Tuesday 30 April 2024

Another Magazine Gone

 I was sorry to learn that the UK edition of that old warhorse Reader's Digest is to close down, unable to stay afloat in today's magazine market. When I was a boy my parents, like almost everyone else, had Reader's Digest (and even a few of the books they published) in the house, and from an early age I would leaf through it, often mystified – especially by the 'humour' ('Laughter the Best Medicine', 'Humour in Uniform') – but finding plenty to interest me, sometimes in 'Towards More Picturesque Speech' or 'It Pays to Increase Your Word Power', often  in the articles on science and medicine: in those days I wanted to be a doctor, a desire that left me as soon as I found out how much dreary science I'd have to do at school. Readers' Digest was a product of its time – aspirational, self-improving, decently conservative, unchallenging (though it campaigned hard to establish the link between smoking and lung cancer) – and was still in its heyday in the Fifties and Sixties when I first knew it. Not only was it in every home (or so it seemed) but in every doctor's or dentist's waiting room, along with the long since departed Punch.
   In my youth, of course, I had no time for it, but much later I did once have the curious experience of writing for it. The excellent Russell Twisk, the Listener editor who had bravely taken me on as radio critic in the course of a successful shake-up of the magazine, went on to be the UK editor-in-chief of Reader's Digest, so naturally I tried to get some work off him. I needed the money – and, by golly, the money turned out to be good. However, I had never had to work so hard to write a piece that amounted to little more than extended picture captions (it was to celebrate the tercentenary of the Glorious Revolution that brought William and Mary to the throne). Then, when I thought I'd finally crossed the finishing line, I came up for the first time against American-style fact checking. For one who tended to rely on winging it, bluffing and improvising, this was a major shock to the system. I was quite relieved when a couple of further ideas I put to Reader's Digest were turned down.
  And now Reader's Digest is following Punch and indeed The Listener into the ever growing graveyard of defunct magazines. Many more will follow it, I fear.

Monday 29 April 2024

Rudyard: Kiplings, Funambulists and Swallows

 Talking of public monuments, here, viewed from behind, is a tree sculpture that overlooks Rudyard Lake in Staffordshire, which I visited at the weekend. I took the picture from behind because, frankly, it looks better: seen from the front, that tightrope walker has an unnerving look of the Monopoly Man about him. The sculpture, carved from a beech tree, overlooks the lake, and is intended to commemorate the feat of Carlos Trower, the 'African Blondin', who in 1864 (and again in 1878) walked across the lake on a tightrope 100ft above the water. He was not actually African but African-American, and I'm surprised he isn't better known in these days when 'black history' is so popular.  His feat was replicated in 2016 by funambulist Chris Bull, aka Bullzini, as the climax of a day of activities replicating Rudyard's heyday as a Victorian inland resort to which hundreds of thousands of day trippers and holidaymakers flocked, arriving on the North Staffordshire Railway. Among these visitors were John Lockwood Kipling and Alice Macdonald, who met there on a visit from Burslem, and were so taken with Rudyard Lake that they named their first son after it. 
  The lake was not intended as a tourist resort when it was created in 1799 as a canal reservoir, but such was its size – nearly two and a half miles long – and the beauty of its setting in a wooded valley that it was bound to become one, once the railways had reached it. It is still beautiful today, and visitors still come, though probably in smaller numbers than in its Victorian heyday – and they no longer arrive by train: there is now only a miniature railway, running in the summer months along the shore of the lake. When I was last at Rudyard, in 2016, I saw my first swallows of the year there, skimming the surface of the lake – and again this year my first swallows were waiting for me at Rudyard. They were two and a half weeks later than in 2016 – a testament to this year's cold wet April. I wonder if the swifts will be late too...

