Wednesday 30 August 2023

Politics Then and Now(ish)


The BBC seems to be showing a lot of 'classic' comedy to fill the August TV vacuum . Some of it very far from classic (Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em, anyone?), but the Tuesday-night pairing of Yes, Minister and The Thick of It is both entertaining and instructive. Yes, Minister takes us back to an innocent, even polite age of politics, before the wrecker Blair and his thuggish henchmen ruined everything. Jim Hacker, a minister promoted way beyond his ability (surely that never happens?) is locked in perpetual battle with his urbane, devious and endlessly obstructive Permanent Secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby. Last night's episode, from 1980, had some surprising contemporary resonances. It revolved around the government's efforts to establish a 'National Integrated Database', containing full details of every citizen (compiled, presumably, with snail's-pace computers and no internet). This was being strongly resisted because of its 'Big Brother' surveillance overtones, and citizens' fears of their data being seen by civil servants (how quaint), and Sir Humphrey is commendably determined to kick the whole thing into the long grass. It was interesting to see to what an extent the politicians were finding themselves balked at every turn by the civil servants – even before Blair politicised the service. At one point Hacker described HM Loyal Opposition as 'the opposition in exile' and the civil service as 'the opposition in residence'. Any members of HM's current government watching this would have laughed in weary recognition.
  And then it was down, down, down into the seething amoral snakepit of post-Blair politics with The Thick of It. Once again we have a minister promoted beyond their abilities, and an eminence grise controlling everything – not the smooth-talking Sir Humphrey but the blisteringly foul-mouthed bully Malcolm Tucker (a brilliant performance by Peter Capaldi, his vocabulary enhanced by the show's 'swearing consultant' Ian Martin). Here politics is all about image, how things will look: the policies don't matter, it's all about how the media will react, and that must be ruthlessly controlled with a mixture of low cunning and foul-mouthed intimidation by the appalling Malcolm. It rings all too true, and is probably a pretty fair picture of what went on under Blair and Brown at least. The bewildered minister at the centre of this relentless onslaught of PR panics and desperate firefighting is played by Rebeca Front, who is of course superb. What I had forgotten is that for the first two series the minister in question was a man (Hugh Abbot), played by Chris Langham, one of the finest comedy actors the BBC ever had on its books – but we shan't be seeing him again: he seems to have been 'disappeared', Soviet-style, following his conviction in 2007 for child sex offences. This seems to me a terrible shame – is it not possible to separate the man (or rather one aspect of the man) from his work, much of which certainly deserves to endure? 

Monday 28 August 2023

Three Things

 1. Until I saw one of his pictures on Facebook today, I hadn't realised that Emile Zola (not one of my favourite authors) was an accomplished photographer. Above and below are two of his Paris street scenes, both looking very like Caillebotte paintings, but of course gloomier. Zola seems to have preferred taking his photographs in the rain, which must have posed some technical challenges in those days.  

2. Something cheering. This morning on Radio 3 I heard this simple but rather lovely (and topical) folk song, beautifully performed by Jay Ungar and Molly Mason, which I pass on to brighten this cold and dismal (here in Lichfield) Bank Holiday morning. Or I would, but YouTube is reluctant to yield it, so here's the link...

3. It's John Betjeman's birthday (born 1906). As I've recently become a Friend of Lichfield Cathedral, this poem seemed strangely apposite, though Betj does seem not to entirely approve of the activities of  'The Friends of the Cathedral' – 

At the end of our Cathedral
    Where people buy and sell
It says “Friends of the Cathedral”,
    And I’m sure they wish it well.

Perhaps they gave the bookstall
    Of modernistic oak,
And the chairs for the assistants
    And the ashtrays for a smoke.

Is it they who range the marigolds
    In pots of art design
About “The Children’s Corner”,
    That very sacred shrine?

And do they hang the notices
    Off old crusader’s toes?
And paint the cheeks of effigies
    That curious shade of rose?

Those things that look like wireless sets
    Suspended from each column,
Which bellow out the Litany
    Parsonically solemn—

Are these a present from the Friends?
    And if they are, how nice
That aided by their echo
    One can hear the service twice.

The hundred little bits of script
    Each framed in passe-partout
And nailed below the monuments,
    A clerical “Who’s Who”—

Are they as well the work of Friends?
    And do they also choose
The chantry chapel curtains
    In dainty tea-shop blues?

