Thursday 30 May 2024

Betjeman and Larkin's 'frivolous spanners'

 Recently there's been an outbreak of Betjemania on BBC4, with a season of reruns of various of his TV features and interviews – and why not? John Betjeman was a natural on television, a medium that faithfully conveyed his particular charm, and that he seemed perfectly at home in. Most of his TV work is worth watching again and makes for enjoyable viewing, though some of the later stuff lapses into self-indulgence and self-caricature. A highlight of the season was Larkin and Betjeman: Down Cemetery Road, a Monitor film from 1964, in which the older poet visits Larkin in Hull and interviews him, or rather talks with him about poetry and life. Watching it, I couldn't help but wonder what was going through Larkin's head as he lounged in an armchair, smoking and responding to Betjeman's questions: there were moments, I think, when a flicker of awareness of the comedy of the situation could be glimpsed, but Larkin kept a straight face – indeed, when filmed stalking balefully about his place of work, a face of sepulchral straightness. It was said of Larkin and Betjeman that they formed a 'mutual admiration society', which is overstating it, but Betjeman clearly found much to admire in Larkin's poetry, and he was himself important to Larkin's development as a poet: reading Betjeman, with his immediacy, accessibility and well grounded particularity, surely helped Larkin to move on from his 'Yeats and water' phase and find his individual voice.
  In July 1973, the University of Hull, where Larkin had held the position of Librarian since 1955, awarded Betjeman an honorary D. Litt. At the ceremony Larkin read his ‘On John Betjeman: A Citation’, which opens with the words ‘[i]t is not easy to sum up in a few minutes the achievement of a man of such celebrated and individual quality as Sir John Betjeman, and the task is made no lighter by the frivolous spanners Sir John himself has from time to time seen fit to throw into the machinery of assessment’. Larkin could almost have been writing about himself there: he threw a few frivolous spanners in his lifetime, positively encouraging a view of himself as a curmudgeonly philistine – and then, after his death, with the publication of the letters and Andrew Motion's biography, a whole workshop of spanners were thrown into 'the machinery of assessment' as the more regrettable aspects of his character came under the spotlight. But does any of that matter? The climax of the Monitor programme was Larkin's reading (and enactment) of his great poem, 'Church Going'. That he could write a poem like that is all that matters in the end. Down Cemetery Road and other Betjeman films are still available to view on BBC iPlayer.

Tuesday 28 May 2024

In the Cage

 Recently I was in The Bookshop, that small but lovingly curated second-hand bookshop in Wirksworth. This was my first visit in a while, but I knew I was unlikely to leave empty-handed. And so it proved: when I spotted Henry James's In the Cage on the shelves – one I had never read and only vaguely heard of – I had to have it, especially as it was a Hesperus Press paperback, one of a series of beautifully produced reprints of neglected short works by great writers (I have Chekhov's The Story of a Nobody in the same series). 
  In the Cage tells the story of a young woman who works in 'the cage' of a post office telegram counter in a Mayfair grocer's shop. She is engaged to a dull former colleague who is set on advancing himself in the world, but her heart is elsewhere, quickened by the high-life romances she glimpses in the telegrams she handles. In particular, she feels some kind of relationship growing between her and one Captain Everard, a handsome young man about town who is one of her most frequent customers. The quotation on the back jacket of the Hesperus edition relates to this, and is taken from the one real conversation the pair ever have: 
'"I've known perfectly well that you knew I took trouble for you; and that you knew I took trouble for you; and that knowledge has been for me, and I seemed to see it was for you, as if there was something – I don't know what to call it! – between us."'
Which doesn't sound much like a telegraph girl but very much like Henry James. And if the dialogue is unmistakably Jamesian, so, happily, is the psychological penetration of his empathetic portrait of the girl, so are the endless subtleties and nuances of expression, and so is the clever way in which James manages to bring this outwardly slight tale – more like a long short story than a short novel – to a satisfying, and unpredictable, dénouement. Published in the same year as The Turn of the Screw (1898), In the Cage is a more straightforwards work, and very different, but in terms of quality I would say it is not far behind. I am glad I found it. 

Monday 27 May 2024

Another Hunter-Dunn

 I've been away for a few days on a walk/ church crawl in Somerset, exploring the area between Shepton Mallet and Wells, whose utterly glorious cathedral was of course the high point. Somewhere along the way – in fact at St Aldhelm, Doulting, one of many fine churches we visited – I glanced at the notice board as we left and spotted a familiar name... Yes, the Vicar is the Rev. Jonathan Hunter-Dunn, surely a kinsman of the famous Joan Hunter Dunn who was the subject of one of Betjeman's cheeriest and best-known poems, 'A Subaltern's Love Song' – 

Miss J.Hunter Dunn, Miss J.Hunter Dunn,
Furnish'd and burnish'd by Aldershot sun,
What strenuous singles we played after tea,
We in the tournament – you against me!

Love-thirty, love-forty, oh! weakness of joy,
The speed of a swallow, the grace of a boy,
With carefullest carelessness, gaily you won,
I am weak from your loveliness, Joan Hunter Dunn.

Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn,
How mad I am, sad I am, glad that you won,
The warm-handled racket is back in its press,
But my shock-headed victor, she loves me no less.

Her father's euonymus shines as we walk,
And swing past the summer-house, buried in talk,
And cool the verandah that welcomes us in
To the six-o'clock news and a lime-juice and gin.

The scent of the conifers, sound of the bath,
The view from my bedroom of moss-dappled path,
As I struggle with double-end evening tie,
For we dance at the Golf Club, my victor and I.

On the floor of her bedroom lie blazer and shorts,
And the cream-coloured walls are be-trophied with sports,
And westering, questioning settles the sun,
On your low-leaded window, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn.

The Hillman is waiting, the light's in the hall,
The pictures of Egypt are bright on the wall,
My sweet, I am standing beside the oak stair
And there on the landing's the light on your hair.

By roads "not adopted", by woodlanded ways,
She drove to the club in the late summer haze,
Into nine-o'clock Camberley, heavy with bells
And mushroomy, pine-woody, evergreen smells.

Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn,
I can hear from the car park the dance has begun,
Oh! Surrey twilight! importunate band!
Oh! strongly adorable tennis-girl's hand!

Around us are Rovers and Austins afar,
Above us the intimate roof of the car,
And here on my right is the girl of my choice,
With the tilt of her nose and the chime of her voice.

And the scent of her wrap, and the words never said,
And the ominous, ominous dancing ahead.
We sat in the car park till twenty to one,
And now I'm engaged to Miss Joan Hunter Dunn.

The Joan Hunter Dunn of real life caught Betjeman's ever catchable eye in 1941, when he was one of the 'pale green intellectuals' working at the Ministry of Information, where Joan was second-in-command of catering (a job she secured by declaring that she knew 'nothing at all' about institutional catering). Betjeman recalled that 'I was walking down a corridor at the Ministry of Information with my friend Reggie Ross Williamson when we saw a beautiful girl with red hair. "Gosh, look," I said. "‘I bet she’s a doctor’s daughter from Aldershot."’ (In fact she was a doctor's daughter from Farnborough.) 'You ought to go and see her,' he told another friend, Roland Pym, 'she is a lovely sturdy Creole type with curly hair and strong arms and strapping frame and jolly smile and soft laughing voice.' The poem inspired by Betjeman's crush was published in Horizon in Feburary 1941, and when Betjeman took Miss J. Hunter Dunn out to lunch, he showed her the printed poem while they were in the taxi en route. She was 'absolutely overwhelmed. It was such a marvellous break from the monotony of war.' She later recalled that Betjeman had been the perfect gentleman and had not even made a pass. 
  Joan Hunter Dunn went on to marry another man from the ministry, Harold Wycliffe Jackson, in 1945, and followed him to Malaya, Singapore and Rhodesia, where he died in 1963. Betjeman helped her in her widowhood, writing and visiting, and helping with the education of her three sons. Sadly all of Betjeman's letters to her were stolen in a burglary in 1996. Joan herself died in 2008 at the ripe age of 92.

Sunday 26 May 2024

Larkin on The Archers

 Well, blow me down! Philip Larkin turned up on The Archers this evening, in the form of his fine late poem, 'The Mower' – or rather the last two lines thereof. Wonders will never cease*. However, I do recall an episode a long while back when the late Nigel Pargetter – a lovely fellow but not the sharpest knife in the box – suddenly discovered his inner classicist and started quoting, in Latin, from Virgil's Georgics
 Here is the whole of 'The Mower' –

The mower stalled, twice; kneeling, I found   
A hedgehog jammed up against the blades,   
Killed. It had been in the long grass.

I had seen it before, and even fed it, once.   
Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world   
Unmendably. Burial was no help:

Next morning I got up and it did not.
The first day after a death, the new absence   
Is always the same; we should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind   
While there is still time.

Apologies for the long absence. Tomorrow, DV, I shall resume with something more like a proper post...

* A quotation from Lichfield's own David Garrick.

Tuesday 21 May 2024

The Springtime of Flight

 I happened upon this picture online, and my first thought was that it might be by Badmin or Tunnicliffe or another of the Shell/Ladybird stable of gifted illustrators. In fact it is the work of Tirzah Garwood, the talented wife and widow of Eric Ravilious, and is one of twenty or so distinctive oil paintings she produced towards the end of her life, moving on from her usual lines of wood engraving and paper marbling. Called The Springtime of Flight and painted in 1950, the picture brings together three vernal elements – spring flowers, a spring butterfly and an early aeroplane from, yes, the springtime of flight – into a charming composition with a slightly otherworldly feel, more like an instructive composition than an actual landscape. The flowers are very nicely, and accurately, done – and so is the Brimstone butterfly, and that is a rare thing in art. Nabokov took a severe line on the failure of most artists to paint butterflies at all accurately: ‘Only myopia,’ he declared (in a 1970 interview), ‘condones the blurry generalisations of ignorance. In high art and pure science detail is everything.’ Well, Tirzah Garwood's delightful painting is not 'high art', but that is a very well painted Brimstone – accurate enough, I think, to satisfy even Nabokov. 

