Thursday 30 November 2023

Practical Criticism the Shane MacGowan Way

 Reading an obituary of the Pogues front man Shane MacGowan, who despite everything made it to the age of 65, I learned much of interest – English prep school, followed by Westminster! Who knew? – but what most struck me was the story, told by a former girlfriend, that Shane lost several of his front teeth attempting to eat The Beach Boys Greatest Hits, Volume 3. I'd like to think this was an act of truly practical criticism – that particular LP is not regarded as much of an addition to the Beach Boys oeuvre, and the record company only released it to make up for disappointing sales of the previous album, Friends. However, MacGowan was under the influence of LSD at the time, and that might be sufficient explanation. 
 Eating as practical criticism, though, surely has some possibilities – eating books (or at least taking a few bites) being the obvious example. I can't find, or call to mind, a single case of this happening (anyone?), but I rather wish I'd thought of it in my student days, when it might have enlivened a dreary tutorial. In my library days, I did have a colleague who in meetings had a habit of munching on the minutes (before his leveraged retirement). There are a couple of cases of bibliophagy in the Bible – one, involving a scroll rather than a codex, is in Ezekiel, the other in Revelations, where an angel tells John to eat a 'little book', assuring him that 'it shall make thy belly bitter, but it shall be in thy mouth sweet as honey' (and so it proved).
  Anyway, I'm looking forward to hearing Fairy Tale of New York – almost the only secular Xmas song that doesn't set my teeth on edge – even more often than usual this Christmas. 

Wednesday 29 November 2023

'Not to be here, Not to be anywhere'

 On this day in 1977, Philip Larkin signed off on 'Aubade', reckoned by many (including Frank Wilson Of Books Inq)  to be his last great poem. He had worked on it for some while, and completed it after the death of his mother, probably the most significant woman in his life. 'Aubade' is certainly his bleakest and most direct expression of the timor mortis that haunts so much of his verse, and Larkin himself described it, aptly enough, as his 'in-a-funk-about-death' poem. His particular, horribly acute fear is simply of extinction, of ceasing to exist. As Larkin acknowledges, this is not a rational fear – 'No rational being can fear a thing it will not feel' – but that doesn't make the terror any less real. While some of us might find 'the anaesthetic from which none come round' quite a comforting notion, it clearly scares the living daylights out of Larkin – 'Not to be here, Not to be anywhere'. There is, of course, more to this poem than the poet's death funk: it is exquisitely wrought and framed to perfection, and it ends on one of Larkin's most beautiful stanzas...

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.   
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.   
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.   
Till then I see what’s really always there:   
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,   
Making all thought impossible but how   
And where and when I shall myself die.   
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse   
—The good not done, the love not given, time   
Torn off unused—nor wretchedly because   
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;   
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,   
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,   
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,   
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,   
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill   
That slows each impulse down to indecision.   
Most things may never happen: this one will,   
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without   
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave   
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.   
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,   
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,   
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring   
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

Tuesday 28 November 2023

More Music

 For some reason – I hope simply the sublime beauty of the music – my post of Wilhelm Kempff playing the slow movement of the Hammerklavier – attracted more views than anything I've put up in recent times. So I'll try another piece of sublime music, which I just caught on Radio 3. It's Benjamin Appl singing Schubert's 'Im Abendrot' in an orchestral arrangement by Max Reger. Does it top Fischer-Dieskau or Hans Hotter with Gerald Moore at the piano? Does it matter? It is one of Schubert's most beautiful songs, and that is surely enough.
Unfortunately I cannot lift this version from YouTube, but this link should take you there...

Sunday 26 November 2023

Under the Lights

 Johnson is sitting, brooding and unimpressed, under his Christmas lights again, and this year I was there to see them being turned on, as our granddaughter was singing carols with her school before the big switch-on. As usual, the sight and sound of children singing the Christmas favourites (especially Little Town of Bethlehem, Silent Night and, yes, Away in a Manger) filled my eyes with tears and my heart with a familiar potent cocktail of love and memories and thankfulness. I managed to maintain my composure, but there will be more to draw the tears and challenge my composure, with Advent a week away... Christmas is for me the most emotionally affecting, and perhaps the most profoundly meaningful, time of the liturgical year. (Just to be clear, I mean Christmas, not Xmas, the consumerist horror show that unfortunately coincides with it.)