Thursday 25 April 2024

'The age of the statue is dead'

 The unveiling of the latest appalling public statue – of the late Queen and her (rather more lifelike) corgis, in Rutland, a delightful little county that doesn't deserve such an outrage – prompts an excellent piece by Ben Lawrence in the Telegraph. He's right that 'the biggest problem with modern statues is that they're awful' – think, if you can bear to, of the Diana statue in Kensington Gardens, or the giant Lovers looming over St Pancras station. However, there are exceptions – one, indeed, being the statue of John Betjeman that also stands at St Pancras, another the Larkin statue (also by Martin Jennings) in Hull. Only recently a pretty good statue of Coleridge (by Nicholas Dimbleby) was unveiled at Ottery St Mary. I should also mention that Lichfield has two good public statues – of Erasmus Darwin and St Chad, by Peter Walker. However, these are outliers, and Ben Lawrence is surely right that 'the age of the statue is dead' – the age, that is, of the naturalistic public monument, a statue that served a purpose, was skilfully made, and invoked a kind of grandeur that has become quite alien to our levelling, denigrating culture. Alas. 

Wednesday 24 April 2024

A Cather Anniversary

 On this day in 1947, Willa Cather died in her Park Avenue home, at the age of 73, not of the cancer that she had been living with for some while, but of a cerebral haemorrhage. Her life partner Edith Lewis, in accordance with Cather's instructions, subsequently destroyed most of the manuscript of an unfinished final novel, Hard Punishments, set in medieval Avignon. Fragments of it have subsequently surfaced, and it sounds like yet another departure for an author who, as A. S Byatt put it, reinvented the novel form with each new work she wrote: this would have been her only novel set entirely in the Old World. Cather was interred in the Old Burying Ground of Jaffrey, New Hampshire, where Edith joined her 25 years later. 
  For years Willa Cather was little more than a name to me, as to most readers on this side of the Atlantic, so I came to her very late – in 2012, I think – initially by way of My Antonia, the last of the 'Prairie Trilogy', soon followed by another little masterpiece, A Lost Lady. As I read on through her novels (search 'Willa Cather' on this blog for my reactions), finally devouring all of them – and much of the shorter fiction – my admiration and wonder grew and grew, and I realised that I was dealing with a truly classic writer, one of the greats. Indeed, if someone has to be the Greatest Novelist of the 20th Century, I would be happy to nominate her – and, as the reputations of many of the male contenders for that title continue to fall away, that might come to seem a pretty sound choice.

Monday 22 April 2024

Birthday, Rain

 Vladimir Nabokov was born on this day in 1899, though by the old calendar it would have been the 10th of April, and the following year it became the 23rd, so he celebrated his first birthday on our St George's Day. Anyway, here in England it's been a day (and night) of incessant rain, so here is a fitting poem by Nabokov, written in 1956...


How mobile is the bed on these nights of gesticulating trees when the rain clatters fast, the tin-toy rain with dapper hoof trotting upon an endless roof, travelling into the past. Upon old roads the steeds of rain slip and slow down and speed again through many a tangled year; but they can never reach the last dip at the bottom of the past because the sun is there.

Sunday 21 April 2024

'A Man Was Drawing Near to Me'

 This morning, I thought I'd try another Blindfold Poetry Selection. The slim volume I blindly took from the shelf turned out to be A Choice of Thomas Hardy's Poems – an attractive little book edited by Geoffrey Grigson, illustrated by Glynn Thomas, and published by Macmillan – and the poem it fell open at was 'A Man Was Drawing Near to Me'. I hadn't remembered reading it before, though I must have done: once, years ago, I even embarked on a doomed venture to read the Collected Poems, a volume of some 900 pages. Hardy, like many another poet, wrote too much, but the best of it is, for all its sometimes tortuous diction, very fine indeed. 'A Man Was Drawing Near to Me' is a haunting, mysterious affair – who is this man drawing near, and what does his 'gaze that bore My destiny' reveal? It could almost have been written by Walter de la Mare, though the result would have been smoother and more musical. The place names, by the way, are all from north Cornwall...