Monday 20 May 2024

Too Many Trees

 Yesterday I walked across town to have a look at Borrowcrop Hill, an eminence associated in local legend with the slaughter of three Christian kings killed by the Romans around 300AD. There is nothing much to the hill now, hemmed in as it is by modern housing, but it sports an arcaded  brick gazebo dated to 1804, and it promises fine views across Lichfield and into the surrounding countryside. I say 'promises' advisedly; the reality is that most of those views are either compromised of blocked completely by trees – 'weed trees', mostly sycamore and ash, that have sprung up in recent years and more or less put paid to Borrowcrop Hill as a viewpoint.  Much the same thing has happened to the once fine views of the city from the nearby St Michael's churchyard, and I've noticed the same sad phenomenon in many other places that once commanded good views. The fact is that there are just too many trees – trees, that is, of the wrong kind, in the wrong place. This is what happens when trees are allowed to spring up and grow unchecked wherever they fancy. Woodland, on any scale, needs to be managed, otherwise it turns into a scrubby mess of weed trees and undergrowth. Blocking views is the least of it: unmanaged growth leads to the shading out of many species – including woodland butterflies – and a loss of what is now called 'biodiversity'. You might have thought that those in charge of managing our woodland would know this, but today I learn that Forestry England (formerly the Forestry Commission, and guilty of many crimes against the environment) has had a bright idea – yes, rewilding. What could possibly go wrong? Forestry England's plans have, in their own words, 'an exciting unpredictability', but they are 'confident that whatever happens', the rewilded woodlands will become 'more nature-rich, with benefits for neighbouring landscapes'. So that's all right then.
  What is needed is not 'rewilding' but proper management of existing woodland – especially coppicing and clearing – which in itself would create more biodiversity. And it's not just me saying this either – here's someone who knows what he's talking about, and his report is well worth reading. 
  Pictured below is something I did see on Borrowcrop Hill – a curious wood sculpture of an owl whose legs appear to go all the way up to his beak, and whose feet resemble a lion's. Funny old world.

Saturday 18 May 2024

From Omar Khayyam to Charles Causley, via Edward FitzGerald and Dick Davis

 Born on this day in 1048 (by our calendar) was Omar Khayyam. A Persian polymath – astronomer, mathematician, philosopher and poet – his name would barely have impinged on the English consciousness had it not been for a remarkable feat of translation: Edward Fitzgerald's version of the collection of quatrains known as The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, first published, anonymously, in 1861 to near universal indifference, but rescued from oblivion by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Swinburne and others impressed by its distinctive beauty. Rossetti apparently found FitzGerald's book languishing among the unsold unsaleables on a book stall, priced at a few pence. After various revisions, the Rubaiyat was republished, and within a few years became one of the most popular and widely read poems in the English language, reaching a peak of popularity at the end of the 19th century. With its easy melodic flow, its air of Romantic melancholy and thrilling but safe exoticism, it has retained its popularity to this day, at least in terms of being present in the public consciousness and widely quoted, if not widely read. Like most popular poetry, it is unfashionable, and like most translations it is contentious: it could hardly be otherwise when FitzGerald himself called it a 'transmogrification' rather than a straight translation. It is clear too that at least some of the quatrains owe nothing to any Persian original – a measure of how completely FitzGerald had made an English poem of it. 
   A poet closer to our own time, Dick Davis, was known as a brilliant translator of Persian verse – and one who recognised the greatness, for all its infidelities, of FitzGerald's Rubaiyat. In his 'A Letter to Omar', he stands at the tomb of Omar Khayyam (pictured above) and reflects on the Rubaiyat, on his own life, and on the strange but gifted man who turned those quatrains into English poetry: 

I stood beside the ghastly tomb they built for you
And shuddered with vicarious, mute guilt for you;
Are concrete columns what they thought you meant?
I wanted wine, a glass turned down, drops spilt for you.

A sick child reads (his life is not imperilled – 
He sucks the candied death-wish of FitzGerald);
I was that child, and your translated words
Were poetry – the muse's gaudy herald.

Was it for you I answered that advertisement
Before I knew what coasting through one's thirties meant?
If so I owe my wife and child to that
Old itch to get at what your English verses meant.

Thus in your land I doled out Shakespeare, Milton –
Decided I preferred sheep's cheese to stilton
But knew as much of Persia or Iran
As jet-lagged fat cats sluicing at the Hilton.

My language teacher was a patient Persian Jew
(I pray that he survives), a techno-person who
Thought faith and verse vieux jeus; he thought me weird –
He learnt my loyalties and his aversion grew.

Love proved the most effective learning lure and not
His coaxing tact: my girl required the score and plot
– Explained in halting, pidgin syllables – 
Of our first opera (which was – aptly – Turandot).

When I had said, in crabbed words bare of ornament,
What La Bohème, The Magic Flute and Norma meant
She married me; my Persian was still bad
But now I knew I knew what 'nessun dorma' meant.

We set up home ... but I feel more than sure you
Would not assent to Dr Johnson's poor view 
Of tulip streaks* (Damn all particulars...)
And I desist – I wouldn't want to bore you.

