Wednesday 31 January 2024

Was Johnson a Poet?

Browsing in the Johnson Society's 2023 Transactions, I found a piece with this arresting title. It's a transcript of the year's Presidential Address, delivered at the Guildhall in Lichfield by the Society's new President (succeeding Posy Simmonds), Robert DeMaria, Jr, professor of English at Vassar and an eminent Johnsonian scholar. 'Was Johnson a poet?' he asks, acknowledging that it seems 'a very irreverent question' – and a very unlikely one to come from the man who recently finished editing the Longman's Annotated English Poets edition of Johnson's poetry. However, it's a question that was asked of Johnson in his time – and not only of Johnson but of others, including even Alexander Pope: in his Essay on the Writings and Genius of Pope, the literary critic Joseph Warton concluded that the leading poet of his age was not a true poet at all, but rather a 'man of wit'. He was not alone in denigrating Pope – Mary Wortley Montagu thought him 'thoroughly mechanical' – but Johnson was having none of it. His life of Pope is the longest, and one of the best, in the Lives of the Poets, and in it Johnson answers the question 'Was Pope a poet?' with another question: 'If Pope be not a poet, where is poetry to be found?' Where indeed.
  The charge sheet against Johnson was that much of his verse is not original, but comes in the form of translations and 'imitations'; that poetry was not his main vocation but a small part of his literary output; and that his method of composition was insufficiently rigorous. Johnson was one of those writers who (in his own words) 'employ at once memory and invention, and, with little intermediate use of the pen, form and polish large masses by continued meditation, and write their productions only when, in their own opinion, they have completed them.' This was altogether too coarse and unrefined, too easy a method for the more fastidious eighteenth-century critics, who preferred evidence of close work and high polish. For them, Johnson's method of composition was the mark of the mere 'versifier' rather than the 'true poet'.
  Was Johnson a poet? Of course he was, by modern standards – by any sane standards. Indeed, if the author of The Vanity of Human Wishes and London be not a poet, where is poetry to be found?

Monday 29 January 2024


I've just finished reading one of the most extraordinary novels I have ever come across, one that actually left me, well, aghast is the only word. It was described in a review as 'a very clever and very alarming novel' and both adjectives are right, especially the latter. Lord Jim at Home by Dinah Brooke was originally published in 1973, when it was greeted mostly with shock and incomprehension, and was duly forgotten, until it was recently reissued by McNally in the US and then by Daunt Books over here. It tells the story of one Giles Trenchard, born into the upper middle class, to a father who cordially loathes him and an indifferent mother who is content for him to be treated with brutal harshness by his nurse(s). He grows up entirely devoid of talent – except for cricket, which he plays to (minor) county level – and unable or unwilling to apply himself to anything, least of all a career. Wartime service in the Navy – as a rating, not an officer – gives his life some structure and purpose, but after the war he drifts helplessly,  drinks like a fish, and takes to crime to subsidise his rackety way of life. When at last he falls in love, in a strangely infantile, abject way, things begin to move towards a horrifying climax – and there has already been plenty of horror in Giles's wartime experiences, not to mention some deeply grotesque sex scenes. All of which sounds thoroughly uninviting. However, Brooke's skill in unfolding the story is such that you – I, anyway – are gripped from beginning to end, and keep turning the pages. There is even real pleasure, of a particular, almost painful kind, to be had in the experience. Brooke tells the story from no fixed angle; the perspective keeps shifting, inconspicuously but with dizzying effect, such that one moment we are with Giles or one of the major characters, and the next we are seeing things through the eyes of some purely marginal person or persons. Giles indeed is mostly seen from outside, and this seems right, as he has no self-awareness and seems most of the time entirely out of touch with himself. He appears to have no insight into himself, and to be observing his actions from the outside, at once calm and bemused, as his life reels out of control, hurtling towards a horrific climax. This is one of those books that somehow heightens the senses and makes you feel as if you are in a new world, whose existence you barely suspected. It is, I believe, an absolute one off: I can certainly think of nothing else like it.  
  As for Dinah Brooke, I was relieved to discover that the narrative of Lord Jim at Home was not wholly spun from her own imagination, but in its externals closely follows a case that was widely reported in the early 1950s. I shan't say any more for fear of giving away the plot (assuming anyone is still up for reading the book). Brooke, an alumna of Cheltenham Ladies' College, published a handful of novels in the early Seventies, having lived for some time in France and America, where she had an affair with Terry Southern, who helped launch her literary career. Back in England, she threw herself into the late Sixties/early Seventies counterculture, taking drugs and setting up a kind of feminist commune in Camden Town. When that (and her marriage) fell apart, she took off for Pune and became a devotee of the guru Osho (Baghwan Shree Rajneesh), living in an ashram for six years. Apparently her life there left her feeling no need or desire to write. Once, she told Osho that he had stolen her creativity. 'His response,' she recalled in an interview, 'was to hit me, really hard. The effect was to release my attachment to writing. That is what an Enlightened Master is for.' Hmm. Each to his own, I suppose, but it seems a shame that a writer capable of producing something so utterly extraordinary as Lord Jim at Home should have abandoned her gift so readily. Dinah Brooke, now 88, is still alive, very active and full of beans – not writing, but delighted that Lord Jim has been rediscovered. There's an interview with her here, but it should carry a spoiler alert for those hardy souls who intend to read the book. 

