Tuesday 31 October 2023

'Where the weight of life has been lifted and made light'

 Johannes Vermeer's date of birth is, like so much else about him, unknown, but it was on this day in 1632, at the Reformed Church in Delft, that he was baptised, so All Hallows Eve is regarded as his anniversary. This poem by the American poet Howard Nemerov, simply titled 'Vermeer', catches, I think, something of the essence of his unique art... 

Taking what is, and seeing it as it is,
Pretending to no heroic stances or gestures,
Keeping it simple; being in love with light
And the marvellous things that light is able to do,
How beautiful! a modesty which is
Seductive extremely, the care for daily things.

At one for once with sunlight falling through
A leaded window, the holy mathematic
Plays out the cat’s cradle of relation
Endlessly; even the inexorable
Domesticates itself and becomes charm.

If I could say to you, and make it stick,
A girl in a red hat, a woman in blue
Reading a letter, a lady weighing gold…
If I could say this to you so you saw,
And knew, and agreed that this was how it was
In a lost city across the sea of years,
I think we should be for one moment happy
In the great reckoning of those little rooms
Where the weight of life has been lifted and made light,
Or standing invisible on the shore opposed,
Watching the water in the foreground dream
Reflectively, taking a view of Delft
As it was, under a wide and darkening sky.

Sunday 29 October 2023

Fungi and Larkins

Yesterday afternoon I decided to join a 'Fungus Foray' in St Michael's churchyard. I think my interest was piqued by recently finding a very fine Fly Agaric growing up against the wall of the church hall (not St Michael's) around the corner. It was doing very nicely and the top was opening and spreading when someone came along and kicked it to pieces, as is the British way with fungi (in other countries they're more likely to fetch a basket and start gathering, though probably not the Fly Agaric). In the churchyard some thirty or forty people had gathered, many of them armed with field guides, and, after a short talk by the mycologist in charge (a woman, so presumably spared the 'fun guy' gags – though 'fun gal' has possibilities...), the group set off in a body to see what they could find. After twenty minutes they were still gathered around a nearby tree stump admiring some Sulphur Caps, while I hovered on the periphery, already beginning to think this was all too serious for an inveterate dabbler like me. Just then I noticed a Speckled Wood flying off along one of the woodland paths (this churchyard, said to be the largest in England, is also a semi-wild nature reserve) and I followed it, leaving the mycophiles to their fungal fun.
  I was lucky, not only in spotting the Speckled Wood – a late flyer, probably my last of the year – but in happening upon a clump of Larkin family gravestones in among the trees and shrubbery. I've found them before, but ever since they have proved strangely elusive, and despite many wanderings in the churchyard I have never again, since I first saw it, found the headstone of the poet's ancestral namesake – the one that gave the young Larkin such a turn – or the decidedly plain grave of his parents. Next time perhaps...

'Slowly, silently...'

 Talking of Radio 3, one of its pleasing regular features is the Sunday poem, requested by a listener and read, in commendably straightforward style, by the presenter, Martin Handley. Often I miss it (it's aired some time before 8), but this morning I caught it, and it was one I hadn't heard (or read) since my boyhood, when it was in every children's anthology. I wonder if it still is, or is that strange archaism 'shoon' too much for today's kids? It's 'Silver' by Walter de la Mare, which I now see is a sonnet in length but not in shape, written in rhyming couplets and with no turn. A purely descriptive, entirely visual poem, it yet has something eerie and mysterious about it, as so often with De La Mare, and it is really very good. I love 'Couched in his kennel, like a log, With paws of silver sleeps the dog'. 

Slowly, silently, now the moon

Walks the night in her silver shoon;

This way, and that, she peers, and sees

Silver fruit upon silver trees;

One by one the casements catch

Her beams beneath the silvery thatch;

Couched in his kennel, like a log,

With paws of silver sleeps the dog;

From their shadowy cote the white breasts peep

Of doves in a silver-feathered sleep;

A harvest mouse goes scampering by,

With silver claws and a silver eye;

And moveless fish in the water gleam,

By silver reeds in a silver stream.