The Friends of the Cathedral—
    Are they friendly with the Dean?
And if they do things on their own
    What does their friendship mean?
'Ashtrays for a smoke'! How times change, even in the cathedral. I like 'And do they hang the notices Off old crusaders' toes? And paint the cheeks of effigies That curious shade of rose?' The answer is surely no, at least to the latter.

Saturday 26 August 2023

My Conversation with the Queen

 Last night I had a remarkably real-seeming dream about the late Queen, who I believe was a regular in many people's dream repertoire. Death, it seems, has done nothing to change this. 
  So there I was, clutching a copy of a book everyone was talking about (already you can tell it's a dream) – it was called something like Is That with Milk or Cream? and was a very cosy affair, though it seemed to involve a marital break-up. The volume was so thin it was stapled, and there were charming line drawings by way of illustration. I was heading for a particular cafe to sit and read it, when who should appear from a side road, walking purposefully in a rather fetching blue coat, but the Queen, vintage mid 1980s or thereabouts. She was on her own, attracting friendly attention but nothing more, and was exchanging remarks with those who greeted her. All very relaxed. When I was finally seated in the cafe, in she came, still on her own, no retinue. She seemed to be a regular. As she made her way to her table, she noticed what I was reading and asked me what I made of it. I spluttered something and she let me know, coolly and politely, by word and gesture, that she didn't think much of it – the word 'thin' definitely came up. I wish I could remember the conversation that passed between us, though I fancy there wasn't much of it. No doubt I felt as Johnson did in his audience with George III: 'It was not my place to bandy civilities with my sovereign.' I did warm to her, though. 

Thursday 24 August 2023

The Wrights of Derby

 Last weekend my Derbyshire cousin and I stepped into the Derby Museum and Art Gallery to admire the Joseph Wrights which are its chief glory. Had we visited a couple of days later, there would have been two more Wright paintings to enjoy, as the gallery, in something of a coup, has acquired these two, A Girl Reading a Letter with an Old Man Reading over Her Shoulder and Two Boys Fighting over a Bladder, on long loan from a private owner. This is particularly welcome, as these two have only been seen in public four times in the past 250 years. While neither is a full-on masterpiece, both look to be full of interest and both vividly demonstrate the kind of dramatic chiaroscuro effects that were at the heart of Wright's art. 'Two boys fighting over a bladder' might seem a strange subject for a painting, but inflated bladders, used as children's playthings, turn up in Dutch 17th and 18th-century art, and the possibilities of light shining through an inflated bladder were not lost on Wright, whose works also include A Boy Blowing a Bladder in Candlelight (Wolverhampton Art Gallery), Two Boys with a Bladder (J. Paul Getty Museum) and Two Boys by Candlelight, Blowing a Bladder (Huntington Art Museum). Derby also has Boy and Girl with a Bladder by William Tate in its collection.
  Anyway, with or without inflated bladders and girls reading letters, the Joseph Wright gallery is a glorious sight – even if, as it was when we visited, it also contains rows of forward-facing chairs awaiting a wedding ceremony. These days provincial museums and galleries must do whatever it takes to survive. 

Wednesday 23 August 2023

Levet: 'Obscurely wise, and coarsely kind'

 On Anecdotal Evidence today, Patrick Kurp mentions W.E. Henley's anthology Lyra Heroica: A Book of Verse for Boys. This was one of my father's favourite books, and I still have his copy of the 1940 reprint, bought during his wartime service and inscribed 'E.R. Andrew. 99579, R.E.M.E.' It even carries the label of the bookshop where he bought it – the Modern Library & Stationery Store, Jaffa and Haifa. As an anthology, it's not a bad introduction to English poetry, from Shakespeare and Drayton to Kipling and, yes, Henley. While the celebration of 'the dignity of resistance, the sacred quality of patriotism' is everywhere apparent, there are many poems with nothing of patriotic sinew-stiffening about them. Opening the book at random, I found this by Samuel Johnson, under the title 'The Quiet Life'. It is more usually known as 'On the Death of Dr Robert Levet', and it touchingly celebrates the life of a good man...

Condemned to Hope’s delusive mine,
    As on we toil from day to day,
By sudden blasts, or slow decline,
    Our social comforts drop away.

Well tried through many a varying year,
    See Levet to the grave descend;
Officious, innocent, sincere,
    Of every friendless name the friend.