Saturday 27 January 2024

The Butterfly

 For Holocaust Memorial Day, this little poem, which was discovered at Theresienstadt when the camp was liberated. Written on a sheet of thin copy paper, it was the work of a young Czech Jew who was admitted to Theresienstadt on 28 April 1942 and murdered at Auschwitz on 29 September 1944, when he was 23 years old. He wrote 'The Butterfly' shortly after his arrival at Theresienstadt. This translation is one of many, and quite literal. (The butterfly in question is most likely a Brimstone.)

The last, the very last,
So richly, brightly, dazzlingly yellow.
Perhaps if the sun's tears would sing
against a white stone. . . .
Such, such a yellow
Is carried lightly 'way up high.
It went away I'm sure because it wished to
kiss the world good-bye.
For seven weeks I've lived in here,
Penned up inside this ghetto.
But I have found what I love here.
The dandelions call to me
And the white chestnut branches in the court.
Only I never saw another butterfly.
That butterfly was the last one.
Butterflies don't live in here,
in the ghetto.


Thursday 25 January 2024


 'Standing next to a small youth at the entrance scholarship examination at the Royal College of Art in London, Eric Ravilious could not help noticing that he had made no attempt to draw the life model on the unaccustomedly large page. Burra spent the day painting just one eye, in the middle of the paper, in meticulous detail.' (Christopher Neve Unquiet Landscape ).
The small youth was Edward Burra, and his working methods were to remain eccentric throughout his working life. He preferred to work with paper laid flat on a table, often joining several pieces together, and would invariably begin drawing in the bottom right hand corner and work his way towards the complete composition from there. Sickly as well as small, he hovered on the edges of life, haunting low dives and painting his favourite subjects – 'waiters, seedy decor, nightclubs, cheap suits', also prostitutes and spivs. 'A lifelong exhaustion made him prey on other people's fun, especially (what he really savoured) bad behaviour, unkind laughter, mendacity, waspishness, all-out malicious enjoyment and any kind of excess'. 
The Snack Bar, which hangs in the Tate, is representative of his style...

But then there are the landscapes, which he painted for the last 15 years of his life, and which are, in Neve's judgment, 'odder and more potent than anything else he did'. From what I've seen of them online and in books – and Neve stresses that they really have to be seen in the original – I'm inclined to agree. They are typically very large watercolours with a kind of 'dreamlike clarity of surface', and they were painted from memory, often months after seeing the scene depicted. They often have a menacing air, enhanced by 'roller-coaster perspective' and 'punishing' colour. 'It is as though,' writes Neve, 'Cotman were reborn specifically to see England in its worst light'. And yet, they can be beautiful. I think this late watercolour of Windermere – a fine demonstration of that roller-coaster perspective – is a glorious piece of work, and I would love to see the original, but I believe it is in a private collection...
I spotted Burra's Windermere on a picture-sharing site, which sent me back to Neve – and now I feel I know and understand this strange painter far better than I ever did before. 