Saturday 28 October 2023

Radio: 4 Loses, 3 Gains

 I was not surprised to read that yet more listeners are deserting Radio 4, especially its unlistenable Today Programme. Why anyone should inflict Today on themselves when they could be listening to good music on Radio 3 has been a mystery to me for some while – probably since I defected from 4 to 3 myself. Radio 3 has its tiresome aspects – self-conscious popularisation, endless repetitive trails, odd traces of wokery – but by and large it is surely good for the soul, whereas 4 offers only vexation of spirit, and a dreary North London semi-woke mindset that now embraces almost all its output. Back in the day, when I was a radio critic, Radio 4 was studded with well made, imaginative programmes that were worth listening to, and at worst it was a pleasant, painless backdrop to the day.  No longer. 
What the Guardian piece (linked above) doesn't mention is that, while Radio 4 haemorrhages listeners, Radio 3 has had a surge in listening, much of it no doubt at 4's expense. It would be good to think that the BBC might learn something from this, but on past form that seems highly unlikely. 

Thursday 26 October 2023

From The Da Vinci Code to 1984

 One of the books most frequently dumped on charity shops in recent years was Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code (though it was surely outdumped for a while by Fifty Shades of Grey). At one point the Da Vinci glut reached such a pitch that an Oxfam shop in Swansea displayed a pile of the unwanted title in its window with a notice pleading with donors to please donate something, anything else, preferable vinyl. That was back in 2017, and things have changed since then – now the most dumped books, at least in Swansea, are Richard Osman's cosy murder mysteries – but one David Shrigley, described as an artist, has belatedly done his bit to clear the Da Vinci Code mountain. Having searched out and bought some six thousand dumped copies  – mostly from a vast Oxfordshire warehouse where the most comprehensively unwanted books go to die – he has spent 'a six-figure sum' pulping them and republishing them as an eye-wateringly expensive limited edition of a very different book, George Orwell's 1984, some of the proceeds of which will go to Oxfam. 'It's not literary criticism, ' he declares accurately, though he does regard 1984 as 'a really important book for people to read'.  So, if you've got £495 burning a hole in your pocket, head for that Swansea Oxfam and pick up one of Shrigley's 1984s. Tragically, it might even be a sound investment, the 'art' market being what it is these days – and at least you'd end up with a book to read. 
The BBC News website covers this story in its usual exhaustive manner. It's good to learn that Shrigley has not actually read The Da Vinci Code (perhaps he's a man of taste and discernment after all) and that, when approached for a quote, Dan Brown was 'in transit'. 

Tuesday 24 October 2023

A Lincolnshire Man

 This Cultural Life is a Radio 4 programme in which various 'creative' luminaries talk about the cultural influences that have shaped them. Yesterday, by chance, I happened on the edition in which the massively successful lyricist Bernie Taupin was interviewed. He is not a man in whom I have much interest, but my ears pricked up when he started talking about his childhood. Taupin is a Lincolnshire man, born in what he described as 'the middle of nowhere' – in fact an isolated farmhouse somewhere near Sleaford, in la Lincolnshire profonde – from where the family moved to the grander surroundings of Rowston Manor, where they lived rent free, Bernie's father being the farm manager. His mother and his maternal grandfather were both poetry lovers, and his grandfather particularly enjoyed reciting Victorian narrative verse, so the young Taupin – like me! – grew up with the likes of 'Young Lochinvar', 'The Highwayman' and Macaulay's 'Horatius' ('Lars Porsena of Clusium By the nine gods he swore...') ringing in his ears. I don't know what effect this had on his songwriting; it certainly didn't turn me into a millionaire lyricist, but there you go...
From Rowston Manor, the Taupins moved to a run-down farmhouse in the gloriously named village of Owmby-by-Spital. The sound of this name reminded me of another narrative poem – John Betjeman's 'A Lincolnshire Tale'. I wonder if Bernie knows it...

