Saturday 20 July 2024

Laughs and Bitters

 When I wrote recently about James Hamilton-Paterson's Gerontius, I mentioned that I was 'strongly tempted' by another novel of his with the intriguing title Cooking with Fernet Branca. Well, I yielded to that temptation, bought it (for a song), and I'm happy to report that it's one of the funniest comic novels I've read in recent years. It might even be, almost, what one excited reviewer called it: 'A work of comic genius.' I have certainly been laughing immoderately every couple of pages at least – a positively Wodehousean hit rate, though there's nothing of P.G. about the book. Published in 2004 and described as 'a gleefully tasteless bad dream of modern Italy', it's told through the eyes of Gerald Semper, a snobbish, somewhat effete, thoroughly absurd Englishman in Tuscany, who makes his living reluctantly ghost-writing celebrity memoirs, and has a penchant for cooking pretentiously disgusting food, passing on recipes for such delights as otter in lobster sauce and rabbit in cep custard. (He is rather reminiscent of Damien Trench, Miles Jupp's creation, in the radio series, In and Out of the Kitchen, though Trench's recipes are nothing like so outlandish.)
   Arriving at his new house in the Tuscan hills, Semper is appalled to find that he has a neighbour (albeit at some distance), Marta, whom he instantly mistakes for a half-mad, sex-hungry eastern European peasant woman, though she is in fact a Voynovian aristocrat who writes film music: Semper not only lacks self-awareness but basic awareness of, or interest in, other people. The narrative unfolds through two parallel accounts of events – Semper's often delusional version and Marta's more grounded account of dealing with her tiresome neighbour, whose antics provide her with plentiful entertainment. And what of the Fernet Branca of the title? The notoriously challenging drink is omnipresent, to the point where Semper and Marta each believe the other to be hopelessly addicted to the stuff, though in fact Marta, who has an unwanted box of it, is plying Semper with Fernet to get rid of it. It crops up also in Semper's recipes, one of which is for garlic and Fernet Branca ice cream. Yum.
  Fernet-Branca is an old-fashioned Italian amaro (bitters), a class of drinks of which I am very fond. It's made, of course, to a secret recipe, involving some 27 ingredients, and is very strong (39 per cent alcohol) and very bitter, with a sharp medicinal tang to it – just my kind of drink in fact, but somehow I'd never got round to trying it. Until last night, when, inspired by Cooking with Fernet Branca, I poured myself a glass, over ice, as a digestif. What can I say? It did not disappoint – it was the ultimate bitter bitters, with an almost eye-watering impact, but, once I'd got used to it, I became aware of subtle and intriguing undertones. I look forward to sampling it again – perhaps in the form of a Hanky Panky cocktail (gin, sweet vermouth and Fernet), created by Ada Coleman, head barman of the Savoy's American Bar back in the day, for the actor Charles Hawtrey (no relation to the Carry On actor who stole his name). On first knocking one back, Hawtrey declared, 'By Jove! That is the real hanky panky!'. Many other cocktails feature Fernet-Branca, and it is apparently the favourite tipple of the fraternity of barmen, hence its nickname, the 'barman's handshake'. In Argentina, where most of the stuff is sold, it is drunk with Coca-Cola – I don't think I'll be trying that...
  Anyway, I am grateful to James Hamilton-Paterson for not only providing me with excellent reading material but sending me off to listen properly to The Dream of Gerontius, and inspiring me to finally buy a bottle of the ultimate bitters. 

Friday 19 July 2024

190 Today

 Born on this day 190 years ago was Hilaire-Germain-Edgar De Gas, who would go on to simplify his name to Edgar Degas and become one of the greatest draughtsmen who ever drew – the greatest since the high renaissance, in Kenneth Clark's estimation. 
Here, to mark his birthday, is Degas's Les Repasseuses, an oil painting on rough brown canvas showing women in a laundry wearily working their way through a pile of ironing  ('repasser' in French, so much more expressive of the action than 'ironing').
And here is a poem by R.S. Thomas inspired by the painting (which hangs in the Musée d'Orsay) –

one hand
     on cheek the other
on the bottle
     mouth open
her neighbour
     with hands clasped
not in prayer
      her head bent
over her decreasing
      function     this is art
overcoming permanently
     the temptation to answer
a yawn with a yawn

['decreasing function' is brilliant]

Wednesday 17 July 2024

'Let me confess...'

 'Very few people can write poetry,' I opined. 'And he [the subject under discussion, who will remain anonymous] sure ain't one of them.' Actually I'll modify that assertion: very few people can write poetry that anyone in their right mind would want to read. All too many people are writing poetry, or something that can pass for it, and even doing so very competently – but who in their right mind, etc? The internet has massively encouraged people to write poetry, regardless of ability or aptitude – and there are other factors that have been at work much longer, notably the poetry workshop and the creative writing course. I recently came across two poems written by battle-scarred veterans of that particular field of endeavour. Here is Dana Gioia, who has had enough of sestinas (and writes one to say as much):

My Confessional Sestina

Let me confess. I’m sick of these sestinas
written by youngsters in poetry workshops
for the delectation of their fellow students,
and then published in little magazines
that no one reads, not even the contributors
who at least in this omission show some taste.

Is this merely a matter of personal taste?
I don’t think so. Most sestinas
are such dull affairs. Just ask the contributors
the last time they finished one outside of a workshop,
even the poignant one on herpes in that new little magazine
edited by their most brilliant fellow student.

Let’s be honest. It has become a form for students,
an exercise to build technique rather than taste
and the official entry blank into the little magazines—
because despite its reputation, a passable sestina
isn’t very hard to write, even for kids in workshops
who care less about being poets than contributors.

Granted nowadays everyone is a contributor.
My barber is currently a student
in a rigorous correspondence school workshop.
At lesson six he can already taste
success having just placed his own sestina
in a national tonsorial magazine.

Who really cares about most little magazines?
Eventually not even their own contributors
who having published a few preliminary sestinas
send their work East to prove they’re no longer students.
They need to be recognised as the new arbiters of taste
so they can teach their own graduate workshops.

Where will it end? This grim cycle of workshops
churning out poems for little magazines
no one honestly finds to their taste?
This ever-lengthening column of contributors
scavenging the land for more students
teaching them to write their boot camp sestinas?

Perhaps there is an afterlife where all contributors
have two workshops, a tasteful little magazine, and sexy students
who worshipfully memorise their every sestina.