You left the busy trivia unspoken:
Haunted by vacancy, you saw unbroken
Miles of moonlight – time and the desert edge
The high-walled gardens, man's minute, brief token.

And if I revelled in your melancholy
(Like mooching through the rain without a brolly)
It was the passion of your doubt I loved,
Your castigation of the bigot's folly.

Besides, what could be more perversely pleasant
To an ascetic, hungry adolescent
Than your insistent carpe diem cry
Of let conjecture go, embrace the present?

And all set out (I thought so then, I think so now)
In stanzas of such finely wrought, distinct know-how
They were my touchstone of the art (it is
A taste our pretty literati think low-brow).

Such fierce uncertainty and such precision!
That fateful metre mated with a vision
Of such persuasive doubt ... grandeur was your
Decisive statement of our indecision. 

Dear poet-scholar, would-be alcoholic
(Well, is the wine – or is it not – symbolic?)
You would and would not recognise the place – 
Succession now is quasi-apostolic,

The palace is a kind of Moslem Deanery,
But government, despite this shift of scenery,
Stays as embattled as it ever was – 
As individual, and as sanguinary.

The warring creeds still rage – each knows it's wholly right
And welcomes ways to wage the martyrs' holy fight;
You might not know the names of some new sects
But, as of old, the nation is bled slowly white.

Listen: 'Death to the Yanks, out with their dollars!'
What revolution cares for poet-scholars?
What price evasive, private doubt beside
The public certainties of Ayatollahs?

And every faction would find you a traitor:
The country of the Rubaiyat's creator
Was fired like stubble as we packed our bags
And sought the province of its mild translator.

East Anglia! – where passionate agnostics
Can burn their strictly non-dogmatic joss-sticks,
And take time off from moody poetry
For letters, crosswords, long walks and acrostics;

Where mist and damp make most men non-committed,
Where both sides of most battles seem half-witted,
Where London is a world away and where
Even the gossips felt FitzGerald fitted;

He named his boat The Scandal (no misnomer...)
And fished the coast from Lowestoft round to Cromer,
One eye on his beloved Posh, and one
On you or Virgil, Calderon or Homer;

Then wrote his canny, kind, retiring letters
To literature's aggressive, loud go-getters –
Carlyle and others I forbear to name
Who had the nerve to think themselves his betters;

You were the problems (metrical, semantic)
From which he made an anglicised Romantic – 
The perfect correspondent for his pen
(Inward, mid-century, and not too frantic);

As you are mine in this; it makes me really sick
To hear men say they find you crass or merely slick;
Both you and your translator stay my heroes – 
Agnostic blessings on you both!
                                               Sincerely, Dick.
November 1982

* 'The poet does not number the streaks of the tulip' (Samuel Johnson, Rasselas). 

FitzGerald's 'beloved Posh' was a young fisherman called Joseph Fletcher, with whom FitzGerald bought a herring lugger and spent many happy hours fishing the Suffolk coast (in today's reductive terms, he was probably 'gay'). Despite being born into one of the wealthiest families in the land, FitzGerald lived a quiet, retired life, seldom venturing far from Suffolk. He died in 1883, and is buried in the remote churchyard of Boulge, where another poet, Charles Causley, visited his very plain grave (below), and marked the occasion with a short poem, 'Boulge' –

Edward FitzGerald sleeps
Under this sheet of stone,
Neat as never in life,  
Innocent, alone.

The earth that he lies in is his.
Grass and willow-herb drown
The wilderness path through the trees.
The great house is down.

He longed to lie in birdsound.
To be ash. To dare
The salt of the ocean and find 
Lodging there.

Flint-eyed, the church, the tower
Shadow his page.
Thinly the Persian rose
Frets in its cage.

It is He that hath made us. And he
Who is lying among
Hard voices of pebble and shard
Holds his tongue.

Thursday 16 May 2024


 Further to yesterday's post, my blog friend Patrick Kurp (of the incomparable Anecdotal Evidence) has an intriguing theory about that butterfly in the King's portrait. Could it be, he wonders, a Viceroy, a butterfly that mimics the Monarch and is almost identical to it? If so, rather than being a simple visual pun (or symbol of the King's love of nature), that butterfly could be carrying a coded message from the famously insecure King – that he feels himself to be a viceroy, a stand-in, a place-holder, rather than a real monarch like... well, obviously, like his mother, the late Queen, who reigned for so long and in such exemplary style. For Charles perhaps, it's always going to be a case of 'The Queen is dead, long live the Queen!'

Wednesday 15 May 2024

That Portrait

 There are several things that worry me about Jonathan Yeo's disturbing new portrait of the King – the harsh, wrinkle-heavy rendering of the face (and hands), the facial expression of something close to despair (maybe just resignation?), above all the hideous pink-red mist from which the poor King's features loom – but the detail that mystifies me most is the butterfly about to alight on the royal shoulder. We are told this is to highlight the beauty of nature and the King's concern for the environment. If that is the case, he might at least have chosen a British butterfly, not this gaudy American species that only turns up here as an occasional vagrant (or escape from a butterfly release at some social event). A couple of (British, endangered) Adonis Blues would have fitted the bill much better, and made a welcome break from all that red. 