    On that gray night of mournful drone,
    Apart from aught to hear, to see,
    I dreamt not that from shires unknown
    In gloom, alone,
    By Halworthy,
    A man was drawing near to me.

    I'd no concern at anything,
    No sense of coming pull-heart play;
    Yet, under the silent outspreading
    Of even's wing
    Where Otterham lay,
    A man was riding up my way.

    I thought of nobody – not of one,
    But only of trifles – legends, ghosts –
    Though, on the moorland dim and dun
    That travellers shun
    About these coasts,
    The man had passed Tresparret Posts.

    There was no light at all inland,
    Only the seaward pharos-fire,
    Nothing to let me understand
    That hard at hand
    By Hennett Byre
    The man was getting nigh and nigher.

    There was a rumble at the door,
    A draught disturbed the drapery,
    And but a minute passed before,
    With gaze that bore
    My destiny,
    The man revealed himself to me.

Saturday 20 April 2024

London, Glass


Yesterday I was in London – always something of a shock to the system these days ('I had not thought death had undone so many', etc.) – to have lunch with an old friend. Afterwards we crossed the river to have a look at the Glass Heart exhibition at Two Temple Place – or rather, to visit Two Temple Place, which is always a pleasure: the extraordinary neo-Gothic house built for William Waldorf Astor in 1895 is like nothing else in London (or at least nothing open to the public – and indeed Temple Place wasn't until quite recently). The Glass Heart exhibition was interesting, mostly for some informative stuff about glass making and the glass industry, rather than what was on show. This included rather too much lumpish and unattractive recent work, and too little in the way of traditional stained or painted glass, though the Wahls, father and daughter, get a look-in, and there are bits of Morris & Co. material, mostly designs and sketches (and, in a different line, some nice engraved glass). Of course the best stained glass is, by its nature, in situ, and best seen in situ. Indeed, I found the two great windows that are in situ in the great hall of Temple Place the most enjoyable things I saw. They are by Clayton and Bell, and represent Sunrise (the East window) and Sunset (the West). And now I am back in Lichfield, with the cathedral and its wonderful Flemish glass ten minutes' walk away...

Thursday 18 April 2024

Chasing the Devil Out of Texas

 Today is the centenary of the birth, in Vinton, Louisiana, of Clarence 'Gatemouth' Brown (who got his nickname from a teacher who said he had 'a voice like a gate'). Brown was a popular performer but also something of a musician's musician, a versatile multi-instrumentalist – guitar, fiddle, drums, piano – who worked in a variety of genres, though he was at heart a blues man: he won a Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album in 1983 (for Alright Again!). Here he is showing he could also play a mean country fiddle – and still find time to enjoy a few puffs on his pipe during the keyboard solo...

Wednesday 17 April 2024

Rowland Suddaby

 This image from the golden age of motoring – an age when oil companies commissioned quality artwork (and quality books, in the form of the wonderful Shell Guides, edited by Johns Betjeman and Piper) – caught my eye today. It shows Folly House in Darley Abbey, a place I've visited a few times: it's a village in the Derwent valley that is now part of the city of Derby and has some fine buildings dating from its 18th-century industrial heyday. Of the medieval abbey little remains, and Folly House I don't recognise at all –maybe I missed it? Adjoining Darley Abbey is the magnificent Darley Park, one of the country's finest public parks (IMHO). 
  Anyway, I like the picture, which looks rather like a cross between Eric Ravilious and recent David Hockney. The artist's name was new to me – Rowland Suddaby. He is, it seems, a pretty minor figure, with a decidedly meagre Wikipedia entry and not a lot more information online, though his pictures are dotted about the country here and there. His dates are 1912 to 1972, he studied at Sheffield Art College, moved to London, where he had some small success, then settled in Suffolk. He was a founder of the Colchester Art Society, whose exhibitors included Edward Bawden, John Nash and Cedric Morris. Suddaby worked largely in landscape, painting in a distinctive brushy style and favouring bare trees (rather crudely drawn) and grey skies. Along the way, though, he developed another speciality – arrangements of flowers placed in a window against a view. These, I think, work very well. Here are two I particularly like: first, a Window at 5 Portland Place (overlooking the BBC, All Souls and the then Langham Hotel) – 