Gioia's barber is taking a correspondence course in poetry – and in this poem, Galway Kinnell writes as an instructor on such a course, who, like Gioia, has also had enough:

The Correspondence-School Instructor Says Goodbye to His Poetry Students
Goodbye, lady in Bangor, who sent me   
snapshots of yourself, after definitely hinting   
you were beautiful; goodbye,
Miami Beach urologist, who enclosed plain   
brown envelopes for the return of your very
“Clinical Sonnets”; goodbye, manufacturer   
of brassieres on the Coast, whose eclogues
give the fullest treatment in literature yet
to the sagging breast motif; goodbye, you in San Quentin,   
who wrote, “Being German my hero is Hitler,”   
instead of “Sincerely yours,” at the end of long,   
neat-scripted letters extolling the Pre-Raphaelites:

I swear to you, it was just my way   
of cheering myself up, as I licked
the stamped, self-addressed envelopes,   
the game I had of trying to guess   
which one of you, this time,   
had poisoned his glue. I did care.   
I did read each poem entire.   
I did say everything I thought   
in the mildest words I knew. And now,
in this poem, or chopped prose, no better,   
I realize, than those troubled lines   
I kept sending back to you,
I have to say I am relieved it is over:
at the end I could feel only pity
for that urge toward more life
your poems kept smothering in words, the smell   
of which, days later, tingled in your nostrils   
as new, God-given impulses
to write.

you who are, for me, the postmarks again
of imaginary towns—Xenia, Burnt Cabins, Hornell—
their solitude given away in poems, only their loneliness kept.

And here is a wonderfully wry piece by Kay Ryan, overcoming a lifelong aversion to all forms of co-operative creative endeavour and attending, for the first time, an AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programmes Annual Conference). The session she gets the most from is on... The Contemporary Sestina!            

Tuesday 16 July 2024

Soul Journeys

 Reading James Hamilton-Paterson's Gerontius naturally got me interested in Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius, a work I barely knew, so I've bought a CD (featuring the wonderful Janet Baker as the Angel) and embarked on listening to it. Although I'm very much more a Vaughan Williams man than an Elgarian, I'm impressed and enjoying it. Perhaps it was because of The Dream – a setting of Newman's poem charting the journey of a dying man's soul from this life to the next – that the phrase 'animula vagula blandula' came into my head. It's the first line of a short poem in which the dying Roman emperor Hadrian bids farewell to his soul. I have a vague memory that, years ago, one of the back-page competitions in the Spectator or New Statesman challenged entrants to translate it (I don't suppose that would happen these days). I can't remember whether I entered, but 'Animula vagula blanda' is a translation challenge to which many have risen: more than a hundred translations have been published in book form, and many more can be found on the internet. 
  Here is the text, with a straight translation: 

Animula vagula blandula
Hospes comesque corporis
Quae nunc abibis in loca
Pallidula rigida nudula
Nec ut soles dabis iocos
Little wandering, charming soul,
Guest and companion of my body,
What places will you go to now?
Pale, stiff, naked little thing,
Never again to share a joke.

Among the more eminent of the poets who have translated it are Alexander Pope, who strikes an inappropriately grand note – 

Ah! Fleeting Spirit! wand’ring Fire,
That long hast warm’d my tender Breast,
Must thou no more this Frame inspire?
No more a pleasing, chearful Guest?

Whither, ah whither art thou flying!
To what dark, undiscover’d Shore?
Thou seem’st all trembling, shiv’ring, dying,
And Wit and Humour are no more!

and Henry Vaughan, who comes much closer to the tone of the original  –

My soul, my pleasant soul and witty,
The guest and consort of my body,
Into what place now all alone
Naked and sad wilt thou be gone?
No mirth, no wit, as heretofore,
Nor Jests wilt thou afford me more.

while Charles Tennyson Turner (Alfred's elder brother) makes a neat job of it – 

Little wild and winsome sprite,
The body’s guest and close ally;
To what new regions wilt thou fly?
A pale and cold and naked blight,
With all thy wonted jokes gone by.

and Christina Rossetti's version is stark and bleak – 

Soul, rudderless, unbraced
The body’s friend and guest,
Whither away today,
Unsuppl’d, pale, discas’d
Dumb to thy wonted jest.

Hadrian, of course, was writing in a pre-Christian world, and his relationship with his soul is very different from that of the dying Gerontius, who is fully identified with his soul. Hadrian is bidding farewell to something that has been almost a part of himself but was always separate, and now it is off, alone and unhoused, to inhospitable regions unknown. His soul has been like a charming, mischievous child (all those diminutives) who has lived with him for a while, and is now setting out on his own to who knows where. It's been fun having him around, and Hadrian hopes he'll be all right out there. Gerontius, on the other hand, is not the temporary residence of a visiting spirit: he is his soul and his soul is him, and they journey together into a spiritual realm of which they know at least the outlines. Christian souls are not the lost, anxious, wandering spirits depicted in Homer, and the heaven that awaits at least some of them is conceived in very much more exalted terms than the asphodel meadows or the Elysian fields. I'm hoping Gerontius makes it...

Sunday 14 July 2024

A Bullet from the Back of a Bush

 The Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum is also, as is only fitting, a bookshop, and the other day there were a few books outside on offer at £1 each. One caught my eye immediately – The Still Moment. Eudora Welty: Portrait of a Writer by Paul Binding, a book I never knew existed. Naturally I snapped it up. 
  The Still Moment begins, arrestingly, with the murder of the black civil rights activist Medgar Evers outside his home in Jackson, Mississippi, the town where Eudora Welty lived and died. Evers was shot from behind in a targeted attack by a white man, and his death caused an immediate outcry, sparking riots all over the Southern States. Welty's immediate reaction was to write a short story about the killing, writing it in the first person because 'I am in a position where I know. I know what this man must feel like. I have lived with this kind of thing.' The story, 'Where Is the Voice Coming From?', was written at one sitting on the day of Evers's death, and sent immediately to William Maxwell at The New Yorker. He decided to publish in the next issue, but it turned out that Welty's insight into the mind, motive and modus operandi of the killer was so uncannily accurate that details had to be changed for fear of prejudicing the case against the man who had now been arrested for Evers's murder. 'The route taken, the hour, the how and why of the crime – Eudora Welty had divined them all.'
  Welty's protagonist, exasperated by the attention given to a high-profile black activist in his town, decides to take the law into his own hands and get rid of him. He drives to his target's house late at night, parks his borrowed truck behind a tree, and awaits the man's return. The shooting exhilarates him – 'I was on top of the world myself. For once' – and he feels he has done his duty by his community, acting true to his own and that community's convictions. 'I done what I done for my own pure-D satisfaction,' he boasts, unrepentant, revelling in his notoriety, and facing arrest and the possibility of the  electric chair with equanimity. In the event, the real-life killer, one Byron de la Beckwith, was tried twice in Mississippi and acquitted twice when the all-white juries failed to agree. It was not until 1994 that he was finally convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. 
  The murder of Medgar Evers inspired Bob Dylan's 'Only a Pawn in Their Game' – not his best or most successful protest song, though it gets off to a cracking start – 'A bullet from the back of a bush Took Medgar Evers' blood...' (Oddly, and coincidentally, reminiscent of the opening of Geoffrey Hill's 'The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy' – 'Crack of a starting-pistol. Jean Juarès dies in a wine-puddle.'). Here is young Bobby singing 'Only a Pawn' at the March on Washington in 1963...