                                                            Kirkby with Muckby-cum-Sparrowby-cum-Spinx 

                                                                   Is down a long lane in the county of Lincs.
                                                             And often on Wednesdays, well-harnessed and spruce,
                                                                   I would drive into Wiss over Winderby Sluice.


A whacking great sunset bathed level and drain

From Kirkby with Muckby to Beckby-on-Bain,

And I saw, as I journeyed, my marketing done,

Old Caisterby tower take the last of the sun.


The night air grew nippy.  An autumn mist roll’d

(In a scent of dead cabbages) down from the wold,

In the ocean of silence that flooded me round

The crunch of the wheels was a comforting sound.


The lane lengthened narrowly into the night

With the Bain on its left bank, the drain on its right,

And feebly the carriage-lamps glimmered ahead

When all of a sudden the pony fell dead.


The remoteness was awful, the stillness intense,

Of invisible fenland, around and immense;

And out on the dark, with a roar and a swell,

Swung, hollowly thundering, Speckleby bell.


Though myself the Archdeacon for many a year,

I had not summoned courage for visiting here;

Our incumbents were mostly eccentric or sad

But – the Speckleby Rector was said to be mad.


Oh cold was the ev’ning and tall was the tower

And strangely compelling the tenor bell’s power!

As loud on the reed-beds and strong through the dark

It toll’ from the church in the tenantless park.


The mansion was ruined, the empty demesne

Was slowly reverting to marshland again –

Marsh where the village was, grass in the Hall,

And the church and the rectory waiting to fall.


And even in springtime with kingcups about

And stumps of old oak-trees attempting to sprout,

‘Twas a sinister place, neither fenland nor wold,

And doubly forbidding in darkness and cold.


As down swung the tenor, a beacon of sound,

Over listening acres of waterlogged ground

I stood by the tombs to see pass and repass

The gleam of a taper, through clear leaded glass.


And such lighting of lights in the thunderous roar

The heart summoning courage to hand at the door;

I grated it open on scents I knew well,

The dry smell of damp rot, the hassocky smell.


What a forest of woodwork in ochres and grains

Unevenly doubled in diamonded panes,

And over the plaster, so textured with time,

Sweet discolouration of umber and lime!


The candles ensconced on each high panelled pew

Brought the caverns of brass-studded baize into view,

But the roof and its rafters were lost to the sight

As they soared to the dark of the Lincolnshire night:


And high from the chancel arch paused to look down

A sign-painter’s beasts in their fight for the Crown,

While massive, impressive, and still as the grave

A three-decker pulpit frowned over the nave.


Shall I ever forget what a stillness was there

When the bell ceased its tolling and thinned on the air?

Then an opening door showed a long pair of hands

And the Rector himself in his gown and his bands.

. . . . . . . . . .

Such a fell Visitation I shall not forget,

Such a rush through the dark, that I rush through it yet,

And I pray, as the bells ring o’er fenland and hill,

That the Speckleby acres be tenantless still.

(Apologies for the weird spacing at the start, which I couldn't fix.)

Monday 23 October 2023


 A musical centenary today – the American composer Ned Rorem, who very nearly lived to see it himself (he died, aged 99, last November). A prolific composer who favoured a neoromantic rather than a modernist style, he was described by Virgil Thomson as 'an American Poulenc', which is good enough for me. He wrote several hundred 'art songs', and here, to mark the centenary, is one of them, the charming 'Early in the Morning'...


