Friday 29 September 2023

Fifty Years Ago

 Fifty years ago today, in a Vienna hospital, W.H. Auden died, his heart having finally succumbed to the effects of what he called 'the chemical life' – a daily routine of benzedrine in the morning, alcohol in the evening and barbiturates at night. He was sixty-six. The day after his death, the poet L.E. Sissman recalled, 'I was incensed to see a suggestion in the New York Times to the effect that the poet's work might not outlive him' – which seems a notably stupid judgment on one of the half dozen greatest poets of the twentieth century. Sissman described him as 'a virtuoso poet, capable of besieging and capturing the most difficult of traditional forms, from the sestina and the villanelle to the canzone; capable in almost the same breath of mimicking the tempo and language of an American blues or folk song; capable of a Popean delicacy of means or a Swiftian volley of scorn; capable of Anglo-Saxon sparseness and Tennysonian orotundity.' He was indeed, all those things and more. 
  I hope the dying Auden found himself in a limestone landscape, hearing the murmur of underground streams...

In Praise of Limestone

If it form the one landscape that we, the inconstant ones,
    Are consistently homesick for, this is chiefly
Because it dissolves in water. Mark these rounded slopes
    With their surface fragrance of thyme and, beneath,
A secret system of caves and conduits; hear the springs
    That spurt out everywhere with a chuckle,
Each filling a private pool for its fish and carving
    Its own little ravine whose cliffs entertain
The butterfly and the lizard; examine this region
    Of short distances and definite places:
What could be more like Mother or a fitter background
    For her son, the flirtatious male who lounges
Against a rock in the sunlight, never doubting
    That for all his faults he is loved; whose works are but
Extensions of his power to charm? From weathered outcrop
    To hill-top temple, from appearing waters to
Conspicuous fountains, from a wild to a formal vineyard,
    Are ingenious but short steps that a child's wish
To receive more attention than his brothers, whether
    By pleasing or teasing, can easily take.

Watch, then, the band of rivals as they climb up and down
    Their steep stone gennels in twos and threes, at times
Arm in arm, but never, thank God, in step; or engaged
    On the shady side of a square at midday in
Voluble discourse, knowing each other too well to think
    There are any important secrets, unable
To conceive a god whose temper-tantrums are moral
    And not to be pacified by a clever line
Or a good lay: for accustomed to a stone that responds,
    They have never had to veil their faces in awe
Of a crater whose blazing fury could not be fixed;
    Adjusted to the local needs of valleys
Where everything can be touched or reached by walking,
    Their eyes have never looked into infinite space
Through the lattice-work of a nomad's comb; born lucky,
    Their legs have never encountered the fungi
And insects of the jungle, the monstrous forms and lives
    With which we have nothing, we like to hope, in common.
So, when one of them goes to the bad, the way his mind works
    Remains incomprehensible: to become a pimp
Or deal in fake jewellery or ruin a fine tenor voice
    For effects that bring down the house, could happen to all
But the best and the worst of us…
                                            That is why, I suppose,
    The best and worst never stayed here long but sought
Immoderate soils where the beauty was not so external,
    The light less public and the meaning of life
Something more than a mad camp. 'Come!' cried the granite wastes,
    "How evasive is your humour, how accidental
Your kindest kiss, how permanent is death." (Saints-to-be
    Slipped away sighing.) "Come!" purred the clays and gravels,
"On our plains there is room for armies to drill; rivers
    Wait to be tamed and slaves to construct you a tomb
In the grand manner: soft as the earth is mankind and both
    Need to be altered." (Intendant Caesars rose and
Left, slamming the door.) But the really reckless were fetched
    By an older colder voice, the oceanic whisper:
"I am the solitude that asks and promises nothing;
    That is how I shall set you free. There is no love;
There are only the various envies, all of them sad."