Saturday 13 July 2024

A Tenor Centenary

 Born on this day exactly a century ago was the great Italian tenor Carlo Bergonzi. He was born near Parma, and according to Wikipedia he left school at 11 to work in a Parmesan cheese factory, where he was often in trouble for singing while at work (which seems unlikely in Italy). During the war he became involved in anti-Nazi activities and was interned for two years in a German prisoner of war camp. After being released by the Russians, he walked some 65 miles to get to an American camp, catching typhoid fever along the way. When he resumed his musical studies at the Arrigo Boito conservatory in Parma, he weight barely 80lb, but this seems to have had no long-term effects on his health, and he lived to the age of 90. 
  I came to opera late, and my way in was largely through cheap compilations of arias and duets, many of which, happily, featured Bergonzi's wonderfully natural voice, sometimes in combination with that of Renata Tebaldi, who seemed the perfect match. Their rendering of 'O Soave Fanciulla' from La Bohème still sends a shiver down my spine. Here it is...

Friday 12 July 2024

Fleur's Jandals

 In my half sleep this morning, I half heard some talk of the New Zealand poet Fleur Adcock on Radio 3, and I believe one of her poems was read. Later, after I'd surfaced to face the day, I looked her up and was pleased to find that she is still alive – 90 now – and, since 2008, a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit. Over the years I've come across quite a few of her poems, mostly in anthologies. She writes a kind of cool, jaunty, no-nonsense light verse which reads easily and often leaves a feeling of good cheer in its wake – which is not a common thing among modern poets. Indeed, one of her poems, 'Londoner', opens Wendy Cope's cheering anthology, Heaven on Earth: 101 Happy Poems. Mutatis mutandis, this one has a slight feel of Frank O'Hara about it, and it brings back to me something of the excitement I used to feel about being young and at large in London. Here it is – 


Scarcely two hours back in the country
and I'm shopping in East Finchley High Road
in a cotton skirt, a cardigan, jandals* –
of flipflops as people call them here,
where February's winter. Aren't I cold?
The neighbours in their overcoats are smiling
at my smiles and not at my bare toes:
they know me here.
                                 I hardly know myself,
yet. It takes me until Monday evening,
walking from the office after dark
to Westminster Bridge. It's cold, it's foggy,
the traffic's as abominable as ever,
and there across the Thames is County Hall,
that uninspired stone body, floodlit.
It makes me laugh. In fact, it makes me sing.

* 'Jandals', a conflation of 'Japanese' and 'sandals', is a New Zealand word for light sandals with a thong between the first two toes. 

Thursday 11 July 2024

'It's perhaps not surprising...'

 I was amused to read in the latest issue of Butterfly magazine that counting butterflies reduces anxiety by nine per cent on average, while also 'enhancing mental wellbeing'. It seems that spending just 15 minutes watching and counting butterflies made people 'feel more connected with nature'. Who'd have guessed? The research that came up with these findings was conducted by Butterfly Conservation in collaboration with the University of Derby, and comes ahead of this year's Big Butterfly Count, in which thousands of people note what butterflies they see, and in what numbers. 'It's perhaps not surprising that spending time in nature, looking at butterflies, is good for our mental health,' says Butterfly Conservation's head of science, with commendable understatement. The finding is of course yet another example of science validating what we already knew, thereby making it somehow more 'true' than it was before receiving this essential endorsement. And there's more, equally unsurprising: it seems the salutary effects of watching butterflies  last for six or seven weeks after the butterfly watching ends. 
  All this is, I suppose, mildly heartening, but I fear those taking part in this year's Butterfly Watch might find the experience less sustaining than usual. It's been a dire butterfly season so far, with way too much rain (and wind) and way too little in the way of sunshine and warmth. As it happens, I'm just back from a couple of days in Worthing ('Worthing is a place in Sussex. It is a seaside resort'*), where this morning the sun was shining brightly and the wind had dropped, so I was hoping to see some butterflies as I took my constitutional – but no such luck: in particular places where before I've seen the likes of Painted Ladies, Red Admirals, Commas and more, nothing was flying but a few whites and a single Speckled Wood. I'm already dreading the jeremiads that will surely follow the results of this year's Big Butterfly Count... 

* Jack Worthing to Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest, which was written in Worthing.)

Monday 8 July 2024

'The writer of some infidel poetry'

 This day in 1822 was the date of the most archetypically, even iconically, romantic of all the Romantic poets' deaths – that of Percy Bysshe Shelley, drowned in the Ligurian sea, and cremated on the beach by his friends. Unmoved, the London newspaper The Courier marked his death thus: 'Shelley, the writer of some infidel poetry, has been drowned; now he knows whether there is a God or not.' 
  The famous littoral cremation did not go entirely smoothly. I tell the story in my book, The Mother of Beauty (still available on Amazon or direct from me), writing of
'Shelley’s dramatically informal ‘pagan’ cremation on the beach at Viareggio, an event stage-managed and later much mythologised by the writer and adventurer Edward Trelawny. Shelley drowned when the boat he was sailing was caught in a sudden storm, and his body was washed up ten days later at Viareggio, along with his two sailing companions. They were identifiable only by their clothes – and, in Shelley’s case, a volume of Keats that he had crammed into his pocket. With the help of Italian soldiers who were on hand, guarding the bodies, Trelawny built the funeral pyre and set it alight, while his friends Byron and Leigh Hunt looked on. The fierce heat of blazing resinous pine took Trelawny by surprise and drove the onlookers away to a safe distance. As the flames began to die down, Trelawny poured on frankincense and salt, then wine and oil, in the manner of the ancient Greeks, and that was that. The three men then took a long swim out from the shore, and, in one final romantic gesture, Trelawny seized Shelley’s heart from the embers of his pyre. (That heart now resides in the Shelley family vault at St Peter’s, Bournemouth, along with the body of Mary Shelley and the remains of her parents, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, dug up from the churchyard of Old St Pancras).'
The volume of Keats was Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St Agnes, and other poems (1819). There is some doubt over whether the unburnt remnant snatched from the pyre was actually Shelley's heart or some other organ, perhaps his liver. Either way, Trelawny gave it to Leigh Hunt, who for some while refused to hand it over to Mary Shelley, but finally relented. There is doubt too about the final resting place of the presumed heart, which might be at Christchurch Priory rather than St Peter's, Bournemouth. A piece of jawbone, also retrieved from the pyre, was eventually donated to the Keats-Shelley Memorial in Rome.  