Sunday 22 October 2023

The Other Garden

 Recently on Andecdotal Evidence (yes, again – and why not? Patrick Kurp's blog is a literary treasure trove) I read about Francis Wyndham, an author who was really only a name to me. When, very soon after, I spotted his sole novel, The Other Garden, I naturally had to buy it. In length it's really a novella (barely 100 pages), but it won the Whitbread First Novel Award when it was published in 1987 – when the first-time novelist was in his early 60s. The paperback edition I have was published as one of the Arena Novella series, and the jacket is emblazoned with superlatives from his fellow authors – always suspicious when the book was written by a publisher. According to Harold Pinter, The Other Garden is 'wry, exact, poised', while Isabel Quigley finds it 'rich, observant and shrewd' (Alan Sillitoe's Out of the Whirlpool, also in the Arena Novella series, is described by the Observer as 'taut, laconic, superbly sandpapered' – not one I'd ever heard before). Hilary Bailey declares that The Other Garden 'comes as close to perfection as you'll get in an imperfect world', while Susan Hill has no reservations: it is 'a completely faultless piece of writing'. 
  Well, it grieves me to report that they are right: this novella of Wyndham's really is damn near perfect. Beginning in the late Thirties and ending after VE Day, it is told in the first person through the eyes of an initially adolescent boy, and takes place mostly in the countryside to which the war has exiled his family and many others. Among the others are the Demarest family, whose grown-up daughter Kay is the focus of the narrator's fascinated attention, and of the story that unfolds. Kay seems mysteriously in thrall to her dreadful parents, unable to break from them, and in love with her elusive brother, a glamorous figure making his way as an actor. Kay and her parents, and their strange, troubled relationship, are brilliantly portrayed, and Kay, in particular, is an unforgettably compelling character. It is the narrator's fascination with her that carries the narrative along to such haunting effect. The sense of place is strong, and the lesser characters are full of life, but they rightly remain in the background. The enigma of Kay is never really solved, and she remains essentially mysterious (as people tend to do), but Wyndham makes us care about her almost as much as the narrator, and feel the same baffled fascination and love. The Other Garden has some comic moments, but the prevailing tone is poignant, and the effect, in the end, is genuinely moving. This is a memorable, utterly convincing and, yes, damn near perfect piece of fiction. Read it – you won't be sorry (well, you might, I suppose – nothing's certain – but at least it's a short read). 

Thursday 19 October 2023


 Born on this day in 1916 was the great Russian pianist (or Ukrainian – he was born in Odessa, then part of the Russian Empire), Emil Gilels. As well as being a master of the Romantic repertoire – Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, Liszt, Chopin, etc. – he was also a brilliant interpreter of Bach and Scarlatti. Here he is in recital at the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, playing Bach's Prelude in B Minor (BVW855a), transcribed by Siloti...

And here, by way of contrast, is the same piece played by today's outstanding Bach interpreter, Vikingur Olafsson, whose newly released Goldberg Variations are on my birthday list...

Tuesday 17 October 2023

Three Gardens

 Although the Lichfield house has thrown up problem after problem and become something of a money pit, the garden – a beautifully designed plot surrounded by fine trees and shrubs – has been an unalloyed delight. Part of the pleasure it affords – in addition to the beauty of its flowers and foliage, its butterflies and birds – is the sense it gives of the year passing, every month bringing its changes and something new to enjoy. A garden like this is a marker of time and a reminder of its passing, all in due season. In his poem 'Time and the Garden', Yvor Winters – born on this day in 1900 – touches on this theme, as the beauties of the garden 'advance in their due series, space The season'...

The spring has darkened with activity.
The future gathers in vine, bush, and tree:
Persimmon, walnut, loquat, fig, and grape,
Degrees and kinds of colour, taste, and shape.
These will advance in their due series, space
The season like a tranquil dwelling-place.
And yet excitement swells me, vein by vein:
I long to crowd the little garden, gain
Its sweetness in my hand and crush it small
And taste it in a moment, time and all!
These trees, whose slow growth measures off my years,
I would expand to greatness. No one hears,
And I am still retarded in duress!
And this is like that other restlessness
To seize the greatness not yet fairly earned,
One which the tougher poets have discerned—
Gascoigne, Ben Jonson, Greville, Raleigh, Donne,
Poets who wrote great poems, one by one,
And spaced by many years, each line an act
Through which few labor, which no men retract.
This passion is the scholar’s heritage,
The imposition of a busy age,
The passion to condense from book to book
Unbroken wisdom in a single look,
Though we know well that when this fix the head,
The mind’s immortal, but the man is dead.

