Sunday 31 March 2024


 The Easter Day Solemn Evensong in the cathedral was a beautiful and richly satisfying service, with the choir on top form – Stanford's wonderful setting of the Magnificat and Handel's glorious Worthy Is the Lamb the high points.
I've found lately that it's impossible to attend a religious service without the mind turning to the recent terrible events in Israel. The Old Testament readings have a new, and potent, resonance – and this was certainly the case with today's reading from Ezekiel 37, in which God takes the prophet and sets him down 'in the midst of the valley which was full of bones ... And he said unto me, Son of man, can these bones live, and I answered, O Lord God, thou knowest.' Through the 'prophesying' of his prophet, God brings the bones back to life, 'and they lived, and stood up upon their feet, an exceeding great army. Then he said unto me, Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel: behold, they say, Our bones are dried, and our hope is lost: we are cut off for our parts. Therefore prophesy and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord God; Behold, O my people, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel. And ye shall know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves, O my people, and brought you up out of your graves, And shall put my spirit in you, and ye shall live, and I shall place you in your own land.' 


The day has come, and it's time to wish a happy Easter to all who browse here.
The painting is Edward Burne-Jones's The Morning of the Resurrection, completed in 1886. An unusually muted treatment of a subject more often depicted in triumphant terms, it shows a slightly hunched Jesus standing at the edge of the composition, his head turned away from the viewer to engage with the terrified Mary Magdalen, whose figure and gesture dominate the picture. Mary is flanked by two symmetrical angels, both looking full of trepidation.  A dubious, even reluctant resurrection?
  I know I've been posting a lot of R.S. Thomas lately, but how could I not on Easter Sunday? Here is his take (one of his takes) on the resurrected Christ...


As I had always known
he would come, unannounced,
remarkable merely for the absence
of clamour. So truth must appear
to the thinker; so, at a stage
of the experiment, the answer
must quietly emerge. I looked
at him, not with the eye
only, but with the whole
of my being, overflowing with
him as a chalice would
with the sea. Yet was he
no more there than before,
his area occupied
by the unhaloed presences.
You could put your hand
in him without consciousness
of his wounds. The gamblers
at the foot of the unnoticed
cross went on with
their dicing; yet the invisible
garment for which they played
was no longer at stake, but worn
by him in this risen existence.

Friday 29 March 2024

Good Friday

 It's Good Friday, and I feel I haven't put up any music for a while, so...
Here is the sublimely beautiful final chorus of Bach's St Matthew Passion. 

[The picture is a detail from Tintoretto's magnificent Crucifixion in the Scuola di San Rocco, Venice.]

Thursday 28 March 2024


 On a cold, grey, relentlessly rainy March day – one of far too many such days this month - it's good to be reminded of how glorious March can look when the sun is shining. I don't think many paintings capture the crispness and intense clarity of early spring sunlight as perfectly as John William Inchbold's Study in March, which lives in the Ashmolean.
  Inchbold was not one of the Pre-Raphaelites, but was clearly working along similar lines, and he attracted the praise and patronage of Ruskin, with whom he spent some time in Switzerland. Despite such patronage, he seems to have had a difficult career, perhaps reflecting a 'difficult' personality,  and he rarely had enough money for comfort.
  He was a fine painter of sea and sky, as in this view of Anstey's Cove in Devon...

And here he captures the sea and sky of Venice in the luminous On the Lagoon...

In Venice, Inchbold even found water indoors, sketching An Inundation at St Mark's in, appropriately enough, watercolour...

Inchbold spent much of his later life abroad, partly for financial reasons. According to his somewhat snooty Wikipedia entry, 'a year or two before his death he had returned from Algeria with a large collection of sketches, in which the ordinary defects of his manner were less apparent'. What those 'ordinary defects' were, we are not told. 
  He died in 1888 at the age of 57, and Swinburne, a long-time friend, wrote an effusive funeral ode for him. It begins 'If far beyond the shadow and the sleep/ A place there be for souls without a stain...'

Tuesday 26 March 2024

Let Us Now Praise Fat Men

Remember Robert Morley? Once seen, he was hard to forget, with his startled-owl eyes, bushy eyebrows, thick lips, quivering jowls and triple chin above a mighty belly. He was, in a word, a fat actor, and he enjoyed a long and successful career, not only in character and comedy parts. Morley was a product of a time when there were far more fat actors around – Sydney Greenstreet, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, (late) Orson Welles and, nearer our own time, Zero Mostel and Richard Griffiths, not to mention fat ladies Margaret Rutherford and Hattie Jacques, or such vintage comedy fat men as Oliver Hardy and Roscoe Arbuckle. Nowadays, if you see a fat man on screen, chances are it's a normally built actor engulfed in a prosthetic fat suit – and you can usually tell, not least because a man in a fat suit doesn't move in the manner of a fat man accustomed to carrying weight and unencumbered by prosthetics. 
   If anyone was ever going to dedicate a poem to Robert Morley, it would have to be Les Murray, the great Australian poet, who was himself decidedly corpulent. His 'Quintets for Robert Morley' salutes Morley as a representative of the legions of fat men who have always been, Murray contends, at the cutting edge of civilisation (and, in those cases where they weren't, the world would have turned out better if they had been)...