Sunday 7 July 2024

Gerontius, and a Jarring Phrase

A while back, having read a devastating German and a sour Austrian novel back to back, I vowed to return to English fiction with my next selection from the charity shop fiction shelves. Those trusty shelves duly obliged by delivering into my hands Gerontius by James Hamilton-Paterson, a novel that I remembered having intended to read when it came out (in 1989 – 35 years ago now!).  
  Gerontius is a beautifully written, psychologically convincing account of a sea voyage undertaken in 1923 by an ageing Sir Edward Elgar, taking him over the ocean to Brazil and on into Amazonia as far as Manaus. He is known to have visited and admired the grand opera house there, but otherwise the whole unlikely episode is barely documented, so Hamilton-Paterson has free rein to make of it what he will. So far, I am only about halfway through – it's a fat book and I'm a slow reader – but I am impressed and thoroughly engrossed. As well as being an account of a sea voyage, Gerontius is also a journey around Elgar's life and mind, his anxieties and preoccupations, his uneasy relationship with his muse and with the social world, his grief for his wife, his many exasperations, his love of tinkering and 'japes', his susceptibility, perhaps, to something like late-life romance... I've read nothing else by this author – described on Wikipedia as 'the most reclusive of British literary exiles' – but I'm strongly tempted by a novel titled Cooking with Fernet Branca., which sounds very different indeed from Gerontius
  Anyway, to the point, if it is a point. There I was, reading away in Gerontius, when I was snagged by a jarring phrase that struck me as surely an anachronism. A character uses the expression 'economical with the truth', which I don't recall ever having heard before it entered the mainstream in 1986 after a senior civil servant (Sir Robert Armstrong) used it in the 'Spycatcher' trial. Surely no one in 1923 would be using the phrase? The idea itself, but not the wording, can be found in Mark Twain – 'Truth is the most valuable thing we have. Let us economise it' (1897) –  and Edmund Burke: 'As in the exercise of all the virtues, there is an economy of truth' (1796). It seems the actual words 'economical with the truth' might well have been in circulation, but are only recorded in obscure sources – The Iron and Metal Trades: Birmingham, 1897 ('One can say without being economical with the truth that they are in a state of "masterly inactivity"'), The Weekly Underwriter, 1897 ('The insurance superintendent of Kansas is said to be very economical with the truth'), and the record of debates in the New Zealand House of Representatives, 1923 ('It is not well to be too economical with the truth'). So the use of the expression in Gerontius is perhaps not anachronistic; it just sounds that way. Not that it matters. 

Friday 5 July 2024

'I humbly hope to meet again and to part no more'

 I've dropped in on the little church of St Chad's, overlooking Stowe Pool in Lichfield, several times, but had somehow failed to spot these two Johnsonian tablets on the South wall until the other day. The upper one (harder to read in the picture) commemorates Johnson's stepdaughter, Lucy Porter, daughter of his wife 'Tetty' and her first husband, and the lower commemorates Catherine Chambers, 'the faithful servant of Michael Johnson [Samuel's father] and his family'. Catherine Chambers's tablet was erected long after her death, but Lucy Porter's is contemporaneous. It reads: 'In a Vault near this Place are deposited the Remains of LUCY PORTER, who died the 13th of January 1786, aged 70 Years. To whose Memory, in Gratitude for her liberal Acts of Friendship conferred on him, this Monument is erected by the Revd J.B. Pearson.'
  Pearson had reason to be grateful. He and Lucy Porter had become close friends in her later years, and at times he was the only person she would admit to visit her. His visits, and their games of piquet, apparently cheered her, though there were times when he exasperated her. Mrs Thrale/Piozzi relates, on the authority of Johnson himself, how 'being opposed one day in conversation by a clergyman who came often to her house, and feeling somewhat offended, cried out suddenly, 'Why, Mr. Pearson,’ said she, ‘ you are just like Dr. Johnson, I think: I do not mean that you are a man of the greatest capacity in all the world like Dr. Johnson, but that you contradict one every word one speaks, just like him.’
However, their friendship was strong, and Lucy Porter's gratitude real. Pearson, who was Curate of St Chad's, was the principal beneficiary in her will, inheriting a handsome sum of money and many Johnsonian relics – her final 'liberal Acts of Friendship'. 
   Johnson's relations with his stepdaughter were not entirely easy. Though he was, by all reports, 'ever attentive and kind' to Lucy, she was generally indifferent. He told Mrs Thrale that Lucy 'considers me one of the external and accidental things that are taken or left without emotion', though she seems to have warmed somewhat to him later in life. Recently a New Year letter from Johnson to his step-daughter came up for auction. It begins: 'Dearest Madam – I ought to have begun the new year with repairing the omissions of the last'. Johnson wishes Lucy 'long life and happiness always encreasing [sic] till it shall at last end in the happiness of heaven'. He meanwhile is 'pretty much disordered by a cold and cough', has just been 'blooded' [bled], and asks her to give his love to 'Kitty'.
  This 'Kitty' is the same Catherine Chambers memorialised in the lower tablet in St Chad's. She was officially Johnson's mother's maid, but became much more than that, living with her for 35 years, and caring devotedly for her in her last illness. Johnson always held her in very high regard. He is quoted on her memorial tablet (erected in 1910): 'My dear old friend Catherine Chambers; she buried my father and my mother and my brother ... I humbly hope to meet again and to part no more.' 

Wednesday 3 July 2024

'A chartered member of Blandings'

 For some unfathomable reason, I continue to be bombarded with Bertrand Russell material on Facebook, invariably accompanied by photographs of the Great Man sagely sucking on a pipe. Today's bit of Russelliana did, for once, pique my interest. It quoted from a fan letter that Russell wrote in 1954 to P.G. Wodehouse, in which he declared that, 'In common with the rest of mankind, I derive great pleasure from reading your books.' He goes on to proudly outline what he has in common with Bertie Wooster:
'My name is Bertie; I had an aunt called Agatha and an uncle called Algernon; I came within an ace of being called Galahad; and my great grandfather put a plaque in his garden to commemorate a victory over his head gardener.'
Galahad Russell? Could he have had a career in philosophy with a forename like that? it would have been uphill work...
Wodehouse, in reply, declares that 'I am very proud to think that you have enjoyed my books', and goes on to tell Russell that 'You are certainly qualified to rank as a chartered member of Blandings!'.
The letter, the only one between the two men, is in the Russell Archives at McMaster University, which also has eleven Wodehouse volumes owned by the illustrious 'chartered member'. 

