Sunday 31 December 2023

Happy New Year

And so another year passes, and it's time to wish all who browse here a very happy and prosperous new year. For me, 2023 has been a somewhat challenging and unrestful year, thanks largely to all the time, energy and money that has had to be spent on making the new house habitable (now, thankfully, all but done). However, that has not been the whole story by any means, and there has been much happiness, love and laughter along the way. I have, as ever, a huge amount to be thankful for, and I am. I'm just hoping 2024 will be, well, a bit easier...
I shan't attempt my usual retrospective of the year: feel free to explore the past twelve months' posts for yourself. I hope they have given pleasure and perhaps, from time to time, some kind of sustenance; I've certainly enjoyed writing them. Again, happy new year!

Friday 29 December 2023

Rick Danko

 Rick Danko,  a founder member of The Band (bass, guitar, vocals, fiddle), would have been 80 today. Sadly he died aged only 56, but was lucky to have survived a car accident in 1968 in which he broke his neck and back in six places, spending months in traction (and delaying The Band's concert debut until a year after the release of their first album, Music from Big Pink). It was Danko who found the pink house on Parnassus Lane in Saugerties, New York, that became known as Big Pink, and it was there that The Band recorded what became known as the 'basement tapes' with Bob Dylan. On The Band's eponymous second album (surely one of the greatest ever made), Danko sang the lead vocal on 'When You Awake' – which is always worth another play...

Thursday 28 December 2023

Peak Doom?

 Well, here's a turn-up for the books – the RSPB, a conservation organisation whose status and influence is up there with the National Trust and the Church of England, has come up with 'Five reasons to be cheerful' about the state of the natural world. The world has, says the RSPB, 'every reason to be optimistic about the future of wildlife' (has anyone told St David of Attenborough?). The return of beavers and water voles to British waters and a resurgence of seabird populations on Lundy island are among the reasons cited for this unexpected outbreak of optimism, and it's heartening to hear some good news from the natural world for a change. But the RSPB is not alone in this change of tone: last year's annual report from Butterfly Conservation was also unexpectedly upbeat. Could it be that the conservationists are beginning to realise that the usual relentless bombardment of jeremiads is yielding diminishing, or negative, returns – not to mention the sad fact that it seems to have convinced the more impressionable that the world is about to burn to a crisp and a mass extinction event is going to wipe us all out any day now. Whatever the reason, it's good to have a bit of optimism on that front, and I'm hoping there will be more to come, that at last we might have reached Peak Doom. 
  Some things, however, never change, and prominent among them is the dear old BBC. Back in May 2021 the BBC board commissioned a survey to monitor its output and ensure that impartiality reigned and a wide range of viewpoints was represented. The results are now in, and show clearly that – and I know you're going to find this hard to believe – the BBC feeds its viewers (and listeners) 'a steady diet of woke bias', with slavery (i.e. Britain's historical role in the triangular trade tout court, nothing else) and issues of gender and race (only one attitude permitted) relentlessly overemphasised and shoehorned into all kinds of programmes. Who knew? And here is the BBC's response: 'Cherry-picking a handful of examples or highlighting genuine mistakes in thousands of hours of output does not constitute analysis and is not a true representation of BBC content. We are proud that our output seeks to represent all audiences and a range of stories and perspectives. Across the entirety of our services there will, of course, be occasions when people disagree with or want to challenge what they have watched or heard and we have well-publicised routes for them to do that.' So that's all right then, nothing to see here. The trouble is, I fear, that the BBC is now so completely imbued with woke bias that it sees its own worldview as simple, middle-of-the-road, non-controversial common sense, therefore those who dissent from it can only be crackpots, fanatics or ignorant deplorables. The result is that it simply cannot see its own bias, and, while it continues to exist in its present form, I don't suppose it ever will. 

