Monday 31 July 2023

Every Story Matters?

 The monstrous waste of time and money that calls itself The Covid-19 Inquiry is telling us, in a big publicity campaign, that 'Every Story Matters'. Now is our chance to tell them all about our experiences of living under the Covid terror. Well, I don't suppose mine is the kind of story they want to hear: decided early on against the mRNA 'vaccines', lived as near normally as possible, observing the restrictions minimally or not at all, looked on in horror as our basic freedoms were confiscated, came through unscathed (if I had Covid at any point, it was so mild I didn't notice – unlike all my fully vaccinated friends and relations). However, I decided to register my experiences with the Inquiry, if only to represent the control group in the great experiment that was performed on us all in the Covid years. The questionnaire is quite easy to navigate and gives enough space and options for the inquiry to glean some real information (if that is actually the aim), but the best thing about it is that it asks what lessons should be learned from the authorities' handling of the pandemic. Lessons, eh? I went for something like this: that lockdowns are hugely counter-productive in every way and should never be tried again, that vaccines should be fully tested and proven to be effective, that there should be mandatory reporting of all ill effects thereof and drug companies should never be granted legal immunity, that our civil liberties should never be suspended again on such an unprecedented scale, that there should be no censorship of scientific opinions that happen to oppose The Narrative, that schools in particular should never have been closed... That sort of thing. I can't be the only one to have reached similar conclusions – can I?

Sunday 30 July 2023

Sullivan's Travels

 Last night I watched Preston Sturges's classic comedy Sullivan's Travels (1941) – for the second time, but the first was quite some while ago. I had forgotten just what a captivating screen presence Veronica Lake was in her prime, and how brilliantly she performed with Joel McCrae here, despite the fact that he, like most others in the business, found her extremely difficult to work with. After Sullivan, McCrae refused to ever work with her again, and Sturges, it is said, had to be physically restrained when Lake sprang it on him, as filming began, that she was six months pregnant. This caused wardrobe some problems, but the film was in the can after just two months: Hollywood worked fast in those days, and spoke fast, and routinely brought films in at 90 tightly scripted and edited minutes. Veronica Lake's problems were mostly down to her growing addiction to alcohol, which was to finish her career prematurely and lead her to a sadly early death at just 50. None of this could be guessed from her sparkling, sexually alluring presence and spot-on performance in Sullivan's Travels
  The film takes its title from Gulliver's Travels, but as satire it is mild stuff, aimed only at Hollywood and its strange ways. In the end, in fact, Hollywood values triumph, when movie director Sullivan, having set out to experience the life of the poor and oppressed and make a social-realist epic dramatising the struggle between Capital and Labour, realises in the end that, as he says in the last lines of the film, 'There's a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that's all some people have? It isn't much, but it's better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.' Which is exactly what his Hollywood bosses had been telling him all along as they tried to talk him out of his big ideas. 
  The film Sullivan wanted to make was going to be called O Brother, Where Art Thou? and we are left to imagine what a dreary conscience-wringer it would have been. When O Brother did take on existence it was nearly 60 years later, in the form of the Coen brothers' brilliant comedy with (great) music, set in rural Mississippi in the 1930s and featuring one of George Clooney's best performances. The film has some affinities with Sullivan's Travels, but the Coens' main inspiration was in fact Homer's Odyssey. So there you have it – an impressive genealogy: Homer and Swift ultimately yielding two brilliant Hollywood comedies. 

