Wednesday 28 February 2024

To London

 Yesterday I entrained for the Metropolis to meet and lunch with An Old Friend (my best old friend). In the afternoon we visited the Royal Academy exhibition 'Impressionists on Paper' (hurry hurry, ends 10 March). It's a crowd-pulling title for an exhibition of works mostly by post-impressionists (Degas, Cézanne, Seurat, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec) or never-impressionists (Odilon Redon, for heaven's sake). Also, while I'm being pedantic, not all the works are on paper. A more accurate title would have been 'Works, Chiefly Drawings and Pastels, from Late Nineteenth-Century France' – that would have had the punters queuing round the block. 
  Anyway, quibbles aside, this smallish exhibition (three rooms) includes half a dozen stunning pastels by Degas, a handful of lovely watercolour studies by Cézanne, and a couple of brilliant Toulouse-Lautrecs, and these alone would be worth the visit. As would the picture that dominates the first room, and is indeed facing you, unignorably, when you walk through the door – a study of a yawning dancer, drawn on a background of shocking acid green, a green you have to see to believe. This, and other works of his on show, confirm Kenneth Clark's judgment, if it needed confirming, that Degas was indeed 'the greatest draughtsman since the high renaissance'. 
  On my way towards lunch, I took a turn around Soho Square, and noticed a feature that I had somehow missed, or forgotten, until now – the statue of Charles II by Caius Gabriel Cibber. It is much battered, mutilated and restored, but still has considerable presence. Originally the centrepiece of a grand Baroque fountain, it ended up at Grim's Dyke near Harrow Weald, the home of W.S. Gilbert, whose widow, long after Gilbert's death, returned it to Soho Square. I have written about Cibber before, e.g. here, and indeed his wonderful Sackville monument at Withyham is featured in This Book...

Monday 26 February 2024


 Born on this day in 1879 was the composer, musician and snappy dresser Frank Bridge, who taught Benjamin Britten, and was greatly admired by his pupil, who championed his music and paid musical homage in his Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. When Britten sailed for America in 1939, Bridge gave him his 1843 Giussani viola, bidding him bon voyage et bon retour. Bridge died in 1941, never seeing Britten, or his Giussani, again. 
  I can't pretend to know much of Bridge's music, though I like most of what I have heard. However, when I was learning piano, I managed to just about play 'Rosemary', the second of his Three Sketches. Hearing it today takes me back to my piano teacher's study, with its soft-toned Blüthner, its heavy Arts & Crafts decor and lingering smell of pipe smoke and tweed... 

Friday 23 February 2024

'I can scarcely bid you good bye...'

 On this day in 1821, John Keats died, of consumption, in Rome. He was just 25 years old, and the loss to English poetry, let alone to those who loved him, was incalculable. This heartbreaking document (addressed to Charles Brown, his closest friend) is the last letter he wrote...

Rome. 30 November 1820.