Monday 1 July 2024

Painted by a Norwegian

 I don't often look at the stats for this blog, but when I do I always check to see which countries are giving Nigeness the most views. Today I was surprised to find that Hong Kong, a territory that I don't think had ever featured before, is now in second place – way, way ahead of the US, which itself is way ahead of the UK, which is not far clear of, er, Singapore. And who is in the coveted number one spot? Why, it's Norway again, a whisker ahead of Hong Kong (who I suspect will fade fast). 
  I've observed the strong Norwegian interest in this blog before, and put up obliging posts (this one, for example). So now here is another painting by a son of Norway, though it doesn't look in the slightest degree Norwegian. The picture above, titled Turner Fernisserer, shows J.M.W. Turner on a 'varnishing day', an occasion which he invariably used to finish his paintings in public, doing a great deal more than just applying varnish, while onlookers marvelled at the last-minute magic he wrought. Turner Fernisserer was painted, on a visit to London, by a Norwegian artist  with a very English name – Thomas Fearnley. He was a painter mainly of Romantic landscapes, and he owed his English name to a grandfather, also Thomas Fearnley, a merchant who emigrated from Canada to Norway. The painter Fearnley's brother was an astronomer, and his son founded a dynasty of shipping magnates. 
  Once again I salute you, Norway! 

Sunday 30 June 2024


 Hatched on this day in 1933 was Cookie, the Pink Cockatoo, who was to achieve fame as the oldest living cockatoo and the oldest living parrot in the world. When he died in 2016, peacefully at home – the Brookfield Zoo, near Chicago – he had achieved the remarkable age of 83, and was the sole survivor from the zoo's original collection, formed in 1934. He was suffering from osteoarthritis and osteoporosis, the latter perhaps caused by his being fed only seeds for his first 40 years (as was then standard), and was living a quiet life in the zoo keeper's office, making public appearances only on special occasions, such as his annual birthday celebrations (no doubt that is a birthday cake in the picture above). In the 1950s Cookie had been introduced to a female bird of his own species, but he rejected her as she was 'not nice to him'. He was memorialised in a bronze sculpture at the zoo, which makes him look rather like a chicken – and a volume of poems for 'middle-grade children' by one Barbara Gregorich titled Cookie the Cockatoo: Everything Changes. It does indeed.

Saturday 29 June 2024

At Last!

 I've often lamented the fact that Lichfield, a city whose parks and avenues are blessed with a glorious abundance of lime trees (currently in flower and smelling lovely), seems strangely devoid of any lime hawk moths. I seldom pass a lime tree at this time of year without checking out the trunk for newly emerged hawk moths, but I've never seen one here. Or rather I had never seen one – until yesterday, when I was walking with my cousin in the cathedral close, and suddenly, out of the blue, she spotted one, resting on a fence!  An exciting moment, and wholly unexpected, given my dismal record so far. It was a fine specimen, and obligingly stayed still while I took its photograph (above). So there are lime hawks in Lichfield after all – another reason to love the place...
  Meanwhile, my fancy birdsong identification app came up with a rogue reading the other day. Hearing a lusty song as I walked in the park, and not being able to see its source, I turned my phone towards the sound, and, after long deliberation, the app delivered its verdict: Bewick's Wren, a long-tailed wren native to western parts of North America and singularly ill equipped to fly across the Atlantic. Apparently the bird was named by Audubon in honour of his friend, the great engraver Thomas Bewick. My bird, I imagine, was the common or garden Eurasian Wren, which glories in the binomial Troglodytes troglodytes

Thursday 27 June 2024

Election Fever

 A week to go till polling day, and here in the City of Philosophers election fever is burning red hot. As I stroll its pleasant streets, I've been keeping a mental tally of all the election stickers I've seen in people's windows. The total so far is... one (for Labour). I've never known a pre-election period like this, so imbued with hopelessness and apathy – and a kind of cool, steady anger. Truly this is the Abstract Election – and, by happy chance, it's coinciding with an abstract soccer championship over in Germany, where Our Lads are pioneering Abstract Football, a form of soccer so abstracted that it amounts to little more than sketches of possibilities, rather in the manner of Cy Twombly at his most hesitant. Unfortunately they are up against players of Real Football. 
As for the election, I'm going to make one prediction: there will be more spoiled papers than ever before in any general election. This will probably be the most significant statistic, though it's unlikely to attract much notice. 

Tuesday 25 June 2024

In the Attic

 A browse in Donald Justice's Collected Poems seldom goes unrewarded. The other day I happened on this one. Perhaps it caught my eye because I had that day been obliged to climb up to my own attic (a far from poetical experience). 
  It's a poem suffused with the characteristic Justice mood of bittersweet (more sweet than bitter) nostalgic melancholy... 

In the Attic

There's a half hour toward dusk when flies,
Trapped by the summer screens, expire
Musically in the dust of sills;
And ceilings slope toward remembrance.

The same crimson afternoons expire
Over the same few rooftops repeatedly;
Only, being stored up for remembrance,
They somehow escape the ordinary.

Childhood is like that, repeatedly
Lost in the very longueurs it redeems.
One forgets how small and ordinary
The world looked once by dusklight from above...

But not the moment which redeems
The drowsy aria of the flies – 
And the chin settles onto palms above
Numbed elbows propped on rotting sills.

This apparently artless little poem achieves its effect through a complex pattern of repeated words (eight in all) at the end of lines: I make it 1234 2536 5768 7183. 
The poem is suffused too with a particular quality of light  – something Justice, a very painterly poet, is particularly strong on. Indeed it is the opening theme of one of the last, and most beautiful, poems he wrote. I've posted it here before, but it's a poem that bears returning to, again and again. It is, I think, one of the great short poems of the twentieth century:

There is a gold light in certain old paintings
That represents a diffusion of sunlight.
It is like happiness, when we are happy.
It comes from everywhere and nowhere at once, this light,
  And the poor soldiers sprawled at the foot of the cross
  Share in its charity equally with the cross.
Orpheus hesitated beside the black river.
With so much to look forward to he looked back.
We think he sang then, but the song is lost.
At least he had seen once more the beloved back.
  I say the song went this way: O prolong
  Now the sorrow if that is all there is to prolong.
The world is very dusty, uncle. Let us work.
One day the sickness shall pass from the earth for good.
The orchard will bloom; someone will play the guitar.
Our work will be seen as strong and clean and good.
  And all that we suffered through having existed
  Shall be forgotten as though it had never existed.