Is it possible that hyper-
ventilating up Parnassus
I have neglected to pay tribute
to the Stone Age aristocracy?
   I refer to the fat.

We were probably the earliest
civilised, and civilising, humans,
the first to win the leisure,
sweet boredom, life-enhancing sprawl
   that require style.

Tribesfolk spared us and cared for us
for good reasons. Our reasons.
As age’s counterfeits, forerunners of the city,
we survived, and multiplied. Out of self-defence
   we invented the Self.

It’s likely we also invented some of love,
much of fertility (see the Willensdorf Venus)
parts of theology (divine feasting, Unmoved Movers)
likewise complexity, stateliness, the ox-cart
   and self-deprecation.

Not that the lists of pugnacity are bare
of stout fellows. Ask a Sumo.
Warriors taunt us still, and fear us:
in heroic war, we are apt to be the specialists
   and the generals.

But we do better in peacetime. For ourselves
we would spare the earth. We were the first moderns
after all, being like the Common Man
disqualified from tragedy. Accessible to shame, though,
   subtler than the tall,

we make reasonable rulers.
Never trust a lean meritocracy
nor the leader who has been lean;
only the lifelong big have the knack of wedding
   greatness with balance.

Never wholly trust the fat man
who lurks in the lean achiever
and in the defeated, yearning to get out.
He has not been through our initiations,
   he lacks the light feet.

Our having life abundantly
is equivocal, Robert, in hot climates
where the hungry watch us. I lack the light step then too.
How many of us, I wonder, walk those streets
   in terrible disguise?

So much climbing, on a spherical world;
had Newton not been a mere beginner at gravity
he might have asked how the apple got up there
in the first place. And so might have discerned
   an ampler physics.

['Quintets' is another word for 'quintains', stanzas of five lines that can follow any rhyme scheme or meter. Shelley's 'To a Skylark', a most un-Murraylike celebration of weightlessness and insubstantiality, is also written in quintains.]

Monday 25 March 2024

The Walk

 So I walked. I walked, in fact, from Dover to Canterbury, in three stages, following various pilgrim routes and long-distance paths, and it was a great walk. 
  We began on Thursday, in cold sea fret, doing little more than strolling around the mighty castle and its precinct, with its ancient church – hideously redecorated and far from numinous – and the Roman pharos that served as its bell tower. The walking began, in lightly hungover conditions, the following morning, and the first challenge was to get out of Dover, which, for all its peppering of architectural and historical gems, is an all too typical depressed and depressing English seaside town. Once through the outskirts, though, and out along the Dour valley, things picked up rapidly, and the afternoon walking was good, despite cold and persistent rain accompanying us, and despite the necessity of a stiff climb up to the downs. Returning to Dover, we found many of the previously closed churches opened for an evening event, and were able to see inside even the little St Edmund's Chapel, a tiny 13th-century building that somehow survived the Reformation, wartime bombing and even the city planners.
 The countryside showed to better effect on Saturday, with intermittent sunshine on the blackthorn and cherry blossom, celandine, daffodils, primroses, violets and glorious drifts of wood anemones. Mud and flood posed problems from time to time, as they often do at this time of year, especially after much rain, but the churches were almost all open, and full of interest: one, the extraordinary Romanesque survival of St Nicholas, Barfreston, is an absolute gem, 'the Kilpeck of the South', richly carved with religious and mythological figures, zodiac symbols, labours of the year, cavorting beasts, crude faces, abstract and natural forms, all united in an elegant overall design, the work of very superior masons and craftsmen. That's the South door, with its intricately carved tympanum, below...

  Also open whenever we happened on them were the pubs, and each of those we visited was a lively, friendly and genuinely local 'local' – proper English pubs, though one of them, surprisingly, was run by a Turkish family, with the glamorous young daughter at the bar and the matriarch cooking up excellent Turkish food in the kitchen. This was all very heartening, in all sorts of ways. Despite what is going on in some of our cities, a deeper, nicer England endures. 
  I shan't attempt even to outline the wonders of Canterbury Cathedral – Pevsner takes 60 pages – but I was struck anew by its sheer magnificence, by how much there is of it, and how many are its beauties. One that caught my eye, almost incidental amid such splendour, was a fine, decorous memorial to the great Orlando Gibbons [below] on the North wall of the nave. Gibbons was at the cathedral in 1625, organising the music for a service blessing Charles I's marriage to Henrietta Maria of France, when he died suddenly, 'of an apoplexy', and was 'transcribed to the celestial choir'. 

  To return to Dover, Auden wrote a fine poem about the port as it was shortly before the war – very different, but recognisably the same place...  