Tuesday 26 December 2023

An Unexpected Call

 Walking in town this mercifully clear, sunny Boxing Day morning (yesterday was typical English Christmas weather – wet and warm), I was startled to hear a loud, almost comically harsh, croaking call, pitched, as it seemed, somewhere not very far above infrasound. It could only be one thing – and looking up and seeing a large black corvid settling in a cypress tree confirmed that it was indeed... a raven. A raven that was soon joined by another one, croaking every bit as loud, assertive and basso profondo as the first. So it would seem that the ravens have come into town. Formerly a bird of wild, rugged places – like the now thoroughly urban buzzard and red kite – ravens have been steadily extending their range, at least in the North and West (including, evidently, the West Midlands), but this was my first urban raven, and it came as something of a shock. Neither bird, I have to report, was quothing 'Nevermore'...

Monday 25 December 2023


 And here, to go with the above, is R.S. Thomas again, short and sharp and perfect...


The moon is born
and a child is born,
lying among white clothes
as the moon among clouds.

They both shine, but
the light from the one
is abroad in the universe
as among broken glass.

Sunday 24 December 2023

Happy Christmas

And now for something completely different... This is by way of wishing all who browse here a very Happy Christmas. (Adoration of the Shepherds, from the Wallace Collection, artist unknown?)

Saturday 23 December 2023

More Filth

 This saucy item turned up on my Facebook feed today. It's called Familiar Birds (Les Oiseaux Familiers) and it's by one Emile Friant (1863-1932), an accomplished painter whose works often look rather like Gustave Caillebotte and such, but who was versatile enough to turn his hand to this kind of arty pin-up. A bit of pre-Christmas cheer for the gentlemen...

Silverfish Minuet

 Call me weird but I've always found silverfish rather enchanting creatures. With their silvery, tapering bodies and fish-like movements, they live up to their name, and their unusual form speaks of their incredibly ancient origin, possibly as much as 400 million years ago, long before the age of the dinosaurs. 
I was fascinated by the silverfish in my boyhood home in Ealing, and now, many years later, I was delighted to find them in the flat in Lichfield (and even a few in the house – are they a Lichfield thing?). I know they are capable of damaging books (they like the taste of glue, as well as paper), but they've never given me any trouble on that front. And now I like them even more, having read in Wikipedia of their elegant courtship ritual. I quote: 
'Before silverfish reproduce, they carry out a ritual involving three phases, which may last over half an hour. In the first phase, the male and female stand face to face, their vibrating antennae touching, then repeatedly back off and return to this position. In the second phase, the male runs away and the female chases him. In the third phase, the male and female stand side by side and head to tail, with the male vibrating his tail against the female. Finally, the male lays a spermatophore, a sperm capsule covered in gossamer, which the female takes into her body via her ovipositor to fertilise her eggs.' 
A veritable minuet...

Thursday 21 December 2023

Schiff on Bach

 The pianist Andras Schiff turns 70 today, as was duly noted on Radio 3 this morning. This reminded me of a link sent to me a while back by the artist formerly known as Mahlerman, still a constant source of musical inspiration. An interview at the piano, in which Schiff talks about Bach and, toward the end, Beethoven, it is well worth watching if you have some free time over Christmas. Schiff's humility, particularly when discussing Bach, is striking, as is his quiet sense of humour. Here's the link...

Wednesday 20 December 2023

Haunting, Haunted

 The word 'haunting' is one that we perhaps reach for too easily when describing poems and other works of art (mea culpa). However, in the case of Walter de la Mare's best poetry, it is exactly le mot juste. The haunting quality of his verse surely has much to do with the haunted nature of the world he describes: his best poems have an eery, uncanny quality that is quite unique. Take this one, which I came across by chance today, a poem ostensibly about waiting at a railway junction, but of course about so much more. There are echoes of Robert Frost here, and Edward Thomas, but it is unmistakably De la Mare's own – and it is, yes, decidedly haunting...

The Railway Junction

From here through tunnelled gloom the track
Forks into two; and one of these
Wheels onward into darkening hills,
And one toward distant seas.