My dear Brown,

‘Tis the most difficult thing in the world to me to write a letter. My stomach continues so bad, that I feel it worse on opening any book, – yet I am much better than I was in Quarantine. Then I am afraid to encounter the proing and conning of any thing interesting to me in England. I have an habitual feeling of my real life having past, and that I am leading a posthumous existence. God knows how it would have been – but it appears to me – however, I will not speak of that subject. I must have been at Bedhampton nearly at the time you were writing to me from Chichester – how unfortunate – and to pass on the river too! There was my star predominant! I cannot answer any thing in your letter, which followed me from Naples to Rome, because I am afraid to look it over again. I am so weak (in mind) that I cannot bear the sight of any hand writing of a friend I love so much as I do you. Yet I ride the little horse, – and, at my worst, even in Quarantine, summoned up more puns, in a sort of desperation, in one week than in any year of. my life. There is one thought enough to kill me – I have been well, healthy, alert &c, walking with her – and now – the knowledge of contrast, feeling for light and shade, all that information (primitive sense) necessary for a poem are great enemies to the recovery of the stomach. There, you rogue, I put you to the torture, – but you must bring your philosophy to bear – as I do mine, really – or how should I be able to live? Dr Clarke is very attentive to me; he says, there is very little the matter with my lungs, but my stomach, he says is very bad. I am well disappointed in hearing good news from George, – for it runs in my head we shall all die young. I have not written to x x x x x yet, which he must think very neglectful; being anxious to send him a good account of my health, I have delayed it from week to week. If I recover, I will do all in my power to correct the mistakes made during sickness; and if I should not, all my faults will be forgiven. I shall write to x x x to-morrow, or next day. I will write to x x x x x in the middle of next week. Severn is very well, though he leads so dull a life with me. Remember me to all friends, and tell x x x x I should not have left London without taking leave of him, but from being so low in body and mind. Write to George as soon as you receive this, and tell him how I am, as far as you can guess; – and also a note to my sister – who walks about my imagination like a ghost – she is so like Tom. I can scarcely bid you good bye even in a letter. I always made an awkward bow.

God bless you !
John Keats.

Thursday 22 February 2024

Life Among the Dead

 I see the dear old Church of England, in the person of the Bishop of Norwich, is calling for the 'rewilding' of churchyards, in the interests of 'biodiversity'. Well, I don't know where the Bishop has been these past few decades, but the kind of measures he recommends – maintaining 'wild' areas in such a way as to encourage a wide range of wildlife – have been practised in a great many churchyards for some years. In many places this is done well, in others not so well (the key being to mow two or three times a year at the right times). Left to itself, land is very unlikely to 'rewild' in a way that encourages biodiversity, but will rather turn into unattractive and inhospitable scrub, dominated by the most thuggishly invasive plant species. The romantic idea that all will be well if you just let Nature take over is delusional, as is the idea that planting trees in quantity is bound to be a Good Thing (they have to be the right trees, properly sourced, in the right place and in appropriate numbers). There is more on the subject of nature in churchyards in This Book, and I also recommend this one, which I reviewed a while back. 
   As it happens, I had early experience of a rewilded (albeit involuntarily rewilded) churchyard when I first moved to the erstwhile Suburban Demiparadise. The extensive churchyard was in an advanced state of neglect, well on its way to becoming a miniature version of the old Highgate cemetery, which in those days was an all but impenetrable jungle. The state of the churchyard reflected the state of the parish, where the eccentric, ultra-High-Church incumbent had driven away virtually all his flock – no mean feat in the days when most people still went to church.  Anyway, that overgrown graveyard made a great wild playground, with a slight edge of danger (always welcome), for us children, but it was not to last: the churchyard was in due course tamed, kept neatly mowed, then gradually maintained more loosely, so that parts of it indeed became flourishing little hubs of biodiversity where I had many a happy butterfly encounter. And now I live in Lichfield, where the great churchyard of St Michael's (where Larkins and Johnsons lie) is a perfect mix of functioning cemetery and carefully managed nature reserve. The Bishop of Norwich would surely approve.


Tuesday 20 February 2024

'Simply because I have no seniors...'

 Here is another poem from the Listener anthology. In it, Gavin Ewart – whom I've written about before, e.g. here and here – looks forward, with tongue very firmly in cheek, to a future in which he is a grand old man of English poetry, a national treasure and object of literary pilgrimage, like Tennyson and Hardy, both of whom he cleverly parodies in the course of the poem ...

2001 – The Tennyson/Hardy Poem

When I am old and long turned grey
And enjoy the aura of being eighty,
I may see the dawn of that critical day
When my lightest verse will seem quite weighty.
I shall live somewhere far away,
Where the illiterate birds are nesting.
To the pilgrim admirers my wife will say:
  Ewart is resting.