Tuesday 23 January 2024

It's That Day Again

Manet Day again (the anniversary of his birth in 1832) – they come round so fast...
In keeping with a long-standing Nigeness tradition, I'm posting one of his pictures – this year one of his most impressionistic, Woman Reading, a late painting (1880/1) which seems to show a well dressed woman at an outdoor table in a café garden. In fact, by this stage in his life Manet's poor health more or less confined him to his studio, which is where this picture was posed and painted. The leafy background is actually another of Manet's paintings. 

Monday 22 January 2024

A Surprising Sestina, and an Upbeat One

 For some reason, I was reading about the sestina, a verse form created by a troubadour in the twelfth century, when I came across a surprising – and to me new – example of the form (which, classically, consists of six six-line stanzas followed by a three-line envoi, the stanzas not rhyming but repeating the end-words of lines in a fixed order). It's a form that, with all its repetitions, runs surprisingly close to the way people actually speak, so its structure tends to be inconspicuous. The sestina has been put to all sorts of uses – which bring me to the surprising example I stumbled upon. This is by a poet best known for his free-verse writings, John Ashbery (whose name cropped up in the Comments recently), and takes place in the weird cartoon world of Popeye...

Landscape with Farm Implements and Rutabagas

The first of the undecoded messages read: “Popeye sits in thunder,   
Unthought of. From that shoebox of an apartment,
From livid curtain’s hue, a tangram emerges: a country.”
Meanwhile the Sea Hag was relaxing on a green couch: “How pleasant   
To spend one’s vacation en la casa de Popeye,” she scratched
Her cleft chin’s solitary hair. She remembered spinach

And was going to ask Wimpy if he had bought any spinach.   
“M’love,” he intercepted, “the plains are decked out in thunder   
Today, and it shall be as you wish.” He scratched
The part of his head under his hat. The apartment
Seemed to grow smaller. “But what if no pleasant
Inspiration plunge us now to the stars? For this is my country.

Suddenly they remembered how it was cheaper in the country.   
Wimpy was thoughtfully cutting open a number 2 can of spinach   
When the door opened and Swee’pea crept in. “How pleasant!”
But Swee’pea looked morose. A note was pinned to his bib. “Thunder   
And tears are unavailing,” it read. “Henceforth shall Popeye’s apartment   
Be but remembered space, toxic or salubrious, whole or scratched.”

Olive came hurtling through the window; its geraniums scratched
Her long thigh. “I have news!” she gasped. “Popeye, forced as you know to flee the country
One musty gusty evening, by the schemes of his wizened, duplicate father, jealous of the apartment
And all that it contains, myself and spinach
In particular, heaves bolts of loving thunder
At his own astonished becoming, rupturing the pleasant

Arpeggio of our years. No more shall pleasant
Rays of the sun refresh your sense of growing old, nor the scratched   
Tree-trunks and mossy foliage, only immaculate darkness and thunder.”   
She grabbed Swee’pea. “I’m taking the brat to the country.”
“But you can’t do that—he hasn’t even finished his spinach,”   
Urged the Sea Hag, looking fearfully around at the apartment.

But Olive was already out of earshot. Now the apartment
Succumbed to a strange new hush. “Actually it’s quite pleasant
Here,” thought the Sea Hag. “If this is all we need fear from spinach
Then I don’t mind so much. Perhaps we could invite Alice the Goon over”—she scratched
One dug pensively—“but Wimpy is such a country
Bumpkin, always burping like that.” Minute at first, the thunder

Soon filled the apartment. It was domestic thunder,   
The color of spinach. Popeye chuckled and scratched
His balls: it sure was pleasant to spend a day in the country.

[A tangram is a puzzle in which shapes are created from seven flat polygons. The Sea Hag is an ugly witch-like figure who is one of Popeye's main enemies. 'For this is my country' quotes a patriotic song of the 1940s. Alice the Goon has a complicated history. ]

Reading about the sestina, I was reminded that my father – a great Kipling fan – more than once drew my attention to Kipling's very accomplished 'Sestina of the Tramp-Royal'. It's an upbeat piece, in the author's rather tiresome vernacular style, replete with apostrophes of omission, but it's beautifully done – and could hardly be more different from Ashbery's essay in the same form...