Steep roads, a tunnel through chalk downs, are the approaches; A ruined pharos overlooks a constructed bay; The sea-front is almost elegant; all the show Has, inland somewhere, a vague and dirty root:     Nothing is made in this town. A Norman castle, dominant, flood-lit at night, Trains which fume in a station built on the sea, Testify to the interests of its regular life: Here dwell the experts on what the soldiers want,     And who the travellers are Whom ships carry in or out between the lighthouses, Which guard for ever the made privacy of this bay Like twin stone dogs opposed on a gentleman's gate. Within these breakwaters English is properly spoken,     Outside an atlas of tongues. The eyes of departing migrants are fixed on the sea, Conjuring destinies out of impersonal water: 'I see an important decision made on a lake, An illness, a beard, Arabia found in a bed,      Nanny defeated, Money." Red after years of failure or bright with fame, The eyes of homecomers thank these historical cliffs: 'The mirror can no longer lie nor the clock reproach; In the shadow under the yew, at the children's party,      Everything must be explained.' The Old Town with its Keep and Georgian houses  Has built its routine upon such unusual moments; Vows, tears, emotional farewell gestures, Are common here, unremarkable actions      Like ploughing or a tipsy song. Soldiers crowd into the pubs in their pretty clothes, As pink and silly as girls from a high-class academy; The Lion, The Rose, The Crown, will not ask them to die, Not here, not now: all they are killing is time,      A pauper civilian future. Above them, expensive, shiny as a rich boy's bike, Aeroplanes drone through the new European air On the edge of a sky that makes England of minor importance; And tides warn bronzing bathers of a cooling star     With half its history done. High over France, a full moon, cold and exciting Like one of those dangerous flatterers we meet and love When we are utterly wretched, returns our stare: The night has found many recruits; to thousands of pilgrims      The Mecca is coldness of heart. The cries of the gulls at dawn are sad like work: The soldier guards the traveller who pays for the soldier, Each prays in a similar way for himself, but neither Controls the years or the weather. Some may be heroes:      Not all of us are unhappy.


Wednesday 20 March 2024

The Walking Cure

The first day of spring, and I have succumbed to what we medical men call a stinking cold (Coryza odorata). This is especially annoying as tomorrow I am heading for Kent – 'Kent, sir – everybody knows Kent – apples, cherries, hops and women,' as Mr Jingle sums it up – to spend a few days walking in agreeable company. A cold, stinking or not, won't stop me, and the walking will surely speed my recovery – Solvitur ambulando, as they say: a phrase on which I dilate in my forever forthcoming book (the ostensible subject of which is butterflies). Here, to give you something to read if I fall silent over the long weekend, is an exclusive, never before seen extract: 

There is a Latin saying, Solvitur ambulando (it is solved by walking), which originally had a philosophical meaning, referring to problems that can be solved by practical experience or demonstration. Diogenes the Cynic is said to have applied it literally, refuting Zeno’s paradoxes about the impossibility of motion by getting up and walking away (much as, many centuries later, Samuel Johnson addressed Bishop Berkeley’s theory of the immateriality of objects by kicking a large stone and declaring, ‘I refute it thus!’). Over time, solvitur ambulando took on a wider meaning, one more related to the beneficial effects of walking, an activity that can indeed play a useful part in solving problems, if only by stimulating thought (I’ll be returning to that theme shortly). The phrase got a new lease of life when the travel writer and novelist Bruce Chatwin used it in The Songlines, having picked it up from his friend and mentor Patrick Leigh Fermor. Fermor was a heroic walker (and self-mythologiser) who in his youth had travelled on foot from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul, and Chatwin was a man who ‘passionately believed that walking constituted the sovereign remedy for every mental travail’. When he heard Fermor use the Latin phrase, it went straight into his notebook, and re-emerged in The Songlines, a book about the ‘songlines’ or ‘dreaming-paths’ of aboriginal Australians that celebrates the deeply human, richly satisfying activity of walking about.
 Butterfly watching is, in essence, a form of walking – not, like golf, ‘a good walk spoiled’, but rather a good walk greatly enhanced by the chance of seeing some very beautiful creatures. Walking brings with it all the pleasures and benefits of being in the open air and in motion – a particular form of motion, the steady, easy pace of walking. Unlike running, walking takes us slowly, at a human pace, through the landscape, with time to take in the sights and sounds and scents of nature, to enjoy them all and reap the benefits. I need hardly add that the kind of walking I am talking about here is not the Serious Activity, involving specialist kit, objectives and challenges, that drives some across the landscape, hideously dressed and with grim purpose in their eyes – no, it is more like a form of sauntering. The American sage Henry David Thoreau, in his essay/lecture on ‘Walking’, declares that ‘I have met but one or two persons in my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks – who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering…’ He goes on to give a fanciful account of the origins of the word ‘sauntering’ (‘from idle people who roved about the country in the middle ages, and asked charity under pretence of going à la Sainte Terre, to the Holy Land’), but never mind: Thoreau, one of the greatest, most observant and receptive of walkers, commends sauntering as the ideal form of walking. Watching butterflies is a kind of focused sauntering: walking with a purpose, yes, but one that is fluid and unpredictable, that might lead us anywhere or nowhere, and will abide no rigid programme. It is essentially walking for pleasure, but it brings with it tangible benefits. I have mentioned the health benefits of walking above. It is also, importantly, something that stimulates mental activity, for the rhythms of walking are the rhythms of thought. There is no better way of thinking through a problem than taking a walk. I’m sure I am not the only writer who gets most of his better ideas and composes most of his better passages when walking: I even had the idea for this book (which may or may not turn out to be one of my better ones) while walking – among butterflies, needless to say. Walking – especially walking alone – offers a kind of suspensive freedom in which the mind can operate more freely than when hemmed in by circumstance and moving to rhythms imposed by necessity. Nietzsche, who was a prodigious walker, believed that ‘All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking’, and once wrote an entire book (The Wanderer and His Shadow) from notes made while on his epic walks. Never one to understate his case, Nietzsche counselled his readers to ‘give credence to no thought that is not born in the open air and accompanied by free movement’, and even declared that sitting still was ‘the real sin against the Holy Ghost’. Kierkegaard, a philosopher of a less fire-breathing disposition than Nietzsche, wrote in a letter that ‘every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness; I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it … but by sitting still, and the more one sits still, the closer one comes to feeling ill … Thus if one just keeps on walking, everything will be all right.’ Solvitur ambulando indeed.