How still it is; the signal light
At set of sun shines palely green;
A thrush sings; other sound there’s none,
Nor traveller to be seen –

Where late there was a throng. And now,
In peace awhile, I sit alone;
Though soon, at the appointed hour,
I shall myself be gone.

But not their way; the bow-legged groom,
The parson in black, the widow and son,
The sailor with his cage, the gaunt
Gamekeeper with his gun,

That fair one, too, discreetly veiled –
All, who so mutely came, and went,
Will reach those far nocturnal hills,
Or shores, ere night is spent.

I nothing know why thus we met –
Their thoughts, their longings, hopes, their fate:
And what shall I remember, except –
The evening growing late –

That here through tunnelled gloom the track
Forks into two; of these
One into darkening hills leads on,
And one toward distant seas.

Monday 18 December 2023

A Whall Window

 Yesterday I visited St Oswald, Ashbourne, one of the finest town churches in Derbyshire (where I celebrated Advent last tear). My cousin and I paid our respects to poor Penelope Boothby, admired the (mostly) excellent Victorian stained glass, and, in particular, drank in the beauty of the window above, which commemorates the sisters Monica and Dorothea Turnbull, who died in a terrible domestic accident: a lamp held by their father burst into flames, setting fire to Dorothea's dress, and then Monica's, as she tried desperately to save her sister. The distraught parents commissioned Christopher Whall, a brilliant stained glass designer in the Arts & Crafts manner, and he delivered a window of rare beauty. The colours sing, and the drawing, particularly of the faces, is superb. Monica is shown as St Barbara, Dorothea as the saint of the same name, and between them is St Cecilia, falling asleep to the sound of celestial music. Beneath her is an image of the Celestial City, visible though a thicket of thorns. Needless to say, my photograph does scant justice to this magnificent window. 

Friday 15 December 2023

The Return of Chloris

 At this time of year, with the garden largely dormant or frost-blighted, the chief pleasure it affords is watching the flurries of birds jostling for a place at the feeders. I have what claims to be a totally squirrel-proof bird feeder, but I wouldn't be surprised if my squirrels find a way to breach its defences: they're all over it, testing it out, probing for a weak point, experimenting with different approaches. I suppose I should take my hat off to the resourceful little blighters, but I'm afraid that, despite having read this book, I still find the grey squirrel hard to like, and would sooner the birds had the feeders to themselves. Charm after charm of goldfinches  – 'proud tailors', as they are called in Staffordshire, according to Johnson's dictionary – are visiting, as well as tits blue, great, coal and long-tailed, sparrows, chaffinches, and the odd starling. But the happy surprise has been the large numbers of greenfinches coming to feed. Down south I had seen very few greenfinches since they suffered a dramatic population crash in the 1990s, the result of a parasite-borne disease. The greenfinch (which has the pleasing binomial Chloris chloris, from a Greek root meaning greenish yellow) is a beautiful bird – and, it has to be said, a pugnacious character that likes to have its own way at the bird feeder. It's a joy to see it back, and I hope it's busy repopulating the rest of the country. 

Wednesday 13 December 2023

According to Beryl

 On this day – St Lucy's Day, 'the year's midnight' – in 1784 Samuel Johnson, after many travails physical and mental, died. After his death, his body was opened and examined, and an autopsy report written. It was with this report, read by Beryl Bainbridge, that the 2001 Arena documentary According to Beryl, which I watched on BBC iPlayer last night, began. In the film Bainbridge talks about Johnson's last years, in particular his relationship with the Thrales, and about her Johnson-and-Thrale-themed novel, According to Queeney (which I wrote about here). Readings from Johnson's letters and personal writings, and from Bainbridge's novel, enlarge the narrative. It's a typically well made and illuminating Arena documentary, and the slightly dotty but endearing Bainbridge comes over well on television. Towards the end of her film she encounters Johnson's extraordinary death mask, which lives in the National Portrait Gallery. Shortly after Johnson's autopsy, his friend Sir Joshua Reynolds sent the cast maker from the Royal Academy schools to take a cast of the dead Johnson's face. The result [below] is, as Bainbridge points out, strikingly lifelike (though looking quiet unlike the standard image of Johnson) and extremely present: Johnson is very much there. And he looks happy and at peace. I hope he was playing with his childhood friends by the pools of Lichfield, or eating apples in his nurse's garden on George Lane...