Sestina of the Tramp-Royal

Speakin’ in general, I ’ave tried ’em all—
The ’appy roads that take you o’er the world.   
Speakin’ in general, I ’ave found them good   
For such as cannot use one bed too long,   
But must get ’ence, the same as I ’ave done,   
An’ go observin’ matters till they die.

What do it matter where or ’ow we die,
So long as we’ve our ’ealth to watch it all—
The different ways that different things are done,   
An’ men an’ women lovin’ in this world;   
Takin’ our chances as they come along,   
An’ when they ain’t, pretendin’ they are good?

In cash or credit—no, it aren’t no good;   
You ’ave to ’ave the ’abit or you’d die,
Unless you lived your life but one day long,   
Nor didn’t prophesy nor fret at all,
But drew your tucker some’ow from the world,   
An’ never bothered what you might ha’ done.

But, Gawd, what things are they I ’aven’t done?   
I’ve turned my ’and to most, an’ turned it good,   
In various situations round the world—
For ’im that doth not work must surely die;   
But that's no reason man should labour all   
’Is life on one same shift—life’s none so long.

Therefore, from job to job I’ve moved along.   
Pay couldn’t ’old me when my time was done,   
For something in my ’ead upset it all,
Till I ’ad dropped whatever ’twas for good,   
An’, out at sea, be’eld the dock-lights die,
An’ met my mate—the wind that tramps the world!

It’s like a book, I think, this bloomin’ world,   
Which you can read and care for just so long,   
But presently you feel that you will die   
Unless you get the page you’re readin’ done,   
An’ turn another—likely not so good;   
But what you’re after is to turn ’em all.

Gawd bless this world! Whatever she ’ath done—
Excep’ when awful long I’ve found it good.   
So write, before I die, ‘’E liked it all!’

Friday 19 January 2024

Gratifying, Ridiculous, Sublime

 'You look like a local,' said the man who hailed me this morning as I strode along by Minster Pool. He wanted to ask me about the location of a launderette, and I was unable to help him, but I was strangely gratified to have been taken for a local, after little more than a year in the City of Philosophers. 

Lichfield is also, decidedly, a City of Dogs. They are welcome almost everywhere, and many pubs and eateries have a self-service display of dog treats, some confined to little bone-shaped morsels, others more ambitious. But this bill of fare, which I noticed yesterday, surely takes the (dog) biscuit –

The treats on offer from Sir Woofington's Canine Hospitality include, as well as various approximations of human meals (Bark Burgers, Bark Bangers, Sunday Roast and Fish& Chips), two 'alcohol-free and refreshing' drinks – Bark Brew Dog Beer (chicken flavour) and Paw Star Dog Martini (chicken and passionfruit), both of which can either be served a drinks or, er, poured over the dog's meal. Yum.

To move from the ridiculous to the sublime, I have been enjoying my Christmas-present CD of Benjamin Appl singing orchestral arrangements of Schubert lieder. Appl isn't my favourite Schubert voice (call me old-fashioned but it's Fischer-Dieskau or Hotter, with Gerald Moore, for me), but I loved his film of Winterreise, and I'm delighted he brought out this unusual lieder album. One of the most beautiful tracks, I think, is Webern's orchestration of 'Du Bist die Ruh' – this link should take you there...

Tuesday 16 January 2024

'At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime'

 This poem – a well made villanelle – turned up on my Facebook feed this morning. It caught my attention in part because I had recently reread Beryl Bainbridge's The Birthday Boys, her brilliant novel telling the story of Scott's Antarctic expedition from the very different perspectives of Taff Evans, Wilson, Scott, 'Birdie' Bowers and Captain Lawrence 'Titus' Oates, whose last words as he walked out to certain death in the blizzard launch the poem...

by Derek Mahon

‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’
The others nod, pretending not to know.
At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.

He leaves them reading and begins to climb,
Goading his ghost into the howling snow;
He is just going outside and may be some time.

The tent recedes beneath its crust of rime
And frostbite is replaced by vertigo:
At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.

