Sunday 30 June 2024


 Hatched on this day in 1933 was Cookie, the Pink Cockatoo, who was to achieve fame as the oldest living cockatoo and the oldest living parrot in the world. When he died in 2016, peacefully at home – the Brookfield Zoo, near Chicago – he had achieved the remarkable age of 83, and was the sole survivor from the zoo's original collection, formed in 1934. He was suffering from osteoarthritis and osteoporosis, the latter perhaps caused by his being fed only seeds for his first 40 years (as was then standard), and was living a quiet life in the zoo keeper's office, making public appearances only on special occasions, such as his annual birthday celebrations (no doubt that is a birthday cake in the picture above). In the 1950s Cookie had been introduced to a female bird of his own species, but he rejected her as she was 'not nice to him'. He was memorialised in a bronze sculpture at the zoo, which makes him look rather like a chicken – and a volume of poems for 'middle-grade children' by one Barbara Gregorich titled Cookie the Cockatoo: Everything Changes. It does indeed.

Saturday 29 June 2024

At Last!

 I've often lamented the fact that Lichfield, a city whose parks and avenues are blessed with a glorious abundance of lime trees (currently in flower and smelling lovely), seems strangely devoid of any lime hawk moths. I seldom pass a lime tree at this time of year without checking out the trunk for newly emerged hawk moths, but I've never seen one here. Or rather I had never seen one – until yesterday, when I was walking with my cousin in the cathedral close, and suddenly, out of the blue, she spotted one, resting on a fence!  An exciting moment, and wholly unexpected, given my dismal record so far. It was a fine specimen, and obligingly stayed still while I took its photograph (above). So there are lime hawks in Lichfield after all – another reason to love the place...
  Meanwhile, my fancy birdsong identification app came up with a rogue reading the other day. Hearing a lusty song as I walked in the park, and not being able to see its source, I turned my phone towards the sound, and, after long deliberation, the app delivered its verdict: Bewick's Wren, a long-tailed wren native to western parts of North America and singularly ill equipped to fly across the Atlantic. Apparently the bird was named by Audubon in honour of his friend, the great engraver Thomas Bewick. My bird, I imagine, was the common or garden Eurasian Wren, which glories in the binomial Troglodytes troglodytes

Thursday 27 June 2024

Election Fever

 A week to go till polling day, and here in the City of Philosophers election fever is burning red hot. As I stroll its pleasant streets, I've been keeping a mental tally of all the election stickers I've seen in people's windows. The total so far is... one (for Labour). I've never known a pre-election period like this, so imbued with hopelessness and apathy – and a kind of cool, steady anger. Truly this is the Abstract Election – and, by happy chance, it's coinciding with an abstract soccer championship over in Germany, where Our Lads are pioneering Abstract Football, a form of soccer so abstracted that it amounts to little more than sketches of possibilities, rather in the manner of Cy Twombly at his most hesitant. Unfortunately they are up against players of Real Football. 
As for the election, I'm going to make one prediction: there will be more spoiled papers than ever before in any general election. This will probably be the most significant statistic, though it's unlikely to attract much notice. 

Tuesday 25 June 2024

In the Attic

 A browse in Donald Justice's Collected Poems seldom goes unrewarded. The other day I happened on this one. Perhaps it caught my eye because I had that day been obliged to climb up to my own attic (a far from poetical experience). 
  It's a poem suffused with the characteristic Justice mood of bittersweet (more sweet than bitter) nostalgic melancholy... 

In the Attic

There's a half hour toward dusk when flies,
Trapped by the summer screens, expire
Musically in the dust of sills;
And ceilings slope toward remembrance.

The same crimson afternoons expire
Over the same few rooftops repeatedly;
Only, being stored up for remembrance,
They somehow escape the ordinary.

Childhood is like that, repeatedly
Lost in the very longueurs it redeems.
One forgets how small and ordinary
The world looked once by dusklight from above...