Tuesday 14 May 2024

Alice Munro RIP

 I was sorry to hear that the great Canadian short story writer Alice Munro has died, but glad to learn that she had reached the grand age of 92 – I had no idea she was that old. I came late to her work, by way of the collection Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, which I wrote about here. Later I was bowled over again by Friend of My Youth, writing about it here. I have read many of her other stories too, but don't seem to have written about them. Unlike many writers, particularly of short stories, and particularly those not by nature inclined to self-publicity, Munro was rewarded with all the honours she deserved, up to and including the Nobel Prize for Literature. 'A story,' she wrote, 'is not like a road to follow … it's more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows. And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished. You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time. It also has a sturdy sense of itself, of being built out of its own necessity, not just to shelter or beguile you.'
 And now I intend to read or reread more of Alice Munro.

Monday 13 May 2024

'The timber is to carry'

 'It's my mission,' wrote Les Murray, 'to irritate the hell out of the eloquent who would oppress my people, by being a paradox that they can't assimilate: the Subhuman Redneck who writes poems.' Murray was happy to play the part of unrepentant ocker*, fat, shorts-wearing, plain-spoken, born into absolute poverty, educated largely by his own efforts – and he was determined to created a new Australian poetry not from the offcuts of British or European culture but from what was uniquely and distinctively Australian: the Bush, Murray's own country. He was of course a highly cultivated poet, with a vast vocabulary, well versed in the British and European traditions – indeed he was for some years a professional translator – but that was just another element in the Murray paradox. Another, perhaps, was that he was a devout and observant Catholic (he converted when he married his Budapest-born wife). Last night, browsing in the Selected Poems, I came across this moving little poem, written to mark the conversion to Catholicism of the poet Kenneth Hart. (It begins by recalling an incident at the brutal Moreton Bay penal colony, and the overseer 'who later died' was probably the notoriously harsh commandant, Captain Patrick Logan, who was killed in a skirmish with Aborigines in 1830.)

New Moreton Bay

A grog-primed overseer, who later died,
Snapped at twenty convicts gasping in a line
That pole ain't heavy! Two men stand aside!
And then two more, and you, pop-eyes! And you!
– until the dozen left, with a terrible cry,
broke and were broken
beneath the tons of logs they had stemmed aloft desperately.

Because there is no peace in this world's peace
the timber is to carry. Many hands heave customarily,
some step aside, detained by the Happiness Police
or despair's boutiques; it is a continual sway – 
but when grace and intent
recruit a fresh shoulder, then we're in the other testament
and the innocent wood lifts line-long, with its leaves and libraries.

* An ocker is defined as 'a rough, uncultivated Australian man' – though of course Murray was very far from uncultivated.

Sunday 12 May 2024

Eurovision 2008

 Sixteen years ago, in May 2008, I devoted the very first post on this blog to the Eurovision Song Contest. To read that post today is to revisit a more innocent age, when Eurovision still provided innocent entertainment (often unwittingly) while Terry Wogan and the rest of us looked on aghast. But by 2008 even Wogan was no longer really enjoying it, and was worrying about politicised voting. In fact, as he seems to have sensed, Eurovision was beginning its long descent into unwatchability. It's a good thing he's not around to see the contest venue besieged by demonstrators voicing their support for a genocidal kleptocracy, and the Israeli contestant under armed guard (and, inevitably, being booed). Not to mention a peculiarly depraved and misjudged UK entry. But hey ho, never mind – it's a beautiful sunny May day, and I intend to get out there and enjoy it...
Here's the 2008 piece, which was headed 'Everybody Loves Russia...'

Or so it would seem from Russia's runaway victory in last night's Eurovision Song Contest (as it is still whimsically called). The winning song was a tedious blast of bad power pop (and you'd have thought power was something the Russians would know about), enlivened by an ice skater circling pointlessly around the singer.
I recently heard a new explanation for why the eastern bloc countries get all the votes - it's the ethnic minorities who find themselves living in the 'wrong' nation states and assert their identity annually by voting en masse for their mother/fatherland. Eurovision as a protest against the nation state? Well, maybe.

It was a poor result anyway, after the two previous winners, who had both been completely insane choices (monster rockers Lordi, and Serbia's mystifying answer to k d lang). And it wasn't as if there weren't madness galore on offer. At Nige Towers, much hilarity was occasioned by Bosnia's entry, an impenetrable drama involving a doll-like woman pegging out washing while a man with a painted-on moustache pranced around and tricoteuses in wedding dresses knitted away. Croatia's act, involving an old man in a hat, was almost as mystifying, and Latvia's deranged pirate song was inspired, perfect Eurovision fare. France too managed a classic - an impassioned song which, according to the subtitles, was all about 'Chivers', with which the singer seemed to have an agonised relationship (English marmalade perhaps? You know what the French are like...). The subtitles throughout were fascinating, not only in yielding no meaning at all 90 per cent of the time, but in establishing that most of these acts were in fact singing in English, though so heavily accented that you'd never have known. English, the international language of bad pop music, oh dear...
The great Terry Wogan did his head-shaking stuff superbly, as ever, but rather let himself down at the end by seeming to take the outcome seriously (I think he couldn't get hold of a drink, so he was probably crotchety). We should, he suggests, either pull out, or cut eastern Europe adrift and let western Europe have its own, supposedly non-political, merit-based contest. But where would the fun be in that? The whole point of Eurovision is its madness, its total divorce from any notions of musical quality (even at this base level). It proves to us year after year, in the most diverting way, that, when it comes to pop/rock music, those unfortunates on the far side of the Channel simply haven't a clue. Here at least we of the English-speaking world have got those continentals licked. So let's keep it coming, and the madder the better.