Meanwhile, I have seen my first snowdrop of the year – of next year, rather (or my last of this year?). This was on Friday, so it would have been the 24th of November, which is ridiculous – especially as I'd seen a Red Admiral, full of vigour, only the day before. This week's cold snap will send the last butterflies into hiding, but won't trouble that precocious snowdrop – and should bring the redwings flying in with it. This late November/ early December cold snap seems to be the one sure thing about the British weather: it happens just about every year, regardless of climate change, global warming or whatever, even if the ensuing winter is mild – but no one seems to have noticed.


Saturday 25 November 2023

'The most magnificent monologue'

 Born on this day in 1895 was the German pianist Wilhelm Kempff, one of the great performers of Beethoven and Schubert. Here he is playing the slow movement, Adagio Sostenuto, from Beethoven's monumental Hammerklavier sonata, which Kempff described as 'the most magnificent monologue Beethoven ever wrote'. When he was in Finland, Sibelius asked him to play this movement, and when he had finished Sibelius said, 'You did not play that as a pianist, but rather as a human being.' It is a movement of profound, ethereal beauty. Enjoy...

Thursday 23 November 2023

'Only the next room of the dream'

 In 1961 there was a bit of a scandal at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York when three of their most prized Etruscan antiquities turned out to be modern fakes. Among them was a fearsome eight-foot-high figure of a warrior (whose armour did not extend to his genitals) that was one of the Met's most popular and striking exhibits. Its exposure as a forgery inspired Howard Nemerov to write this lament: 

To Clio, Muse of History

One more casualty,
One more screen memory penetrated at last
To be destroyed in the endless anamnesis
Always progressing, never arriving at a cure.
My childhood in the glare of that giant form
Corrupts with history, for I too fought in the War.

He, great male beauty
That stood for the sexual thrust of power,
His target eyes inviting the universal victim
To fatal seduction, the crested and greaved 
Survivor long after shield and sword are dust,
Has now become another lie about our life.

Smash the idol, of course.
Bury the pieces deep as the interest of truth
Requires. And you may in time compose the future
Smoothly without him, though it is too late
To disinfect the past of his huge effigy
By any further imposition of your hands.

But tell us no more
Enchantments, Clio. History has given
And taken away; murders become memories,
And memories become the beautiful obligations: 
As with a dream interpreted by one still sleeping,
The interpretation is only the next room of the dream.

For I remember how
We children stared, learning from him
Unspeakable things about war that weren't in the books;
And how the Museum store offered for sale
His photographic reproductions in full colour
With the ancient genitals blacked out. 

[I found this in The Winter Lightning: Selected Poems, published in the UK by Rapp & Whiting. A volume in the Poetry USA Series, it looks exactly like a Grove Press Evergreen Original. I don't think I've come across any of this series before.]

Tuesday 21 November 2023

Elagabalus Gets Her Pronouns

 I see that the North Hertfordshire Museum has decided, on advice from the historical experts of (ahem) Stonewall and the LGBT wing of Unison, that the emperor Elagabalus was 'transgender' and will be referred to by his 'preferred pronouns' – she, her, etc. – in the museum's extensive display of Elagabalus-related material, i.e. one silver denarius. 
  Elagabalus has come down to posterity as one of the most thoroughly depraved and useless of all the Roman emperors, but as he only ruled for four years, did little of much note, and was assassinated at the age of 18, there really isn't much to go on. The historians, notably Cassius Dio and Herodian, piled in on Elagabalus in grand style, accusing him of all the effeminate depravity to be expected of a product of 'the soft luxury of Asia' (Elagabalus was of Syrian origin), but, like most Roman historians, they were seriously biased and unreliable. This, however, did not stop Gibbon from taking their word for it – and he also drew on the even more unreliable Historia Augusta in forming his damning assessment of Elagabalus. ‘It may seem probable,' he writes, 'that the vices and follies of Elagabalus have been adorned by fancy and blackened by prejudice. Yet, confining ourselves to the public scenes displayed before the Roman people, and attested by grave and contemporary historians, their inexpressible infamy surpasses that of any other age or country.' Well, there you go.
  What is interesting (in a depressing mind of way) about this is that it illustrates how a historical villain can be transformed into a hero/victim (the terms are all but interchangeable) in today's all-embracing binary system of Oppressor/Oppressed. Elagabalus, by being assigned to a gender category unknown to the Romans, becomes one of the Oppressed, is given a protected status, and rewarded with his – sorry, her – preferred pronouns. I'm sure he/she would be very grateful. 

