ibrahim. How come? 
It turns out that Swann's father, Herbert Alfredovich Swann, was a Russian doctor of English descent – from one Alfred Trout Swan (the 'n' was doubled later), a Lincolnshire draper who emigrated to Russia in 1840 and married the daughter of the tsars' horologer. Herbert Alfredovich Swann was part of that expatriate English community in Moscow so memorably depicted in Penelope Fitzgerald's brilliant novel The Beginning of Spring – a community that originated in the 16th century with the Muscovy Company. What's more, Donald's Russian uncle, Alfred Swan, was a composer and musicologist who wrote the first biography of Scriabin. As for Donald's mother, born Naguimé Sultán Piszóva, she was a Turkmen-Russian nurse from Ashgabat. Both parents fled the Russian Revolution, ending up in London, whence their son (born 1923) was launched on a very English education: Dulwich College Prep, Westminster School, Christ Church, Oxford. It was at Westminster that he met Flanders and the pair staged their first revue. They met again by chance in 1948, and by the 1950s their witty musical double-act was wowing audiences around the English-speaking world. 
So there you have it – an archetypal Englishman who, like many in the days of Empire and industrial/trade expansion, had a great deal more in his pedigree than might have been expected. 

Friday 16 June 2023

Gérard de Nerval, Flanders and Swann, Brabbins and Fyffe

 Gérard de Nerval – the French 'decadent' poet perhaps best known today for walking a lobster on a leash – turned up, rather improbably, on my Facebook feed the other day. This triggered a memory of something every bit as improbable – Donald Swann's setting of de Nerval's most famous poem, the one beginning 'Je suis le ténébreux, le veuf, l'inconsolé', which was part of the immortal Flanders and Swann's repertoire back in the Fifties. This link should take you to it (YouTube seems reluctant to upload it) –

Talking of Flanders and Swann naturally brings me to Brabbins and Fyffe, as featured in Armstrong and Miller, the kind of actually funny, no-agenda TV comedy show that seems now to have all but disappeared from the schedules. In Brabbins and Fyffe, Alexander Armstrong and Ben Miller reinvented Flanders and Swann as something altogether racier (and, for me at least, impossible to watch without laughing). You can sample some of their offerings here (and there's plenty more of them on YouTube) – 

Thursday 15 June 2023

'Sink me the ship, master gunner – sink her, split her in twain!'

 Born on this day in 1542 was Sir Richard Grenville, privateer, adventurer, explorer and – thanks largely to Tennyson – English maritime hero. Tennyson's stirring poem about Sir Richard's last naval action, 'The Revenge: A Ballad of the Fleet' (1878), was a favourite of my father's, one that he recited often of a morning while shaving and preparing for the day (he was very much a 'morning person', unlike his younger son, i.e. me). It's not a great poem, and very far from Tennyson's best, but it's certainly effective, strongly rhythmic, full of energy and of memorable lines, some of which remain with me many years on from those boyhood mornings when I heard my father declaim it so often and with such gusto. I post it here in memory of him. 

At Flores in the Azores Sir Richard Grenville lay,
And a pinnace, like a fluttered bird, came flying from far away:
"Spanish ships of war at sea! we have sighted fifty-three!"
Then sware Lord Thomas Howard: "'Fore God I am no coward;
But I cannot meet them here, for my ships are out of gear,
And the half my men are sick. I must fly, but follow quick.
We are six ships of the line; can we fight with fifty-three?"

Then spake Sir Richard Grenville: "I know you are no coward;
You fly them for a moment to fight with them again.
But I've ninety men and more that are lying sick ashore.
I should count myself the coward if I left them, my Lord Howard,
To these Inquisition dogs and the devildoms of Spain."

So Lord Howard passed away with five ships of war that day,
Till he melted like a cloud in the silent summer heaven;
But Sir Richard bore in hand all his sick men from the land
Very carefully and slow,
Men of Bideford in Devon,
And we laid them on the ballast down below;
For we brought them all aboard,
And they blest him in their pain, that they were not left to Spain,
To the thumbscrew and the stake, for the glory of the Lord.