Tuesday 12 December 2023

Moore's Steam Roller

 This morning I happened upon this poem by Marianne Moore, intriguingly titled 'To A Steam Roller'. It is not, needless to say, an address to a piece of road-making equipment but a springy, pithy little poem about a more general and pervasive tendency  – very much apparent in the academic/critical mind – to crush the glittering particulars of life into a flattened, generalised amalgam. This is, of course, to be resisted.

The illustration
is nothing to you without the application.
   You lack half wit. You crush all the particles down
      into close conformity, and then walk back and forth 
         on them.

Sparkling chips of rock
are crushed down to the level of the parent block.
   Were not 'impersonal judgment in aesthetic
      matters, a metaphysical impossibility,' you

might fairly achieve
It. As for butterflies, I can hardly conceive
   of one's attending upon you, but to question
      the congruence of the complement is vain, if it exists.

Sunday 10 December 2023

Park Life

 With the world apparently trundling towards hell in an accelerating handcart, it is cheering to come across a good news story, so I was delighted to read that a new species of moth – one entirely new to science – has been discovered, in, of all places, a park in that 'queen of suburbs', Ealing. Indeed, it was found in the very park where, as a lad, I used to play with my brother and friends: Walpole Park, developed from the grounds of Sir John Soane's Pitzhanger Manor, which in my day was the public library (the park also, in my day, contained a small zoo or menagerie). The moth is a new species of microlepidopteron, so cannot be described by any stretch as spectacular – but that it should have been discovered at all, let alone in such a location, is quite astonishing: these things very rarely happen. Tachystola mulliganae  – named for Barbara Mulligan, the moth enthusiast who found it – belongs to a genus originating from Australia, and an unidentified microplepidopteron in the Natural History Museum's collection turned out to be an exact DNA match. That specimen was found back in 1886, in the Western Australian town of... Walpole. 
You can read the full story here.

Friday 8 December 2023

'A rushing music, seizing on her dance...'

 Among my birthday presents, and very welcome, was Christopher Lloyd's Edgar Degas: Drawings and Pastels, a handsome book that will give me hours of browsing pleasure. 

Among Degas's finest pastels – and unusual in showing a performance rather than rehearsals and behind the scenes action – is L'Etoile, a brilliant representation of a dancer caught in the brief ecstasy of inhabiting the dance before returning to the menacing darkness of backstage and the harsh realities of life as a dancer (and, very probably, prostitute: the two tended to go together at the time). Richard Wilbur catches the feel of the picture perfectly in his ekphrastic poem, 'L'Etoile'...

A rushing music, seizing on her dance,
Now lifts it from her, blind into the light;
And blind the dancer, tiptoe on the boards
Reaches a moment toward her dance's flight.

Even as she aspires in loudening shine
The music pales and sweetens, sinks away;
And past her arabesque in shadow show
The fixt feet of the maitre de ballet.

So she will turn and walk through metal halls
To where some ancient woman will unmesh
Her small strict shape, and yawns will turn her face
Into a little wilderness of flesh. 