Monday 20 November 2023

'The rest was poetry'

 The latest issue of the literary quarterly Slightly Foxed marks its twentieth anniversary – surely a cause for celebration – and I was happy to find a piece I'd written on A Girl inWinter in it, along with many other goodies, including a lovely appreciation of J.L. Carr by Ursula Buchan, William Palmer on The Best of Myles, and Jonathan Law on Christopher Neve's Unquiet Landscape – a piece that actually inspired me to buy the book (this often happens with Slightly Foxed). Here is me on A Girl in Winter – but do buy the magazine; it's well worth it...

I had been reading Philip Larkin’s poetry for years before, quite recently, I decided to have a look at his novels. I knew he had published a couple in his early years: Jill (1946) and A Girl in Winter (1947). I knew too that, in their Oxford days and for some while after, Larkin saw himself as primarily a novelist, while his friend Kingsley Amis regarded himself as primarily a poet (how wrong they were). What I did not know was that, of Larkin’s novels, the second, A Girl in Winter, far from being an early misfire, is, well, a bit of a masterpiece.
 It was a good thing I read the second first, because if I had started with Jill I might not have bothered to pursue Larkin the novelist any further. He himself all but disowned Jill, regarding it as a piece of juvenilia, best forgotten, though he acknowledged that it offers an evocative portrait of wartime life in Oxford and is a kind of prototype for many a later tale of a working-class lad’s misadventures at university. It is also worth reading for its vivid descriptions of a bombed industrial town (clearly drawing on Larkin’s hometown of Coventry). However, as a novel, Jill is unconvincing, and certainly gives no hint of what was to come with A Girl in Winter, a work that is not only quite unlike its predecessor but unlike anything else in English fiction. 
 A Girl in Winter doesn’t read as if it was written by a man, and certainly not by a man as plain-spoken, curmudgeonly, misanthropic, sexist, and all the rest of it, as the Philip Larkin of popular imagination. Reading A Girl in Winter ‘blind’, with no knowledge of its authorship, I doubt if more than one in ten would identify its writer as male, and I doubt if one in a hundred would guess the name of Larkin. It’s a work of great emotional sensitivity and powerful empathy, written entirely from the perspective of the young woman at its heart. That young woman is Katherine Lind, whom we first meet as a wartime refugee working as a library assistant in a provincial northern, or midland, town: the town is not specified (it could well be Coventry), nor is Katherine’s country of origin. Small internal clues suggest that it is Germany, and that she is probably Jewish, though that too is never stated. 
 A Girl In Winter is simply constructed, in three parts. The outer two, set in the town where Katherine is living and working, form a stretch of 12 hours or so on a cold, foggy Saturday in wartime, while the middle section takes us back six years to an English summer in rural Oxfordshire. The wartime Saturday is, for Katherine, a working day, and she is clearly unhappy in her work under a peculiarly unpleasant and officious librarian, Mr Anstey, portrayed with real venom by Larkin, who had no doubt come across an Anstey or two in his library career (I was a librarian once, and I recognise the type). 
 This particular morning, Katherine is detailed to escort home a dislikeable girl, Miss Green (those were formal times), who has a raging toothache. Part one of the novel simply follows their journey across town, in the course of which Miss Green's condition worsens, while Katherine comes into focus as someone whose emotions are, like the townscape, frozen. Why this is so remains, throughout the novel, a story that is never quite told, though the war has obviously forced her to leave her home country and the life she had there. Whatever the source of the winter in Katherine's soul, the turning point of the first part of the novel is a memorable scene in a municipal park when, suddenly, she sees the tiresome Miss Green as a human being rather than a burden, and compassion becomes a possibility: 
‘Till then she had seen only her ugliness, her petulance, her young pretensions. Now this faded to unimportance and she grasped for the first time that she really needed care, that she was frail and in a remote way beautiful. It was so long since she had felt this about anyone that it came with unexpected force: its urgency made her own affairs, concerned with what might or might not happen, bloodless and fanciful. This was what she had not had for ages, a person dependent on her.’ 