Of course, 'Time and the Garden' is not really about a garden; garden poems rarely are. Consider, for example, perhaps the most famous of them all – Andrew Marvell's 'The Garden' – 

How vainly men themselves amaze
To win the palm, the oak, or bays,
And their uncessant labours see
Crown’d from some single herb or tree,
Whose short and narrow verged shade
Does prudently their toils upbraid;
While all flow’rs and all trees do close
To weave the garlands of repose.

Fair Quiet, have I found thee here,
And Innocence, thy sister dear!
Mistaken long, I sought you then
In busy companies of men;
Your sacred plants, if here below,
Only among the plants will grow.
Society is all but rude,
To this delicious solitude.

No white nor red was ever seen
So am’rous as this lovely green.
Fond lovers, cruel as their flame,
Cut in these trees their mistress’ name;
Little, alas, they know or heed
How far these beauties hers exceed!
Fair trees! wheres’e’er your barks I wound,
No name shall but your own be found.

When we have run our passion’s heat,
Love hither makes his best retreat.
The gods, that mortal beauty chase,
Still in a tree did end their race:
Apollo hunted Daphne so,
Only that she might laurel grow;
And Pan did after Syrinx speed,
Not as a nymph, but for a reed.

What wond’rous life in this I lead!
Ripe apples drop about my head;
The luscious clusters of the vine
Upon my mouth do crush their wine;
The nectarine and curious peach
Into my hands themselves do reach;
Stumbling on melons as I pass,
Ensnar’d with flow’rs, I fall on grass.

Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness;
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find,
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas;
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade.

Here at the fountain’s sliding foot,
Or at some fruit tree’s mossy root,
Casting the body’s vest aside,
My soul into the boughs does glide;
There like a bird it sits and sings,
Then whets, and combs its silver wings;
And, till prepar’d for longer flight,
Waves in its plumes the various light.

Such was that happy garden-state,
While man there walk’d without a mate;
After a place so pure and sweet,
What other help could yet be meet!
But ’twas beyond a mortal’s share
To wander solitary there:
Two paradises ’twere in one
To live in paradise alone.

How well the skillful gard’ner drew
Of flow’rs and herbs this dial new,
Where from above the milder sun
Does through a fragrant zodiac run;
And as it works, th’ industrious bee
Computes its time as well as we.
How could such sweet and wholesome hours
Be reckon’d but with herbs and flow’rs!

In Marvell's poem, the garden is, for all its luxuriant detail, an idealised ground against which the poet dramatises his longing for solitude and transcendence, but his flights of fancy end in the real world of passing time, now sweetened by the fragrant beauties of the garden. And meanwhile my own garden lies bathed in soft autumn sunshine, and leaves drift down from the ash trees and the rowan. 

Monday 16 October 2023

Fancy Talk

 I've noticed recently that the English word 'homage' seems to be passing out of use, replaced by the French, altogether fancier-sounding 'hommage'. The latter is quite a useful term in the artistic, literary and musical field, but now it's broken out of that enclave and is edging the English word out of use altogether, which seems a shame. This is part of a more general taste for unnecessarily fancifying straightforward words – the ridiculous 'unbeknownst' for 'unknown', 'begrudgingly' for 'grudgingly'... Or there are clever-seeming but fundamentally incorrect pronunciations of foreign words, 'lonzheray' for lingerie being a particularly mystifying example. (This is something other than such persistent straight mispronunciations as, for example, 'tagliatelle' with a sounded G, or 'bruschetta' with 'sh' for 'sk'.) Another bizarre trend, which I hope won't get far, is the use of 'masseuse' – pronounced 'mass-use' – to denote a masseur of either sex. I could go on. I won't. 