And this one, with a more rural (and vernal) view, is titled Flowers in a Window

And here, for good measure is a bright Still Life with Flowers

Monday 15 April 2024

Daffodils, and the Walter Scott Publishing Company

 The daffodils are largely faded or gone, but there's still time for Robert Herrick's beautiful lyric, 'To Daffodils' – 

Fair Daffodils, we weep to see
You haste away so soon;
As yet the early-rising sun
Has not attain'd his noon.
Stay, stay,
Until the hasting day
Has run
But to the even-song;
And, having pray'd together, we
Will go with you along.
We have short time to stay, as you,
We have as short a spring;
As quick a growth to meet decay,
As you, or anything.
We die
As your hours do, and dry
Like to the summer's rain;
Or as the pearls of morning's dew,
Ne'er to be found again.

My Herrick is an attractive little volume – date unknown, probably around 1900 – in the Canterbury Poets series, published by the Walter Scott Publishing Company at one shilling (5p in today's money) each. The company had nothing to do with the famous Walter Scott, but was founded by a Newcastle man of the same name, whose mission was to bring cheap but high-quality books – covering literature, ideas, history and much else – to the common man. The company was such a success that Scott, having started with nothing, died a millionaire.
The back pages of my Herrick volume give some idea of the range of the company's publications, and in doing so provide a fascinating snapshot of the mass-market end of the publishing industry at the turn of the last century. As well as the Canterbury Poets – over 100 volumes, each with an authoritative introduction (by Ernest Rhys in the case of Herrick) – the Scott Library (another hundred-plus volumes, slightly more expensively produced at one shilling and six pence) is also listed. This includes essays, letters, philosophy, and classics in translation. Anyone reading through both these libraries would end up well read indeed. And if they wanted to find out more about the lives of the authors, they could move on to the Great Writers series, each with a bibliography by J.P. Anderson of the British Museum. The life of Johnson, I notice, is by one Colonel F. Grant (who he?), but others are by more familiar names, including W.M. Rossetti, Edmund Gosse and Richard Garnett. Also advertised are 'Booklets by Count Tolstoy' (his sententious essays, attractively packaged) and, on a very different plane, The Useful Red Series, factual works on such topics as bridge, indigestion, consumption and choosing a piano. Finally, one volume gets a full-page announcement to itself: billed as 'A Book for Every Dinner Table', it is titled Musicians' Wit, Humour and Anecdote: Being On Dits of Composers, Singers and Instrumentalists of All Times, by Frederick J. Crowest, profusely illustrated with quaint drawings by J.P. Donne. 'Among the hundreds of stories abounding in wit and pointed repartee which the volume contains, will be found anecdotes of famous musicians of all countries and periods.' I think my own dinner table will get by perfectly well without this particular volume. 

Saturday 13 April 2024


 It's Samuel Beckett's birthday today (born 1906). I would have thought I'd have marked the date quite often on the blog, but it seems I've only done so once. Since that was in 2009 – fifteen years ago, long enough for everyone (myself included) to have forgotten – I take the liberty of reprinting that piece. It has some choice quotations in it –