Saturday 29 July 2023

Another Oasis

 In this week's Spectator, Charles Moore describes a strangely heartening visit to a branch of the Nationwide Building Society, where most of the customers presenting themselves were elderly and in some way or another bewildered by the complexities of modern banking. 'All,' writes Moore, 'were treated with respect and patience, lightened by unintrusive backchat. The atmosphere was peaceful and trusting...' This reminded me that I had written recently about such 'oases in an unhuman world'. My particular focus was on mobile phone shops, but what I did not mention was that my local bank branch is, incredible as it might seem, another such oasis.
  From sheer inertia, I have been with the same bank all my banking life – the one that likes to assure me that a kindly black horse has been with me every step of my life's journey. Until now my experiences with said bank have been variable, sometimes downright infuriating: on one occasion I was so bombarded with letters and phone calls urging me to come in and discuss my account with the branch manager that I eventually succumbed, assuming, reasonably enough, that they might have something useful to tell me. Having turned up at the appointed time and place, I was then told that the manager was at another branch nearby, to which, already far from gruntled, I made my way, only to be greeted by a twerp in a suit who clearly had no idea who I was or why I was there, and who greeted me with 'How are we today?' (yes, 'we'...) and 'What can I do for you?' By the time I left, I'm pretty sure he was reaching for the panic button. 
  But to my point. My present branch of this same bank could hardly be more different, with an atmosphere very much like that described by Moore. I've been in and out of this branch many a time, mostly to make payments to various 'trades' (having bought a house that turned out to be a capacious money pit), and have got to know most of the staff, who also know me and greet me cordially each time, with inquiries about progress on the house or observations based on my most recent employment (writing about TV). Though the pace is leisurely – precisely because of all that patience and respect and cordiality – it is actually a pleasure now to go to the bank, and I am more than ever resistant to the idea of switching to online banking. Where a bank has an actual branch, manned and open, banking is a human business. No doubt at head office they don't care about such things and think only of the bottom line, but I do hope that at least there will be no more branches closed. If the banks have got enough money for those glossy commercials – not to mention the huge profits they reap year after year – they surely have enough to do a little good in the world. In fact they owe it to us bewildered oldsters who have been giving them our money all our lives.

Friday 28 July 2023

'It all fits brilliantly'

 This morning's blindfold poetry selection turned out to be this, from the selected poems of Constantin Cavafy

                      In a Township of Asia Minor

The news about the outcome of the sea-battle at Actium
was of course unexpected.
But there's no need for us to draft a new proclamation.
The name's the only thing that has to be changed.
There, in the concluding lines, instead of: "Having freed the Romans
from Octavius, that disaster,
that parody of a Caesar,"
we'll substitute: "Having freed the Romans
from Antony, that disaster,..."
The whole text fits very nicely.

"To the most glorious victor,
matchless in his military ventures,
prodigious in his political operations,
on whose behalf the township ardently wished
for Antony's triumph,..."
here, as we said, the substitution: "for Octavius Caesar's triumph,
regarding it as Zeus' finest gift—
to this mighty protector of the Greeks,
who graciously honors Greek customs,
who is beloved in every Greek domain,
who clearly deserves exalted praise,
and whose exploits should be recorded at length
in the Greek language, in both verse and prose,
in the Greek language, the vehicle of fame,"
et cetera, et cetera. It all fits brilliantly.

'A liturgy demands a language that is different from everyday speech...'

 In the church of St Thomas a Becket in Lewes, I happened upon this notice, which seems to me to offer a very good account of the special potency of the Book of Common Prayer, and why it should continue in use. 

Monday 24 July 2023

The Subtitled Sublime

 The Ode to Joy that ends Beethoven's Ninth Symphony has been with me all my musically aware life, ever since I first heard it in primary school music class (those were the days – sound musical education in every state school). The Classics for Pleasure double album of the Ninth was the first LP I ever owned, back in the olden days when affordable albums (still expensive by today's standards) were quite a novelty. It was Carl Schuricht conducting the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra – not that I cared who it was: the music simply overwhelmed me, swept me away, especially the choral finale, that Ode to Joy. I never bothered about the words, which I couldn't make out and were clearly in a language I didn't understand – fine by me. What mattered was that glorious music, the sheer genius of the vast musical world that Beethoven builds from what is on the face of it a pretty banal melody (hence its adoption as the EU's anthem). Last night's televised Prom ended with Beethoven's Ninth, and the BBC had decided to subtitle the choral finale with an English translation of the Ode to Joy (written, as all the world knows, by Schiller). I do wish they hadn't: the words, at least in this translation, were of the most flatulent banality – all about universal love and brotherhood, and God somewhere above the starry canopy – and only detracted from the glory of the music. But if subtitles are going to be used for choral music, why not do so more generally? It might be genuinely useful, as the words are often impossible to make out and brief subtitles might help. However, if they're going to do it, they might at least take care to make them accurate: the subtitles to the Ode to Joy last night referred more than once to a God who 'swells' above the starry canopy. A disturbing image. 