Need we consider it some sort of crime,
This numb self-sacrifice of the weakest? No,
He is just going outside and may be some time

In fact, for ever. Solitary enzyme,
Though the night yield no glimmer there will glow,
At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.

He takes leave of the earthly pantomime
Quietly, knowing it is time to go.
'I am just going outside and may be some time.’
At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.

Sunday 14 January 2024

'O man, bewail thy sin so great'

 As a boy, I wasn't much of a reader, and what reading I did was unguided and haphazard. Now and then, however, I would come across a book that grabbed me with such force that I read it again and again, and one of these was, improbably enough, a life of Albert Schweitzer (born on this day in 1875), the 'theologian, organist, musicologist, writer, humanitarian, philosopher and physician', as Wikipedia puts it, or 'polymath', as other sources more succinctly describe him. I don't know what it was about Schweitzer's life or work that so excited me at that early age (maybe nine or ten) – perhaps it was the leper colony he established at Lambarene in Gabon – but much later I became interested in his theology, as expounded by Don Cupitt in that great TV series, The Sea of Faith (the kind of thing the BBC – or, to be fair, any other broadcaster – would never make now). He certainly did much to rescue the figure of Jesus from romantic, liberal and rationalist interpretations and place him in a Jewish prophetic context, and against the backdrop of the apocalyptic end of days that he and his disciples clearly believed to be imminent. Schweitzer could not believe in the divine nature of Jesus, and he even joined the Unitarian Association towards the end of his life. His conclusions about Jesus were highly controversial at the time and seemed to point away from Christianity as traditionally conceived, yet Schweitzer continued, in his practice and certainly in the Christian teaching he offered at Lambarene, to tread a more or less traditional path, and he certainly, and obviously, believed in good works. I seem to remember Cupitt describing his position as 'tragic Christianity', a kind of carrying on 'as if', without the dogmatic baggage, without any certitude, ploughing a lonely furrow, but hoping to at least do good along the way. 
  More straightforwardly, Schweitzer worshipped Bach, playing and studying his works for most of his life. He published a two-volume study of Bach, collaborated on a new edition of the organ works, and co-founded the Paris Bach Society. Here he is playing 'O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde gross' (BWV622). In the photograph he is playing the hybrid organ-piano that was built specially for him and shipped out to him at Lambarene...

Saturday 13 January 2024

'A slight relax of air'

 On this day in 1962, Philip Larkin wrote, or signed off on, this unusually constructed sonnet. 

A slight relax of air where cold was
And water trickles; dark ruinous light,
Scratched like an old film, above wet slates withdraws.
Shrinkage of snow shows cleaner than the net
Stiffened like ectoplasm in front windows.

Shielded, what sorts of life are stirring yet:
Legs, lagged like drains, slippers soft as fungus,
The gas and grate, the old cold sour grey bed.
Some ajar face, corpse-stubbled, bends around
To see the sky over aerials –
Sky, absent paleness across which the gulls
Wing to the Corporation rubbish ground.
A slight relax of air. All is not dead.

Weather is always a presence in Larkin, and not only in the poems – A Girl in Winter is built around a powerfully realised alternation of deep winter and high summer – and here weather comes to the foreground in a vivid, sharp-eyed description of a particular moment when 'a slight relax of air' enables a thaw to set in. It's a bleak English provincial scene, but the poem ends on a note of something like hope: 'All is not dead.' 

Thursday 11 January 2024

Found Poetry in an Unlikely Place

 It has been pointed out to me that this blog's contents list for January makes a strangely moving little poem: 

Unquiet landscape, thunderclap.
Wisdom must come on foot,
Like a small grey coffee-pot...
Queen of comedy,
The apotheosis of tap, 
Loss and its sad math. 

Haunting, eh? Looking back, I see there is also a nice passage in November's contents list: 

Not to be here, not to be anywhere.
More music 
Under the lights,
The most magnificent monologue.
Only the next room of the dream.

Maybe I'll make a sonnet of the next fourteen posts. Or not. 