 We also learn in part one that Katherine has been in touch with an English family with whom she stayed six years earlier, before the war. There is a note at her dismal 'digs' from the son, Robin, who says he is visiting that day, an encounter that Katherine is now keen to avoid. Why? The back story to that makes up part two of the novel, set in the sunshine and rain of an English summer, in the course of which Katherine falls in love with the reserved and very 'English' Robin, then out of love with him. Katherine finds the experience of meeting and living with his family – and working out what his strange, unhappy elder sister is up to – confusing and unsettling. Larkin traces the movements of Katherine’s emotions with great sensitivity, until finally, standing by the river on her last evening in England, she finds some resolution:
 ‘The water was the colour of pewter, for the afterglow had faded rapidly and left a quality of light that resembled early dawn. It had drawn off the brightness from the meadows and stubble-fields, that were now tarnished silver and pale yellow, and the shadows were slowly mixing with the mist. In this way the edges of her emotions had blurred, and they now overlaid each other like planes of water running over wet sand, the last expenditure of succeeding waves. There was no discord in them: she felt at peace.’ 
As that passage suggests, there is much fine descriptive writing in A Girl in Winter, a novel in which weather, landscape and townscape are always to the fore, from its beginning – describing a day of lying snow with more expected – to its end, when the snow is finally falling (as at the end of James Joyce’s The Dead – did Larkin have that in mind?). 
 From prewar summer it's back to wartime winter for the final third of the book. Here the threads of plot from the first part – Robin’s impending visit, an inadvertent handbag swap – are resolved (the latter, slight and unpromising as it might seem, leading Katherine to a quite unexpected and deeply sad discovery). There’s not a lot of plot in A Girl in Winter: its essence lies in the creation of atmosphere and the tracing of nuances of emotion, especially in exploring Katherine's alienation, the way her feelings, and the world around her, move in and out of focus. For all its fine descriptive passages, this is not a typical 'poet's novel', introspective, showily written and dripping with ‘sensibility’; it’s too firmly grounded in the kind of grim provincial reality that was the seedbed of Larkin’s genius, and the author keeps himself firmly out of it. 
 Where did A Girl in Winter come from? What could have inspired such an atypical work? Possibly its origins lie in an unhappy visit Larkin made to prewar Germany with his father, an admirer of Hitler. They stayed in the resort of Königswinter, and Larkin’s original title for the novel was The Kingdom of Winter. Could Katherine’s numb desolation in wartime England be a version of the young Larkin’s misery in that German resort? Even if that is the case, we still don’t know who, if anyone, was the model for Katherine Lind. Larkin, typically, left no clues. 
 A Girl in Winter has been described as ‘the most underrated work in the Larkin canon’ and ‘a harbinger of greatness’. Andrew Motion, Larkin’s biographer, characterised it as ‘a beautifully constructed, funny and profoundly sad book’. It’s hard to see where he found the ‘funny’, but profoundly sad it certainly is. However, the shimmer and music of Larkin’s descriptive prose tell another story, of life and possibility and hard-won hope. It’s a shame this novel is not better known; if it has been buried under the great edifice of Larkin’s poetry, it should be brought up from the basement and read again as one of his most interesting pieces of work. 
 Why did he write no more novels? It seems he did have at least one other in mind, the third part of a very loosely conceived trilogy, in which Jill represented innocence, A Girl in Winter the loss of innocence, and the one that remained unwritten marking a return to life. However, he gave up on ever writing that third work, or any other fiction. Perhaps he simply lacked material for sustained fiction, or, more likely, he was by then realising where his true vocation lay. Either way, there were to be no more novels: after A Girl in Winter, the rest was poetry.

Saturday 18 November 2023


 I was sorry to discover, belatedly, that the poetry anthologist Anne Harvey, whom I knew slightly, has died. Of her many anthologies, one I have found particularly rewarding is Elected Friends: Poems For and About Edward Thomas, which I recommend to anyone with an interest in that great poet, and about which I wrote here and here.
And here is an affectionate obituary of Anne Harvey by Susan Bailes.