Sunday 15 October 2023

More Wilde in Worthing

 I have been in Worthing again ('Worthing is a place in Sussex. It is a seaside resort'), and again it was not for pleasure. Indeed, the rail journey from Lichfield to Worthing is rather too long to be undertaken purely for pleasure, even when things go smoothly. And this they did not, alas, on our return journey, when, having battled through dense London crowds of people (where do they all come from? And why?) to make the Tube journey from Victoria to Euston, we were treated to half an hour sitting on the Lichfield train waiting for 'a member of crew' to turn up – probably the driver. When the train eventually left, it got as far as Milton Keynes before being rescheduled as a fast train, not stopping at Lichfield. After another half hour waiting on the platform at MK, a dismal experience (though the trackside slopes are pleasantly overgrown with dog rose and spindle), we eventually got back via the train that had left Euston a whole hour later. Journey time five and half hours, stress level (out of 10) somewhere near 9. This kind of disruption is nothing new either, but I shan't dwell on it here...
  I've written about Worthing – and in particular Oscar Wilde's association with the resort – before on this blog (here's a link), but will add a few more details now, while Worthing is fresh in my mind. During his stay in the summer of 1894, Oscar attended three maritime events: a lifeboat demonstration, during which he was seen flitting about in a small rowing boat; the annual Regatta; and a 'Venetian Fête', a lamp-lit water carnival at the end of which Wilde presented the prize for the best decorated boat and gave a short speech in praise of Worthing. 'It has beautiful surroundings,' he declared, 'and lovely long walks – which I recommend to other people but do not take myself.' Indeed, he seemed to prefer taking to the water, often in company with the odious Bosie and some boys from the town, with whom the two men fished and swam and generally enjoyed themselves. One in particular caught Oscar's fancy – a 16-year-old called Alphonse Conway, whose name came up in court during the scandalous trial the following year, when Wilde disingenuously claimed he was 18. Oscar and Bosie's amusements were certainly noticed at the time, but there was no scandal until Wilde's disgrace and downfall in 1895, after which Alphonse and his family left Worthing in a hurry, and for a while at least the reputation of the blamelessly respectable resort was somewhat sullied by association. Were he to return from the dead, Wilde might be amused to find Worthing – and indeed the rest of the country – giving every outward show of being bursting with something called 'Gay Pride'. 


Wednesday 11 October 2023

A Lilliputian Park

 This morning I had a doctor's appointment in Burntwood, a small town near Lichfield, very close to Edial, where the young Samuel Johnson, with his wife, established a school. The school was a failure, attracting only a handful of pupils, but one of them Johnson's lifelong friend David Garrick, with whom he set out to try his literary luck in London. 
Burntwood seems a nondescript kind of place, but it has one claim to fame: it is home to the smallest public park in the UK, Prince's Park. Created to mark the marriage of the Prince of Wales to Princess Alexandra of Denmark, it is just about large enough to accommodate three trees, known as Faith, Hope and Charity. That is the park, in its entirety, in the picture above. In 2013 it hosted the World's Shortest Fun Run. 

Tuesday 10 October 2023

The Reckoning?

 Well, I watched the first part of the BBC's Jimmy Savile drama (with documentary inserts) The Reckoning, and it was predictably chilling and grimly watchable. Steve Coogan was convincing as the older Savile, giving his usual carefully detailed impersonation, but something more was needed for the younger Savile and that was, it seemed to me, lacking. Coogan, whose face is very differently made from Savile's – much more like Stan Laurel, whom he played so brilliantly in Stan and Ollie –  got the voice and mannerisms right, but conveyed little or nothing of the dark charisma of Savile: the manic grin, the staring eyes, the overwhelming presence and demonic drive. Coogan's version seemed lukewarm, just too ordinary. Every time a photograph of the real Savile was shown, the difference was glaringly apparent. The Savile portrayed by Coogan would never have achieved the all-conquering career that took the real Savile so horribly far. With that dark charisma barely in evidence, it seems simply incomprehensible that so many should have been so taken in by Savile. Perhaps this is a distancing device, to set the whole affair at a safe historical distance, in a time when people were more gullible, and assure us that it couldn't happen again. The BBC has of course a lot of very hard questions to answer about its central role in elevating Savile to the heights. I doubt if The Reckoning will answer them.