Yet still he fills Affection’s eye,
    Obscurely wise, and coarsely kind;
Nor, lettered Arrogance, deny
    Thy praise to merit unrefined.

When fainting Nature called for aid,
    And hovering Death prepared the blow,
His vigorous remedy displayed
    The power of art without the show.

In Misery’s darkest cavern known,
    His useful care was ever nigh,
Where hopeless Anguish poured his groan,
    And lonely Want retired to die.

No summons mocked by chill delay,
    No petty gain disdained by pride,
The modest wants of every day
    The toil of every day supplied.

His virtues walked their narrow round,
    Nor made a pause, nor left a void;
And sure the Eternal Master found
    The single talent well employed.

The busy day, the peaceful night,
    Unfelt, uncounted, glided by;
His frame was firm, his powers were bright,
    Though now his eightieth year was nigh.

Then with no throbbing fiery pain,
    No cold gradations of decay,
Death broke at once the vital chain,
    And freed his soul the nearest way.

Robert Levet was one of the little community of misfits and unfortunates that Johnson gathered around him. 'Levet is a brutal fellow,' Johnson remarked to Boswell, 'but I have a good regard for him, for his brutality is in his manners and not in his mind.' Johnson admired Levet for his piety and his devotion to ministering to the medical needs of the poor (though he was barely qualified). This admiration of course baffled Boswell, who described Levet as 'of strange grotesque appearance, stiff and formal in his manner, and seldom said a word while any company was present'. Levet's patients often had nothing to pay him with but gin, so he often came home quite drunk – 'perhaps the only man,' said Johnson, 'who ever became intoxicated through motives of prudence.' 
Levet makes a memorable, if mute, appearance in Beckett's fragmentary drama Human Wishes, set in the household of Dr Johnson: 

Enter LEVETT, slightly, respectably, even reluctantly drunk, in great coat and hat, which he does not remove, carrying a small black bag. He advances unsteadily into the room & stands peering at the company. Ignored ostentatiously by Mrs D (knitting), Miss Carmichael (reading), Mrs W (meditating), he remains a little standing as though lost in thought, then suddenly emits a hiccup of such force that he is almost thrown off his feet. Startled from her knitting Mrs D, from her book Miss C, from her stage meditation Mrs W, survey him with indignation. L remains standing a little longer, absorbed & motionless, then on a wide tack returns cautiously to the door, which he does not close behind him. His unsteady footsteps are heard on the stairs. Between the three women exchange of looks. Gestures of disgust. Mouths opened and shut. Finally they resume their occupations.

Mrs W:  Words fail us.

Tuesday 22 August 2023

Bach, Offenbach and Debussy?

 Another day, another birthday – and another man-and-dog photo. This is Claude Debussy, with his dogs Boy and Xanto. Debussy, often described as the first 'impressionist' composer – a label which, like Manet, he vehemently rejected – was born on this day in 1844. Here is one of my Debussy favourites, 'Jardins sous la Pluie' – as many jardins have been this soggy summer...

Saturday 19 August 2023


 This remarkable photograph shows the French painter Gustave Caillebotte (born on this day in 1844) in the Place du Caroussel in 1892 with his dog Bergère. Though smartly dressed, Caillebotte looks pretty rough, as if he's had a heavy night. The photograph was taken by Gustave's brother Martial, who was not only a photographer but a very eminent philatelist. Indeed, the important collection he and Gustave formed is now part of the British Library's philatelic collection. 