    They were right, my dear, all those voices were right
And still are; this land is not the sweet home that it looks,
    Nor its peace the historical calm of a site
Where something was settled once and for all: A back ward
    And dilapidated province, connected
To the big busy world by a tunnel, with a certain
    Seedy appeal, is that all it is now? Not quite:
It has a worldly duty which in spite of itself
    It does not neglect, but calls into question
All the Great Powers assume; it disturbs our rights. The poet,
    Admired for his earnest habit of calling
The sun the sun, his mind Puzzle, is made uneasy
    By these marble statues which so obviously doubt
His antimythological myth; and these gamins,
    Pursuing the scientist down the tiled colonnade
With such lively offers, rebuke his concern for Nature's
    Remotest aspects: I, too, am reproached, for what
And how much you know. Not to lose time, not to get caught,
    Not to be left behind, not, please! to resemble
The beasts who repeat themselves, or a thing like water
    Or stone whose conduct can be predicted, these
Are our common prayer, whose greatest comfort is music
    Which can be made anywhere, is invisible,
And does not smell. In so far as we have to look forward
    To death as a fact, no doubt we are right: But if
Sins can be forgiven, if bodies rise from the dead,
    These modifications of matter into
Innocent athletes and gesticulating fountains,
    Made solely for pleasure, make a further point:
The blessed will not care what angle they are regarded from,
    Having nothing to hide. Dear, I know nothing of
Either, but when I try to imagine a faultless love
    Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur
Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape. 

Wednesday 27 September 2023

Opening Sentences

 'Mr and Mrs Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.'
Some readers might recognise the above as the opening sentence of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (a book I once tried to read, to see what all the fuss was about. I still have no idea, and was so bored I had to give up about a third of the way in.) Anyway, a poll of Amazon readers has identified that sentence as high among the 'most memorable and captivating opening lines from the world of literature'. It finds itself sandwiched in the top five between 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times' and 'It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen' (1st and 2nd) and 'All children, except one, grow up' and 'In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit' (4th and 5th). What, no Pride and Prejudice? I suppose Rowling's high placing shows that the reading public (or Amazon's portion of it) has not been put off her works by the ridiculous slurs of her 'woke' antagonists. Which is good. 
   Here is the far from memorable or captivating opening sentence of the book I'm reading at the moment, and if you can identify it you must be very far gone in Kingsley Amis addiction: 
'"Right. On your way, brother. I'm not having you in my house. Go on, hop it."'
These words are spoken by a pub landlord, chucking out a man he suspects, on no particular grounds, of homosexuality. And such things certainly happened. Some time in the mid-Seventies my brother was in a somewhat rough pub in a Buckinghamshire village when two chaps walked in and asked for lager. 'No,' said the guvnor, 'I don't have lager.' 'Why?' they inquired innocently. 'Because I don't serve f*cking p**fs,' he replied. 'On your way.' 
  What is this novel that begins so unpromisingly? It is Difficulties with Girls, a late (1988) effort by Kingsley Amis, one in which his comic genius is only fleetingly discernible. In it, he resurrects Patrick Standish and Jenny Bunn, now Mrs Patrick Standish, from his unsatisfactory early novel, Take a Girl Like You, moves the action on a few years (to 1968), and sees what he can do with them. The answer, sadly, is not very much – and not very much extended over rather too many pages. Once again, as in Take a Girl, he attempts to see things from a female perspective (Jenny's), and once again he fails: Jenny never really comes to life, whereas Patrick, the familiar priapic Amis stand-in, is all too alive. I'm only reading this one because (a) it's one of the few I haven't read, and (b) I spotted it in my favourite charity bookshop, and it offered the prospect of light relief from a rather heavy book I've been reading for review. And it's not all bad: Amis's withering portrayal of publishing and literary types is amusing as ever, if obviously dated, and, even when he's writing a clearly below-par work, his classic, irony-laced style keeps things readable, on a sentence by sentence basis. I read on. 

Sunday 24 September 2023


 Born on this day in 1717 was Horace Walpole (formally Horatio Walpole, 4th Earl of Orford), man of letters, antiquarian, politician, art historian, etc. I doubt his writings – notably the lurid Gothick novel The Castle of Otranto and his Letters – are much read outside Academe these days, but his lasting memorial still stands: the extraordinary house he built and furnished at Strawberry Hill, recently restored to something like its former glory. I visited a few years ago, and wrote about it for a swanky interior design blog. If you fancy a touch of Gothick splendour this Sunday morning, you can find the piece here...