But not the moment which redeems
The drowsy aria of the flies – 
And the chin settles onto palms above
Numbed elbows propped on rotting sills.

This apparently artless little poem achieves its effect through a complex pattern of repeated words (eight in all) at the end of lines: I make it 1234 2536 5768 7183. 
The poem is suffused too with a particular quality of light  – something Justice, a very painterly poet, is particularly strong on. Indeed it is the opening theme of one of the last, and most beautiful, poems he wrote. I've posted it here before, but it's a poem that bears returning to, again and again. It is, I think, one of the great short poems of the twentieth century:

There is a gold light in certain old paintings
That represents a diffusion of sunlight.
It is like happiness, when we are happy.
It comes from everywhere and nowhere at once, this light,
  And the poor soldiers sprawled at the foot of the cross
  Share in its charity equally with the cross.
Orpheus hesitated beside the black river.
With so much to look forward to he looked back.
We think he sang then, but the song is lost.
At least he had seen once more the beloved back.
  I say the song went this way: O prolong
  Now the sorrow if that is all there is to prolong.
The world is very dusty, uncle. Let us work.
One day the sickness shall pass from the earth for good.
The orchard will bloom; someone will play the guitar.
Our work will be seen as strong and clean and good.
  And all that we suffered through having existed
  Shall be forgotten as though it had never existed.

Sunday 23 June 2024

'Its notes are deep & sweet'

 I've been deriving a good deal of innocent pleasure from an 'app' I recently acquired that identifies bird song. You point it in the direction of the bird, touch the Record button for a few seconds (ten or so usually does the job), wait another few seconds, and back will come the name of the bird whose song you've recorded. On my walk the other day, I was crossing a field when I heard a bird giving its all in a wonderfully musical, free-ranging improvisation. Some kind of warbler, for sure – but which of that numerous tribe? I employed the app, and soon had the answer – it was a Blackcap, a bird whose song Gilbert White aptly described as 'full, sweet, deep, loud and wild'. In his journal for May 19th, 1770, he notes: 'Black-cap sings sweetly, but rather inwardly: it is a songster of the first rate.  Its notes are deep & sweet.  Called in Norfolk the mock nightingale [and more widely, today, the northern nightingale].' A songster of the first rate, indeed...
  The next day, in the local park, I (or rather my app) identified another Blackcap, and today, a little farther afield, a Common Whitethroat (a species first differentiated from the Lesser Whitethroat by Gilbert White). Its chattering song took me back to summer days walking on the Surrey downs and hills – one of the few things I miss from my previous life 'down south', especially in the butterfly season. 

Sudden Light

 I used the phrase 'I have been here' before in yesterday's post without thinking: it was vaguely familiar, no more. Checking it out, I find that it comes from a rather lovely poem of Rossetti's  – 

Sudden Light

I have been here before,
But when or how I cannot tell:
I know the grass beyond the door,
The sweet keen smell,
The sighing sound, the lights around the shore.

You have been mine before,—
How long ago I may not know:
But just when at that swallow's soar
Your neck turn'd so,
Some veil did fall,—I knew it all of yore.

Has this been thus before?
And shall not thus time's eddying flight
Still with our lives our love restore
In death's despite,
And day and night yield one delight once more?

('I Have Been Here Before' is also the title of a play by J. B. Priestley, written at a time when he was interested in theories of time expounded by J. W Dunne and P.D. Ouspensky.)