Instead of the heedless sensual play
And the youthful eyes of love and brightness
I shall see critics who kneel and pray
In homage – I shan't dispute their rightness –
And Supplements keen to seem okay
Will flatter me with fulsome pieces.
Scholars will put it another way:
  Ewart's a thesis.

When the aching back and the bleary eye
And the dimness and the rational drinking,
The cold unease of the earth and sky,
Leave me no pleasure except thinking,
I shall be warmed (but what will be 'I'?)
With the awe inspired by what's Jurassic,
And people will say, before I die:
  Ewart's a classic.

Soon comes the day when the stream runs dry
And the boat runs back as the tide is turning,
The voice once strong no more than a sigh
By the hearth where the fire is scarcely burning.
Stiff in my chair like a children's guy,
Simply because I have no seniors
The literati will raise the cry: 
  Ewart's a genius!

In the event, Ewart didn't quite make it to eighty, dying in 1995 at the age of 79. In his obituary, Anthony Thwaite described him as 'one of the oddest poetic phenomena of his time'.  Which I suppose he was, but also one of the most cheering.

Sunday 18 February 2024

An Unfortunate Frog

 As I set out for a restorative stroll this afternoon, I noticed a man kneeling in the road, apparently scraping something up. I recognised him – an extravagantly dreadlocked chap with whom I'm on cordial nodding terms – and, as I came up level with him, I saw what he was up to. He was dealing with the sorry remains of a frog that had fallen foul of a passing motor car – and with the considerable quantity of spawn that the frog, clearly a gravid female, had been carrying. As he scraped up the last of the frogspawn, into a Tupperware container, we agreed that it would be a good idea if he released it all, along with what was left of its progenitor, into one of Lichfield's many ponds and waterways. At worst, it would be food for other creatures, and with luck some of that spawn might hatch out into tadpoles; the unfortunate frog might not have died in vain. 
All of which reminds me, inevitably, of Mrs Leo Hunter's immortal 'Ode to an Expiring Frog' (as featured in the Pickwick Papers) – 

'Can I view thee panting, lying
On thy stomach, without sighing;
Can I unmoved see thee dying
On a log,
Expiring frog!

Say, have fiends in shape of boys,
With wild halloo, and brutal noise,
Hunted thee from marshy joys,
With a dog,
Expiring frog!'

Friday 16 February 2024

May, 1945

 That fine, all but forgotten poet Peter Porter would have been 95 today. In an effort to keep his memory alive, I've written about him quite often  on this blog – e.g. here and here – and posted several of his shorter poems. Here, to mark the day, is another, a Petrarchan sonnet about the bitter end of the Nazi regime: 

May, 1945

As the Allied tanks trod Germany to shard
and no man had seen a fresh-pressed uniform
for six months, as the fire storm
bit out the core of Dresden yard by yard,

as farmers hid turnips for the after-war,
as cadets going to die passed Waffen SS
tearing identifications from their battledress,
the Russians only three days from the Brandenburger Tor –

in the very hell of sticks and blood and brick dust
as Germany the phoenix burned, the wraith
of History pursed its lips and spoke, thus:

To go with teeth and toes and human soap,
the radio will broadcast Bruckner's Eighth
so that good and evil may die in equal hope.

(Actually it was the Adagietto from Bruckner's Seventh – written in response to Wagner's death – that was played on German radio on the first day of May, 1945. Hearing it, the art historian Ernst Gombrich, who was working for the BBC World Service, inferred that it must mean Hitler was dead, and immediately informed Churchill. He was right. Porter makes the Seventh the Eighth to achieve the necessary near-rhyme with 'wraith' – justifiable poetic licence, I think.)

Thursday 15 February 2024

And So It Begins...