Friday 22 September 2023

Golden Gram

I know I'm getting older (as we all are, as we all know), but it still came as a bit of a jolt to realise that a few days ago it was the 50th anniversary of Gram Parsons's death – half a century! The death was a sordid affair, the result of a massive intake of morphine, barbiturates and alcohol, and what happened next was a sorry tale. A footnote in this book (now available on eBay!) tells the story succinctly: 

'3 A kind of farcical modern iteration of Shelley’s funeral took place in 1973 at Joshua Tree in the Californian desert, when two friends of the singer Gram Parsons attempted to cremate his body, which they had stolen from Los Angeles airport. Pouring five gallons of petrol into his open coffin and lighting it, they created an enormous fireball and fled, leaving Parsons’s charred remains behind. They believed they had been acting on his wishes.'

But what a talent, what a voice! I remember the shock of hearing of Gram's death, but I remember at least as vividly the electric impact of hearing this, the opening track of his posthumous Grievous Angel album, for the first time. All those years ago...

Thursday 21 September 2023

Renaissance Man

 A version of this image turned up on my Facebook homepage today, pointing the remarkable resemblance between the 'Friend' from Raphael's 'Self Portrait with Friend' and the versatile actor and musician Oscar Isaac, who turned in such a brilliant performance in the Coen Brothers' wonderful film Inside Llewyn Davis (which I wrote about here). The original painting, which hangs in the Louvre, shows Raphael – if it is indeed him; it's not entirely certain – with a 'friend', who might or might not be a pupil or fellow artist, but has never been identified. To make matters still more uncertain, the picture is believed to be only partly painted by Raphael. Anyway, I eagerly await further examples of film star/Renaissance portrait crossover...

Wednesday 20 September 2023

'(But often we all do wrong)'

 Born on this day in 1902 was the one-of-a-kind poet and novelist Stevie Smith. Patrick Kurp marks the anniversary, and celebrates Smith's very particular gift (quoting Kay Ryan's typically spot-on analysis), over on Anecdotal Evidence.
Here are Stevie Smith's 'Thoughts about the Person from Porlock', the one whose interruption allegedly prevented Coleridge from completing his opium-inspired 'Kubla Khan' –

Coleridge received the Person from Porlock   
And ever after called him a curse,
Then why did he hurry to let him in?   
He could have hid in the house.

It was not right of Coleridge, in fact it was wrong   
(But often we all do wrong)
As the truth is I think he was already stuck   
With Kubla Khan.

He was weeping and wailing: I am finished, finished,   
I shall never write another word of it,
When along comes the Person from Porlock
And takes the blame for it.

It was not right, it was wrong,   
But often we all do wrong.


May we inquire the name of the Person from Porlock?   
Why, Porson, didn’t you know?
He lived at the bottom of Porlock Hill
So had a long way to go,

He wasn’t much in the social sense
Though his grandmother was a Warlock,   
One of the Rutlandshire ones I fancy   
And nothing to do with Porlock,

And he lived at the bottom of the hill as I said   
And had a cat named Flo,   
And had a cat named Flo.

I long for the Person from Porlock
To bring my thoughts to an end,
I am becoming impatient to see him
I think of him as a friend,

Often I look out of the window
Often I run to the gate
I think, He will come this evening,
I think it is rather late.

I am hungry to be interrupted
For ever and ever amen
O Person from Porlock come quickly
And bring my thoughts to an end.


I felicitate the people who have a Person from Porlock   
To break up everything and throw it away
Because then there will be nothing to keep them   
And they need not stay.


Why do they grumble so much?
He comes like a benison
They should be glad he has not forgotten them.
They might have had to go on.


These thoughts are depressing I know. They are depressing,   
I wish I was more cheerful, it is more pleasant,
Also it is a duty, we should smile as well as submitting   
To the purpose of One Above who is experimenting
With various mixtures of human character which goes best,   
All is interesting for him it is exciting, but not for us.   
There I go again. Smile, smile, and get some work to do
Then you will be practically unconscious without positively having to go.

I seem to remember that in Lolita, one of the signatures Humbert Humbert finds in a guest register when desperately pursuing Clare Quilty and Lolita from motel to motel is 'A. Person, Porlock', clearly one of Quilty's little jokes. And Nabokov takes the surname Person for the narrator of his late masterpiece, Transparent Things
'Smile, smile, and get some work to do/Then you will be practically unconscious without positively having to go.'