Saturday 22 June 2024

'I have been here before'

 Summer weather being with us at last, I went for a walk yesterday, a little way out of town. Along the way, I came upon a handsome church standing in a large, well kept graveyard, and had a sudden strong feeling that 'I have been here before'. As I drew near, and walked up the churchyard path, it all came back to me – this was the first church that I found standing open when all others had been (and continued) closed for months on end by the pusillanimous C of E in response to the Covid panic. I had rarely been so glad to find a church open, and, of course, I wrote about it on this blog: here's the link.  All Saints, Alrewas (pronounced to rhyme with 'walrus', and with a root meaning of 'alder swamp') is now what it was then, unpretentious (though unusually wide) and full of interest – including the fragment of wall painting pictured above. This survives high up on the North chancel wall, and according to Pevsner is 15th-century work, showing a bishop and his acolyte. It's not in a very good state of preservation, but I think it is rather beautiful, and I wish there was more of it: it looks like an elegant design. 
  The walking was good, much of it along the towpath of the Trent and Mersey canal, and beyond Alrewas I came to the church of St Leonard, Wychnor ('village on a bank'), which stands alone in the fields, the remnant of a deserted medieval village. And it does indeed stand on a bank, with a fine view over the 'humps and tumps' of the former village and beyond to blue rolling hills. The church was closed, as it usually is, but by all accounts there isn't much of interest inside. When I was walking around the exterior, the sun happened to strike through the building and caught a corner of a stained glass window, illuminating the face of a fox – a curious effect. I learn from the online guidebook that the window of which I was seeing a corner – from the wrong side – was installed as recently as 2007, to commemorate members of the Walker family, and was made by a local craftsman, Graham Chaplin. Depicting the four seasons, it looks like a fine piece of work. Another day I might find the church open and have a proper look. 

Thursday 20 June 2024

Chet 100

 I don't know if the centenary was marked on Radio 3 this morning (it might well have been), but the great guitarist and producer Chet Atkins was born 100 years ago today, in Luttrell, Tennessee. Born into poverty, he was initially raised by his mother, his father having absconded, and got his first guitar at the age of nine, swapping an old pistol and some chores for his brother's broken-down instrument, which was so misshapen that only the first three frets could be used. Later he managed to buy a semi-acoustic guitar with amp, but had to travel miles to plug it in, as his home, like all his neighbours', had no electricity. His innovative style of guitar picking was inspired by Merle Travis, but Atkins was very much more than just a guitar-picker. Here he is, in 1975, playing Scott Joplin. Enjoy...

Tuesday 18 June 2024

An Earworm Investigated

 I've long been susceptible to earworms, sometimes pretty outlandish ones – a while back it was John Cale's Hanky Panky Nohow, which took some shaking. The latest pesky squatter in the music section of my addled brain is a hymn – Nearer, My God, to Thee, of all things.
  I think it happened like this: for some reason I was thinking about the sinking of the Titanic – perhaps I had passed too close to the statue of Captain Smith that stands in Beacon Park – and the hymn that might well have been played by the orchestra while the great ship went down entered my train of thought. It was already well on its way to settling in for a stint as resident earworm when yesterday, as I approached the market square, I heard music... I heard, to be specific, a male and a female voice singing, as you have no doubt guessed, Nearer, My God, to Thee, and singing it right lustily. The singers were of oriental appearance – maybe Chinese or Korean Christians – and were clearly deeply committed to their hymn singing. It made a pleasing change from the usual busker fare – but of course it also firmly entrenched that earworm. 
  Reading up about Nearer, My God, to Thee (on the 'know your enemy' principle), I discovered that nothing about it is simple. It is by no means certain that the hymn was played as the Titanic went down – or, if it was, which tune was used: there are three to choose from, one of them, Proprio Deo, written by Arthur Sullivan and favoured by the Methodist church, and two more Victorian settings, 'Horbury' and 'Bethany'. The version lodged in my brain is, I believe, the last named. I learnt, in the course of my researches, that Carl Nielsen wrote a paraphrase of Nearer, My God, to Thee for wind band. It's a rather remarkable piece, culminating in a startling rendition of the Titanic hitting the iceberg...

And here, for good measure, is the moving scene from the 1958 film A Night to Remember in which the ship's musicians (none of whom survived) do indeed play the hymn as the Titanic goes down...