Saturday 11 May 2024

Death in Rome

 My latest serendipitous find on the bookshelves of my favourite charity shop was a novel called Death in Rome by a German novelist I had never heard of, Wolfgang Koeppen. It looked interesting, and when I read the blurb on the back, I knew I had to have it. Death in Rome is described by its translator, Michael Hofmann (the man who has Englished most of Joseph Roth's oeuvre), as 'the most devastating novel about the Germans that I have ever read, and one of the most arresting on any subject'. Who could resist? Not me.
  The principal characters in Death in Rome are four members of a German family who find themselves more or less unintentionally reunited in the Eternal City: 'Once upon a time,' the opening sentence reminds us, 'this city was a home to gods.' No longer. This quartet of German visitors consists of Judejahn, a wholly unrepentant SS general who managed to escape after being sentenced to death at Nuremeberg, and is now working with the military in an unnamed Arab country; his brother-in-law Pfaffrath (Koeppen likes grotesque names), the ultimate bureaucrat who is thriving under democracy just as well as he did under Nazism; and the two lost, damaged souls – Judejahn's son Adolf(!), who is trying to escape the past by training for the priesthood, and Pfaffrath's son Siegfried, a discontented composer of twelve-tone music. These four, Hofmann points out chillingly in his Introduction, represent 'the four principal areas of German achievement, or the four quarters of the riven German soul: murder, bureaucracy, theology and music'. Each of them, as he wanders around Rome, experiences a different city, a different world, none of them easy to take (except for the complacent Pfaffrath senior). Their different perceptions and voices are choreographed like a complex, macabre ballet. Tenses and persons shift (only Siegfried habitually uses the first person), viewpoints switch vertiginously, and the uneasiness present from the start builds into a terrible sense of foreboding as events head towards an inevitable bloody climax. The novel ends with a blunt version of the last sentence of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice ('And before nightfall a shocked and respectful world received the news of his decease'), the ghost of which hovers over Koeppen's novel. Unsurprisingly, when Death in Rome was first published in Germany in 1954, it had a hostile reception and was dismissed with remarks such as 'Is this really what we need at such a time in our history?' A time, that is, when the German nation had willed itself into a state of profound historical amnesia. Death in Rome was just the kind of wake-up call that was not wanted. 
  I hesitate to recommend this novel; it makes unsettling and sometimes painful reading, and this blog is supposed to be a hedonic resource. However, I have to say that it is, by any measure, an extraordinary piece of work. So, if you're feeling strong...

Wednesday 8 May 2024

'Where Love directs, a Libertine it roves'

 Born on this day in 1698 was Henry Baker, naturalist and man of many parts. He began his working life apprenticed to a bookseller, but soon after that he acquired a reputation as a therapist, apparently having great success with deaf people, using a system that he kept secret. His medical work brought him to the attention of Daniel Defoe, with whom he launched the Universal Spectator and Weekly Journal in 1728, and whose youngest daughter he married in 1730. But his activities were largely focused on scientific inquiry, specialising in microscopy, and he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, among other distinctions. He was also a member of the Society of Aurelians, the first entomological society in the world, whose members devoted themselves to the study of butterflies, moths and other insects (and also to having a good time whenever they got together). 
  Baker claimed most of the credit for a magnificent illustrated book written by his fellow Aurelian Benjamin Wilkes, English Moths and Butterflies. It was, he claimed, 'in some sort my own child, having myself compiled it and put it in the order it is now, from Mr. Wilkes memorandums, he being indefatigable in his observations and faithful in the minuting down every particular but for the want of learning quite incapable of writing a book.' Charming... However, Baker, who was also something of a poet, did furnish Wilkes's book with a rhapsodic, if excessively pious, introductory poem:

 See, to the Sun the Butterfly displays
His glistering Wings and wantons in his Rays:
In Life exulting o’er the Meadow flies,
Sips from each Flow’r and breathes the vernal Skies.
His splendid Plumes, in graceful order show
The various glories of the painted Bow.
Where Love directs, a Libertine it roves,
And courts the fair ones through the verdant Groves.
How glorious now! How chang’d since Yesterday
When on the ground a crawling Worm it lay,
Where ev’ry foot might tread its Soul away!
Who rais’d it thence and bid it range the Skies?
Gave its rich plumage and its brilliant Dyes?
’Twas God: its God and thine, O Man, and He
In this thy fellow Creature lets thee see
The wond’rous Change that is ordained for thee.
Thou too shalt leave thy reptile form behind,
And mount the Skies, a pure ethereal Mind,
There range among the Stars, all pure and unconfin’d.