Monday 18 September 2023

Endlessly More

 One of the pleasures of this phase of my life has been discovering the extent of my ignorance about music – discovering, that is, how much more, how endlessly more, there is to be discovered. I owe many such revelations to my old Dabbler friend 'Mahlerman', and others to Radio 3, which, for all its failings (minor by BBC standards), is still a showcase for great music. It was on 3 the other day that I heard a duet so meltingly beautiful that it stopped me in my tracks. It was 'Pur Ti Miro' from Monteverdi's opera L'Incoronazione di Poppea. Of Monteverdi I knew only the magnificent Vespers; I have heard little or nothing of his operas. Another musical world to be explored... Meanwhile, here is 'Pur Ti Miro' –

Sunday 17 September 2023

Gascoigne and the English Disease

 This morning, duly eyemasked, I stumbled blindly over to my bedroom bookcase to give Blindfold Poetry Selection another go. This time I discovered that the volume blind fate had selected for me was Don Paterson's excellent anthology of 101 Sonnets (again!), and it had fallen open at this, by the early Elizabethan George Gascoigne,  whom Paterson describes succinctly as 'another great early Renaissance man – the usual mix of politician/soldier of fortune/man of letters'. He might have added translator (of Ariosto), playwright, writer of prose fiction and literary theorist: his 'Certayne Notes of Instruction concerning the making of verse or ryme in English' is the first essay on English versification. Here is the Gascoigne sonnet that Paterson selected:

You must not wonder, though you think it strange,
To see me hold my lowering head so low;
And that mine eyes take no delight to range
About the gleams which on your face do grow.
The mouse which once hath broken out of trap
Is seldom teasèd with the trustless bait,
But lies aloof for fear of more mishap,
And feedeth still in doubt of deep deceit.
The scorchèd fly which once hath 'scap'd the flame
Will hardly come to play again with fire.
Whereby I learn that grievous is the game
Which follows fancy dazzled by desire.
So that I wink or else hold down my head,
Because your blazing eyes my bale have bred.

Well, it is a decent piece of work, elegantly done.  Its glaring weakness, as with so many sonnets in the English form (three quatrains and a couplet), is that all is effectively said and done in the first twelve lines, and the closing couplet is mere restatement. Paterson dubs this the 'English disease', and even Shakespeare, our greatest sonneteer, was not immune to it. However, he had his ways of overcoming this inbuilt weakness of the English form – the ways of genius. As here, in one of his greatest sonnets (and the one Paterson, limited to a single specimen per author, includes in his anthology). It is also appropriate for the time of year, and, for some of us, our time of life...

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see'st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the deathbed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
    This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
    To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Saturday 16 September 2023

Butterfly Numbers Up?! Can Such Things Be?

 I'm still reeling from yesterday's announcement by Butterfly Conservation that UK butterfly numbers , as counted in the annual Big Butterfly Count, are ...  [drumroll] UP! I'm reeling for two reasons. One is that I was expecting dire news following a notably cool and wet summer – but then I should be used to Butterfly Conservation's figures confounding my own experience, usually in the opposite direction: the great butterfly season I experienced turns out to have been terrible after all. Which bring me to the second reason for my reeling condition: this was the first time in some years that Butterfly Conservation has actually put a positive spin on its survey results. They know what the Narrative is, and that the usual story of doom and gloom is what the media want to hear and what will get the publicity – and, presumably, encourage conservation efforts, which is fine.
I must have written about the annual announcement many times over the years, and have always pointed out that the actual picture is never simple, whatever the headlines. Some butterfly species are doing well, others not so well, but overall more are increasing in numbers than decreasing, and that has been the case for some years now. Even the population trends since 1976 (a spectacular butterfly year) show that 22 of the 57 species monitored have increased in numbers. Over a shorter span the trends are much more heartening, as this latest Big Butterfly Count shows: of the 20 most-spotted butterflies, only three registered a decline year on year and since 2010 – and one of these, bizarrely, was the Speckled Wood, which in my experience has become so abundant as to be, in effect, the 'default butterfly', from spring to autumn. The six other species that have declined since 2010 were all up year on year. So yes, it was indeed a good butterfly summer overall, at least in terms of numbers flying when BC's volunteers went butterfly-spotting for 15 minutes on one of the rare sunny days between July 14th and August 6th this year. Let's hope there is more good news, and less of the narrative of decline, in the years to come. 