Sunday 23 June 2024

'Its notes are deep & sweet'

 I've been deriving a good deal of innocent pleasure from an 'app' I recently acquired that identifies bird song. You point it in the direction of the bird, touch the Record button for a few seconds (ten or so usually does the job), wait another few seconds, and back will come the name of the bird whose song you've recorded. On my walk the other day, I was crossing a field when I heard a bird giving its all in a wonderfully musical, free-ranging improvisation. Some kind of warbler, for sure – but which of that numerous tribe? I employed the app, and soon had the answer – it was a Blackcap, a bird whose song Gilbert White aptly described as 'full, sweet, deep, loud and wild'. In his journal for May 19th, 1770, he notes: 'Black-cap sings sweetly, but rather inwardly: it is a songster of the first rate.  Its notes are deep & sweet.  Called in Norfolk the mock nightingale [and more widely, today, the northern nightingale].' A songster of the first rate, indeed...
  The next day, in the local park, I (or rather my app) identified another Blackcap, and today, a little farther afield, a Common Whitethroat (a species first differentiated from the Lesser Whitethroat by Gilbert White). Its chattering song took me back to summer days walking on the Surrey downs and hills – one of the few things I miss from my previous life 'down south', especially in the butterfly season. 

Sudden Light

 I used the phrase 'I have been here' before in yesterday's post without thinking: it was vaguely familiar, no more. Checking it out, I find that it comes from a rather lovely poem of Rossetti's  – 

Sudden Light

I have been here before,
But when or how I cannot tell:
I know the grass beyond the door,
The sweet keen smell,
The sighing sound, the lights around the shore.

You have been mine before,—
How long ago I may not know:
But just when at that swallow's soar
Your neck turn'd so,
Some veil did fall,—I knew it all of yore.

Has this been thus before?
And shall not thus time's eddying flight
Still with our lives our love restore
In death's despite,
And day and night yield one delight once more?

('I Have Been Here Before' is also the title of a play by J. B. Priestley, written at a time when he was interested in theories of time expounded by J. W Dunne and P.D. Ouspensky.)

Saturday 22 June 2024

'I have been here before'

 Summer weather being with us at last, I went for a walk yesterday, a little way out of town. Along the way, I came upon a handsome church standing in a large, well kept graveyard, and had a sudden strong feeling that 'I have been here before'. As I drew near, and walked up the churchyard path, it all came back to me – this was the first church that I found standing open when all others had been (and continued) closed for months on end by the pusillanimous C of E in response to the Covid panic. I had rarely been so glad to find a church open, and, of course, I wrote about it on this blog: here's the link.  All Saints, Alrewas (pronounced to rhyme with 'walrus', and with a root meaning of 'alder swamp') is now what it was then, unpretentious (though unusually wide) and full of interest – including the fragment of wall painting pictured above. This survives high up on the North chancel wall, and according to Pevsner is 15th-century work, showing a bishop and his acolyte. It's not in a very good state of preservation, but I think it is rather beautiful, and I wish there was more of it: it looks like an elegant design. 
  The walking was good, much of it along the towpath of the Trent and Mersey canal, and beyond Alrewas I came to the church of St Leonard, Wychnor ('village on a bank'), which stands alone in the fields, the remnant of a deserted medieval village. And it does indeed stand on a bank, with a fine view over the 'humps and tumps' of the former village and beyond to blue rolling hills. The church was closed, as it usually is, but by all accounts there isn't much of interest inside. When I was walking around the exterior, the sun happened to strike through the building and caught a corner of a stained glass window, illuminating the face of a fox – a curious effect. I learn from the online guidebook that the window of which I was seeing a corner – from the wrong side – was installed as recently as 2007, to commemorate members of the Walker family, and was made by a local craftsman, Graham Chaplin. Depicting the four seasons, it looks like a fine piece of work. Another day I might find the church open and have a proper look. 

Thursday 20 June 2024

Chet 100

 I don't know if the centenary was marked on Radio 3 this morning (it might well have been), but the great guitarist and producer Chet Atkins was born 100 years ago today, in Luttrell, Tennessee. Born into poverty, he was initially raised by his mother, his father having absconded, and got his first guitar at the age of nine, swapping an old pistol and some chores for his brother's broken-down instrument, which was so misshapen that only the first three frets could be used. Later he managed to buy a semi-acoustic guitar with amp, but had to travel miles to plug it in, as his home, like all his neighbours', had no electricity. His innovative style of guitar picking was inspired by Merle Travis, but Atkins was very much more than just a guitar-picker. Here he is, in 1975, playing Scott Joplin. Enjoy...

Tuesday 18 June 2024

An Earworm Investigated

 I've long been susceptible to earworms, sometimes pretty outlandish ones – a while back it was John Cale's Hanky Panky Nohow, which took some shaking. The latest pesky squatter in the music section of my addled brain is a hymn – Nearer, My God, to Thee, of all things.
  I think it happened like this: for some reason I was thinking about the sinking of the Titanic – perhaps I had passed too close to the statue of Captain Smith that stands in Beacon Park – and the hymn that might well have been played by the orchestra while the great ship went down entered my train of thought. It was already well on its way to settling in for a stint as resident earworm when yesterday, as I approached the market square, I heard music... I heard, to be specific, a male and a female voice singing, as you have no doubt guessed, Nearer, My God, to Thee, and singing it right lustily. The singers were of oriental appearance – maybe Chinese or Korean Christians – and were clearly deeply committed to their hymn singing. It made a pleasing change from the usual busker fare – but of course it also firmly entrenched that earworm. 
  Reading up about Nearer, My God, to Thee (on the 'know your enemy' principle), I discovered that nothing about it is simple. It is by no means certain that the hymn was played as the Titanic went down – or, if it was, which tune was used: there are three to choose from, one of them, Proprio Deo, written by Arthur Sullivan and favoured by the Methodist church, and two more Victorian settings, 'Horbury' and 'Bethany'. The version lodged in my brain is, I believe, the last named. I learnt, in the course of my researches, that Carl Nielsen wrote a paraphrase of Nearer, My God, to Thee for wind band. It's a rather remarkable piece, culminating in a startling rendition of the Titanic hitting the iceberg...

And here, for good measure, is the moving scene from the 1958 film A Night to Remember in which the ship's musicians (none of whom survived) do indeed play the hymn as the Titanic goes down...

Sunday 16 June 2024

Stan's Day, Father's Day

 Well, here's a coincidence: today is Father's Day (I've just been enjoying Vikingur Olafsson's From Far Away, a gift from my daughter far away) – and it's also the birthday of Stan Laurel (born 1890). Here, to mark both dates, is some delightful footage of Stan visiting his father and stepmother in West Ealing (my birthplace!) in 1932. Enjoy.

Friday 14 June 2024

'Nothing amuses more harmlessly than computation'

 Lichfield continues to honour its greatest son. A newly restored statue of Samuel Johnson – a miniature version of the great sculpture that broods over the market place – has been unveiled at the King Edward VI School. At the unveiling ceremony, an officer of the Johnson Society read from a letter Johnson wrote to 'a young girl', in which he encourages her to continue with her study of mathematics – a fitting choice, given the setting. This letter was written to Sophia Thrale, one of Hester Thrale Piozzi's daughters, and was only recently discovered, by chance, among a bundle of forgotten papers tucked away in a cupboard in a Gloucestershire country house. It was sold at auction, and is now where it belongs, in the care of the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum. 
Here is the full text of the letter:

Dearest Miss Sophy,

By my absence from home, and for one reason and another I owe a great number of letters, and I assure you that I sit down to write yours first. Why you should think yourself not a favourite I cannot guess, my favour will, I am afraid never be worth much, but be its value more or less, you are never likely to lose it, and less likely if you continue your studies with the sure diligence as you have begun them.