Monday 18 March 2024

'So that when I stretch'd out my hand.....'

 It was on this day in 1768 that Laurence Sterne died, at the age of fifty-four, less than three weeks after the publication of his Sentimental Journey through France and Italy. What happened after his death is a strange saga of interment, 'resurrection', reinterment, disinterment and eventual burial of at least part of the remains in their rightful grave. I've written about it before here – and there's a fine account of Sterne's long duel with death in the excellent Public Domain Review: here's the link –

Sterne's creative life closed more elegantly, with the gloriously inconclusive ending of A Sentimental Journey,  at once deathly and bawdy. Yorick, Sterne's alter ego, has been obliged to share a bedchamber with an attractive young Piedmontese lady, who has an equally attractive maid. Having negotiated a 'treaty' designed to get them through the night with no impropriety (rather in the manner of Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night), Yorick, restless and unable to sleep, exclaims 'O my God!'...

'– You have broke the treaty, Monsieur, said the lady, who had no more slept than myself – I begg'd a thousand pardons – but insisted it was no more than an ejaculation – she maintained it was an entire infraction of the treaty – I maintain'd it was provided for in the clause of the third article. 
   The lady would by no means give up her point, though she weakened her barrier by it; for in the warmth of the dispute, I could hear two or three corking-pins fall out of the curtain to the ground.
   Upon my word of honour, Madame, said I – stretching my arm out of bed by way of asseveration – 
   (– I was going to have added, that I would not have trespass'd against the remotest idea of decorum for the world) – 
   But the fille de chambre hearing there were words between us, and fearing that hostilities would ensue in course, had crept silently out of her closet, and it being totally dark, had stolen so close to our beds, that she had got herself into the narrow passage which separated them, and had advanc'd so far up as to be in a line betwixt her mistress and me – 
   So that when I stretch'd out my hand, I caught hold of the fille de chambre's

                                   END OF THE SECOND VOLUME


Sunday 17 March 2024

Graceful Monuments to the Obvious

 For reasons of research (mostly), I've been looking at a 1978 volume, edited by Kingsley Amis – The Faber Popular Reciter, an anthology of 'all the poems you've really enjoyed and which you can never remember properly' (to quote the back jacket). Amis's introduction is, as you'd expect, a fine, punchy little essay, one that strikes something of an elegiac note: he knows he is writing in the last days of a once vigorous tradition. 'When I was a schoolboy before the Second World War,' he begins, 'the majority of the poems in this book were too well known to be worth reprinting. If they were not in one anthology, they were in a couple of others; they were learned by heart and recited in class, or performed as turns at grown-up gatherings; they were sung in church or chapel or on other public occasions [Amis's anthology is unusual in containing a scattering of hymns and songs]... Most of that, together with much else, has gone.' Nowadays 'any adult who commits a poem to memory does so for personal satisfaction; if he utters it in company he does so to share it with like-minded friends (or as a harmless means of showing off), and as one who quotes, not one who recites.' Despite its title, Amis's anthology is not intended for recitation as such, but rather for reading aloud – not as a performance but as a way of 'finding out more about a piece of writing and so enjoying it more'. This is perhaps the best reason to read poetry aloud, and to at least attempt to learn it by heart. Reading aloud broadens out our experience of a poem from something on the page to something more intimately, more physically known, on the pulses, as you might say. 
  What Amis offers is an anthology of popular (or once popular) poetry that lends itself particularly well to reading aloud, by virtue of strong rhythm and rhyme, clarity of expression and some stirring or inspiriting quality. He recognises that Orwell was perhaps right to judge most such verse as 'good bad poetry', but Orwell added that 'A good bad poem is a graceful monument to the obvious. It records in memorable form ... some emotion which nearly every human being can share.' As Johnson said of Gray's Elegy, ' The Church-yard abounds with images which find a mirrour in every mind, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo.' And what can be wrong with that?  
  Thomas Gray's great elegy features, quite rightly, in the Popular Reciter. And so too does a much later poem of the same (almost) name, G.K. Chesterton's 'Elegy in a Country Churchyard', a short, angry poem, written in the aftermath of the First World War, and ending on a bitter note to which, in these times, many a bosom might still return an echo – 

The men that worked for England
They have their graves at home:
And birds and bees of England
About the cross can roam.
But they that fought for England,
Following a falling star,
Alas, alas for England
They have their graves afar.
And they that rule in England,

In stately conclave met,

Alas, alas for England

They have no graves as yet.