Thursday 7 December 2023

Birthday, and a Walk

 Well, today another year has come full circle and I achieve (simply by virtue of staying alive) my 74th birthday, as does the great Tom Waits – happy birthday, Tom. Yesterday I was walking with the miraculously resurgent walking group – a short (but sometimes dauntingly muddy) church crawl in southern Northamptonshire, taking in the gloriously named villages of Potterspury, Yardley Gobion and Furtho, the last more a remnant than a village, with a still numinous 'redundant' church, a fine dovecote and the humps and tumps of a DMV (deserted medieval village). Platonic England, if ever I saw it...
  In Potterspury church we happened on the best kind of person you can hope to meet on a church crawl  – not an antiquarian windbag along the lines of the Rev. Lord Henry D'Ascoyne in Kind Hearts and Coronets: 'I always say that my west window has all the exuberance of Chaucer – without, happily, any of the concomitant crudities of his period.' No, this was an old man – 91 years old – who clearly loved his church, which he had been part of since he joined the choir as a boy back in 1940, and who knew every stone of it: indeed he had laid many of them himself, having repaved the whole of the nave and chancel (a six-month job for two men, and beautifully done). It is wonderful to meet someone like him, who in his person and his memories embodies so much of what the Church – specifically the English parish church – is all about. Let us hope it lasts a deal longer yet – or even, like my walking group, undergoes a miraculous resurgence: that would be something. 

Monday 4 December 2023


 Yesterday evening I attended my first Advent service in the cathedral (last year I was at St Oswald's, Ashbourne). It was an extraordinarily beautiful service, beginning, in customary fashion, in darkness, then gradually lit up by candles along the length of the nave and into the quire. The effect was glorious, as was the music that accompanied all this – Bach, Byrd, Palestrina, Weelkes and more, including the Great 'O' Antiphons (O Sapientia, O Adonai, etc). There were the usual Advent readings, and the traditional Advent carols. The choir were on brilliant form, divided between the west gallery and the quire, and as I listened I wondered once again how a Church with so much to offer in the way of beautiful music (and words), beautiful buildings and rich tradition should be in such a state of decline. No doubt there are all manner of reasons – the current rush into managerialism being one of them – but I wonder if the dear old C of E might be wiser to make the most of its rich heritage rather than strive for novelty and 'outreach'. I suspect beauty, spirituality and tradition might prove to have much stronger appeal than lame attempts to follow secular trends or reduce worship to happy-clappy simplicity: there might be more life in Larkin's 'moth-eaten musical brocade' than the Church itself suspects. Certainly the cathedral was packed full last night – so full that I had to sit against the wall of the south aisle (all the chairs were arranged facing the nave aisle, as there was a good deal of processing). The down side of this was that I became much colder than I realised, and I was unable to read the order of service, being too far from the nearest rank of candles. But it was a wonderful service, one of the best I have ever attended. And one of the musical highlights was this glorious piece by James MacMillan, a true modern classic...

Sunday 3 December 2023


 Advent, and snow on the ground.
Here is a bleakly beautiful Advent poem by – who else? – R.S. Thomas.

The Coming

And God held in his hand
A small globe.  Look, he said.
The son looked.  Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour.  The light burned
There; crusted buildings
Cast their shadows: a bright
Serpent. A river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
With slime.
               On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky.  Many People
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs.  The son watched
Them.  Let me go there, he said.

Saturday 2 December 2023


 The cold snap has well and truly arrived, with clear blue skies and deep frost, and this morning an arrestingly beautiful combination of mist and hoarfrost – the first I've seen in some while. The particular beauty of hoarfrost lies in the way it gives a silver-white lining to every leaf and twig and blade of grass – and spiderweb. Suddenly it becomes apparent how abundant and ubiquitous spiderwbebs are, and what an amazing feat of engineering each one is. When the lines of a web are rimed and thickened with hoarfrost, its's easier to see how, from the spider's point of view, web building is not a delicate affair but sheer hard work. As Kay Ryan puts it, beautifully, in her poem 'Spiderweb' – 

'From other
angles the
fibres look
fragile, but
not from the
spider’s, always
hauling coarse
ropes, hitching
lines to the
best posts
possible. It’s
heavy work
fighting sag,
winching up
give. It
isn’t ever
to live.'