'Well, today is Samuel Beckett's birthday - he liked to claim that it was Good Friday the 13th, but that happy coincidence didn't occur in 1906, his natal year. It is also - despite all evidence to the contrary here in grey cold drizzly London - Spring, a season which always brings to mind the 'brief statement' (26 unparagraphed pages) made by the gentleman in the green baize apron in Watt, before he leaves Mr Knott's house, the gentleman who of course regrets 'everything' and who takes a dim view of the natural world and the turning seasons -
"The crocuses and the larch turning green every year a week before the others and the pastures red with uneaten sheep's placentas and the long summer days and the new-mown hay and the wood-pigeon in the morning and the cuckoo in the afternoon and the corncrake in the evening and the wasps in the jam and the smell of the gorse and the look of the gorse and the apples falling and the children walking in the dead leaves and the larch turning brown a week before the others and the chestnuts falling and the howling winds and the sea breaking over the pier and the first fires and the hooves on the road and the consumptive postman whistling 'The Roses Are Blooming in Picardy' and the standard oil-lamp and of course the snow and to be sure the sleet and bless your heart the slush and every fourth year the February debacle and the endless April showers and the crocuses and then the whole bloody business starting over again."
  The gentleman may regard the whole business as 'an excrement', 'a turd' - but isn't this an extraordinarily vivid and evocative piece of nature writing? In fact, Beckett often demonstrates a remarkably sharp eye (and ear) for landscape and close-up detail, for the sights and sounds of nature - the bleak landscapes of Molloy, for example (clearly rooted, as is the passage above, in the author's memories of Ireland), are brilliantly realised and linger long in the mind. Perhaps Beckett's attention to nature is all the sharper for his sense of man's inescapable alienation from it - it is a scene across which a man passes but of which he can never fully be (or feel himself) a part. There's another lovely passage earlier in the gentleman's monologue -
"The long blue days for his head, for his side, and the little paths for his feet, and all the brightness to touch and gather. Through the grass the little mosspaths, bony with old roots, and the trees sticking up, and the flowers sticking up, and the fruit hanging down, and the white exahusted butterflies, and the birds never the same darting all day into hiding..."

It seems to me that among Beckett's less celebrated talents is that of a brilliant, if eccentric, reluctant and against-the-grain, nature writer.'

Friday 12 April 2024

In the Slave Market

 In the course of the book I'm reading for review, Sir Samuel Baker, the English explorer who named Lake Albert, makes an appearance – and so does his travelling companion and presumed wife, Florence. Samuel, we are told, 'had found nineteen-year-old Florence in 1859 at an auction of white slaves in a Turkish-administered town in Bulgaria. Her parents had been killed in the 1848 uprising in Hungary, and Baker bought her, and subsequently fell in love with her...' An eyebrow-raising passage – and there was more to the story than this: Baker had been on a hunting trip in the Balkans with the Maharajah Duleep Singh when, to amuse the Maharajah, they visited the slave market in Vidin. There Baker spotted Florence, who was destined for the harem of the Ottoman Pasha of Vidin, and was instantly smitten. In the auction the Pasha outbid him, but the resourceful Baker bribed the girl's guards to release her, and they made off together in a carriage. They were inseparable ever after, and Florence accompanied her husband (they were properly married on their return to England) on even his most arduous travels, in Africa and elsewhere. 
  White slaves, eh, and in Europe in the mid-nineteenth century? Surely slavery was invented by the racist imperialist British to service their sugar plantations in the West Indies and enrich Britannia? Surely there was no slavery in the world but the wicked triangular trade? This is certainly the impression one would get from the BBC and from the kind of history teaching that goes on in schools. Of course it is entirely fallacious and ahistorical, but such is its traction that it has thoroughly permeated our 'woke' establishment culture, to the point where cringing apologies and even reparations are seriously entertained. I may be wrong, but I rather doubt that the Turkish government is intending to offer either apologies or reparations to anyone any time soon.

Tuesday 9 April 2024

How Libraries Saved a Life

 When I saw the front page headline 'Libraries Saved My Life', I had to buy a copy of the Birmingham Mail. It's a great story – here's the link...