Your proficiency in arythmetick is not only to be commended but admired. Your master does not, I suppose come very often, nor stay very long, yet your advance in the Science of numbers is greater than is commonly made by those who for so many weeks as you have been learning, spend six hours a day in the writing school.

Never think, my sweet, that you have arithmetic enough; when you have exhausted your Master, buy Books. Nothing amuses more harmlessly than computation, and nothing is oftener applicable to real business or speculative enquiries. A thousand stories which the ignorant tell, and believe, die away at once, when the computist takes them in his gripe. I hope you will cultivate in yourself a disposition to numerical enquiries; they will give you entertainment in Solitude by the practice, and reputation in publick by the effort. If you can borrow Wilkins’s Real Character, a folio which the Booksellers can perhaps let you have, you will have a very curious calculation, which you are qualified to consider, to show Noah’s Ark was capable of holding all the known animals of the world, with provision for all the time in which the earth was underwater.

Let me hear from you again. I am, Madam, Your Humble Servant

Sam: Johnson


Thursday 13 June 2024

A Novel with No Moving Parts

 More bookshop serendipity: in the selfsame charity bookshop where I recently picked up Death in Rome – 'the most devastating novel about the Germans that I have ever read' (Michael Hoffman) – I spotted another novel from the German-speaking world that I had never heard of, by an author I had barely heard of: Old Masters by Thomas Bernhard. Reading the notes on the author, I discovered that Bernhard's literary career was one long assault on the 'mindless cultural sewer' of Austria, and that in his will (he died in 1989) he forbade any further publication or performance of his work in Austria.
  How could I resist? It was clearly time to move on from the Germans to the Austrians... However, Old Masters is a very different book from Death in Rome. To begin with, it has no chapters or even paragraph breaks, but consists of one 240-page-long paragraph, in the course of which it would be fair to say that, in terms of action, almost nothing happens. It has, as Michael Hoffman has said of all Bernhard's novels, 'no moving parts'. The funny thing is that it is all ridiculously, mesmerically readable – which is all the more surprising as the body of the novel consists entirely of one long rant (punctuated by 'Reger said' at well judged intervals, like the 'Austerlitz said' in Sebald's Austerlitz). The ranter is one Reger, an 82-year-old music critic, who every other day comes to the Bordone Room in Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum and sits on a bench staring at a particular painting, Tintoretto's Man with a White Beard. Reporting Reger's endless rant is his friend, Atzbacher, who fills in some background, particularly about the widowed Reger's bereavement (though we are told almost nothing about his late wife). How does Bernhard make a readable novel out of this, you might well ask – as I do myself. And yet, as Reger rails against the Austrian state, Church and politics, human nature, the woeful deficiencies of just about every work of art and literature, however exalted (excluding only Schopenhauer, Goya, and this one painting of Tintoretto's), the weather, the Austrian newspapers, and even the state of Austrian public conveniences, I kept on reading, and in the end, against all the odds, enjoyed it. Old Masters is subtitled A Comedy, and there is certainly a comic element in such comprehensive, all-embracing railing conducted at such a level of ferocious, insistently repetitive hyperbole (nothing is stated without being reiterated half a dozen times in slightly different but equally hyperbolic phrasing) – and there is a kind of music, a strangely calming music, in it. I suspect that what is going on is very cleverly and subtly controlled by an author who knows just what he is doing.  It's not a book I'm likely to read again, or to keep, but I know it will stay with me – as Death in Rome has. Both are memorable reading experiences, even if not ones you'd wish to repeat. 
And now it is definitely time to move on from these German diatribes into calmer seas. English seas probably – I'll see what's on the shelves today... 

Tuesday 11 June 2024

Richard Todd

 With memories of the D-Day eightieth anniversary – and in particular of The Unheard Tapes – still fresh, it is fitting to mark the birthday of the actor and war hero Richard Todd (born on this day in 1919). The square-jawed heart-throb Todd, having survived being blown out of a second-floor room at Sandhurst by an enemy bomb (and narrowly missed being blown up again in the Café de Paris bombing), had a very good war, serving in the 7th Parachute Battalion that played a key role in the D-Day operation. He and his company, having landed in Normandy, sped on to Pegasus Bridge, where they met up with Major John Howard and set about defending the bridgehead against German counterattacks. They were three months fighting in Normandy, and later returned as reinforcements in the Battle of the Bulge. After VE Day, Todd was sent to Palestine, where, having survived so much, he was seriously injured, breaking both shoulders, when his Jeep overturned. 
  Todd was in a demand as a film actor by the late Forties, and in the course of his career he starred in two D-Day epics – D-Day: The Sixth of June (1956), and The Longest Day (1962), in which he played Major John Howard, while another actor, Patrick Jordan, played young Lieutenant Todd. You can read more about Richard Todd's war, including his own vivid account of his D-Day experiences, here. 

Sunday 9 June 2024

Cole, Ella, Ernest

 Born on this day in 1891 (in Peru – Peru, Indiana, that is) was one of the 20th century's greatest songwriters, Cole Porter. Let's mark the occasion with perhaps his greatest interpreter, the incomparable Ella Fitzgerald, singing 'Alway True to You in My Fashion'...

The title and refrain of this song were inspired by a poem by the Decadent 1890s poet Ernest Dowson, 'Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae' (or, more simply, 'Cynara'). The poem also includes the phrases 'gone with the wind', which became the title of an epic novel and film, and 'madder music', which gave its name to a Peter de Vries novel. It is, as you might expect, an altogether different kettle of fish from Cole Porter's song, but is very fine in its way:

Last night, ah, yesternight, betwixt her lips and mine
There fell thy shadow, Cynara! thy breath was shed
Upon my soul between the kisses and the wine;
And I was desolate and sick of an old passion,

Yea, I was desolate and bowed my head:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.
All night upon mine heart I felt her warm heart beat,
Night-long within mine arms in love and sleep she lay;
Surely the kisses of her bought red mouth were sweet;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,

When I awoke and found the dawn was grey:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.
I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind,
Flung roses, roses riotously with the throng,
Dancing, to put thy pale, lost lilies out of mind;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,

Yea, all the time, because the dance was long:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.
I cried for madder music and for stronger wine,
But when the feast is finished and the lamps expire,
Then falls thy shadow, Cynara! the night is thine;
And I am desolate and sick of an old passion,

Yea, hungry for the lips of my desire:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

There's more about Dowson, the ultimate Doomed Poet, here...