... the butterfly year, that is (you guessed!). This morning was uncommonly mild, no-coat mild, the first such day of the year, and it certainly felt like the kind of morning on which something should be flying. A few bumblebees certainly were, and the odd ladybird, but it was a while before I finally saw it (in the Peace Woodland in Beacon Park) – my first butterfly of the year! It was, as so often, a male Brimstone, bright and fresh from his hibernation and energetically ranging a bank of ivy. My heart, in the manner of the poet Wordsworth but from a different cause, leapt up. Winter is over – at least in the sense of the season without butterflies: meteorological winter might well make itself felt again (it was a mild Candlemas, which is supposed to mean that winter weather will surely return). What's more, the no-butterfly season has been unusually short this time, les than three months: last year I didn't see a butterfly here in Lichfield until April, a good seven weeks later than today's sighting. Oh, and I spotted another Brimstone soon after, in a front garden, so it was a day of double delight. 

Wednesday 14 February 2024

Careers Advice

 As a former librarian, I was amused to come across this little anecdote in a book I'm reading (for review) about John Carter and Graham Pollard, the bibliographical sleuths who exposed the notorious book forger (and thief) Thomas James Wise. When Carter, a debonair Etonian with a taste for book collecting, came down from King's College, Cambridge, he had no clear idea what to do next...
'At first, he seems to have contemplated librarianship. A chance conversation with Bodleian librarian, Arthur Cowley, soon disabused him of that notion. The money might seem acceptable for a young man fresh out of university, Cowley explained, "but what do you suppose you will be getting when you are forty, and irretrievably addicted to wine, women and song?" The older man gave an embittered little snort. "Go away, my dear boy, and think again."'
  As it happens, I left librarianship at the age of forty. 

Monday 12 February 2024

Kingsley's Coming of Age

 Here is another from the Listener anthology. It's by Kingsley Amis, but I can't give you a date as, frustratingly, the poems in the volume are not dated (they seem to be arranged chronologically by date of birth of the poets represented, which is not very helpful). Anyway, it's a clever piece, whose relaxed air disguises a rhyme scheme of fiendish complexity: I think it goes like this – abacbdecfdeghfgh. 

Coming of Age

Twenty years ago he slipped into town,
A spiritual secret agent; took
Rooms right in the cathedral close; wrote down
Verbatim all their direst idioms;
Made phonetic transcripts in his black book;
Mimicked their dress, their gestures as they sat
Chaffering and chaffing in the Grand Hotel;
Infiltrated their glass-and-plastic homes, 
Watched from the inside; then – his deadliest blow –
Went and married one of them (what about that?);
At the first christening played his part so well
That he started living it from then on,
His trick of camouflage no longer a trick.
Isn't it a spy's rarest triumph to grow
Indistinguishable from the spied-upon,
The stick insect's to become a stick?

Clearly there's something of the confessional about this one: Amis was a famously brilliant mimic who did indeed transcribe the speech of his targets phonetically, as in this merciless account of a lecture by one of his Oxford bêtes noires, Lord David Cecil –
Laze . . . laze and gentlemen, when we say a man looks like a poet . . . dough mean . . . looks like Chauthah . . . dough mean . . . looks like Dwyden . . . dough mean . . . looks like Theckthpyum (or something else barely recognisable as 'Shakespeare') . . . Mean looks like Shelley (pronounced 'Thellem' or thereabouts). Matthew Arnold (then Prestissimo) called Shelley beautiful ineffectual angel Matthew Arnold had face (rallentando) like a horth. But my subject this morning is not the poet Shelley. Jane . . . Austen . . . '
To some extent, in Coming of Age, Amis is perhaps describing himself becoming much like the very people he once mocked and satirised, but perhaps he is also seeing himself as one who so successfully cultivated a persona that he became indistinguishable from it, as one who 'wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it' (in Orwell's phrase). 