Friday 18 August 2023

From Dan Brown to William Shenstone, via Enville

 I see that the southwest Staffordshire village of Enville (unkindly described in one report as a 'Coventry village') is in the news as the locus of a 'Da Vinci Code-style mystery'. Reading the various reports, it is hard to make out what exactly is going on here. There are some grave markers at St Mary, Enville, that appear to commemorate members of the order of Knights Templar. These seem to have been known about for some time, but are now being brought to public attention again, in the knowledge that, post-Dan Brown, anything to do with the Templars will have instant media appeal, especially in what used to be called the 'silly season' when not a lot is happening on the news front. Local historian Edward Spencer Dyas is ready with the quotes, claiming that 'these discoveries make Enville one of the most nationally important churches in the country'. Well, I suppose if you're obsessed with the Templars (as a surprising number of people are) that  might be the case, but it is what might charitably be described as a 'large claim'. 
   Never mind. This story led me to find out a bit about Enville, a place I have never visited. The church is well sited and quite handsome, restored and enlarged by Scott, who added a splendid tower that would not look out of place in Somerset, and inside is a fine Elizabethan alabaster monument and four excellent 15th-century misericords (all this is illustrated in John Leonard's Staffordshire Parish Churches). I must pay a visit. Unfortunately the nearby Enville Hall and its gardens are only occasionally open to the public. These picturesque gardens, enticingly described by Pevsner, were probably designed in part by William Shenstone, who was both poet and landscape gardener, and who died at Enville, though his own, more famous estate was The Leasowes, near Halesowen. Writing of Shenstone in his Lives of the Poets, Johnson tells how, when he took possession of his estate, 'he began from this time to point his prospects, to diversify his surface, to entangle his walks, and to wind his waters; which he did with such judgment and such fancy, as made his little domain the envy of the great, and the admiration of the skilful'. Johnson writes coolly of Shenstone, and ends his short Life with  a summing-up that is not likely to encourage anyone to investigate further: 
'The general recommendation of Shenstone is easiness and simplicity; his general defect is want of comprehension and variety. Had his mind been better stored with knowledge, whether he could have been great I know not; he could certainly have been agreeable.'

'Leasowes', by the way, are rough pastures.

Thursday 17 August 2023

Another BBC Success Story

 This story – strangely absent, as far as I can make out, from the BBC News website – caught my bleary eye this morning. The BBC's latest laborious attempts to attract a more youthful audience, in an initiative portentously labelled 'lurch to youth', have resulted in the Corporation haemorrhaging what little 'street cred' it had, falling from 43rd to 71st in a league table of things deemed 'cool' by da yoof. It is now considered by this discerning audience less cool than Sainsbury's, Greggs and Ikea – quite a result. I can't say I'm surprised: I remember, back in the days when I was in the biz, getting a visit from a deputation of BBC honchos, eyes agleam with messianic fervour, who were absolutely convinced their latest initiative (I can't remember which one it was) would grab the youth market. I swiftly concluded that these people were (a) clearly mad and (b) on a hiding to nothing. And now, as well as losing da yoof, the Beeb is managing to lose its older viewers too. Trebles all round!
  A detail that struck me about this news story was that the survey findings came courtesy of Beano Brain, 'the consultancy wing of Beano Comics'. Truly the world has gone mad. 

Ten Years On

 It was on this day ten years ago that our second grandchild, and first and only granddaughter, came into the world. I remember going to see her on the day she was born – a beautiful baby, adorable from day one. It was, of course, love at first sight, and the love, of course, endures. Happy birthday, Summer (who won't be reading this). 

Tuesday 15 August 2023

The Deities Approve

 I woke up this morning to something beautiful on Radio 3 (where 'beautiful' is by no means a given these days). It was the fine countertenor Iestyn Davies singing 'Here the Deities Approve' from Purcell's Welcome to All the Pleasures, a piece dedicated to St Cecilia. The words are by Christopher Fishburn, an obscure figure, but here writing better than many whose verse Purcell somehow transmuted into musical gold. 'Here the Deities Approve' ends with a particularly ravishing instrumental passage. Here is the great Andreas Scholl singing it –

After this, my morning blindfold poem selection also went well, coming up with Auden's sonnet 'Who's Who', nestling in the pages of Don Paterson's excellent anthology 101 Sonnets. I see that I wrote about 'Who's Who' ten years ago, so the best thing would be to link you to that piece...

Sunday 13 August 2023

Sir Henry at the Rock of Behistun

 Talking of Darius, as we nearly were the day before yesterday, this arresting image greeted me on Facebook this morning – 'Sir Henry Rawlinson on the Rock of Behistun'. That's him up the perilous-looking ladder, doing archaeology the hard way, in the days before risk assessments or health and safety. The Rock of Behistun, in western Iran, is a sheer cliff face that bears a huge relief carving with an inscription written by Darius the Great when he was King of the Persian Empire (522-486BC). The inscription is in three languages – Old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian – and until Sir Henry got to work no one had fully transcribed or deciphered it. His painstaking close-up scrutiny of the cuneiform characters enabled him to come up with a full and accurate transcription and eventually, thanks to his knowledge of Old Persian, a translation. 
  I must admit that the only Sir Henry Rawlinson I knew of before I saw this picture was Vivian Stanshall's creation, as featured in the cult comedy Sir Henry at Rawlinson End ('It's impossible to do justice to the film's arrant and quite unique lunacy' – Financial Times). Unlike the fictional Sir Henry, the real-world version was a man of many parts and great abilities – an officer in the British East India Company, politician, diplomat and Orientalist who was dubbed the Father of Assyriology. His work on the Rock of Behistun came quite early in a career that also took him to Afghanistan (where he fought in the Afghan War), Ottoman Arabia and a long residence in Baghdad, followed by four decades of busy political and scholarly activity back in England. He died, laden with well earned honours, in 1895 and is buried in Brookwood cemetery. His son Henry was one of the leading generals in the Great War.
  Below is a more dramatic image of Sir Henry on the Rock of Behistun, narrowly escaping death after his ladder gave way. 