Thursday 16 November 2023

Si Monumentum Requiris

 Ever since my book* was launched on a startled world – four years ago now! – I have lived in mild dread that, on a church crawl somewhere, I'll come across a truly splendid 17th-century monument that I absolutely should have included in it. So far, this hasn't happened – or rather it hadn't until yesterday, when, on a pleasant sunny walk in Buckinghamshire countryside (surprisingly close to Milton Keynes), I was astonished to come across this very fine monument from the 1670s, which clearly belongs in my book (in the chapter winningly titled 'What Happened? (In which Much Ground is covered and the Author's Prejudices stand Revealed)'. A monument from this period is the last thing you'd expect to find in Bucks – let alone one of this quality. Standing in the chancel of St Simon and St Jude, Castlethorpe, it commemorates Sir Thomas Tyrrell, politician and judge (and Parliamentarian, but clearly his Puritan leanings did not extend to monumental masonry), and it shows him in his judge's robes. But, for all the grandeur of its framing, this is a tender and affecting composition, showing the grieving widow, with (delicately carved) tears visible in her eyes, cradling her dying husband as he rests his head in her lap. 
  Why did I know nothing of this one? Doing a bit of research when I got home, I found that it is indeed little known: Pevsner speaks well of it (and attributes it conjecturally to the London sculptor Jasper Latham; others have suggested William Stanton), but it has no mention in Mrs Esdaile, and only a fleeting reference in Brian Kemp's more compendious English Church Monuments. Neither is it featured in that wondrous volume Country Church Monuments, and I had never seen a photograph of it. 
It really should be better known, especially as it was recently restored and cleaned and is now looking its very best. Happening upon it so unexpectedly was yet another of those glorious surprises that make church crawling such an endlessly rewarding pursuit.

* The Mother of Beauty: On the Golden Age of Church Monuments, and Other Matters of Life and Death. Still available on Amazon, or direct from the author: email

Tuesday 14 November 2023

Julie Manet

 Born on this day in 1878 was Julie Manet, daughter of Eugène Manet (brother of the more famous Edouard) and the painter Berthe Morisot. Sadly both her parents died when she was in her teens, leaving her an orphan at 16. The poet Stéphane Mallarmé became her guardian, and she received support from friends, including Renoir, and family. At 21 she married the painter and art collector Ernest Rouart, in a double ceremony in which one of her cousins married the poet Paul Valéry. Julie lived into the 1960s, dying at the age of 87. Her teenage diaries, published in English as Growing Up with the Impressionists, are said to give a notably vivid and spontaneous account of life among all those artists and poets, including records of lively conversations about the Dreyfus affair. I must keep an eye open for it...
  The young Julie was strikingly pretty, and of course much painted, especially by her mother and Renoir. The sketch above, showing her sitting on a watering can, is by her uncle Edouard.

Monday 13 November 2023

My Original Sin

 I am aware of 'original sin', that rather unhelpful Christian doctrine (I speak as a Pelagian in the English tradition), but until today I had no idea there was such a thing as 'original antigenic sin'. Apparently the term was coined in 1960, in a paper by one Thomas Francis Jr, 'On the Doctrine of Original Antigenic Sin'. It's to do with the body's response to infections, and has been summarised thus: ' The imprint established by the original virus infection governs the antibody response thereafter. This we have called the Doctrine of the Original Antigenic Sin' – which seems a pretty tenuous link to Augustine's doctrine, but it's certainly a catchy name. Anyway, thanks to 'original antigenic sin', there is good news (for some of us): recent research suggests that having had lots of doses of the common cold in our early years, and later, might well give a useful level of protection against the dreaded SARS-CoV-2 virus, aka Covid. I've long suspected this myself – it was one of the more marginal reasons I decided against getting vaccinated – and I wonder if it might account for my own apparent immunity (or near immunity: if I had Covid, I didn't really notice). I spent much of my boyhood and youth catching every conceivable form of the common cold, some of which hung around miserably for weeks on end. If that was my 'original antigenic sin', it seems to have paid off – which is more than can be said for Augustine's version.  

Sunday 12 November 2023

The War in the Air

 Howard Nemerov – a poet I'm only just beginning to discover – served in the war as a pilot in both the Royal Canadian Air Force and the US Army Air Force. This poem, I think, is a fitting one for Remembrance Sunday...