Saturday 22 July 2023

In Which Ivy's Sisters Teach Jonathan Miller Nothing

 Yesterday, for some reason, I was reading about Jonathan Miller – 'theatre and opera director, actor, author, television presenter, humorist and physician', as Wikipedia describes this man of many parts. He was also that rare thing in this country, a 'public intellectual', and, with his massive self-satisfaction and total conviction of his own superior wisdom, a living illustration of why we like to keep them very thin on the ground. 
  Anyway, I was interested to read that, at one point in his boyhood, Miller was taught by two sisters of Ivy Compton-Burnett (a persistent presence in this blog). Young Jonathan, a somewhat difficult lad (or precocious brat, according to viewpoint), spent much of his early life cannoning from school to school, when not enjoying sessions with the  psychiatrist Leopold Stein, in which, by Miller's account, the two 'simply conversed about philosophy and Hughlings Jackson's early neurological theories'. As you do. He encountered the two Compton-Burnett sisters at a Rudolf Steiner school at King's Langley in Hertfordshire (since closed). The sisters were Juliet and Vera, who had survived the high death toll and psychic carnage of Compton-Burnett family life and found refuge in theosophy and the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, turning the house they shared with the pianist Myra Hess in St John's Wood into an 'art house' filled (as Ivy's biographer Hilary Spurling puts it) 'with music, painting, modelling, eurhythmics, all activities that Ivy flatly deplored'. Later they took up residence in Berkhamstead and, while living there, became involved with the school at King's Langley. Miller claimed that during his time with them he 'never learnt anything at all'. For achieving that all but impossible outcome, the Compton-Burnett sisters surely deserve a small accolade. 

Thursday 20 July 2023

A Poetical Scrap and 34 Stanzas of Filth

 When the elderly John Masefield died in 1967, the post of Poet Laureate became vacant – who would succeed? Finding a successor should have been a fairly straightforward matter, but such things are rarely straightforward in the overheated, viciously rivalrous world of poetry (see Sam Riviere's Dead Souls).    Newly released documents from the National Archive reveal what went on behind the scenes as the poetry establishment scrapped ferociously over the succession, briefing against every candidate but the one they favoured. Betjeman was imperiously dismissed by Lord ('Two Dinners') Goodman: 'The songster of tennis lawns and cathedral cloisters does not, it seems to me, make a very suitable incumbent for the poet laureateship of a new and vital world in which we hope we are living.' Ah yes, that new and vital world, I remember it well... Philip Larkin was 'a reserved man who will never give a public reading' (though he was happy to appear in front of millions on TV). Stevie Smith was described as 'unstable'. Hugh MacDiarmid was reported to be 'heavily on the bottle, and has rejoined the Communist party'. Edmund Blunden 'suffered from severe mental lapses and was almost incoherent at times'. 
  As for the favourite, W.H. Auden, he, it seems, was ruled out largely because of a pornographic poem that appeared under his name in various underground publications. It had several titles – 'The Platonic Blow, by Miss Oral', 'The Gobble Poem', 'A Day for a Lay' – and was a narrative poem consisting of 34 ABAB stanzas of unremitting filth. I remember seeing it in, I think, the magazine Suck, and thinking something along the lines of WTF! Can this really be by Auden? Well, it seems it was, though the poet never intended it for publication. It was privately circulated among like-minded friends, and would have remained unknown (at least until after Auden's death) had it not been for Ed Sanders – yes, Ed Sanders of the notorious Fugs – who got hold of a copy through an employee of the Morgan Library and published it in the magazine he founded, the delightfully named Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts. Auden initially admitted, at least to friends, that he wrote the poem, but later he denied it. Fair enough for a man who was forever revising his corpus. 
  As for the laureateship, in the end it went to the 'safe' Cecil Day Lewis, who died five years later. He was duly succeeded by John Betjeman, who all along had been the man best fitted for the job, and was certainly the best laureate we have had in recent times. 

Wednesday 19 July 2023

A Grand Short Crawl

 It has been a long time – or it certainly feels like one – since I did any church crawling, but today I had a short, hugely enjoyable church crawl, admittedly by car, but there's a lot to be said for that. Among the highlights were some remarkable monuments in St Peter, Elford (near Lichfield), including one known as 'the Stanley boy', commemorating the last male heir of the Elford Stanleys, killed by a tennis ball in 1460. He holds the ball in one hand and points to his ear with the other, illustrating the motto on the monument: 'Ubi dolor ibi digitus' (where the pain is, there is the finger, i.e. at the point of impact of the ball). This is a nice story, but there is every reason to believe it is a fabrication – see this demolition job by the ever scrupulous Church Monuments Society. However, I'm happy to print the legend. As for the other monuments, these are in astonishingly good condition – a fact that may owe something to the dubious Edward Richardson's repairs (the whole church was thoroughly Victorianised by Salvin and Street), but they look wonderful and are of very high quality. One of them, to Sir Thomas Arderne (an ancestor of Jacinda's?) and his wife, shows that display of 'stone fidelity' familiar from the famous Arundel tomb in Chichester Cathedral, the one that inspired Larkin's great poem: Sir Richard and his lady are 'holding hands'... 