Saturday 10 February 2024

A Dwindling Body of Ageing Fish

 For several years in the early 1980s, and some more in the late 1980s, I was radio critic for the late lamented Listener. My nominal editor was the genial and very well connected Derwent May, the literary editor, but I had been appointed by the new-broom magazine editor, Russell Twisk, who clearly wanted to shake things up. Though he was cordial enough to me, it was clear that Derwent would sooner have had almost anyone but a young gadfly like me writing the radio column, and who can blame him? He was, anyway, an excellent literary editor, and during his reign at The Listener (he left in 1986 and was succeeded by Lynne Truss) published some very fine poems. As it happens, I have just come across a volume called The Music of What Happens: Poems from The Listener 1965-1980, edited by Derwent May (BBC, 1981), and it's a mighty impressive anthology. It includes, for example, four of Larkin's best, all originally published in the pages of The Listener – 'Cut Grass', 'How Distant', 'The Explosion' and 'The Old Fools'. I fancy I'll be dipping into it quite often, and maybe posting some of the choicer items.
  Stevie Smith was one of May's regulars. In the introduction to the anthology, he recalls that 'Stevie Smith, when she was alive, would send me her new poems neatly typed out, but accompanied often by a torn scrap of paper with a witty, spiky drawing on one side, and a discarded draft of another poem on the back. It was Stevie who told me that the first line of her poem 'Friends of the River Trent' – 'A dwindling body of ageing fish' – was copied from a news item she saw in the Angling Times in a doctor's waiting-room.' And here it is: 

Friends of the River Trent
(at their annual dinner)

A dwindling body of ageing fish
Is all we can present
Because of water pollution
In the River Trent
Because of water pollution, my boys,
And a lack of concerted action,
These fish of what they used to be
Is only a measly fraction
A-swimming about most roomily
Where they shoved each other before,
Yet not beefing about being solitary
Or the sparseness of the fare.
Then three cheers for the ageing fish, my boys,
Content in polluted depths
To grub up enough food, my boys,
To carry 'em to a natural death,
And may we do the same, my boys,
And carry us to a natural death.

That one reminded me of another fishing-related poem with a title plucked from an unlikely source – this one by Kay Ryan:

When Fishing Fails

Your husband is very lucky," observed Smithers,
"to have ornithology to fall back upon when fishing fails."

— Cyril Hare, Death Is No Sportsman

When fishing fails, when no bait avails,
and nothing speaks in liquid hints
of where the fishes went for weeks,
and dimpled ponds and silver creeks
go flat and tarnish, it's nice if
you can finish up your sandwich,
pack your thermos, and ford
this small hiatus towards
a second mild and absorbing purpose.

Friday 9 February 2024

Mercian Rain

 Incessant rain siling down all day yesterday, then through the night – and still it rains, though now more drizzly. How Geoffrey Hill would have loved this relentless Mercian rain... This link will take you to something I wrote on that theme some years ago. 

Thursday 8 February 2024


 Glancing at one of the local trade directories that come through the letterbox week after week, I spotted an ad for a company called 'No.1 PHD'. Not, alas, a business offering help with finishing that troublesome thesis – a bit too niche for Lichfield, that – but one devoted to Plumbing, Heating and Drainage. With so many graduates doing the sensible thing these days and becoming plumbers, this seems oddly apt: they're choosing PHD over a Ph.D. And quite right too.

Wednesday 7 February 2024

A Bit of Dickens

 Well, it's Charles Dickens's birthday today (born 1812). What can one say? He was the best of novelists, he was the worst of novelists, often in the same book, or even the same chapter. I found him early, through A Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist, and read him for many years, mostly for pleasure, sometimes as curricular obligation. I think Dickens's greatest gift is for the comic and grotesque, and he is therefore at his best with his comic characters, when he can give full rein to the unparalleled demonic energy of his imagination. And lord, he can be funny, genuinely laugh-aloud funny, even today – of how many Victorian humorists can that be said? For sheer enjoyment, my favourite of all his books is the Pickwick Papers, and my favourite character is the one and only Sam Weller (see here and here). Running him close, though, is Mrs 'Sairey' Gamp, the best thing in Martin Chuzzlewit. Mrs Gamp, the nurse-of-all-trades, with her capacious bag and monstrous umbrella, her imaginary friend Mrs 'Arris, her eye for the main chance and taste for gin, is as tumultuous a force of nature as Sam Weller, and very nearly as funny. For some years, the actress Miriam Margolyes did a brilliant impersonation of the immortal Mrs Gamp. Here she is in action at the Malton Dickens Festival (and it's worth seeking out her one-woman show, Dickens' Women on audiobook)...