Tuesday 7 May 2024


 I only learnt of the existence of Terry, the Stowe Pool terrapin, the other day, and hadn't expected to see him the first time I went looking – but there he was yesterday morning, basking in the May sun on an outwork of a big, messy coot's nest. The coots seemed entirely relaxed about his presence, and were carrying on with business as usual. Terry, according to Lichfield lore, has lived in Stowe Pool for years. He certainly looks as if he's been around a while, being about the size of a mature garden tortoise. He manages to hibernate and survive the winter – as do some 4,000 other 'feral' terrapins in the UK, most of them originally pets who, as they grew larger, proved too high-maintenance for their owners, who released them into the nearest expanse of water. 
  I was delighted to make Terry's acquaintance, and hope to see him again next time I'm passing Stowe Pool (which, by the way, is a reservoir, dating back to the 18th century in its present form, and full of impressive fish, including 25lb carp). And then, later in the day, I saw my first swifts – three of them, over a supermarket car park. Summer is here!
[The photo above is not mine, but captures Terry very well, I think.]

Monday 6 May 2024

One Road to Tolerance

 A blog friend recently sent me a passage from a book by the American anthropologist and science writer Loren Eiseley, The Night City. Eiseley describes a visit to the ruins of Leptis Magna in the Libyan desert, where he meditates on time and its passing. 'There should be a kind of pity that comes with time', he writes, 'when one grows truly conscious and looks behind as well as forward, for nothing is more brutal than the man who is not aware he is a shadow. Nothing is more real than the real; and that is why it is well for men to hurt themselves with the past—it is one road to tolerance.' The last two phrases in particular struck me: I think a knowledge of the past is indeed a road to tolerance, and ignorance of it is surely a road to intolerance. Isn't this what we are seeing in today's vicious displays of intolerance by the new breed of unforgiving 'woke' activists? A quarter of a century ago, in The Triumph of Love, Geoffrey Hill wrote of  'these strange children, pitiless in their ignorance and contempt' – and now they're everywhere, dominating every university campus and loudly asserting themselves on the streets of our cities. And they are, I'm sure, massively ignorant of the past – how could they not be if they are accusing the Israelis of genocide? What unfathomable depths of ignorance does that imply? These people's idea of history will no doubt have been formed by the minimal and partial (in both senses) teaching of the subject in schools, where the subject itself is becoming increasingly marginal and the teaching of it is likely to leave a clear impression that our forebears were ethically deplorable and their achievements based on oppression and exploitation, best forgotten and disowned. This can only encourage a rejection of the past and our connection with it, leaving people with no sense of continuity with what came before – and without that sense, that perspective, an entire dimension of our human reality is lost.
  Every culture has told stories about its past, either in the form of factual history or, more often, myths and legends. Some knowledge of these stories was considered essential to becoming a fully conscious, fully functioning human. Without that knowledge, what are we? Well, we are beginning to find out, and it is not good...
  Zbigniew Herbert was a poet, living in the dangerous present of 20th-century Poland, whose imagination was steeped in the past, in history and the classics. In this poem he shows exactly why the classics matter, why history matters – 

Why the Classics

                         in the fourth book of the Peloponnesian War
                         Thucydides tells among other things
                         the story of his unsuccessful expedition

                         among long speeches of chiefs
                         battles sieges plague
                         dense net of intrigues of diplomatic endeavours
                         the episode is like a pin
                         in a forest

                         the Greek colony Amphipolis
                         fell into the hands of Brasidos
                         because Thucydides was late with relief

                         for this he paid his native city
                         with lifelong exile

                         exiles of all times
                         know what price that is

                         generals of the most recent wars
                         if a similar affair happens to them
                         whine on their knees before posterity
                         praise their heroism and innocence

                         they accuse their subordinates
                         envious colleagues
                         unfavourable winds

                         Thucydides says only
                         that he had seven ships
                         it was winter
                         and he sailed quickly

                         if art for its subject
                         will have a broken jar
                         a small broken soul
                         with a great self-pity

                         what will remain after us
                         will it be lovers' weeping
                         in a small dirty hotel
                         when wall-paper dawns

And here he is writing as a Roman in dangerous times, pondering his return to a court not unlike that ruled over by Stalin:

 The Return of the Proconsul

I’ve decided to return to the emperor’s court
once more I shall see if it’s possible to live there
I could stay here in this remote province
under the full sweet leaves of sycamores
under the rule of sickly nepotists

when I return I don’t intend to commend myself
I shall applaud in measured portions
smile in ounces frown discreetly
for that they will not give me a golden chain
this iron one will suffice

I’ve decided to return tomorrow or the next day
I cannot live among vineyards nothing here is mine
trees have no roots houses no foundations the rain is glassy flowers smell of wax
a dry cloud rattles against the empty sky
so I shall return tomorrow the next day in any case I shall return

I must come to terms with my face again
with my lower lip so it knows how to check scorn
with my eyes so they remain ideally empty
and with that miserable chin the hare of my face
which trembles when the chief of guards walks in

of one thing I am sure I will not drink wine with him
when he brings his goblet nearer I will lower my eyes
and pretend I’m picking bits of food from between my teeth
besides the emperor likes courage of convictions
to a certain extent to a certain reasonable extent
he is after all a man like everyone
and already tired by all those tricks with poison
he cannot drink his fill incessant chess
this left cup is for Drusus from the right one pretend to sip
then drink only water never lose sight of Tacitus

take a walk in the garden and return when the corpse has been removed
I’ve decided to return to the emperor’s court
I really hope that things will work out somehow

Saturday 4 May 2024

'To go home and wear shorts forever...'