... and the subject of the piece, Tracy King, has written a book about it: about how her father lost his life in a brawl with teenagers in a local shopping centre, how Tracy, at the age of 12, was left traumatised and adrift, unable to attend school, and how she spent her time in public libraries educating herself, in effect saving her life, or at least laying the groundwork for a successful one. There's a twist in the tale too: Tracy discovered, years later, that her father wasn't the heroic victim she thought he was...
The inspiring story of Tracy's self-education – a wonderful example of the life-changing possibilities of public libraries, even in a supposed age of affluence – must now be seen in the context of Birmingham City Council's proposal to close 25 of its 35 libraries as it tries to climb out of a deep financial hole (of its own making, no doubt). Naturally Tracy King, now a writer, producer and science communicator, is vehemently opposed to this, and determined that these vital community resources must, one way or another, be kept open and remain available to all. Let's hope they do, for all our sakes.
Her book, Learning to Think, is published by Doubleday and has already been widely praised. 

Monday 8 April 2024


 By public demand (hem hem), here is my latest contribution to that fine magazine Literary Review – a review of a book I greatly enjoyed reading. As ever, I urge you to take out a subscription – LR is far and away the most readable magazine of its kind...

The Book Forger: The True Story of a Literary Crime that Fooled the World
By Joseph Hone (Chatto & Windus 336pp £18.99) 
    This book has a great story to tell – the author calls it, without exaggeration, ‘perhaps the most sensational literary scandal of the last hundred years’ – and Joseph Hone tells it brilliantly. Strictly speaking, it was not quite a ‘literary scandal’ but rather a bibliographical one, as it involved the faking of physical books, not of their contents. It was a scandal affecting the most exalted levels of book collecting and the book market, and the man responsible for the faking was one the most revered authorities and collectors of his time, Thomas James Wise.
   The story of Wise’s crimes was first told by the two men who uncovered them (though there were more to be discovered later, by Hone himself among others). Booksellers John Carter and Graham Pollard published their findings in 1934 in a book with the deceptively bland title An Enquiry into the Nature of Certain Nineteenth Century Pamphlets – and it caused an instant sensation, not only shaking the antiquarian book trade and dethroning Wise, but becoming a news story in itself. It was the result of a long process of painstaking detective work, making use of the latest forensic techniques, notably the chemical analysis of paper, to provide clinching evidence. Carter and Pollard’s exposé stuck scrupulously to the facts, and the authors took care to stay out of the courts by never actually stating Wise’s guilt. The evidence they presented was so overwhelming that they didn’t need to.
  Hone expertly spins two narrative strands, at first in parallel, then increasingly intertwining, until they finally come together in Pollard’s climactic face-to-face confrontation with the cornered Wise. One narrative strand follows Wise from his early days in the various literary societies that thrived in late Victorian times to his first forays into illicit book-making, and his rise to fame and honours as a giant of the book world – and, ironically, scourge of the forgers. ‘He is the terror of all fraudulent booksellers,’ declared one admirer, ‘and fakes are to him what rats are to a terrier.’ In fact, fakes were to him a lucrative, absorbing and perversely enjoyable sideline.
 Wise got the idea for his particular line in forgery from his work with the literary societies, who liked to bring out scholarly limited-edition facsimiles of early and obscure works by their revered authors – Shelley, Browning, Tennyson, Swinburne and the like. These often became sought-after items, but it was always made clear that they were facsimiles. Wise’s bright idea was to bring out editions of works by these authors bearing earlier dates than the known first editions, and to pass them off as genuine, with carefully concocted stories of provenance to explain why they had never before seen the light of day. Wise already had a formidable reputation as a book hunter and an expert knowledge of book production, so he was sure to be believed. Soon he was doing very well out of the rising commercial value of what were then ‘modern firsts’. But his nefarious activities went beyond this: as Carter and Pollard did not know, Wise was also a thief, tearing out pages from books in the British Museum library to make up ‘perfect’ copies of rare volumes.
  But what of Pollard and Carter? They were an odd couple – Carter a suave, debonair product of Eton and King’s College, Cambridge, and Pollard a scruffy, rather louche one-time communist, leading a double life as bookseller and MI5 agent, spying on his former ‘comrades’. An Oxonian, Pollard was a member of the hard-drinking Hypocrites Club and credited as ‘the Jesus man who introduced corduroy trousers to polite society’. It was the book trade, and their passion for book collecting, that brought these two together, and gave them their great project – to expose Wise, who was widely disliked, and regarded by the younger generation of bibliophiles as something of a dinosaur. Hone makes a page-turning narrative of their detective work, technical though it often is, and the reader will be cheering them on, especially as Wise was such an unpleasant character, for all his ability to ingratiate himself with those who could be useful to him – including the very authors whose works he was set on faking.
  Why did he do what he did? Hone suggests that he was driven by a burning desire to take his seat at the top table of the book world, despite his obscure background and limited education (he was no Oxbridge man). The obverse of this insecurity was an overweening arrogance that in the end seems to have convinced him he could run rings round everybody and get away with anything. ‘Wise never served his books,’ Hone concludes; ‘they served him’, just as the many people he duped and exploited served him. Wise died a few years after the publication of An Enquiry, his reputation severely damaged. His huge library of beautifully bound books, the so-called Ashley Library, was bequeathed to the British Museum. They still reside in what is now the British Library, where, curiously, access to any and all of them is severely restricted. Having managed to examine some of them, Hone finds that the books ‘look odd’ and somehow wrong, products of a time when paper in suspiciously ‘virginal’ condition and elaborate ‘buttery’ leather bindings were desired. Tastes change. The book trade, though, remains as mad as ever: when Wise’s forgeries turn up today, they can sell for more than they did when they were made. 