Wednesday 13 September 2023

For Best Results, Don't Do Your Best

 I learn from the front page of today's Daily Star that 'boffins' have established the apparently counterintuitive (not a word that features in the Daily Star report) truth that the secret of success is 'never give more than 85 per cent'. 'Boffins,' the Star assures us, 'are 100 per cent sure they've got this right.' Very good. As someone who has rarely, if ever, given 100 per cent, I like the sound of this no doubt thoroughly scientific research. From a minimal online trawl I learn that the '85 per cent rule' is in fact already well known in management circles, where it is employed to prevent burnout (though I fancy news of it has yet to reach the executive arm of the Daily Mail). There's a piece about it here which chimes pretty well with my own life experience of giving less than 100 per cent...
Now that the 'boffins' have done their work, I look forward to hearing a post-match football manager assuring us that his team 'gave it 85 per cent' or a panting athlete that he or she 'gave it 85 per cent'. It would make such a nice change from the frankly impossible '110 per cent', but I fear it will never happen. 

Monday 11 September 2023

Ten Years Ago

 Looking back, I see that ten years ago today I was kicking off a mini-anthology of short poems (designed to keep the blog rolling over during a particularly busy period at work). The first one I put up was this, by Geoffrey Hill – the poem that got me thinking about 'Platonic England', an idea which, adapted to my own purposes, was to inform the book I wrote five years later, The Mother of Beauty: On the Golden Age of English Church Monuments, and Other Matter of Life and Death (still available – just email me if you're interested)...


Autumn resumes the land, ruffles the woods   
with smoky wings, entangles them. Trees shine   
out from their leaves, rocks mildew to moss-green;   
the avenues are spread with brittle floods.

Platonic England, house of solitudes,   
rests in its laurels and its injured stone,   
replete with complex fortunes that are gone,   
beset by dynasties of moods and clouds.

It stands, as though at ease with its own world,   
the mannerly extortions, languid praise,   
all that devotion long since bought and sold,

the rooms of cedar and soft-thudding baize,   
tremulous boudoirs where the crystals kissed   
in cabinets of amethyst and frost.


Sunday 10 September 2023


 Today is the birthday of Henry Purcell – born 1659, and dead a scant 36 years later. It ought to be a national holiday, but that sort of thing doesn't happen in England, where even Shakespeare's (supposed) birthday (and death day) is not a national holiday, despite being also St George's Day. I came late to Purcell, having spent most of my musically formative years in thrall to German Romanticism and the Big Symphony, but when I finally started listening to his music, beyond the few 'greatest hits' I already knew, I realised that here was a truly great composer – indeed our last great composer before Elgar, Vaughan Williams and co. revived English music at the turn of the 20th century. And to think, if England had persisted in its republican experiment, we would never have had the musical glories of Purcell...
    Birthdays loomed large in Purcell's musical output: his first known composition is an ode written for the King (Charles II)'s birthday in 1670, when young Henry was not yet 11. Much later in his career, the birthday odes he wrote for Queen Mary are among his most beautiful works. Here is one of the brightest and best...

Friday 8 September 2023

'There was a marked melancholy in everything he said...'

 Talking of Charles, one of the most entertaining passages in Byron Rogers's Me: The Official Biography describes the bizarre experience of being hired, out of the blue, as a speechwriter for the then Prince of Wales. A long-drawn-out, oblique and mystifying process over several months eventually results in Rogers getting a job interview, of sorts, with the Prince. Finally meeting the man, Rogers notes that 'there was a marked melancholy in everything he said. He found it hard to remember faces, and people were so annoyed at this, for they forgot how many faces he saw. Asked whether he was looking forward to going to America, where he was soon to go, he said no, not really; he had made it a practice not to look forward to anything, so that anything, if it happened, could surprise him. And then he said the strangest thing of all...'
   This was that, 'until the year before, he had not believed in the monarchy.' What had changed his mind had been the enthusiastic public response to the Jubilee, the way the crowds had greeted him and the Queen. So, presumably, if the response had been lukewarm we might have ended up with a republican on the throne. Bizarre indeed. Anyway, Charles takes Rogers on, and a month later the author is startled to hear (on the radio) one of his own lines being spoken by the Prince: 'I don't think it is generally known that Britain is self-sufficient in blackcurrants.' The speech (to the Farmers' Club) continues: 'In fact we lead the world in the production of blackcurrants. No imports disturb our trade figures, no foreign price rises threaten our economy ... Every year the wind blows through ten thousand acres of British blackcurrants...' 
  At one point Rogers in invited to a Palace Garden Party, and asks if he can bring his (thoroughly Welsh, thoroughly working-class) mother, who likes a day out. She, for obscure reasons, has to be invited separately, which means she must also be presented to the Prince. The following conversation ensues: 
'"Do you live in Carmarthen or outside it?"
"I now live outside it," said my mother, speaking with more care than I had ever heard her use, "but I have lived inside it."
"Have you really?" said the Prince, who seemed to be under the impression that she had somehow come out of the Matto Grosso. 
He then said, "You have a clever son."
And she, taken aback, said, "Do you think so?"
Through all this, ignored by both, I stood looking from one to the other, like an umpire at Wimbledon.
"What a nice man," said my mother after he had gone.
"Can you remember anything of what was said?"