Monday 9 October 2023


 Like Pessoa, Arthur Hugh Clough is a poet whose fame, such as it is, rests on a body of work published after his death. Clough is like Pessoa, too, in being quite unclassifiable: a protégé of Thomas Arnold at Rugby and a close friend of Matthew Arnold at Oxford, he should have slipped naturally into his place in the Victorian literary firmament, but it never quite happened. After he died, at the age of only 42, Walter Bagehot, reflecting the general view, wrote of him as a man 'who seemed about to do something, but who died before he did it', while James Russell Lowell described him as 'dying before he had subdued his sensitive temperament to the sterner requirements of his art'. Oh dear, the 'sterner requirements' – one can only hope Clough was oblivious of them; his work is certainly at its best when least stern. There is little or nothing of the Victorian's cherished 'high seriousness' about his novel in verse 'Amours de Voyage' (which has been more than once performed very effectively on radio). The line 'Rome disappoints me still; but I shrink and adapt myself to it' is one that has lived on, along with 'Say not the struggle naught availeth' (a fine example of the weakness of the English negative) and 'Thou shalt not kill, but need'st not strive/Officiously to keep alive' (from 'The New Decalogue', written as satire, not as a justification for medical negligence). 
  I'm looking at Clough again, at present reading 'Dipsychus', a long dialogue, set in Venice, between the conscience-troubled Dipsychus (double-spirited) and an unnamed, somewhat Mephistophelian 'Spirit'. It's remarkably frank, especially on sexual matters, and tremendously readable, especially the contributions of the Spirit, who of course gets all the best lines, including the lyric beginning 
'As I sat at the café, I said to myself,
They may talk as they please about what they call pelf,
They may sneer as they like about eating and drinking,
But help it I cannot, I cannot help thinking
   How pleasant it is to have money, heigh ho!
   How pleasant it is to have money.'
In the decades following the posthumous publication of his works, Clough was widely read and popular, but, like many another, his reputation suffered at the hands of Lytton Strachey (Eminent Victorians) and he fell out of fashion and out of print. Happily his reputation revived with new editions of his works, though it seems unlikely he will never again be widely read. This is a shame: there is, as I am reminding myself, so much to enjoy in his work. 'Consider whether you attain the beautiful,' Arnold (Matthew) once wrote to him, 'and whether your product gives PLEASURE.' It certainly does.

Thursday 5 October 2023

'I'd have had verse be like that...'

 Today being National Poetry Day, I decided to celebrate by making another Blindfold Poetry Selection. This time, the volume my groping hand alighted on was Fernando Pessoa's Selected Poems (Penguin, 1982, translated by Jonathan Griffin), and the poem it fell open at was this short, pungent lyric written in 1932 in the persona of Ricardo Reis...

I Stick to Facts

I stick to facts. Just what I feel, I think. 
Words   are ideas.
Rustling, the stream passes – and what does not pass, 
Which is ours, not the stream's.
I'd have had verse be like that: mine is alien,
Something I too read.

Pessoa, a fixture in the cafés and restaurants of Lisbon, died having published almost nothing: as John Gray wrote, 'no one has led an ineffectual life as intrepidly as Pessoa did, or written about it with such insight and charm'. Happily he left behind him a treasure trove of highly distinctive poetry and prose, written  mostly in his four personae – Alberto Caiero, Alvaro de Campos, Ricardo Reis and, yes, Fernando Pessoa. 