Sunday 16 June 2024

Stan's Day, Father's Day

 Well, here's a coincidence: today is Father's Day (I've just been enjoying Vikingur Olafsson's From Far Away, a gift from my daughter far away) – and it's also the birthday of Stan Laurel (born 1890). Here, to mark both dates, is some delightful footage of Stan visiting his father and stepmother in West Ealing (my birthplace!) in 1932. Enjoy.

Friday 14 June 2024

'Nothing amuses more harmlessly than computation'

 Lichfield continues to honour its greatest son. A newly restored statue of Samuel Johnson – a miniature version of the great sculpture that broods over the market place – has been unveiled at the King Edward VI School. At the unveiling ceremony, an officer of the Johnson Society read from a letter Johnson wrote to 'a young girl', in which he encourages her to continue with her study of mathematics – a fitting choice, given the setting. This letter was written to Sophia Thrale, one of Hester Thrale Piozzi's daughters, and was only recently discovered, by chance, among a bundle of forgotten papers tucked away in a cupboard in a Gloucestershire country house. It was sold at auction, and is now where it belongs, in the care of the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum. 
Here is the full text of the letter:

Dearest Miss Sophy,

By my absence from home, and for one reason and another I owe a great number of letters, and I assure you that I sit down to write yours first. Why you should think yourself not a favourite I cannot guess, my favour will, I am afraid never be worth much, but be its value more or less, you are never likely to lose it, and less likely if you continue your studies with the sure diligence as you have begun them.

Your proficiency in arythmetick is not only to be commended but admired. Your master does not, I suppose come very often, nor stay very long, yet your advance in the Science of numbers is greater than is commonly made by those who for so many weeks as you have been learning, spend six hours a day in the writing school.

Never think, my sweet, that you have arithmetic enough; when you have exhausted your Master, buy Books. Nothing amuses more harmlessly than computation, and nothing is oftener applicable to real business or speculative enquiries. A thousand stories which the ignorant tell, and believe, die away at once, when the computist takes them in his gripe. I hope you will cultivate in yourself a disposition to numerical enquiries; they will give you entertainment in Solitude by the practice, and reputation in publick by the effort. If you can borrow Wilkins’s Real Character, a folio which the Booksellers can perhaps let you have, you will have a very curious calculation, which you are qualified to consider, to show Noah’s Ark was capable of holding all the known animals of the world, with provision for all the time in which the earth was underwater.

Let me hear from you again. I am, Madam, Your Humble Servant

Sam: Johnson


Thursday 13 June 2024

A Novel with No Moving Parts

 More bookshop serendipity: in the selfsame charity bookshop where I recently picked up Death in Rome – 'the most devastating novel about the Germans that I have ever read' (Michael Hoffman) – I spotted another novel from the German-speaking world that I had never heard of, by an author I had barely heard of: Old Masters by Thomas Bernhard. Reading the notes on the author, I discovered that Bernhard's literary career was one long assault on the 'mindless cultural sewer' of Austria, and that in his will (he died in 1989) he forbade any further publication or performance of his work in Austria.
  How could I resist? It was clearly time to move on from the Germans to the Austrians... However, Old Masters is a very different book from Death in Rome. To begin with, it has no chapters or even paragraph breaks, but consists of one 240-page-long paragraph, in the course of which it would be fair to say that, in terms of action, almost nothing happens. It has, as Michael Hoffman has said of all Bernhard's novels, 'no moving parts'. The funny thing is that it is all ridiculously, mesmerically readable – which is all the more surprising as the body of the novel consists entirely of one long rant (punctuated by 'Reger said' at well judged intervals, like the 'Austerlitz said' in Sebald's Austerlitz). The ranter is one Reger, an 82-year-old music critic, who every other day comes to the Bordone Room in Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum and sits on a bench staring at a particular painting, Tintoretto's Man with a White Beard. Reporting Reger's endless rant is his friend, Atzbacher, who fills in some background, particularly about the widowed Reger's bereavement (though we are told almost nothing about his late wife). How does Bernhard make a readable novel out of this, you might well ask – as I do myself. And yet, as Reger rails against the Austrian state, Church and politics, human nature, the woeful deficiencies of just about every work of art and literature, however exalted (excluding only Schopenhauer, Goya, and this one painting of Tintoretto's), the weather, the Austrian newspapers, and even the state of Austrian public conveniences, I kept on reading, and in the end, against all the odds, enjoyed it. Old Masters is subtitled A Comedy, and there is certainly a comic element in such comprehensive, all-embracing railing conducted at such a level of ferocious, insistently repetitive hyperbole (nothing is stated without being reiterated half a dozen times in slightly different but equally hyperbolic phrasing) – and there is a kind of music, a strangely calming music, in it. I suspect that what is going on is very cleverly and subtly controlled by an author who knows just what he is doing.  It's not a book I'm likely to read again, or to keep, but I know it will stay with me – as Death in Rome has. Both are memorable reading experiences, even if not ones you'd wish to repeat. 
And now it is definitely time to move on from these German diatribes into calmer seas. English seas probably – I'll see what's on the shelves today... 