He had only a hundred seamen to work the ship and to fight,
And he sailed away from Flores till the Spaniard came in sight,
With his huge sea-castles heaving upon the weather bow.
"Shall we fight or shall we fly?
Good Sir Richard, tell us now,
For to fight is but to die!
There'll be little of us left by the time this sun be set."
And Sir Richard said again: "We be all good English men.
Let us bang these dogs of Seville, the children of the devil,
For I never turned my back upon Don or devil yet."

Sir Richard spoke and he laughed, and we roared a hurrah, and so
The little Revenge ran on sheer into the heart of the foe,
With her hundred fighters on deck, and her ninety sick below;
For half of their fleet to the right and half to the left were seen,
And the little Revenge ran on through the long sea-lane between.

Thousands of their soldiers looked down from their decks and laughed,
Thousands of their seamen made mock at the mad little craft
Running on and on, till delayed
By their mountain-like San Philip that, of fifteen hundred tons,
And up-shadowing high above us with her yawning tiers of guns,
Took the breath from our sails, and we stayed.

And while now the great San Philip hung above us like a cloud
Whence the thunderbolt will fall
Long and loud,

Four galleons drew away
From the Spanish fleet that day,
And two upon the larboard and two upon the starboard lay,
And the battle-thunder broke from them all.

But anon the great San Philip, she bethought herself and went
Having that within her womb that had left her ill content;
And the rest they came aboard us, and they fought us hand to hand,
For a dozen times they came with their pikes and musqueteers,
And a dozen times we shook 'em off as a dog that shakes his ears
When he leaps from the water to the land.

And the sun went down, and the stars came out far over the summer sea,
But never a moment ceased the fight of the one and the fifty-three.
Ship after ship, the whole night long, their high-built galleons came,
Ship after ship, the whole night long, with her battle-thunder and flame;

Ship after ship, the whole night long, drew back with her dead and her shame.
For some were sunk and many were shattered, and so could fight us no more -
God of battles, was ever a battle like this in the world before?

For he said "Fight on! fight on!"
Though his vessel was all but a wreck;
And it chanced that, when half of the short summer night was gone,
With a grisly wound to be dressed he had left the deck,
But a bullet struck him that was dressing it suddenly dead,
And himself he was wounded again in the side and the head,
And he said "Fight on! fight on!"

And the night went down, and the sun smiled out far over the summer sea,
And the Spanish fleet with broken sides lay round us all in a ring;
But they dared not touch us again, for they feared that we still could sting,

So they watched what the end would be.
And we had not fought them in vain,
But in perilous plight were we,
Seeing forty of our poor hundred were slain,
And half of the rest of us maimed for life
In the crash of the cannonades and the desperate strife;
And the sick men down in the hold were most of them stark and cold,
And the pikes were all broken or bent, and the powder was all of it spent;
And the masts and the rigging were lying over the side;
But Sir Richard cried in his English pride,
"We have fought such a fight for a day and a night
As may never be fought again!
We have won great glory, my men!
And a day less or more
At sea or ashore,
We die - does it matter when?
Sink me the ship, Master Gunner - sink her, split her in twain!
Fall into the hands of God, not into the hands of Spain!"

And the gunner said "Ay, ay," but the seamen made reply:
"We have children, we have wives,
And the Lord hath spared our lives.
We will make the Spaniard promise, if we yield, to let us go;
We shall live to fight again and to strike another blow."
And the lion there lay dying, and they yielded to the foe.

And the stately Spanish men to their flagship bore him then,
Where they laid him by the mast, old Sir Richard caught at last,
And they praised him to his face with their courtly foreign grace;
But he rose upon their decks, and he cried:
"I have fought for Queen and Faith like a valiant man and true;
I have only done my duty as a man is bound to do:
With a joyful spirit I Sir Richard Grenville die!"
And he fell upon their decks, and he died.