After that, it was St Andrew's, Clifton Campville [below], one of the finest medieval churches in Staffordshire (albeit almost in Leicestershire), and on to St Editha's, Tamworth, one of the finest town churches in the county. Aah, it felt so good to be back in church crawling mode, if only for half a day.

'One can, I think, safely say...'

 Although I am not by any means as ardent a Dylan worshipper as, say, Bryan Appleyard, I have for some while been getting almost daily Dylan-related items in my Facebook feed (also, for much less reason, Rolling Stones stuff). Usually the Dylan material is mildly interesting, if overlong, but yesterday came a splendidly pithy quotation from Mary Travers, of Peter, Paul and Mary fame: 
'One can, I think, safely say that the world fell in love with Bob Dylan's words before they fell in love with his voice.' 
Nicely put. One rarely comes across such delicately phrased, nuanced utterances in the music world – and what she says is very true. I remember the first time I heard the Dylan voice – on the radio, singing 'Blowin' in the Wind' – and even I, a broad-minded lad, was shocked by the sound. Nothing like it had been heard anywhere near the pop charts or mainstream radio, and even though I loved what I was hearing, it took me a while to get used to that raw, whiney, unmusical voice. I soon realised, however, that it was essential to the Dylan magic, as was apparent from the cover versions that were springing up everywhere: the more mellifluous the voice, the less effective the song. That voice, that guitar style and that wonderfully expressive harmonica playing – all belonged together and worked together magically to bring those songs fully to life. That is why Dylan's lyrics in isolation, on the page, are thin stuff compared to the fully realised song – and why it is ridiculous to call Dylan a poet, and supremely ridiculous to have given him the Nobel Prize for literature. He has been the supreme singer-songwriter of his generation, by a country mile – isn't that enough? 

Sunday 16 July 2023


 My favourite Lichfield charity bookshop has gifted me many great finds – but today's was the best, and most unexpected, yet: Nabokov's Blues by Kurt Johnson and Steve Coates. I'm not sure this was even published in England, and heaven knows how it found its way to Lichfield and to a charity bookshop, but I know from the flyleaf that it was once owned by one Anne D. Wilson, whom I thank for disposing of it so judiciously. 
  Nabokov's Blues tells the story of 'The Scientific Odyssey of a Literary Genius', focusing on Nabokov's ground-breaking work on those fascinating and beautiful butterflies known as the Blues. As well as being a butterfly lover (as is evident from his fiction and memoirs), Nabokov was a serious lepidopterist – or rather lepidopterologist, which is even more serious and scientific. His work on the Blues included a radical new classification which at the time was highly controversial, but was found many years later to be soundly based and led to new insights into the global movement of species and the threats to their survival. Dmitri Nabokov,  no less, describes Nabokov's Blues as a book 'both eerily evocative and stunningly new, that makes delectable reading without patronising the reader'. I'm looking forward to reading this one, perhaps in the winter when the butterflies are no longer flying. 

Friday 14 July 2023

'You keep both Rule and Energy in view'

 This morning's stab in the dark was another lucky strike: the (very slim) volume turned out to be Thom Gunn's Poems 1950-1966: A Selection (Faber paperback, 1969), and it fell open at this, Gunn's heartfelt but perfectly balanced tribute to his mentor at Stamford, Yvor Winters,  written in the style of its addressee. One fine poet salutes another – 

To Yvor Winters, 1955

I leave you in your garden.
                                            In the yard
Behind it, run the airedales you have reared
With boxer's vigilance and poet's rigour:
Dog-generations you have trained the vigour
That few can breed to train and fewer still
Control with the deliberate human will.
And in the house there rest, piled shelf on shelf,
The accumulations that compose the self –
Poem and history: for if we use
Words to maintain the actions that we choose,
Our words, with slow defining influence,
Stay to mark out our chosen lineaments.