Friday 15 March 2024

Radio, Television, and That Man Again

 Ever since I broke with Radio 4 and made Radio 3 my default network, with all my radios tuned to it, I have of course been a happier, healthier, wiser and saner man. Although Radio 3 has its faults – it is, after all, a branch of the BBC – it offers a musical menu that is rarely unlistenable and in its totality includes the greatest, most beautiful and soul-enriching music ever written. However, speaking as a semi-insomniac – one who has no trouble falling asleep but often finds it hard to stay that way in the small hours, and resorts to low-volume radio as a soporific – I find the musical menu on offer during those difficult hours thoroughly unsatisfactory. Whenever I turn to Radio 3 for something quiet and calming, I find that there is nothing on offer but thumping, bombastic orchestral music, symphony after symphony, concerto after concerto, with little or nothing in the way of chamber music – and, what's worse, it's mostly live, so if I have managed to nod off despite everything, I'm liable to be jolted awake by a burst of applause. This goes on right through to 6.30, when Petroc Trelawny comes on with a  more varied and altogether less jolting musical menu. I've no idea why 3 fills the small hours with all those orchestral fireworks, just when 'relaxing classics' (as Classic FM likes to call its own output) are what is called for. What's worse, when in small-hours desperation I turn to Classic FM, I usually find that even they are playing the same sort of stuff as 3. Why do both networks do this? Are they going for the Antipodean audience? I wish there was a night-time radio station playing only chamber music, with maybe a bit of soothing choral stuff – I'd be tuning in to that. 
  From radio to television (I don't suppose I'l be writing again about either any time soon) – I was astonished to discover recently that the massively 'transgressive' comedy Little Britain is available for all to see on one of the outlying digital channels. David Walliams and Matt Lucas's show got into a fair bit of trouble when it first went out (2003-6), but in these woke times there is not the slightest chance it would ever get made. With sketches revolving around a revolting, supposedly disabled man who is actually faking it, two unmistakably male men who insist on behaving like and being treated as 'ladies', and the extravagantly caricatured young homosexualist, Daffyd, who insists, in the teeth of all the evidence, that he's 'the only gay in the village', I think it's safe to say that Little Britain would be shot down in flames and Walliams and Lucas barred from polite society, at the very least. Anyway – to my point: the village in which Daffyd believes himself to be 'the only gay' is called Llanddewi-Brefi, and at first I assumed this was an invented name. Later I discovered that it is a real village in west Wales (Cardiganshire), and one of some historical importance, as the site of the sixth-century Synod of Brefi, a gathering of Welsh saints and bishops (in those days practically every bishop was a saint), and the scene of various miracles performed by, among others, St David (Dewi), the patron saint of Wales. On one occasion during the synod, the ground mysteriously rose up under David while he was preaching, allowing him to be seen and heard by the whole of the large crowd that had gathered around him. This miracle is recalled in a poem by R.S. Thomas – yes, it's that man again...


One day this summer I will go to Llanddewi,
And buy a cottage and stand at the door
In the long evenings, watching the moor
Where the sheep pasture and the shadows fall
Thick as swathes under the sun's blade.
And there I will see somewhere beyond the wall
Of the old church the moles lifting the ground,
And think of the saint's cunning and how he stood
Preaching to the people from his secret mound,
A head's breadth above them, and they silent around.

Thursday 14 March 2024

A Word Is Born

 It seems it was on this day in 1839 that the word 'photography' entered the language. The polymath – inventor, mathematician, astronomer, chemist, botanist, etc. – Sir John Herschel described, in a lecture at the Royal Society in London, a series of processes that he called 'photography', i.e. drawing with light. No one had uttered the word in public before.
This gives me a ready-made excuse for posting Julia Margaret Cameron's wonderful 1867 photograph of Sir John in old age – a perfect example of 'drawing with light', and surely one of the greatest portrait photographs ever taken (if 'taken' is the word – perhaps 'made' would be better). 

Tuesday 12 March 2024

'I never took up the lancet again'