And they stared at the dead that had been so valiant and true,
And had holden the power and glory of Spain so cheap
That he dared her with one little ship and his English few;
Was he devil or man? He was devil for aught they knew,

But they sank his body with honour down into the deep,
And they manned the Revenge with a swarthier alien crew,
And away she sailed with her loss and longed for her own;
When a wind from the lands they had ruined awoke from sleep,
And the water began to heave and the weather to moan,
And or ever that evening ended a great gale blew,
And a wave like the wave that is raised by an earthquake grew,
Till it smote on their hulls and their sails and their masts and their flags,
And the whole sea plunged and fell on the shot-shattered navy of Spain,
And the little Revenge herself went down by the island crags
To be lost evermore in the main.

Tuesday 13 June 2023

Not Quite Obsolete

 I picked up a new idiom this morning – well, new to me, but described in one online source as 'not quite obsolete', which is fine by me. Watching an episode of Frasier – still one of the smartest, funniest sitcoms ever made – in a hotel room in Chichester (don't ask), I caught Daphne, in the course of describing an over-ardent suitor, saying that he had 'a boardinghouse reach – and he wasn't reaching for the Colman's mustard'. The meaning of the phrase is instantly clear, as is the image it conjures up, of boardinghouse inmates seated at the communal table, each eager to get their hands on the condiments, and one of them lunging across everyone else's space with his 'boardinghouse reach' to grab them first. The phrase has particular resonance on this side of the pond, where boardinghouse landladies were notoriously stingy and inhospitable, and no doubt those condiments were in short supply. Though boardinghouses are now a thing of the past, the phrase deserves to live on. Nice work, Daphne (or rather those brilliant scriptwriters who made Frasier a classic). 

Sunday 11 June 2023

Ducks Revisited

 Walking by the river earlier today, I paused at a spot where the ducks (every one a Mallard usually) congregate to dabble, squabble and rest up in company in the shade of the trees. They are quite fearless of humans and barely bother to get out of the way of passersby. As I was watching the action on the water – all pretty placid on this occasion – I noticed a tiny coot chick was swimming about rather forlornly on its own. There was no sign of a parent bird nearby, and the chick looked horribly vulnerable – but maybe I've been conditioned to expect carnage by seeing too many episodes of Springwatch: the latest series seems to have contained an extraordinary amount of blood-curdling footage of animals blithely devouring other animals, often alive, usually smaller, sometimes their own offspring. Red in tooth and claw indeed, not to mention beak...
  Hoping the coot chick would be fine, I returned my attention to the ducks, birds that are always a pleasure to watch, though they certainly have their deplorable habits (gang rape for one). I had a vague memory of a rather good poem in praise of ducks, but I couldn't remember who wrote it, only that he was a friend of Ivor Gurney's, that he served in the Great War, and that there was an unusually engaging photograph of him in uniform – I remembered the photo clearly. I had, of course, written about him (back in 2016); his name was F.W. Harvey, and here is the link to his 'Ducks' and 'In Flanders', and to that engaging photograph...
  Later on this riverside walk I had a cheering encounter with a magnificent Red Admiral, fresh, bright and full of life – my first of the year and very late, but it's been that kind of year. 

Saturday 10 June 2023

Françoise Gilot

 I have only just heard that Françoise Gilot, a talented artist and remarkable woman doomed forever to be most famous for her relationship with Pablo Picasso, died the other day, at the magnificent age of 101. A graduate of Cambridge (Eng. Lit.) and the Sorbonne (Philosophy), she was already an accomplished painter and ceramicist when she had the misfortune to meet Picasso in 1943, when she was 21 and he 40 years older. He promptly dumped his current lover and muse, Dora Maar (the photographer), and soon he and Françoise were living together. They never married (Picasso was still legally married to Olga Khokhovla anyway), and in the course of their ten-year relationship, Françoise bore him two children, Claude and Paloma, believing Picasso's promises to love and care for them always. After she left him, having had enough of his tyrannical ways – the only woman ever to have left him, according to Picasso – he tried to stop galleries from buying her work, and did everything he could to block publication of her memoir, Life with Picasso. When it finally came out, in 1964, and became a huge bestseller, Picasso refused ever again to see Claude or Paloma. What a delightful little man he was. 