Saturday 12 August 2023

Blavatsky: 'Simply a note of interrogation'

 Born on this day in 1844 was Madame Blavatsky, mystic, author, self-mythologiser and co-founder of Theosophy, a movement that made a very considerable impact towards the end of the 19th century and into the 20th. Blavatsky described it as 'the synthesis of science, religion and philosophy' and claimed that it was a rediscovery and restatement of  an 'Ancient Wisdom' that underlay all the religions of the world. In person Madame Blavatsky, with her penetrating eyes, clearly exerted quite a spell, and among those who fell under it was, inevitably, W.B. Yeats, who in his early days never met a mystical philosophy he didn't like – hermeticism, rosicrucianism, spiritualism, Order of the Golden Dawn, what have you got?  Later he took a more sceptical view: the problem with Theosophy, as he saw it, was that its followers wanted to turn good philosophy into bad religion, and even Blavatsky seemed to have doubts about her followers, declaring that 'There are about half a dozen real theosophists in the world, and one of those is stupid.' As for la Blavatsky, 'I have no theories about her,' Yeats wrote. 'She is simply a note of interrogation.'

I believe Madame Blavatsky makes an appearance in the novel Bedford Park by one Bryan Appleyard.

Friday 11 August 2023

Veronese, Isler

 As I sat in front of this painting in the National Gallery – The Family of Darius Before Alexander – it began to seem to me that Veronese was surely the most visually ravishing painter who ever took up a brush. Of course you have to see it in the original rather than dingy reproduction, but his use of colour, his textures, his handling of sumptuous surfaces is, even by Venetian standards, astonishing. Along with his mastery of large figure compositions, this surely puts him somewhere near the top in the all-time rankings (my all-time rankings, that is), but there's no denying that he lacks a certain depth, an extra dimension, that (it seems to me) lifts at least Titian, Rembrandt and Velazquez, Tintoretto and Vermeer above him. You could call it a spiritual dimension, a numinous sense that is particularly present in the treatment of light (and of course dark). Veronese's light is typically even, infusing his pictures, however dramatic in subject matter and figurative movement, with an essential calmness that can be, in his less successful paintings, almost bland. But Lord, I enjoyed sitting long in front of The Family of Darius (this link explains what is going on in the picture) – and Lord, I enjoyed being back in the National Gallery, crowded though it was with summer tourists. It's one of the few things I really miss about London. 
   In the course of the day, and my travels to and fro, I also enjoyed finishing a superb comic novel, which I had read before but more than 20 years ago (as a taxi receipt used as a bookmark informs me) – Clerical Errors by the English-American novelist Alan Isler, who found fame with his first published novel, The Prince of West End Avenue, at the age of 60. Clerical Errors tells the first-person story of Edmond Music, an ageing Catholic priest who is director of a research institute based in an English country mansion, Beale Hall. Like many a priest in a comic novel, he has lost his faith and is no stranger to the pleasures of the flesh, but there is a lot more to him that that – most notably the fact that he was born a Jew, and devotes much of his time to kabbalistic studies. The plot that develops revolves around what might be a lost masterpiece of Shakespeare, the only known copy of which has somehow gone missing from the Beale Hall library, and the machinations of an old enemy from Edmond's seminary days. As well as being a witty, erudite, well paced comedy that keeps the laughs coming, Clerical Errors is also at times genuinely moving, and has real depth, even tenderness. It is, in short, a terrific read (or even reread). And it has a great opening sentence: 'Sipping a Calvados in a bar in the Rue de Malengin and reading an English newspaper left on the seat by its previous occupant, I discovered to my surprise that I had just died.' Hard not to read on after that...