Continual temptation waits on each
To renounce his empire over thought and speech,
Till he submit his passive faculties
To evening, come where no resistance is;
The unmotivated sadness of the air
Filling the human with his own despair.
Where now lies power to hold the evening back?
Implicit in the grey is total black;
Denial of the discriminating brain
Brings the neurotic vision, and the vein
Of necromancy. All as relative
For mind as for the sense, we have to live
In a half-world, not ours nor history's,
And learn the false from half-true premises.

But sitting in the dusk – though shapes combine,
Vague mass replacing edge and flickering line,
You keep both Rule and Energy in view,
Much power in each, most in the balanced two:
Ferocity existing in the fence
Built by an exercised intelligence.
Though night is always close, complete negation
Ready to drop on wisdom and emotion,
Night from the air or the carnivorous breath,
Still it is right to know the force of death,
And as you do, persistent, tough in will,
Raise from the excellent the better still.

Thursday 13 July 2023

Jerome in the Morning

 The early morning sun is so bright in my bedroom these days that I have been obliged to wear an eye mask to stand a chance of staying asleep. This gave me the idea for a new morning ritual...
  Facing the bed is a smallish bookshelf containing mostly poetry books (but also my butterfly books, Pevsners and Shell Guides). Each morning I rise with the eye mask still on and grope my way to the bookshelf, where I take a volume at random, open it ditto, and read whatever it falls open at (hoping that it's a poem). This morning I struck lucky when the unseen volume turned out to be Marianne Moore's Selected Poems and it opened at this – 

Leonardo da Vinci's

Saint Jerome and his lion
in that hermitage
of walls half gone,
share sanctuary for a sage--

joint-frame for impassioned ingenious

Jerome versed in language--

and for a lion like one on the skin of which

Hercules' club made no impression.

The beast, received as a guest,
although some monks fled--
with its paw dressed
that a desert thorn had made red--

stayed as guard of the monastery ass . . .

which vanished, having fed

its guard, Jerome assumed. The guest then, like an ass,

was made carry wood and did not resist,

but before long recognized
the ass and consigned
its terrorized
thieves' whole camel-train to chagrined

Saint Jerome. The vindicated beast and

saint somehow became twinned;

and now, since they behaved and also looked alike,

their lionship seems officialized.

Pacific yet passionate--
for if not both, how
could he be great?
Jerome--reduced by what he'd been through--

with tapering waist no matter what he ate,

left us the Vulgate. That in Leo,

the Nile's rise grew food checking famine,

made lion's mouth fountains appropriate,

if not universally,
at least not obscure.
And here, though hardly a summary, astronomy--
or pale paint--makes the golden pair

in Leonardo da Vinci's sketch, seem

sun-dyed. Blaze on, picture,

saint, beast; and Lion Haile Selassie, with household

lions as symbol of sovereignty.

This ekphrastic poem was inspired by Leonardo's unfinished painting of Jerome and his attendant lion. 
This one – 

My own favourite Saint Jerome picture could hardly be more different – Carpaccio's Jerome Leading the Lion into the Monastery, with the monks panicking and fleeing at sight of the remarkably benign-looking lion. This is to be found, with other wonderful Carpaccios, in the Scuola San Giorgio degli Schiavoni in Venice. Ah, Venice...

Tuesday 11 July 2023


 Born on this day in 1754 was one of those rare men whose name has survived as a verb (and, by extension, noun and adjective) – Thomas Bowdler, whose cleaned-up edition of Shakespeare was the original 'bowdlerised' text. His work, The Family Shakespeare: in which nothing is added to the original Text; but those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a Family, was first published in 1807, with a more complete edition following in 1818. The first edition was apparently the work of Bowdler's sister Harriet, but both editions were presented as the work of Thomas alone, presumably because it would have been unseemly for a lady to have immersed herself so studiously in Shakespeare's bawdy. The Family Shakespeare was a great commercial success, running into eleven editions by 1850. 
  Bowdler has long been a byword for Victorian prudery (overlooking the fact that his Shakespeare was first published long before Victoria's reign, and Bowdler himself was 12 years dead when she ascended the throne). In fact the damage he did to Shakespeare's text was slight compared to earlier editors such as Nahum Tate, who took it upon himself to give King Lear a happy ending, and The Family Shakespeare was certainly useful at a time when the plays were commonly read aloud in the family circle – hence the public appetite for it.  One man who vigorously defended Bowdler was the famously degenerate Algernon Charles Swinburne: 
'More nauseous and more foolish cant was never chattered than that which would deride the memory or depreciate the merits of Bowdler. No man ever did better service to Shakespeare than the man who made it possible to put him into the hands of intelligent and imaginative children.' He had a point. 