Sunday 7 April 2024

Colour in Birmingham

 Yesterday I was in Birmingham, to see the (partly) reopened city art gallery and, en route, drop in on the cathedral church of St Philip. This is a baroque God-box designed by Thomas Archer very early in the 18th century and extended eastwards in the following century – essentially a grand town church rather than a slow-growing, centuries-old cathedral. I knew Burne-Jones had designed some windows for it, but my expectations weren't especially high. And then I saw them – four large windows, one (a Last Judgment) at the West end, three (Nativity, Resurrection, Crucifixion) at the East – and I was simply stunned. The colours are extraordinarily intense – I believe they were restored recently – and the designs and drawing strong and impactful. Nothing wishy-washy about these windows: indeed I've seldom felt such power in any Victorian glass. Seeing them was an astonishing, and unexpectedly powerful, experience.
   And then came the art gallery, a grand Victorian building of which enough has reopened to house an exhibition titled Victorian Radicals, showcasing the gallery's extensive holdings of Pre-Raphaelite and related art (and craft) works. Some of what is on show is of peripheral interest, but the exhibition is worth seeing for the sake of the big, in-your-face masterpieces, which have to be seen to be believed – Ford Madox Brown's massive Work and An English Autumn AfternoonThe Last of England and The Pretty Baa-Lambs, Millais's The Blind Girl, Henry Wallis's The Death of Chatterton, Arthur Hughes's The Long Engagement. As with Burne-Jones's windows, the colours are startlingly intense and the impact stunning. No reproduction can do these works justice; they have to be seen in their physical reality, and examined closely: there is always more to see in paintings as packed with significant detail as these. They are pictures that I felt I had known all my life, but seeing them in situ in this exhibition somehow felt like seeing them for the first time. Now I feel I really know them – and I'll be back to see more of Birmingham's art gallery when the rest of it has reopened. 