Wednesday 4 October 2023

Phantom Time

 In fiction, crackpot ideas and conspiracy theories can be highly entertaining: think of the philosopher De Selby and his insane 'black air' theory in Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman, or the delusional  'Gnomon Society of America' in Charles Portis's Masters of Atlantis. However, in the real world (if it is real – how would we know? etc.), conspiracy theories and crackpot ideas are generally tiresome, products of a little learning and a large desire to appear privy to esoteric knowledge denied to the rest of us, the ignorant, trusting masses. There are exceptions, though, and today I came across a beauty – what might be called the mother of all conspiracy theories. This is the Phantom Time Conspiracy, according to which the years 614-911 AD never happened, nor did any of the 'history' recorded for that period. I think this means that the year we know as 912 was in reality 615, something like that, and the 'history' was fabricated to fill the three-century gap. So it's goodbye to the entire Carolingian age, and Charlemagne himself, not to mention the Mercian kingdom and Geoffrey Hill's hero Offa – fabrications all. This, the theory goes, was done by the Holy Roman Emperor Otto III, with help from Pope Sylvester II and possibly the Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII, the aim of the conspiracy being to legitimise Otto's claim the the Holy Roman Empire and to ensure that Otto's descendants would be around and in charge at the Millennium, when great and wonderful things were expected to occur.
  The theory was first asserted as recently as 1991, by a historian called Herbert Illig, and it was demolished before it made much headway, the evidence against it being, well, somewhat overwhelming. But of course that's what they want us to think...

Tuesday 3 October 2023

Sozzled Admirals

 An American correspondent sends me a boyhood memory of thousands of 'yellow jackets' feasting on sweetly rotting plums on a golden October afternoon. 'Yellow jackets' was new to me, or seemed to be (it's getting harder to tell these days). Looking it up, I discovered – of course! – that what Americans call 'yellow jackets' (or yellowjackets) are what we on this side of the pond call simply 'wasps': predatory social wasps, insects that used to be a major nuisance of late summer in my boyhood, but which nowadays seem much less intrusive. Recently I've been seeing large numbers of them, along with honeybees, enjoying the nectar of ivy flowers. Also joining in the feast are the Red Admirals that are still gloriously abundant around here (and, in smaller numbers, Commas). Fallen fruit is very much to the Red Admirals' taste, and the more overripe the better. When autumn sun warms the wild yeasts on the skin of rotting fruit, enough alcohol is produced to create a lightly sozzled condition in the butterflies, which shed their inhibitions and become quite fearless of humans. There is a good account of Red Admirals feasting on fallen plums here...   Soon the butterfly season will be over, but it is ending in something of a blaze of glory, thanks to those Red Admirals, be they drunk or sober. 

Sunday 1 October 2023

The Philip Larkin

 Yesterday, on my travels, I spotted this unlikely, and frankly not very inviting, pub sign in Coventry, where Larkin 'unspent' his early years. The Philip Larkin, formerly The Tudor Rose (among other incarnations), is a fine specimen of Brewers' Tudor, recently refurbished, and on its website describes itself as 'your cheery local'. Not quite the sort of thing one associates with Larkin... I'd like to think that a true Philip Larkin pub would have more the atmosphere of his 'Friday Night at the Royal Station Hotel' –

Light spreads darkly downwards from the high
Clusters of lights over empty chairs
That face each other, coloured differently.
Through open doors, the dining-room declares
A larger loneliness of knives and glass
And silence laid like carpet. A porter reads
An unsold evening paper. Hours pass,
And all the salesmen have gone back to Leeds,
Leaving full ashtrays in the Conference Room.

In shoeless corridors, the lights burn. How
Isolated, like a fort, it is –
The headed paper, made for writing home
(If home existed) letters of exile: Now
Night comes on. Waves fold behind villages.