One Year On

 It was a year ago today that the inevitable but long-dreaded news came, that the Queen had died. Like many, I suspect, one year on I feel very much as if I am still living in her reign, and I'm having trouble getting used to the whole Charles III phenomenon. The other day I was given a  shiny new 50p piece with his profile, inscription and royal cypher, and it felt, well, quite strange, improbable. He is undeniably on the throne, but there is a curious twilight feel to the new reign, something much more like a continuity, or a holding operation, than a new start. And for that we should all be truly grateful. Many were anxious about what the famously opinionated Prince Charles might get up to when he became King, what trouble he might cause with any ill-considered utterances. Well, now we know: he has learnt to keep mum. He is doing what he has to do, which includes staying out of the fray and keeping things on an even keel. The monarchy has managed a smooth, successful transition from Queen to King, and looks to be in safe hands after all. The Queen is dead, long live the Monarchy. 

Wednesday 6 September 2023

Raptor Action

 There was a bit of an avian drama in the garden this morning. Sensing a kerfuffle, I looked out from my breakfast in time to see a magpie apparently chasing a sparrowhawk away along the line of shrubbery to the left of the garden. Then, maybe five minutes later, the sparrowhawk reappeared as if from nowhere, flew impressively across the lawn and perched, half-hidden, on the fence at the other side. Craning to get a better view, I saw that he (it was a male) was enjoying a meal, tearing with his beak at whatever it was that he was holding down between his claws – presumably a small bird. He was thus engaged for some while, finishing his meal in a more exposed position on top of a high tree stump (the relic of a neighbour dispute that had culminated in the previous occupant of this house – a strange man – cutting down a mature cherry tree, simply to spite the people next door). Here the sparrowhawk demolished his prey so completely that when I went out to look for clues, not a trace remained to be seen. It had probably been a sparrow
  After that the garden was eerily quiet for a while, the small birds no doubt lying low in fear of the hawk coming back for seconds. Lichfield, a notably bosky city, seems to be very popular with sparrowhawks: I've seen them many times, on one occasion happening on a female feasting in the middle of the road right in the centre of town.
And now the garden birds have come back to life, and a party of magpies is marching about on the lawn. 

Tuesday 5 September 2023


In the latest issue of Literary Review – a magazine you really ought to buy or, better, subscribe to – I review The Dictionary People by Sarah Ogilvie. Here, more or less verbatim, is what I wrote...