Saturday 8 June 2024

The Abstract Election

Needless to say, I didn't watch last night's seven-cornered election debate, having better things to do (like watching some paint dry), but I gather that feisty redhead Angela Rayner and doughty sword-bearer Penny Mordaunt were, in the words of the Daily Mail, 'going at it like fishwives'. In the course of their exchanges, La Rayner had an inspired moment, accusing the Tories of 'fourteen years of abstract failure'. No doubt the prosaic explanation is that she meant 'abject', but 'abstract' is in fact the very word for the past fourteen years, and no doubt for the next fourteen: it might have been 'abstract failure' or 'abstract success' – either way it would look much the same, i.e. very much like nothing. Political discourse now seems to be entirely abstract, bearing little or no relationship to real actions and real outcomes, and still less to the real life of real people. Whatever governments say they are doing, or say they are going to do, in the event it all dissolves into air, and things go on much the same,  as we roll downhill on the hell-bound handcart: only the speed of descent is at issue in the forthcoming election.  The one sure effect of government action/inaction (they are increasingly indistinguishable) is that taxes carry on rising – as they will under whichever government comes next. Taxes seem to be the only concrete reality in all this; the rest is abstract. And of course this is the Abstract Election – Angela Rayner has given it a name. 

Thursday 6 June 2024

The Done War

 Thom Gunn again – 


After the history has been made,
and when Wallace's shaggy head

glares on London from a spike, when
the exiled general is again

gliding into Athens harbour
now an embittered foreigner,

when the lean creatures crawl out of
camps and in silence try to live;

I pass foundations of houses,
walking through the wet spring, my knees

drenched from high grass charged with water,
and am part, still, of the done war.

Although I was born two decades later than Gunn, I also felt, as a boy, part of that 'done war'. It was still recent when I was born, there were still bomb sites aplenty all through my boyhood, and 'the War' (as it was always called) hovered over everything as an event that had changed lives and fortunes and provided the clearest of historical markers: 'Before the War' was another world, the past. Nobody who had served in the armed forces spoke much of their experiences, and when they did it was seldom to lament the suffering, the loss and waste, more often it was to recall the camaraderie, the humour, the sense of all being in it together, doing a job that had to be done. For many, too, it had undoubtedly opened the way to a new and better life, with new skills and wider horizons. ( In D-Day: The Unheard Tapes, Major John Howard, one of its most compelling characters, speaks feelingly of how military service rescued him from an early life of abject poverty.) My father – who served in R.E.M.E. in Egypt and Palestine and, to his regret, saw no real action – would join his comrades to march past the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday, and would enjoy somewhat riotous regimental reunions, but over the years these observances died away. One family friend, a dashing figure who had had a miraculous escape after being left for dead in the Burmese jungle, actually wrote a book about his wartime experiences, but  another, who had survived a string of missions with Bomber Command (death rate 44.4 percent), had little or nothing to say, and that was the norm. English reticence was still a thing back then: if you'd had a bad war you wouldn't want to dwell on it (or even mention it), and if you'd had a good one you wouldn't want to boast about it. The emotional loosening of recent decades has gradually changed all that, and instituted a kind of inverse sentimentality that encourages emotional unburdening, emphasises the waste-and-futility side of war, and labels every veteran a 'hero'. This sentimentality finds expression in the ever more insistent, ever more unreal Remembrance celebrations, which, as the actual events fade from living memory, become more and more detached from reality. Many of my father's generation would be astonished at this development, especially as, by the Seventies, it did look as if Remembrance was becoming less of an event every year, with only a few diehards still marking it with any conviction. Now, as we drift out into unreality, Remembrance is big business, a national wallow in... well, in what? Whatever it is, it seems to me that it has less and less to do with the actuality of that war that hung over my boyhood and changed the lives of my parents' generation. And an unfortunate by-product of this drift into unreality is the growing insistence, stoked by military and political interests, that we must gear up for another world war. Having done so much to hollow out the nation state, weaken the armed forces and undermine patriotism, the technocrats apparently think the populace can still be made to fight a serious war.  Hey ho – 'tis a mad world.

Wednesday 5 June 2024

'Falling toward history'

 As is only right, there have been many programmes on television and radio to mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day and the subsequent operation that eventually brought about Victory in Europe – all of which will soon have passed from living memory. One three-part TV series stood out head and shoulders above everything else – D-Day: The Unheard Tapes, which ended last night. This showcased audio tapes of D-Day reminiscences made, not long after the event, by survivors from the British, US, Canadian – and German – armies, as well as French civilians and resistance fighters. The tapes had been digitally remastered, and sounded as fresh as if they'd been recorded yesterday, and – a risky technique, but one that paid off brilliantly – they were lip-synched, perfectly, by young actors who bore some resemblance to their real-life originals. With only minimal and useful interruptions from historians, the result was an extraordinary level of intensity and intimacy, which grew as the series progressed and the individual stories deepened. This was a remarkable, and deeply moving, piece of television. If you didn't catch it, do seek it out on the BBC iPlayer. 
   A matter of weeks after D-Day came the 21st July Plot, one of many failed plots to assassinate Hitler (Wikipedia lists no fewer than 42) and the one that came closest to achieving its object. The leader of the plot, Claus von Stauffenberg, took a briefcase full of explosives to a conference at the Wolf's Lair, and placed it next to Hitler, but someone unwittingly moved it behind a table leg at the last moment and Hitler escaped with singed trousers and a perforated eardrum. Four people died, but none of them was Lucky Adolf. In a fine poem collected in My Sad Captains (1961), Thom Gunn commemorates the failed plot...

Claus Von Stauffenberg
of the bomb-plot on Hitler, 1944

What made the place a landscape of despair,
History stunned beneath, the emblems cracked?
Smell of approaching snow hangs on the air;
The frost meanwhile can be the only fact.

They chose the unknown, and the bounded terror,
As a corrective, who corrected live
Surveying without choice the bounding error:
An unsanctioned present must be primitive. 

A few still have the vigour to deny
Fear is a natural state; their motives neither
Of doctrinaire, of turncoat, nor of spy.
Lucidity of thought draws them together.

The maimed young Colonel who can calculate
On two remaining fingers and a will,
Takes lessons from the past, to detonate 
A bomb that Brutus rendered possible.

Over the maps a moment, face to face:
Across from Hitler, whose grey eyes have filled
A nation with the illogic of their gaze,
The rational man is poised, to break, to build.

And though he fails, honour personified
In a cold time where honour cannot grow,
He stiffens, like a statue, in mid-stride
– Falling toward history, and under snow.