Sunday 9 July 2023

Two Survivors

 Well, I have finally managed to unpack and shelve all my books (yes, I know it's been a long time – I shan't bore you with an account of the various delays, obstructions and diversions that have slowed everything down). Along the way, I've had some happy reunions and surprises of various kinds, and I achieved another drastic cull: seven boxes stuffed with books are destined for whatever charity will accept them.
   I was pleased to find that I still own two 18th-century leather-bound books, humble products of a period that was surely the golden age of book-making. The paper in both – being made of rag rather than wood pulp – is in remarkably good condition, and the bindings still tight. The less interesting of the two was, I think, inherited via my grandmother, and is Volume III (of VII) of The History of Sir Charles Grandison, in a Series of Letters published from the Originals, By the Editor of Pamela and Clarissa, i.e. written by Samuel Richardson, who had a bigger success with Grandison than with either Pamela or Clarissa. My copy of this stray volume is from the library of Isabella Powlett, whose name is beautifully inscribed on the flyleaf, with the date 1754 and the number 216 (she must have had an impressive library for a 17-year-old). Isabella was the only daughter of Lord Nassau Powlett, and she became, by marriage, Countess of Egmont. Her armorial bearings – three downward-pointing swords – are on the front board.
Here is how the first letter of Volume III begins: 
'SELF, my dear Lucy, is a very wicked thing; a sanctifier, if one would give way to its partialities, of actions, which, in others, we should have no doubt to condemn. DELICACY, too, is often a misleader; an idol, at whose shrine we sometimes offer up our Sincerity; but, in that case, it should be called Indelicacy.'
Well, quite... I did not read on.
   Much more interesting is my other 18th-century survivor – Miscellanies, the Sixth Volume, by Dr Swift (London, 1751). This is a collection of Swift's minor essays and what we would now call open letters (and by pure coincidence 'the more obscure regions of Swift's work' are also Patrick Kurp's subject today). Here are, for example, A Proposal for the Universal Use of Irish Manufacture, Some Arguments Against Enlarging the Power of the Bishops, A Short View of the State of Ireland, etc. What caught my eye immediately was A Letter from Captain Gulliver to His Cousin Sympson, written in the Year 1727. In this Lemuel Gulliver takes his cousin to task for prevailing upon him to 'publish a very loose and uncorrect Account of my Travels', relying on 'some young Gentleman of either University' to put it in order. 'But I do not remember,' Gulliver continues, 'I gave you Power to consent, that any thing should be omitted, and much less that any thing should be inserted: Therefore, as to the latter, I do here renounce every thing of that kind; particularly, a Paragraph about Her Majesty Queen Anne, of most glorious and pious Memory; although I did reverence and esteem her more than any of human Species.' This is Swift with tongue very firmly in cheek: Queen Anne disliked and distrusted him, and the feeling was mutual. 
   Later in the letter, Gulliver laments, without surprise, the failure of his published Travels to reform the morals of the Yahoos (i.e. the common run of humanity). Rather, the Yahoos have turned on the author, finding fault and condemning his work. 'If the Censure of the Yahoos could any way affect me,' writes Gulliver, 'I should have great Reason to complain, that some of them are so bold as to think my Book of Travels a mere Fiction out of mine own Brain; and have gone so far as to drop Hints, that the Houyhnhnms and Yahoos have no more existence than the Inhabitants of Utopia.' (Oddly, he also complains that the name Brobdingnag is an erroneous transcription, and it should correctly be Brobdingrag – why?).
   Gulliver concludes that he 'should never have attempted so absurd a Project as that of reforming the Yahoo race in this Kingdom: But, I have now done with all such visionary Schemes for ever.'


Friday 7 July 2023

Great at the Time

 Not Only... But Also, the Peter Cook and Dudley Moore sketch series, is one of those shows that has entered the realm of myth and legend, shining forth in retrospect as an all-time comedy great, an imperishable classic. The myth has been burnished by the passage of time, and, crucially, by the fact that so many episodes were lost, 'wiped', as was then customary, by the BBC. But was Not Only... But Also that good? On the evidence of last night's compilation show (and others shown some while back), the answer is No. The sketches are lame and painfully overstretched, mostly consisting of a potentially good idea hammered slowly to death. It's a shame, as both men were very talented, and Cook, with the right material, was one of the funniest men who ever drew breath – but even he could make nothing of most of these scripts. It seemed brilliantly funny at the time – and strikingly ambitious in its set-ups (it must have had a huge budget) – but that time is long gone, The Fast Show having put the final nail in the coffin of the overstretched sketch show. The only parts of Not Only... But Also that still shine are of course the Dagenham Dialogues, where a large part of the fun is in watching Pete and especially Dud desperately struggling not to laugh. The rest is, alas, history, of only historical interest. Nothing unusual about that: most TV comedy is of its time, and doesn't outlast that time. And even at the time it was rarely as funny as we remember it being. 