Tuesday 6 February 2024

Beerbohm and Searle

 Naturally, when I saw this item in the window of my favourite charity shop, I had to have it (never mind the tatty dust-wrapper) – a book of drawings by one of the best English draughtsmen of the 20th century, plus 'a letter from Sir Max Beerbohm'!
  Published in 1949, and already in its thirteenth impression in 1956, it was clearly a popular collection, even if the theme of 'The Female Approach' is little more than a peg to hang a clutch of variously themed (or unthemed) drawings on. The drawings are a joy, of course – but what of Sir Max's letter?
'Dear Ronald Searle,' it begins. 'You will perhaps remember that when, one evening, Dr Johnson's young friend Mr Langton, having read aloud to him the first two acts of a very violent tragedy by one of the lesser-known Elizabethan dramatists, said rather nervously, "But I fear, sir, that I weary you. I will read no more," Johnson replied, "No, no, Lanky. Let's go back into the slaughter-house." Perhaps he would not have said so but for the great liking he had for Langton. But rest assured that, though I like you very much, it is in full sincerity that I express great pleasure in finding myself back in the slaughter-house of St Trinian's and other places in which your phantasmagoric fancy goes so wildly rioting...' 
  Searle, with his wife Kaye (Webb, editor of Puffin Books), visited the Beerbohms in Rapallo in 1949, and the charming Searle had no difficulty in getting Max to write the preface for his next collection – The Female Approach. Searle drew Beerbohm at least twice: once in his habitual dress – 

And once for his eightieth birthday Festschrift, this time showing him in a toga with a laurel crown at a rakish angle. The caption reads 'Max accepts with resignation his place among the Classics'.

Sunday 4 February 2024

From Fawlty Towers to Chekhov (or Vice Versa)

 A staple of prostration telly – the kind of restful default TV that you (I anyway) end up with when you haven't the energy to watch anything more demanding, still less turn off and do something worthwhile – is the clip show, a compilation of 'best bits' linked by talking heads. These shows are generally dire, with too many talking heads, none of them with anything to say of the slightest interest, and too little actual content. Often, indeed, the talking heads seem to be there only to tell you what you've just seen, perhaps on the assumption that you're periodically lapsing into unconsciousness – which is not too wide of the mark. These clip shows usually take the form either of 'celebrations', often occasioned by an anniversary, or shock-horror compilations designed to show us how jaw-droppingly unwoke we were back in, say, the Seventies (it's usually the Seventies). 
  Last night on Channel 5 there was a clip show of the celebratory type titled Fawlty Towers: 50 Years of Laughs, and Mrs N and I, being suitably prostrated, found ourselves watching it. The surprise was that this particular show was well made and insightful, with talking heads who actually had something to say – Michael Palin, Dave Quantick and Robin Ince among them – and well chosen clips that illustrated just what a great comedy Fawlty Towers was. It didn't matter that the clips were short: this show was so precision engineered that it was packed with comedy content even on the smallest scale. Of course every clip was familiar, but virtually every one still raised an unforced laugh – and of how many 50-year-old (actually 49-year-old) comedy shows can you say that? The key element was that precision engineering, the thought and effort that had gone into crafting those intricate, minutely detailed scripts – oh, and a brilliant cast, all demonstrating perfect comic timing.
 The scripts were the work of John Cleese (Basil Fawlty) and his then wife Connie Booth (Polly), and I was interested to learn that, before Fawlty Towers, they collaborated on a short film called Romance with a Double Bass. This was based on, of all things, an early Chekhov short story (written in 1886). The original story is a slight affair, a three-page tale, but deftly done. It tells how an orchestral bassist, arriving early for a princess's ball, decides to cool off by taking a naked dip in a pond on the estate. As it happens, the princess too has had the same idea, both their clothes are stolen, and, after an embarrassing nude encounter, the bassist tries to smuggle the naked princess into the palace in his double-bass case. In 1974, when the film was made, comedies involving nudity and suggestively placed props were quite the thing, and so this improbable Chekhov adaptation came about. It's available on YouTube, but I can't say I recommend it. An interesting curiosity, though, and it does show Cleese developing the comedy acting skills that would come to the fore the following year in Fawlty Towers
  The bad news is that there has been talk of a belated revival of Fawlty Towers, starring Cleese and his daughter Camilla and 'probably' set in the Caribbean. However, it's beginning to look as if, with luck, this might never get made. 