The War in the Air

For a saving grace, we didn't see our dead,
Who rarely bothered coming home to die
But simply stayed away out there
In the clean war, the war in the air.

Seldom the ghosts come back bearing their tales
Of hitting the earth, the incompressible sea,
But stayed up there in the relative wind,
Shades fading in the mind,

Who had no graves but only epitaphs
Where never so many spoke for never so few:
Per ardua, said the partisans of Mars,
Per aspera, to the stars.

That was the good war, the war we won
As if there was no death, for goodness's sake.
With the help of the losers we left out there
In the air, in the empty air.

Friday 10 November 2023

New Zealand's Coppers, Firbank's Plaque

 I have many fond memories of Wellington (a city I'll probably never see again, as daughter and family are leaving New Zealand for Canada), and among them are, of course, some butterfly memories: of Monarchs and Yellow Admirals and, at the less spectacular end of the scale, Common Coppers. I remember the first thrill of discovering that there was a thriving colony of these little beauties living among the Wire Vines on the land between the New World supermarket and Te Papa museum. I wrote about this happy discovery at the time, and about the fact that there might be as many as 25 other New Zealand Copper species yet to be identified. And today I discover from the new issue of Butterfly magazine that a research project is under way in New Zealand – the Butterfly Discovery Project – whose first mission will be, yes, to identify new species of Copper. 
  Apparently the reason so many Coppers have remained unidentified has its origins in Cook's Endeavour voyage, from which the first collected specimens were brought back to England – and promptly sold to a trader. No original specimen has ever been located, and all that survives is a 1775 painting in William Jones's Icones. From this image (in scientific terms, an iconotype) the great naturalist Fabricius concluded that there was but one species of New Zealand Copper, Lycaena salustius. Well, since then the number has swollen to four, and, thanks to the Butterfly Discovery Project, it looks set to grow considerable larger. As a result, New Zealand, with its poor tally of butterfly species (26 listed in Wikipedia), might end up with a number not far short of the UK's 60ish. 

Talking of butterflies, I was pleased to learn, from a piece by Alan Hollinghurst in the Spectator, that Ronald Firbank now has a Blue Plaque in London, on a house on Curzon Street, where the compulsively peripatetic author roosted for a couple of years with his mother and sister. Hollinghurst is a huge fan of Firbank, and his Spectator piece rightly stresses his importance as an influence – on Evelyn Waugh, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Muriel Spark, Joe Orton, Noel Coward, even Henry Green. He deserves to be recognised as a more than a 'queer icon', though he will always be a cult writer, read by few. I've always had a soft spot for Firbank myself: indeed, when going through some of my old papers recently, I found my undergrad dissertation on him (and it wasn't as bad as I expected it to be). I'm glad he has a plaque; his final resting place is 'far away from his country'

Thursday 9 November 2023

A Literary Centenary

 I missed most of Radio 3's Shakespeare Day, marking the 400th anniversary of the First Folio (I was in transit – Worthing again) but saw enough of BBC2's Shakespeare: Rise of a Genius to know it was best avoided (i.e. about 5 minutes). There's another literary anniversary today, of infinitely less significance but worth marking – the centenary of the birth of poet James Schuyler, a leading light of the 'New York School'. He wrote a handful of fine poems, including this one – 

Fauré's Second Piano Quartet

On a day like this the rain comes
down in fat and random drops among
the ailanthus leaves—'the tree
of Heaven'—the leaves that on moon-
lit nights shimmer black and blade-
shaped at this third-floor window.
And there are bunches of small green
Knobs, buds, crowded together. The
rapid music fills in the spaces of
the leaves. And the piano comes in,
like an extra heartbeat, dangerous
and lovely. Slower now, less like
the leaves, more like the rain which
almost isn’t rain, more like thawed-
out hail. All this beauty in the
mess of this small apartment on
West Twentieth in Chelsea, New York.
Slowly the notes pour out, slowly,
more slowly still, fat rain falls.

And here is the slow movement, Adagio non Troppo, from that quartet – a movement described by Copland as 'a long sigh of infinite tenderness, a long moment of quiet melancholy and nostalgic charm'...