Thursday 4 April 2024

American Fiction

 Last night, in a rare moment of intersection with the Zeitgeist, I watched American Fiction, a film of shockingly recent vintage (2023, for heaven's sake). I'm happy to say the I enjoyed it greatly, it gave me many a laugh, and impressed me with its cleverness and with the sharpness and boldness of its satire. As all the world probably knows, American Fiction tells the story of Thelonious 'Monk' Ellison, a black academic and frustrated writer, who loses his job (after a student objects to his writing the name of a certain Flannery O'Connor short story* on the whiteboard) and who finds himself facing big problems in his life – notably his mother's Alzheimer's – and with no money. Out of despair and cynicism, and as a kind of dark joke, he decides to pose as a stereotypical blaaack badass and write a grisly, foul-mouthed, clichéd blaaack memoir of the kind that is likely to attract the interest of an increasingly deranged publishing industry, making big money off condescending stereotypes of black life. To his amazement it works, and our hero is soon passing himself off as fugitive criminal 'Stagg R. Leigh' and trousering a huge advance, as well as attracting the interest of a hot-shot Hollywood producer. His memoir is initially called My Pafology, but in one of the funniest scenes in the film 'Stagg' forces the publishers to give it the even 'blacker', even more 'authentic' title Fuck.
   It might seem improbable that an obscure academic could convincingly pretend to be 'Stagg R. Leigh', but happily he is played by the excellent Jeffrey Wright, who makes it all seem perfectly believable (the rest of the cast are spot-on too). Events move to a climax, with an awards ceremony at which Monk, one of the judges, finds Stagg R. Leigh's book winning. How will it play out? In several different ways, as it turns out: what begins as a straight satire ends as metafiction, with alternative endings tried out by the hot-shot Hollywood producer, who finally, inevitably opts for the bloodiest and most stereotyped, the most 'black'. American Fiction (which is based on a novel, Erasure by Percival Everett) is the debut movie of director Cord Jefferson. He is clearly going to be one to watch.

* 'The Artificial Nigger', one of her best.

Wednesday 3 April 2024

'He is a brittle crazy glass'

 Born on this day in 1593 was the great devotional poet George Herbert. 
Here he is in full flow –

The Windows

Lord, how can man preach thy eternal word?
    He is a brittle crazy glass;
Yet in thy temple thou dost him afford
    This glorious and transcendent place,
    To be a window, through thy grace.
But when thou dost anneal in glass thy story,
    Making thy life to shine within
The holy preachers, then the light and glory
    More reverend grows, and more doth win;
    Which else shows waterish, bleak, and thin.
Doctrine and life, colors and light, in one
    When they combine and mingle, bring
A strong regard and awe; but speech alone
    Doth vanish like a flaring thing,
    And in the ear, not conscience, ring.

Quite so. The window above, by Christopher Webb, was installed in 1953 in Salisbury cathedral, just down the road from the parish where Herbert was Rector. It illustrates Herbert's poem 'Love-Joy' –

AS on a window late I cast mine eye,
I saw a vine drop grapes with J and C
Anneal’d on every bunch.  One standing by
Ask’d what it meant.  I, who am never loth
To spend my judgement, said, It seem’d to me
To be the bodie and the letters both
Of Joy and Charitie.  Sir, you have not miss’d,
The man reply’d; It figures JESUS CHRIST.

Monday 1 April 2024


Here's a painting for the new month – April, Epping by Lucien Pissarro, painted in 1894, a few years after the artist and his wife had settled in England. It shows a landscape somewhere near the small semi-suburban house where the Pissarros lived in Epping. There is nothing very distinguished about either the painting or its subject, but what struck me about it was Pissarro's use of cleverly modulated dabs of different colours, in a manner similar to the 'divisionism' of Seurat and Signac, with whom Pissarro had associated before leaving France. This took me back to art classes at my grammar school, when I was around 11 and 12. The teacher, a youngish, dark-haired woman whose name I have forgotten, was apparently on a mission to teach her young charges to paint in something very like a divisionist manner, applying little dabs of different colours placed together so as to give the impression of another colour altogether (like the oranges, mauves and blues that create the shadow of a tree in the left foreground of April, Epping). As you may imagine, her mission was doomed to failure, and even I, who loved to paint and draw, found myself struggling with this strange way of doing things. As I recall it, the teacher began to take a more relaxed approach in time, and I was able to paint more freely. As for my next art teacher, he was certainly encouraging, but inclined to, what shall we say, excessively affectionate behaviour towards his favourite pupils – but that is another story...