Browsing in the basement archives of the Oxford University Press one day in 2015, lexicographer Sarah Ogilvie struck gold – well, lexicographer’s gold. It was only a rather battered black book bound with cream ribbon, but it contained the names and addresses of some three thousand volunteers who had contributed to the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. Each address was written out and annotated in the immaculate cursive of the presiding spirit and driving force of the great dictionary, James Murray, its editor from 1879 until his death in 1915.
 The OED was, like many Victorian information-gathering ventures, crowdsourced (though the word was unknown to the Victorians, being coined in 2006). In an age of leisured amateurs, proliferating learned societies and energetic enthusiasts – not to mention a swift and efficient postal service – this was the natural way to do things, and Murray brought it to perfection. From the outset, the dictionary editors had invited members of the public to contribute by reading books, noting examples of how particular words were used, writing down the words and the sentences in which they occurred on standard four- by six-inch slips of paper and sending them to the editors. Until Murray took over, this had been a rather haphazard affair, but he, with characteristic thoroughness, tightened up the process, and issued a worldwide appeal for more Readers to join in building what was to be a dictionary of not only English English but world English. The massive response turned Murray’s Oxford home into a lexicographical factory, with Murray and his assistants working in the Scriptorium, a large iron shed in the garden, and members of his family also enlisted as workers on the great enterprise.
 This aspect of the making of the dictionary has been written about before, notably in Katharine Murray’s Caught in the Web of Words, but the contribution of all those volunteer Readers has attracted far less attention, largely because so little was known about them. The exception was William Chester Minor, a murderer and inmate of Broadmoor, who was the subject of Simon Winchester’s The Surgeon of Crowthorne (1998). Otherwise, the great majority of the Readers whose details are so assiduously recorded in that address book of Murray’s were unknown figures. When Sarah Ogilvie found it, she realised that she held in her hand ‘a key to understanding how the greatest English dictionary in the world was made’, and who those volunteers were who contributed so much to its making. But could this material be turned into a readable book? The answer is a resounding ‘yes’. Ogilvie’s research has been distilled into a fascinating collection of biographical sketches of a hugely diverse range of people, united only by their eagerness to contribute to the Dictionary project – an eagerness that sometimes faltered: Murray labelled one category of volunteers ‘hopeless contributors’, among them Karl Marx’s daughter Eleanor, who was hoping to get some much-needed money by contributing (small sums were sometimes paid), but did no useful work.
 What makes The Dictionary People so readable (and dippable-into) is that it is, like a dictionary, arranged alphabetically, from A for Archaeologist – Margaret Alice Murray (no relation), who began by sending in slips from Calcutta, became an eminent Egyptologist and at the age of 100 wrote an autobiography titled My First Hundred Years – to Zealots, a category including James Murray himself but also, from more recent times, a reader in Australia who sent in 100,000 slips with words gleaned from the Brisbane Courier-Mail. The longest chapter in the book is ‘L for Lunatics’, a category that includes three of Murray’s top four contributors. Which came first – the madness or the word-collecting? They do seem closely related, the insanity no doubt exacerbated by obsessive overwork on the dictionary. These three men sent in staggering numbers of slips – over 165,000 in the case of Thomas Austin, who spent time in institutions suffering from paranoid delusions. Not far behind him was a man known as William Douglas, whom Ogilvie, in a fine piece of biographical detective work, reveals as a family member of Frederick Furnivall, Murray’s predecessor as Chief Editor of the OED. ‘L for Lunatics’ and the chapter that follows, ‘M for Murderers’ – three of them, two unconvicted – are page-turning stuff, but every chapter has its rewards and surprises. Perhaps the most insightful is ‘O for Outsiders’ – a word first written down by Jane Austen (as were ‘chaperone’, ‘fragmented’, ‘irrepressible’ and ‘doorbell’). The making of the OED was very much an enterprise of outsiders, often self-taught amateurs seizing the chance to collaborate with the academic elite in a grand project. Murray himself left school at 14 and was largely self-educated, but his rise from lowly origins was as nothing compared to that of Joseph Wright, compiler of the mighty English Dialect Dictionary. At the age of six, Wright was working ten-hour days as a donkey boy in a coal mine, and at 15 was still illiterate – and yet he ended up an Oxford professor. The Outsiders are followed by a single Pornographer, Henry Spencer Ashbee, father of the Arts and Crafts designer C.R. Ashbee and obsessive collector of erotica, who sent in slips gleaned from his diligent reading in that field. And so it goes on (‘Q for Queers’ next)…
 The Dictionary People is a fascinating read for anyone with an interest in dictionaries, in social history, or just in people. Sarah Ogilvie has found a great subject and done it full justice.