Wednesday 8 November 2023


 Here is my latest contribution to Literary Review, that uniquely excellent magazine, which, as ever, I urge you to buy and/or subscribe to. Fire Weather: A True Story from a Hotter World was quite a read, telling an astonishing story – that of the Fort McMurray fire – which I had somehow never heard before...

  'Does the name Fort McMurray mean anything to you? I must admit that, until I read this book, I had only a vague idea of the place as a remote mining town somewhere in northern Canada. What I now know is that Fort McMurray is a large, sprawling urban area (not technically a city but it ought to be) in the boreal forest of Alberta, and its mining activities – extracting oil from bitumen – are on such a gigantic scale that they can be seen from six thousand miles up in space, at which height they are the only visible signs of human activity. And this whole vast area was consumed, in May 2016, by a fire the like of which had never been seen before in an urban setting – a wildfire that burned for months, spreading at terrifying speed, creating its own weather, and achieving such destructive force that it could make a house and all its contents vaporise in five minutes, leaving only a hole in the ground and a few scraps. The fire destroyed almost everything in and around the town, burnt more than two thousand square miles of forest, and in the end was the costliest natural disaster in north American history. Miraculously, no one died: nearly ninety thousand people managed to escape by car along traffic-choked roads, with fire raging all around them, smoke reducing visibility to almost nothing, and the air full of blazing embers.
  The full dramatic story of the Fort McMurray fire is vividly told in John Vaillant’s impressive new book (which follows The Tiger and The Golden Spruce). Before he gets down to the events of 2016, he relates the history of the area, back to the days of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and of the exploitation of bitumen, initially as a raw material, then as a source of oil. To get from bitumen to usable petroleum is no easy matter, demanding complex processing on a massive scale, using colossal, fantastically powerful machinery, for scraping, digging, hauling and crushing – bulldozers that can plough down a forest like mowing a lawn, dump trucks weighing four hundred tons unloaded, crushers that can devour a city bus in three seconds. This is what has created the bleak, devastated wasteland that surrounds Fort McMurray – ‘mile upon mile of black and ransacked earth pocked with stadium-swallowing pits and dead, discoloured lakes’, lakes full of contaminated water and industrial effluent. Even those who work on it compare this landscape to Tolkien’s Mordor, the realm of Sauron.
 Vaillant’s description of the Fort McMurray operation is embedded in a broader consideration of the central role of fire, of combustion, in the modern world, where a single car running at normal speed generates around ten thousand combustions per minute. ‘Observed by visitors from another planet,’ Vaillant writes, ‘humans could easily be mistaken for a global fire cult – the dutiful keepers of a trillion flames.’ And where there is fire, of course, there is risk of destruction, potentially on a terrible scale. This is especially true of what is known to planners as the WUI, the wildland-urban-interface, where town and countryside meet – just the kind of environment people want to live in, and, if that countryside is highly combustible forest, just about the most dangerous. Fort McMurray grew up amid the boreal forest, and boreal forest lives and dies, literally, by periodically catching fire, often on a huge scale. When temperatures are freakishly high and humidity freakishly low, and when a wind is whipping up, the forest is a tinderbox – and so, as Fort McMurray learned, is any town in the vicinity.
 These were just the conditions that prevailed around Fort McMurray when a fast-growing fire was spotted southwest of the town, one that, despite the best efforts of eighty firefighters, two bulldozer groups and several water bombers, proved impossible to contain. This was the beginning of the great fire that the author chronicles day by day, often hour by hour, as it moved in and devoured the town and all that lay around it. Vaillant tells the story through a detailed narrative of events as they unfolded, and through eye-witness testimony, including that of a man who, in impossible conditions, decided to take a stand and save his home. His story, and that of several others, is edge-of-seat stuff, and one is left marvelling not only at the sheer force and scale of the fire but at the courage and endurance of so many – residents and firefighters alike – and the barely believable fact that everyone got out of it alive. I could have done with rather fewer journalistic thumbnail sketches of the dramatis personae – ‘a solidly-built Albertan whose bespectacled eyes peered out from beneath a high, clean-shaven dome’ – but this is a great piece of storytelling, well paced and relentlessly gripping.
 After all this action, the next section of the book, tracing the history of climate science and of attempts to deal with a warming Earth, is quieter, though Vaillant, who sees such events as the Fort McMurray fire as omens of worse to come, infuses it with full-on apocalyptic urgency. A true believer in the ‘settled science’ of catastrophic anthropogenic climate change, he tells a tale of disinterested science nobly overcoming ignorance and obstruction, ignoring the darker alternative story of science hardening into something worryingly like quasi-religious dogma. But never mind – this is a remarkable, often thrilling book, one that would surely give any reader a deeper understanding of the nature of fire, and of its awesome, terrifying power.'