Monday 7 August 2023

On the Shelf

 When you spend as much time as I do scanning the bookshelves of charity shops, you can't help noticing certain trends in what turns up for sale (I'm referring only to the shelves labelled 'Literature' – or, in the case of one of my favourite shops, 'Cult Literature', a rather eccentric way to describe anything vaguely literary or 'serious' published in the 20th century). At the moment the charity shops seem to be awash with William Goldings – and they are staying on the shelves, as are the ever present Lawrence Durrells (invariably in Faber paperback). Iris Murdoch continues to turn up reliably, as do Muriel Spark and Beryl Bainbridge, with a scattering of Elizabeth Bowens. I guess the disproportionate presence of these writers shows that they have fallen out of fashion: does anyone read Durrell now? It seems more than surprising that he was once so popular and evidently sold well. I must admit I never got on with Golding, nor with Iris Murdoch's bizarre novels (though I'm a fan of both Spark and Bainbridge). 
   Other persistent presences on the charity shop shelves are single titles, often novels that have won the Booker or had rave reviews, been bought by the susceptible and disposed of, probably unread. Life of Pi and The God of Small Things turn up regularly, as do Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, and I've recently spotted The Sense of an Ending (Julian Barnes), and even The Bone People. Incredibly, there still seems to be a copy of D.M. Thomas's The White Hotel (1981, pipped at the Booker post by Midnight's Children) in virtually every charity shop. As for poetry, there is never much of it, and what there is is dominated by popular anthologies and war poetry (invariably WWI), with the odd Heaney and Armitage popping up, and sometimes Yeats and Housman. The most ubiquitous name is, unsurprisingly, John Betjeman, our last (probably in both senses) bestselling poet. I suspect that, unlike much of what turns up most often in charity shops, his works are still being read and enjoyed; there has certainly been no recent surge in Betjemans – he has always been there. Overall, though, I guess most of what is on the charity shop shelves – at least what stays there for weeks on end – must be taken to represent what people once read and no longer want to read, an index of changing times, and tastes. 

Sunday 6 August 2023

Look at the Harlequins!

 I have just finished a very slow, fitful reread of Look at the Harlequins!, Nabokov's last novel (unless you count the posthumous fragments published as The Original of Laura). It must be more than forty years since I first read it, and my memories were vague and not particularly happy. Would I enjoy it any more on second reading? The answer, alas, was (spoiler alert) No. It is a very strange book, a kind of autobiographical fantasia purportedly written by a novelist who is clearly a version of Nabokov himself, in many ways almost his double, in others notably different. LATH is written in the richly ornate style of Ada, but is less coherent, far less ambitious, and has a quite different, generally cooler (less ardent) tone. Thematically, I suppose, it is closest to The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, another, much more successful experiment in (auto)biography. It seems Nabokov wrote LATH partly as a result of the traumatic experience of being biographised by Andrew Field, who he thought had at some profound level falsified his life story – indeed Nabokov tried to stop the resultant biography being published. This experience seems to have impelled him to restore his equilibrium by plunging again into autobiography, this time in the form of a first-person novel.
  There is some fun to be had in teasing out the parallels between the life and works of LATH's 'author', Vadim Vadimovich N, and Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov. This extends even to N's novels, as listed on the title-page verso: See Under Real (The Real Life of Sebastian Knight), Dr Olga Repnin (Pnin), A Kingdom by the Sea (Lolita), Ardis (Ada), etc. N's distinguishing peculiarity is a curious condition that makes him unable to mentally turn around: he can do it physically, of course, but to think, to mentally envisage a return journey, even of a matter of yards, throws him into some kind of existential panic. As is pointed out to him near the end of the book, he has confused distance with duration, going back in space with going back in time. Which is not terribly interesting really. 
  As with any Nabokov novel, there are small pleasures, mostly stylistic, along the way: he is incapable of writing a dull sentence (even when one might be a welcome relief), and there are passages, mostly near the beginning, that have something of the familiar magic. Overall, however, LATH looks like an under-controlled exercise in self-indulgence, a novel he should perhaps not have published. Transparent Things, published a couple of years earlier, would have been the perfect climax to one of the 20th century's great literary careers.