Rachmaninov's Last Student

 I must pass this rather wonderful story on, having found it on Facebook, where Michael Goldfarb (hat-tip) had posted it. 
Rachmaninov's last student has died, in Pennsylvania, at the age of 99, after a nine-decade career.
Follow the link (and check out her Chopin)...

Saturday 3 February 2024


 Evensong is surely the quintessential Anglican, and therefore the quintessential English, church service. Taking place in the softening twilight at day's end, it perfectly embodies the Church of England's preference for blurred dogmatic outlines, with the weight of meaning borne by beautiful words (at least in more traditional liturgical practice) and beautiful music, rather than by anything too stark and prescriptive (though there is no escaping the Apostles' Creed). Evensong, you might say, is a rite of 'ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds': Wallace Stevens certainly wasn't thinking of the Church of England when he wrote his twilit poem The Idea of Order at Key West, but the closing lines could almost be applied... 'Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred, And of ourselves and of our origins, In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.' It is surely significant, too, that the archetypally English poem, Gray's Elegy, is a long meditation at twilight in an English churchyard – an evensong poem, if ever there was one. 
All of which is by way of saying that the Evensong I attended last night in the cathedral – a Solemn Choral Evensong for Candlemas – was one of the most perfectly beautiful services I have ever experienced, a simple, intimate, quietly perfect mix of words and music with never a false note, sustaining a calm, unforced exaltation. The music was Orlando Gibbons's Short Service, and there was one anthem, 'When to the Temple Mary Came' by Johannes Eccard. The choir, of course, were excellent.
Here is the Eccard anthem, sung by the choir of my old college...

Thursday 1 February 2024

'Gay lucidity'

 Well, it's February, and on this first of the month, with the sun almost shining, there is indeed a certain 'gay lucidity' in the air. The phrase forms the first line of a neat little poem by 'Michael Field', the name under which Katherine Harris Bradley and her niece Edith Emma Cooper wrote, with considerable success, attracting favourable attention from Walter Pater, George Meredith and Robert Browning, the last of whom inadvertently let slip the true identity of 'Michael Field'. The two ladies were passionately involved with one another, and were no doubt in what we would now call a lesbian relationship; such arrangements barely raised an eyebrow in Victorian times. Their poetic output was forgotten after their deaths (within months of each other, in 1913 and 1914), but the rise of 'Queer Studies' has led to some revival of interest. Here's the poem –


Gay lucidity,
Not yet sunshine, in the air;
Tingling secrets hidden everywhere,
Each at watch for each;
Sap within the hillside beech,
Not a leaf to see.

And here is one of 'Michael Field's translations from Sappho –


Yea, gold is son of Zeus: no rust
    Its timeless light can stain;
The worm that brings man's flesh to dust
    Assaults its strength in vain:
More gold than gold the love I sing,
A hard, inviolable thing.

Men say the passions should grow old
     With waning years; my heart
Is incorruptible as gold,
     'Tis my immortal part:
Nor is there any god can lay
On love the finger of decay.