Monday 4 September 2023

'There are only two things that have ever interrupted Welsh rugby'

 Reading Byron Rogers's wonderfully entertaining autobiography, Me: The Authorised Biography (the perfect title), I came across a passage which stopped me in my tracks.  The author is being shown round the club-house of the Glynneath rugby club by the Welsh comedian Max Boyce, the club's President at the time. 'I want to show you social history,' says Boyce, and leads him to the board listing the names of all Glynneath's captains since 1889. A black line is drawn under 1939-45 – no captain, for the obvious reason. Similarly 1914-19, no captain. 'But this is what I want to show you,' Boyce continues. '1904-1906 no captain. 1904-1906? Just a black line, and one word. Revival. An old man in the club said he remembered him, said he was an outside half called Roger Revival. That is how much people have forgotten. There are only two things that have ever interrupted Welsh rugby. Two world wars and a national religious revival.'
   I knew nothing of this great Revival, which not only stopped the rugby but more or less emptied the pubs and places of entertainment, filled the chapels to bursting point and sent thousands flocking to hear the most charismatic preachers, whose emotion-charged meetings, accompanied by music, led to huge numbers of public 'conversions' – a hundred thousand in Wales (from a population of barely two million), according to plausible estimates. The converted, as well as some of the preachers, began to have lurid visions, so inflamed were they by (what they took to be) the holy spirit.  'Some, understandably, went mad,' Rogers writes, 'the state of ecstasy and the terror conjured up being such that, in the early months of 1905 alone, sixteen people suffering from religious delusion were confined in Carmarthen Lunatic Asylum.' A friend of Rogers tells him of a sermon he had heard in which the preacher 'described a damned soul flitting back to the gates of Hell after aeons in the outer darkness, only to see that on the great clock the second hand had not moved.' Rogers's friend, 'who had heard that in 1904, was telling me about it sixty years later, for he had been unable to forget.
"And what came of it all in the end?" I heard my father ask the blacksmith of Llangynog.
"Nothing," the blacksmith said. "Nothing."'
   Nothing indeed. The Revival passed, having sparked a wider Awakening that spread into the rest of Britain and had an impact in many parts of the world, before in turn dying down. Now most of those great chapels of South Wales are serving other, decidedly secular (or non-Christian) functions, and church and chapel alike are in much the same state of decline as elsewhere in Britain. There have been no religious revivals comparable to the Welsh one in the years since. I guess the nearest things in my lifetime were imported from abroad, notable the Billy Graham missions, which certainly filled stadiums but were tepid, prosaic affairs compared to the white heat of the Welsh revival. The events of 1904-1906 have passed from living memory – not that long ago, and yet the whole thing seems to belong to another, far distant age. Indeed, with its emphasis on visions, music and mystical experiences, it was in itself a throwback to something far more vivid than what was offered by Welsh methodism. The Revival and its impact scarcely make sense to our present-day, secularised minds; the whole thing seems so impossibly remote from our times. That is how much people have forgotten. 

Saturday 2 September 2023

The Aurelian Breaks His Silence (You Have Been Warned)

 I don't think I've posted anything about butterflies in a while, so perhaps you'll indulge me (or pass on with a sigh)...
   It's been a patchy and generally rather unsatisfactory butterfly season, largely because of far too much cool, wet weather in both spring and summer. However, another factor has also been at play – the fact that I have moved from butterfly-rich Surrey to a part of the country that, for all its beauties, could never be described as butterfly heaven. Lichfield has easily accessible countryside on the western edge of the city (a quarter of an hour's walk from our house), but it is no match for the hills and downs of Surrey, and as a result I have only totted up 22 species (two of them seen over the border in Derbyshire). It would have been ten or a dozen more down South, even in a poor year, and the numbers of individuals would generally have been much higher. On the other hand, I now have a garden that is far more popular with the butterflies than my Surrey suburban patch ever was. All summer it has been alive with Speckled Woods, Holly Blues and Whites, plus abundant Gatekeepers in their season, Meadow Browns and Commas, the odd Tortoiseshell and Peacock (a poor year for both of them), and now a wonderful profusion of Red Admirals, gliding imperiously over the garden, letting the other species know who's boss. After a slow start, Vanessa Atalanta – about which I have written much on this blog (and in my forever forthcoming butterfly book) – is having a great summer: it seems that every Buddleia bush is decorated with anything up to half a dozen nectaring Admirals. I can't remember when I last saw such abundance. 
   The city itself, with its ample open spaces, parks and gardens, has given me many of the year's first sightings, from Brimstones in a city-centre car park to Holly Blues up by the big Tesco (where the car park has a magnificent view of the cathedral – surely England's best supermarket car park view). I guess that, considering the weather, it hasn't been a bad year, and it seems to be ending well, with all those Red Admirals everywhere, and a spell of warm sunny weather coming our way at last – summer in September, a pleasing prospect.