Saturday 5 August 2023

Going Grey

 Long-time readers of this blog might recall that I have often written harsh words against the Grey Squirrel (or, as I was more likely to call it, the Bushy-Tailed American Tree Rat). Well, I have had a change of mind (yes, it can happen) and am now much more kindly disposed towards the grey blighters – thanks to reading Squirrel Nation: Reds, Greys and the Meaning of Home by Peter Coates, which I reviewed for that excellent magazine Literary Review. Here is my review, which went out under the great title 'They Come Over Here, Take Our Nuts' – 

'Here is a thought experiment: what if the grey squirrel was native to this country, and Britain had been invaded by ‘alien red squirrels from continental Europe’, who had largely usurped ‘our’ native grey? Would we feel about the grey as we now feel about the red, and vice versa? The thought experiment was imagined by sciurologist (squirrel expert) John Gurnell, and the answer is probably yes, we would cherish the imperilled native grey just as we do our real-world native red. The fact is that, as Peter Coates makes clear in this magisterial survey of Britain’s ‘squirrel wars’, there is little real difference between greys and reds, apart from the grey’s greater adaptability and superior food-finding skills. Before ‘the sanctification of Squirrel Nutkin’ (Coates’s phrase) by Beatrix Potter and others, the red squirrel (then more usually known as the common or brown squirrel) was widely regarded as a pest, guilty of the same bad habits that are now laid at the door of the grey – eating birds’ eggs and nestlings, damaging trees, getting into places where it ought not to be, being altogether too curious, mischievous and greedy. Squirrel Nutkin himself, for all his cuteness, is a deplorable character, suicidally reckless in his tormenting of Old Brown the owl. Beatrix Potter had no qualms about getting a gamekeeper to shoot a red for her so she could boil it down to a skeleton to ensure her drawings of Nutkin and friends were anatomically accurate.
  It was only with the coming of the American grey squirrel, originally introduced into England by the Duke of Bedford in 1876, that attitudes to the red began to soften as antipathy to the foreign usurper grew, until, with the grey clearly taking over from the red across most of the country, entrenched positions were adopted, overwhelmingly in favour of the red. A bizarre form of culture war raged for decades, in the columns of the press, in children’s and even adult fiction and in both houses of parliament – especially the Lords, where ‘another imperilled species’, the hereditary peers, were vehement in their loathing of the American invader and insistent that the brutes must be eliminated by any means. Successive governments launched campaigns to try to contain the spread of the grey – poisoning, bounty schemes (‘a bob a brush’), introducing predators, encouraging the eating of greys, lacing squirrel food with contraceptives. It was always a losing battle; even containment, let alone elimination, proved impossible in most places. The American grey squirrel is perfectly suited to its adopted home and the foods available (unlike the red, the grey can digest the tannins in acorns, a major advantage). This country was a new America to the greys, at least as good as their old homeland.
  But was it only the fact they were so well adapted, with superior survival skills, that accounted for the grey’s dominance and the red’s disappearance from so many of its old haunts? Did not the greys physically attack reds, eat their young and drive them from their territory? Did they not infect the native reds with squirrel pox virus (which they carried but were immune to)? Coates surveys the research and finds that there is little good evidence for either of these supposed factors. Rather the evidence is that the red squirrel, a continental species at the western extreme of its range, was in decline before the grey take-over, and the arrival of the formidably competitive grey accelerated, rather than caused, the loss of reds. As its subtitle suggests, Coates’s book – surely the best and most complete there will ever be on this subject – considers the deeper meanings of the ‘squirrel wars’. As he points out, ‘Britain’s squirrelscapes are moral landscapes’: love of reds and antipathy to greys springs from deep-seated feelings about home, nation and land, and distaste for the foreigner, the invader, especially one so pushy and un-English as the grey squirrel. No wonder antipathy to the greys has been, and still is, so strong, despite the fact that many, especially those living in towns, are very fond of the supposed invaders. All squirrels are, as Coates puts it, ‘bumptious, nimble charismatics’ with enormous charm, for all their bad habits. Surely we can learn to live with, even love, both. For the record, Auberon Waugh, distinguished former editor of this magazine, was a staunch defender of the grey.'
(Actually they cut that last sentence, but I've reinstated it here.)

Friday 4 August 2023


 Here, with a tip of the hat to Bel Mooney (who I don't think reads this blog, but never mind) is something to put a smile on the sourest face – a blistering cover version of the Johnny Cash and June Carter classic 'Jackson' by Casi Joy and Woody James. Not only are these two youngsters doing it brilliantly – Johnny and June would surely love it – but they're clearly enjoying themselves, and the enjoyment's infectious.