Tuesday 9 January 2024

Unquiet Landscape, Thunderclap

 'The landscape is meaningless again, and unresponsive. Nothing we can do will rouse it from its absolute inertia. Shout, and no echo comes. Love it lifelong, and not one blade of grass will change direction because of our feelings. The land will entrance us and in the end bury us, with impartiality. If it seems to have great beauty, that is because of what we are, not because of what it is. The appetite for life goes over us and dies out much as the artist's appetite goes over the landscape and dies out. The landscape remains; and the pictures remain. The pictures I have discussed have altered the way we look at many places, and yet to look in an artist's place for his inspiration is all but pointless because his source is in his own mind. You could say that this book is pointless. Any account of how they were seen like that, and of how they were re-imagined, is not so much about places as about us. The birds have stopped singing in the lost lands. The unquiet country is you.'
  So ends Christopher Neve's Unquiet Landscape: Places and Ideas in 20th-Century British Painting (1990), which is certainly one of the most extraordinary works of art history I've read. It is the fruit of a period in the author's life when he was able to meet and talk to a wide range of artists  who were essentially landscape painters (or the friends and associates of those already dead). Neve soon found that the best way to find the essence of their work was to talk about anything other than the paintings: there was 'a tacit agreement that talking about something else was the best possible way of saying anything worthwhile about the paintings without including them in the conversation directly. I strongly believe that if you have to say anything at all about pictures this is the best way to do it, though the best way of all is of course to remain silent.' This disarmingly modest, oblique approach results in a fascinating and highly original book. I think he overpraises some of his subjects, but he writes so beautifully and persuasively it hardly matters, and he has two rare qualities: he leaves himself out of the picture altogether (except in the brief Preface), and you never know what he's going to say next, or where it will come from. 
  The same cannot be said for another work of art history which I've been reading in tandem with Unquiet Landscape – the widely praised Thunderclap by Laura Cumming. Subtitled A Memoir of Art and Life & Sudden Death, it is indeed as much about the author as about its art-historical subject, Dutch golden age art and, in particular, the mysterious genius Carel Fabritius (of Goldfinch fame). Suffice to say that I'm finding the art-historical stuff a good deal more compelling than the memoir: she writes well about the art and has some interesting insights not only into the paintings but into life in Holland in the seventeenth century. I'm enjoying Thunderclap well enough – especially finding out about Fabritius – but it does seem pretty ordinary after Unquiet Landscape
  Talking of the latter, I cannot resist one more quotation, from the opening section, 'The Landscape as Emotion': 
'Must we think of all landscape painting as subject to the often ludicrous esperanto of art history, or all landscape as designated national parks? Paintings are about feelings not rationality; about imagination not common sense. The best I can hope to do is to discuss some of the ideas that English landscape may have given rise to, and then leave it to you to look at the pictures*, testing them against what you know of life and death. The landscape commits suicide every day.'

* Easier said than done: at least in my paperback edition, many of the pictures discussed are not illustrated, and those that are are on a very small scale. The same can be said of many of the pictures discussed in Thunderclap.

Sunday 7 January 2024

'Wisdom must come on foot'

 For Epiphany Sunday, a short one by R.S. Thomas...

The First King

The first king was on horseback.
The second a pillion rider.
The third came by plane.

Where was the god-child?
He was in the manger
with the beasts, all looking

the other way where the fourth
was a slow dawning because
wisdom must come on foot.

Friday 5 January 2024

'Like a small grey coffee-pot...'

 The grey squirrels in the garden continue their relentless campaign to secure all the birds' food for themselves. They still haven't cracked the 'squirrel-proof' feeder, but their latest victory was to take down a large new feeder – a Christmas present – that had been hanging barely half an hour in an apparently secure position. Having done that, they seem not to have got much farther, the feeder being too sturdy to be dismantled, and the contents proving elusive. I shall hang it up again today and see what happens this time...
Meanwhile, I just happened upon this little poem by Humbert Wolfe:

The Grey Squirrel

Like a small grey
sits the squirrel.
He is not

all he should be,
kills by dozens
trees, and eats
his red-brown cousins.

The keeper on the
other hand,
who shot him, is
a Christian, and

loves his enemies,
which shows
the squirrel was not
one of those.

Wolfe (born on this day in 1885) was a poet, very popular in his day (his collection Requiem still turns up in charity bookshops), who was also a senior civil servant and something of a man of letters. Today he is best remembered for one epigram (from The Uncelestial City) – 

You cannot hope
to bribe or twist,
thank God! the
British journalist.
But, seeing what
the man will do
unbribed, there's
no occasion to.