Friday 9 June 2023

King Cole

 To mark the birthday of Cole Porter – born 1891 in a place confusingly called Peru, Indiana – let's treat ourselves to one of his greatest songs, nicely sung by Fred Astaire and sublimely danced by Fred and Ginger. I don't think this routine was ever bettered in any film musical, and I don't think any male human being ever moved with more grace than Fred Astaire. (The sequence, colorised here, is from The Gay Divorcee (1934), and that's supposedly a view of the English Channel outside.) Don't miss the sign-off at the end...

Wednesday 7 June 2023

The Forgotten Artist

 What's this then? One of Turner's Venetian paintings? No, actually it's by James Holland, an artist I must admit I had never heard of until I noticed his biography, James Holland: The Forgotten Artist by Steve Bond, advertised in a book catalogue. 'Forgotten' seems to be about right, but in his day Holland was regarded as one of the leading lights of the English School of watercolorists, and had a high reputation as an accomplished and versatile painter of architecture, landscapes, flowers and marine subjects, in both oil and watercolour. 
  Holland was born in Burslem, Staffordshire, one of the Six Towns (Arnold Bennett made it five) of the Potteries. Starting out painting on pottery and porcelain, Holland came to London at the age of 20 and set up as a painter and teacher, exhibiting at the Royal Academy, the Society of British Artists and the Society of Painters in Watercolour until 1857, when he ceased to exhibit (some 13 years before his death). Much of his life was devoted to travel in search of suitable subjects, in Normandy, Portugal, Rotterdam, Milan, Geneva, North Wales and, of course, Venice. His Venetian paintings best showed what he could do with light and colour, and are still much sought after (the one above hangs in the Tate). 
  The painting above is, like most of Holland's work, quite 'finished', more so perhaps than a similar Turner would be. However, some of his surviving works are less finished, and the more attractive for it – to me, at least – as in the two sketches below, both painted in Rouen...

Many of Holland's pictures are on display at the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery in Stoke-on-Trent. I must pay a visit some day. 

Monday 5 June 2023

Pieces of the Sky

 While the abundance of, shall we say, less attractive insects continues – just now the leaves of every lime and sycamore tree around here are so covered with tiny whiteflies that the pavements below are sticky with their exuded 'honeydew' – there are disappointingly few butterflies to be seen, apart from the ubiquitous Holly Blue. However, I crossed the border into Derbyshire this last weekend, and in the glorious sunshine (at last!) I was delighted to find something more like early summer abundance. Fresh and bright Common Blues – those uncommon beauties – were flying, like pieces of the summer sky, and, at the more subdued end of the colour scale, I saw my first Dingy Skippers of the season (yes, the name fits rather well, but I love them), and two other firsts, both small, both beautiful: a solitary Small Copper (they're having a bad year in Derbyshire) and a single Brown Argus. My aurelian's heart rejoiced. 

Friday 2 June 2023

A Mixed Bag of Anniversaries

 As well as being the 70th anniversary of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II – a day I remember, just about – today is also the inauspicious birth date of the Marquis de Sade in 1740 and, exactly 100 years later, Thomas Hardy. And, 100 years after that, to the day, the birth date of Barney Fugleman, the Hardy-hating hero (if that's the word) of Peeping Tom, Howard Jacobson's 1984 comic novel, which I'm rereading many years on, something else having piqued my curiosity about the morbid psychology of Thomas Hardy. This is a subject explored in some depth and in an unfailingly destructive spirit in Peeping Tom – which, I have to report, is pretty filthy and often very funny. It's been an entertaining companion while I continue my struggle with this tediously tenacious postviral energy deficit. Next week I'm resorting to Chinese medicine...