 Talking of Keats... I've just read an essay, 'The Medical Keats', by Joseph Epstein, published in his gloriously named collection In a Cardboard Belt! (a reference to a line spoken by Zero Mostel's Max Bialystock in Mel Brooks's The Producers – 'Look at me now! Look at me now! I'm wearing a cardboard belt!'). Of course I'd always known that Keats had some medical training and could be numbered with Chekhov and Rabelais, Sir Thomas Browne and Tobias Smollett, Oliver Goldsmith and Somerset Maugham in the company of writers with medical training (in which company the self-taught apothecary-physician Samuel Johnson could almost be counted). What I had not realised until I read Epstein's essay, was how big a part his medical training played in Keats's life, and how much of that short life it consumed: as Epstein points out, 'Six of his twenty-five years, after all, were spent in medical surroundings and training, and these represented more than half his intellectually conscious life.' He was good at medicine, too, taking a real interest in the subject and passing all his examinations – no mean feat at a time when the great majority of medical students failed and dropped out. 
   Epstein rightly emphasises how tough Keats was, for all his extreme sensitivity. Anyone would have to be tough to endure surgical training at Guy's at that time, especially if you were assigned, as Keats was, to the worst surgeon in the hospital, William Lucas, Jr. William Hale-White (physician son of the author known as Mark Rutherford) wrote in Keats as Doctor and Patient (which Epstein quotes) that 'His surgical acquirements were very small, his operations generally very badly performed and accompanied by much bungling if not worse.' Lucas's colleague Astley Cooper described Lucas as 'neat-handed, but rash in the extreme, cutting amongst most important parts as though they were only skin, and making us all shudder from the apprehension of his opening arteries or committing some other error'. As for conditions in the dissecting room, a contemporary of Keats's wrote that 'On entering the room, the stink was most abominable. About 20 chaps were at work, carving limbs and bodies, in all stages of putrefaction, & of all colours ... while the pupils carved them, apparently, with as much pleasure as they would carve their dinners. One ... amused himself with striking his scalpel at the maggots, as they issued from their retreats.' Such scenes seem not to have unduly disturbed the young Keats, but watching Lucas's butchery surely had an effect, and enhanced his main inhibition – the fear of doing harm. Tough though he was, Keats did not have the steely temperament and massive self-confidence needed to perform surgery, especially in those days before effective anaesthesia and antisepsis. 'My last operation,' he told his friend Charles Brown, 'was the opening of a man's temporal artery. I did it with the utmost nicety; but reflecting on what passed through my mind at the time, my dexterity seemed a miracle, and I never took up the lancet again.'
  Who knows? If the young Keats had not been introduced into literary circles and decided that he must be a poet, he might well have spent the rest of his short life as a physician. Certainly, had he done so, the world would have been immeasurably poorer. 

Sunday 10 March 2024

The Sweet Dove Died: A Strong, Sad Book

 So – The Sweet Dove Died, the Barbara Pym novel to which I turned after the harrowing experience of reading The Blood of the Lamb. The Sweet Dove Died was written in the Sixties, when Pym's star had sunk far below the horizon of fashionable taste, was rejected by 21 publishers in all (even when she sent it in under a male name), and finally published in 1978, after the great Pym revival occasioned by Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil both naming her, in a TLS feature, as the most underrated novelist of the century. 
  The version of the novel published in 1978 differed from its original form, partly in response to Larkin's helpful suggestions: 'With fewer characters and slower movement,' he advised, 'it could be a strong, sad book.' And a strong, sad book it is, also one with rather few characters (and not many pages: it comes in at a bit over 180). The central character is Leonora Eyre, an elegant and attractive middle-aged woman who is taken up by Humphrey Boyce, a pompous upmarket antique dealer, and his ineffectual but personable nephew James, a young man of ambiguous sexuality who has lost both his parents and been, in effect, adopted by Humphrey: 'There was something about the idea of an orphan that brought out the best in Humphrey, that desire to do good without too much personal inconvenience that lurks in most of us.'       Leonora is only too happy to be taken up by Humphrey and James, the former offering a convenient and conventional relationship (though the fastidious Leonora flinches from the prospect of sex with him), the latter something more emotionally satisfying and flattering to her self-image. Between Humphrey's assiduous wooing and James's undemanding adoration, Leonora is in just the kind of situation she likes, with a little world spinning devotedly around her. She is, as we gradually discover, self-centred and self-serving to a quite alarming degree, happy to behave ruthlessly in her own interests, while all the time convinced she is doing absolutely the right thing: whatever serves to keep her little world spinning to her satisfaction can only be the right thing, surely. 
  However, the cosy Humphrey-Leonora-James triangle comes under threat from outside, in the shape of the dangerously amoral Ned, an American whom James meets on his travels. On Leonora's first meeting with him, she feels an instant, cool antagonism, which turns to something more troubling when Ned pointedly quotes to her the seemingly innocuous little poem by Keats from which Pym's novel takes its title: 'I had a dove and the sweet dove died; And I have thought it died of grieving...' Ned goes on, 'his voice lingering over the words and giving them a curious emphasis. "O, what could it grieve for? Its feet were tied/With a single thread of my own hand's weaving."' Leonora is right to sense danger...
  The Sweet Dove Died darkens towards the end, and has little of the high comedy of her earlier works, but it has real depth, is full of acute observation, and, with its strongly drawn characters and tight, well managed plot, it makes for a richly satisfying read. I'd rate it very high among Pym's novels. And to think – if it hadn't been for Larkin and Cecil, we'd never have heard of it.

Friday 8 March 2024

Heroic Futility, and R.S.T.