 Warmth in the air today – at last – and no rain, even the sun shining off and on. With the sun, inevitably, come the first sightings of men in shorts. For myself, I have never knowingly worn shorts since boyhood, but live and let live, I say (when not denouncing shorts as an offence against man, God and nature, not to mention taste). At least the wearers of shorts have one great poet – Les Murray, Australia's finest – on their side. Here is his tour de force, 'The Dream of Wearing Shorts Forever'...

To go home and wear shorts forever
in the enormous paddocks, in that warm climate,
adding a sweater when winter soaks the grass,

to camp out along the river bends
for good, wearing shorts, with a pocketknife,
a fishing line and matches,

or there where the hills are all down, below the plain,
to sit around in shorts at evening
on the plank verandah;

If the cardinal points of costume
are Robes, Tat, Rig and Scunge,
where are shorts in this compass?

They are never Robes
as other bareleg outfits have been:
the toga, the kilt, the lava-lava
the Mahatma's cotton dhoti;

archbishops and field marshals
at their ceremonies never wear shorts.
The very word
means underpants in North America.

Shorts can be Tat,
Land-Rovering bush-environmental tat,
socio-political ripped-and-metal-stapled tat,
solidarity-with-the-Third World tat tvam asi*,

likewise track-and-field shorts worn to parties
and the further humid, modelling negligee
of the Kingdom of Flaunt,
that unchallenged aristocracy.

More plainly climatic, shorts
are farmers' rig, leathery with salt and bonemeal;
are sailors' and branch bankers' rig,
the crisp golfing style
of our youngest male National Costume.

Most loosely, they are Scunge,
ancient Bengal bloomers or moth-eaten hot pants
worn with a former shirt,
feet, beach sand, hair
and a paucity of signals.

Scunge, which is real negligee
housework in a swimsuit, pyjamas worn all day,
is holiday, is freedom from ambition.
Scunge makes you invisible
to the world and yourself.

The entropy of costume,
scunge can get you conquered by more vigorous cultures
and help you notice it less.

To be or to become
is a serious question posed by a work-shorts counter
with its pressed stack, bulk khaki and blue,
reading Yakka or King Gee, crisp with steely warehouse odour.

 Satisfied ambition, defeat, true unconcern,

the wish and the knack of self-forgetfulness
all fall within the scunge ambit
wearing board shorts of similar;
it is a kind of weightlessness.

Unlike public nakedness, which in Westerners
is deeply circumstantial, relaxed as exam time,
artless and equal as the corsetry of a hussar regiment,

shorts and their plain like
are an angelic nudity,
spirituality with pockets!
A double updraft as you drop from branch to pool!

Ideal for getting served last
in shops of the temperate zone
they are also ideal for going home, into space,
into time, to farm the mind's Sabine acres
for product and subsistence.

Now that everyone who yearned to wear long pants
has essentially achieved them,
long pants, which have themselves been underwear
repeatedly, and underground more than once,
it is time perhaps to cherish the culture of shorts,

to moderate grim vigour
with the knobble of bare knees,
to cool bareknuckle feet in inland water,
slapping flies with a book on solar wind
or a patient bare hand, beneath the cadjiput trees,

to be walking meditatively
among green timber, through the grassy forest
towards a calm sea
and looking across to more of that great island
and the further tropics.

* 'Tat tvam asi' is one of the 'Great Sayings' of the Upanishads, and means 'That thou art', expressing the relationship of the individual to the Absolute – as do shorts, in their own small way...

Thursday 2 May 2024

Half an Hour to Justify the Licence Fee?

 Waking (for the third time, dammit) just after 6.30 this morning and tuning to Radio 3, I found Petroc Trelawny marking a musical anniversary – the first performance, in 1692, of The Fairy-Queen, Purcell's take on A Midsummer Night's Dream (which actually has rather little to do with the play itself). Petroc played a strikingly beautiful plaint, 'O Let Me Weep', which I don't remember hearing before. This was followed by the great Maurizio Pollini playing a Chopin nocturne (No 2 in E flat), and by then it was time for Bach Before 7: this morning a fragment of a multi-instrumental concerto (three trumpets for starters) that was probably intended as the introductory Sinfonia of a lost cantata. (And talking of lost music, the score of The Fairy-Queen was lost after Purcell's death, and only recovered in the early 20th century)...
 Some time after 7, I drifted off to sleep again, with the comfortable feeling that half hours like that one almost justify the licence fee. Almost. Actually I'd happily pay a licence fee just for Radio 3 – especially as it would only be a few quid.
   Here is 'O Let Me Weep', wonderfully simple and wonderfully profound, like so much of Purcell..