Wednesday 5 July 2023

Lunched and Refurbed

 Despite my recent comments on the state of the metropolis, I must report that today I thoroughly enjoyed  a day – well, an afternoon – in London. I was lunching with an old friend whom I hadn't seen face to face in way too long – and it was a very good lunch, which always helps – then after it we strolled off to have a look at the newly refurbished and reopened National Portrait Gallery. The refurb seemed to both of us to be a great success, making the place feel much more open and spacious and less difficult to get around  – and get into, come to that: the new main entrance on the North side of the building works brilliantly. The rehang of the portraits, which now include many new items and a higher proportion of photographs (some brilliant, some very ordinary), also works well, managing to be at once chronologically structured and unpredictable, so that you never know quite what you'll happen upon next. And – wonder of wonders – there didn't seem to be any of those tiresome 'interpretative' captions pointing out the deplorable failure of  people from the past to conform to the moral postures of the 21st century. 
  In an earlier life, I spent quite a lot of time at launches and other jollies at the NPG, and I remember on one occasion getting trapped for what seemed like an eternity in front of a double portrait of Neil and Glenys Kinnock, a picture that at first looks pretty ordinary, but becomes weirder and weirder, and more and more disturbing, the longer you look at it. On this visit, happily, I didn't spot it: I hope it has been consigned to the stores, and that it will remain there.

Monday 3 July 2023

The Island

 An interesting piece in The Critic by Jaspreet Singh Bopari rightly deplores the sad fact that Paradise Lost, the greatest epic poem in English, 'seems to be fading slowly from public view', seldom even being taught in schools, let alone read. He also laments the failure of subsequent English poets to come up with any kind of satisfactory national epic: even Tennyson and Browning, perhaps the two best equipped to do it, only managed the sonorous 'private fantasies' of Idylls of the King, and the magnificent but undeniably Italian The Ring and the Book. With the coming of modernism, all hope was of course lost.
   However, there was one wholehearted attempt at an English national epic – The Island by Francis Brett Young, a work now so completely forgotten that Bopari doesn't mention it. I only know it because it was a great favourite of my father, who read it repeatedly. The Island is a rousingly patriotic verse history of Britain, from the Bronze Age to the Battle of Britain – just the kind of thing to appeal to my history-loving, deeply patriotic father. Published in 1944, it was a huge success, the first edition (of 23,500) selling out immediately – an extraordinary feat in wartime conditions – and numerous reprints following. Up until then, Francis Brett Young had been a successful middle-brow novelist, author of, among other things, a string of 'Mercian novels', set in and celebrating the West Midlands. Sadly, soon after the publication of The Island, his frail health deteriorated and his writing career was effectively over. He died in 1954 in Cape Town, and his ashes are buried in Worcester cathedral.
  Here is an Arthurian passage from The Island

…. And all that coloured tale a tapestry
Woven by poets. As the spider’s skeins
Are spun of its own substance, so have they
Embroidered empty legend – What remains?

This: That when Rome fell, like a writhen oak
That age had sapped and cankered at the root,
Resistant, from her topmost bough there broke
The miracle of one unwithering shoot.

Which was the spirit of Britain – that certain men
Uncouth, untutored, of our island brood
Loved freedom better than their lives; and when
The tempest crashed around them, rose and stood

And charged into the storm’s black heart, with sword
Lifted, or lance in rest, and rode there, helmed
With a strange majesty that the heathen horde
Remembered when all were overwhelmed;

And made of them a legend, to their chief,
Arthur, Ambrosius – no man knows his name –
Granting a gallantry beyond belief,
And to his knights imperishable fame.

They were so few . . . We know not in what manner
Or where they fell – whether they went
Riding into the dark under Christ’s banner
Or died beneath the blood-red dragon of Gwent.

Well, it's not Milton, or even Miltonic – but epic it surely is, and absolutely English.