 My Facebook activity is sporadic (life's too short, etc.) and pretty random, but I do have spurts of activity from time to time. One of these recently resulted in me joining something called the Dull Men's Club. The stimulus – hardly the appropriate word – was a piece describing one man's heroically futile journey, by plane, train and automobile, all the way from the West coast of Scotland to Stourbridge in the West Midlands with the sole purpose of taking a ride on the Stourbridge Shuttle, Britain's shortest – and probably dullest – branch line, four-fifths of a mile between Stourbridge Junction and Stourbridge Town, a three-minute journey each way. An account of this adventure appeared under the aegis of the Dull Men's Club, and turned up out of nowhere on my Facebook feed. When I wanted to find it again, it had of course disappeared, so I threw caution to the wind and joined the Dull Men's Club. Or rather, as I later discovered, I joined one of at least three Facebook groups that go by that name (and between them have a worryingly large following) – and of course it was not the one that had carried the post I was looking for. Since then I have found this report, which gives the gist of the story, but is doesn't have the particular flavour of Neil Hughes's original first-person account. 
  Meanwhile, I've found that the Dull Men's Club (UK Chapter) does come up with some good, magnificently dull stuff, which I do find strangely amusing. I should say in my defence that I also recently joined an R.S. Thomas group (guaranteed to crack a smile), Dutch Golden Century Painters, UK Butterflies, Pursuing the Pre-Raphaelites, Painters from the North (i.e. Scandinavia) and other reputable groups. Not to mention my long-standing membership of the estimable Edinburgh Salon. But who could resist the saga of the Stourbridge Shuttle? Not me.
 And talking of R.S. Thomas, here is the poem for today, a sonnet – 'Young and Old'

Cold sea, cold sky:
This is how age looks
At a thing. The people natter,
The wind blows. Nothing they do
Is of worth. The Great problems
Remain, stubborn, unsolved.
Man leaves his footprints
Momentarily on a vast shore.

And the tide comes,
That the children play with.
Ours are the first questions
They shelve. The wind is the blood
In their veins. Above them the aircraft
Domesticate the huge sky.

Wednesday 6 March 2024


 My recent fiction reading has been something of a rollercoaster ride. Reeling from the impact of the horrific Lord Jim at Home, I took refuge in P.G. Wodehouse, whose works are a sovran balm for most of life's ills. I read and enjoyed Service with a Smile (1961), a Blandings novel in which the eternally youthful Uncle Fred sorts out a range of knotty problems presented by various combinations of misunderstandings, impostures, disapproving aunts and crossed wires, all to universal satisfaction – service with a smile indeed. I laughed several times in every chapter – what more could you ask? With my spirits restored, I next took from the shelf a volume I had been meaning to read for some while – Peter de Vries's The Blood of the Lamb. A long time ago – it would have been in the late Seventies and early Eighties – I was a huge fan of Peter de Vries's comic novels, reading them voraciously, and I know that at some point I did read The Blood of the Lamb, but I cannot remember how I responded, nor had I remembered anything about the book itself. I think now that, at the time, it simply bounced off me: I was too young.
  The fine line between comedy and tragedy has often been remarked upon, and it's commonly said that the best comedy comes edged with something dark, even tragic (which clearly does not apply to P.G. Wodehouse). It's certainly true that few writers can write equally convincingly in the comic and the tragic mode, especially in the course of a single work – yet that is what De Vries does in The Blood of the Lamb, which is, for much of its length, an essentially comic novel, but one in which tragedy strikes again and again: I can't recall another modern novel in which so many leading characters die (most of them, in this case, of a single affliction – TB). The narrator is one Don Wanderhope, raised in a strict Dutch Reformed household in Chicago, and his voice is much like that of any other Peter De Vries narrator, except that while telling his tale he is engaged in an epic argument, a battle even, with God, the God who could allow all these cruel deaths to happen. For about the first two thirds of the book, the comedy somehow remains dominant, despite all that is going on, but the rest of the novel is something else, something utterly heartbreaking, at times almost unbearably so. A reviewer in the TLS wrote that 'those who have laughed with De Vries in the past and during this book will not begrudge him their tears'. And I did not begrudge him mine, but once again I was left shaken and in need of a fictional calmative. 
  Happily I found just the thing on the shelves of my favourite charity bookshop – a Barbara Pym that I hadn't read, The Sweet Dove Died. I'm about two thirds of the way through, and loving it. I'll probably have more to say about it soon...

Monday 4 March 2024

'Listening respectfully to the talk talk talk'

 Slim volumes of Thom Gunn's verse keep turning up in the charity bookshops that I visit, and I invariably snap them up (quite aside from the contents, which I have only come to appreciate in recent years, they are beautifully designed Faber paperbacks – the legacy of Berthold Wolpe – a joy to handle, and they take up very little shelf space). My latest buy was The Passages of Joy (1982) – a Johnsonian title, taken from The Vanity of Human Wishes: 'Time hovers o'er, impatient to destroy, And shuts up all the passages of joy'. Leafing through it, I found 'Keats at Highgate', a sonnet recalling Keats's fortuitous meeting with Coleridge on Hampstead Heath in April 1819. Here's the story as related by Coleridge, writing, with the premonitory wisdom of hindsight, years after the event (1832):

'A loose, slack, and not well dressed youth, met Mr. — and myself in a lane near Highgate. — knew him, and spoke. It was Keats. He was introduced to me and stayed a minute or so. After he had left us a little way, he ran back and said: “Let me carry away the memory, Coleridge, of having pressed your hand!” — “There is death in that hand,” I said to —, when Keats was gone; yet this was, I believe, before the consumption showed itself distinctly.'