Sunday 5 November 2023

'the crux a craftsman's triumph'

 Yesterday I was in the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Stoke-on-Trent, marvelling at the Staffordshire Hoard – or rather at the half of it that is in Stoke, the other half being in Birmingham. Everything about the Staffordshire Hoard is wildly improbable and deeply mysterious. It was found, by pure chance, in 2009, in a recently ploughed field at Hammerwich, a village near Lichfield, by a detectorist called Terry Herbert, who had no expectation of finding anything, the field having just been searched by another pair of detectorists. However, he did find something – first, a fragment of gold lying on the surface, then, as he dug down, more and more pieces, until, over the next five days, he had uncovered 244 gold objects. And that was just the beginning: excavation work by Birmingham Archaeology, funded by English Heritage and successfully kept secret, eventually unearthed the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver metalwork (and garnet-inlaid cloisonné) ever found: almost four thousand six hundred items in all, containing eleven pounds' weight of gold and three pounds of silver. 
  The hoard consists largely of decorative features from sword hilts and scabbards – 
'What is carried over? The Frankish gift, two-edged, regaled with slaughter.
The sword is in the king’s hands; the crux a craftsman’s triumph. Metal effusing its own fragrance, a variety of balm...' (Geoffrey Hill, Mercian Hymns)
And everything in the hoard, including even a very fine and elaborate helmet, appears to have been carefully selected then systematically broken into often very small fragments. Why was this done? What is this hoard and who would have put it together and hidden it? Was it simply plunder (in which case why break it up so carefully?) or some kind of religious offering? The collection can't have been intended as grave goods; were they a metalworker's store of pieces to be repurposed? Why did such a hoard, having been collected together and buried, then lie lost and forgotten until that chance discovery in 2009? 
  Looking at the cleaned and restored fragments today, as they lie in their well lit display cases, one can only marvel, not only at the mystery that surrounds them, but also at the sheer quality and beauty of the workmanship, all of it dating from well before the end of the seventh century. These fragments offer tantalising glimpses of a highly sophisticated culture of which we know almost nothing beyond the bald facts of chronological history. They are precious flotsam washed up by chance on the shore of that great ocean of the unknown that lies all around us, spreading ever wider as we go back and back in time...

'I was invested in mother-earth, the crypt of roots and endings. Child’s-play. I abode there, bided my time: where the mole
shouldered the clogged wheel, his gold solidus; where dry-dust badgers thronged the Roman flues, the long-unlooked-for mansions of our tribe...'

Thursday 2 November 2023

All Souls

 Today is All Souls, when Christians are enjoined to remember 'the faithful dead'. For most of us, I suspect, the ever growing family of our dead contains only a minority of the Christian faithful, but today, well placed in the elegiac season of autumn, is a good day to remember them all. Loss and remembrance are great themes in English poetry – Lycidas, Gray's Elegy, In Memoriam, to name only the more imposing monuments. On a far smaller scale, and much more recent, I always find this poem by Kay Ryan – short, subtle and oblique – especially poignant...

Things shouldn't be so hard

A life should leave
deep tracks:
ruts where she
went out and back
to get the mail
or move the hose
around the yard;
where she used to
stand before the sink,
a worn-out place;
beneath her hand
the china knobs
rubbed down to
white pastilles;
the switch she
used to feel for
in the dark
almost erased.
Her things should
keep her marks.
The passage
of a life should show;
it should abrade.
And when life stops,
a certain space—
however small —
should be left scarred
by the grand and
damaging parade.
Things shouldn’t
be so hard.

As for music, Schubert marked All Souls Day with one of his most beautiful songs, the Litanei. This morning Radio 3's Song of the Day was the Litanei, sung to an orchestral accompaniment by Benjamin Appl (a new release, not yet available online). For me, this version, sung by Bryn Terfel (using, like Hans Hotter, only a fraction of his vocal power), is my favourite...