Thursday 4 January 2024

Queen of Comedy

 Like many men, I have become more tear-prone as I get older – but I never expected to be reduced to a moist-eyed wreck by a TV documentary about someone from the biz we call show. Last night, however, I caught up with Caroline Aherne: Queen of Comedy on BBC iPlayer (it originally went out on Christmas Day), a profile of that hugely talented performer and writer, who died of cancer in 2016, aged only 52. It's an Arena documentary, which in itself is generally a guarantee of quality, and it was beautifully made, bringing its subject (back) to life with a deftly managed mix of archive footage, images and, particularly, the memories of those who knew and loved her best – and boy, did they love her, and do they still grieve for her. I've never seen such clearly genuine raw emotion in a documentary of this kind, and it was intensely moving. Even Steve Coogan, who reportedly wept buckets at her funeral, was finally too overcome to speak. This was a wonderful documentary, and it's on iPlayer for a while yet, so catch it if you can. I'd almost go so far as to say that a programme like this is worth paying the licence fee for, but I imagine the Corporation has been plotting the demise of Arena for years. Or am I just being cynical?

Wednesday 3 January 2024

The Apotheosis of Tap

 This morning, I was reading about the dancer and actress Eleanor Powell, 'best remembered', as Wikipedia succinctly puts it, 'for her tap dance numbers in musical films of the 1930s and 1940s'. She was a cripplingly shy child, whose mother sent her to ballet classes to overcome this tendency – a move that paid off beyond all expectation. She was performing professionally with her acrobatic dance routines before she was even in her teens, then moved to New York with her mother at the age of 15 and started to learn tap  – which didn't come naturally, as her ballet training had taught her to pull away from the floor, rather than 'play' it with her feet. Her teacher countered this by tying around her waist an army surplus belt with a sandbag at either side. Suddenly she 'found the floor' – and the rest was history.
Eleanor initially resisted Hollywood, trying to discourage MGM by making ludicrous salary demands – but they, surprisingly, agreed to them, and bagged themselves one of their brightest stars. Even Fred Astaire seems to have been somewhat in awe of Powell, who had a reputation as the only woman who could outdance him, at least in tap. In Broadway Melody of 1940, the two of them performed a routine to Cole Porter's 'Begin the Beguine' that is surely the apotheosis of tap. Enjoy...

Monday 1 January 2024

'Loss and its sad math'

 Let's start the new year with a poem that was new to me. It's by one Sarah Freligh, and it turned up on Facebook this morning. It's a single-sentence work that comes close to being chopped-up prose, but I think it is shapely enough to work as a poem. And it is very touching to read, especially if you have had the experience it describes, as Mrs N certainly did when trying to read the ending of Charlotte's Web to our children and breaking down in tears every time. They too found it funny at the time, but now they are old enough to understand. The thing that really struck me about 'Wondrous' was the phrase 'loss and its sad math'. 'Math' is a potent word here, with its double meaning relating at once to the kind of math ('maths' in English English) by which our death draws inexorably nearer with every year we add to our lives, and 'math' in the sense of the mowing effect of death, the grim reaper: a math is a mowing, as in 'aftermath'. Sarah Freligh gave the name Sad Math to one of her collections of poetry.


I’m driving home from school when the radio talk
turns to E.B. White, his birthday, and I exit
the here and now of the freeway at rush hour,


travel back into the past, where my mother is reading
to my sister and me the part about Charlotte laying her eggs
and dying, and though this is the fifth time Charlotte


has died, my mother is crying again, and we’re laughing
at her because we know nothing of loss and its sad math,
how every subtraction is exponential, how each grief


multiplies the one preceding it, how the author tried
seventeen times to record the words She died alone
without crying, seventeen takes and a short walk during


which he called himself ridiculous, a grown man crying
for a spider he’d spun out of the silk thread of invention —
wondrous how those words would come back and make


him cry, and, yes, wondrous to hear my mother’s voice
ten years after the day she died — the catch, the rasp,
the gathering up before she could say to us, I’m OK.