And here is the story as told by Keats, in the midst of a long letter to his brother and sister-in-law, soon after the event. His account – very different from Coleridge's – rings perfectly true, and includes a wonderfully vivid description of what it must have been like to be subjected to the unstoppable Coleridge in full flow: 

'Last Sunday I took a Walk towards Highgate and in the lane that winds by the side of Lord Mansfield's park I met Mr Green our Demonstrator at Guy's in conversation with Coleridge – I joined them, after enquiring by a look whether it would be agreeable – I 
walked with him at his alderman-after-dinner pace for near two miles I suppose. In those two Miles he broached a thousand things—let me see if I can give you a list—Nightingales, Poetry—on Poetical sensation—Metaphysics—Different genera and species of Dreams—Nightmare—a dream accompanied by a sense of touch – single and double touch – A dream related – First and second consciousness – the difference explained between will and Volition – so many metaphysicians from a want of smoking the second consciousness – Monsters – the Kraken – Mermaids – Southey believed in them – Southey's belief too much diluted – A Ghost story – Good morning – I heard his voice as he came towards me – I heard it as he moved away – I had heard it all the interval – if it may be called so.'

And here, finally, is Thom Gunn's sonnet: 

Keats at Highgate

A cheerful youth joined Coleridge on his walk
(“Loose,” noted Coleridge, “slack, and not well-dressed”)
Listening respectfully to the talk talk talk
Of First and Second Consciousness, then pressed
The famous hand with warmth and sauntered back
Homeward in his own state of less dispersed
More passive consciousness – passive, not slack,
Whether of Secondary type or First.

He made his way toward Hampstead so alert
He hardly passed the small grey ponds below
Or watched a sparrow pecking in the dirt
Without some insight swelling the mind’s flow
That banks made swift. Everything put to use.
Perhaps not well-dressed but oh no not loose.

Sunday 3 March 2024

Searle's War

 Today is Ronald Searle's birthday. He was born in 1920, and died at a grand old age in 2011 (an event marked on this blog). It was amazing, going on miraculous, that he even made it through his twenties: serving with the Royal Engineers in Singapore in 1942, he was taken prisoner by the Japanese and spent the next three years in the notorious Changi jail, at various camps, and working in the Kwai jungle on the even more notorious Burma railway, the well named 'Death Railway'. He contracted beriberi, dysentery and malaria, among other afflictions, was frequently beaten, and, like all the prisoners of the Japanese, kept on starvation rations. And through it all he drew, on whatever scraps of paper he could come by, recording what was going on around him, even though he knew he would have faced almost certain death if his drawings were discovered. A fellow prisoner described Searle at work: 'If you can imagine something that weighs six stone or so, is on the point of death and has no qualities of the human condition that aren't revolting, calmly lying there with a pencil and a scrap of paper, drawing, you have some idea of the difference of temperament that this man had from the ordinary human being.' 
  Searle hid his drawings, often under the mattresses of fellow prisoners dying of cholera, hoping that the Japanese guards would be too fearful of infection to go near those beds. Astonishingly, some 400 of his drawings survived the war – and so did Searle, who went on to have a glittering career as an illustrator. Most of his PoW drawings are now in the permanent collection of the Imperial War Museum, a valuable record of the brutality visited on their prisoners by the Japanese. They are remarkable not only for their skill but for their calm, dispassionate documentation of the often horrific scenes he recorded; there is none of the expressionistic anguish you might expect. More about this remarkable body of work, about Searle's war, and about the illustrated memoir he subsequently wrote, To the Kwai and Back, can be found here.

Friday 1 March 2024


 The first day of March (St David's Day), so here is a March poem – indeed a poem of two Marches, in which Thomas Hardy, writing in 1913, looks back to the March day in 1870 when he and his new love, Emma Gifford, rode out to Beeny Cliff (in Cornwall), he on a bicycle, she on horseback 'with bright hair flapping free'. She was a bold horsewoman, and remembered in later life 'scampering up and down the hills on my beloved mare alone, wanting no protection, the rain going down my back. … The villagers stopped to gaze when I rushed down the hills … for no one dared except myself to ride in such wild fearless fashion.' Poor Emma made the mistake of marrying Hardy: it was a notably unhappy relationship, partly because of her increasing eccentricity and delusions of grandeur, partly because of his difficult personality. After she died in November 1912, Hardy's mind went back to the early days of their relationship, when there was still some chance of happiness. He revisited the scenes of their romance, and wrote some of his best poetry in the elegiac sequence published as Poems of 1912-13, from which this one is taken... 

Beeny Cliff

March 1870 - March 1913

O the opal and the sapphire of that wandering western sea,
And the woman riding high above with bright hair flapping free –
The woman whom I loved so, and who loyally loved me.

The pale mews plained below us, and the waves seemed far away
In a nether sky, engrossed in saying their ceaseless babbling say,
As we laughed light-heartedly aloft on that clear-sunned March day.

A little cloud then cloaked us, and there flew an irised rain,
And the Atlantic dyed its levels with a dull misfeatured stain,
And then the sun burst out again, and purples prinked the main.

Still in all its chasmal beauty bulks old Beeny to the sky,
And shall she and I not go there once again now March is nigh,
And the sweet things said in that March say anew there by and by?

What if still in chasmal beauty looms that wild weird western shore,
The woman now is – elsewhere – whom the ambling pony bore,
And nor knows nor cares for Beeny, and will laugh there nevermore.

['Mews', by the way, are gulls.]