Tuesday 11 June 2024

Richard Todd

 With memories of the D-Day eightieth anniversary – and in particular of The Unheard Tapes – still fresh, it is fitting to mark the birthday of the actor and war hero Richard Todd (born on this day in 1919). The square-jawed heart-throb Todd, having survived being blown out of a second-floor room at Sandhurst by an enemy bomb (and narrowly missed being blown up again in the Café de Paris bombing), had a very good war, serving in the 7th Parachute Battalion that played a key role in the D-Day operation. He and his company, having landed in Normandy, sped on to Pegasus Bridge, where they met up with Major John Howard and set about defending the bridgehead against German counterattacks. They were three months fighting in Normandy, and later returned as reinforcements in the Battle of the Bulge. After VE Day, Todd was sent to Palestine, where, having survived so much, he was seriously injured, breaking both shoulders, when his Jeep overturned. 
  Todd was in a demand as a film actor by the late Forties, and in the course of his career he starred in two D-Day epics – D-Day: The Sixth of June (1956), and The Longest Day (1962), in which he played Major John Howard, while another actor, Patrick Jordan, played young Lieutenant Todd. You can read more about Richard Todd's war, including his own vivid account of his D-Day experiences, here. 

Sunday 9 June 2024

Cole, Ella, Ernest

 Born on this day in 1891 (in Peru – Peru, Indiana, that is) was one of the 20th century's greatest songwriters, Cole Porter. Let's mark the occasion with perhaps his greatest interpreter, the incomparable Ella Fitzgerald, singing 'Alway True to You in My Fashion'...

The title and refrain of this song were inspired by a poem by the Decadent 1890s poet Ernest Dowson, 'Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae' (or, more simply, 'Cynara'). The poem also includes the phrases 'gone with the wind', which became the title of an epic novel and film, and 'madder music', which gave its name to a Peter de Vries novel. It is, as you might expect, an altogether different kettle of fish from Cole Porter's song, but is very fine in its way:

Last night, ah, yesternight, betwixt her lips and mine
There fell thy shadow, Cynara! thy breath was shed
Upon my soul between the kisses and the wine;
And I was desolate and sick of an old passion,

Yea, I was desolate and bowed my head:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.
All night upon mine heart I felt her warm heart beat,
Night-long within mine arms in love and sleep she lay;
Surely the kisses of her bought red mouth were sweet;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,

When I awoke and found the dawn was grey:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.
I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind,
Flung roses, roses riotously with the throng,
Dancing, to put thy pale, lost lilies out of mind;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,

Yea, all the time, because the dance was long:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.
I cried for madder music and for stronger wine,
But when the feast is finished and the lamps expire,
Then falls thy shadow, Cynara! the night is thine;
And I am desolate and sick of an old passion,

Yea, hungry for the lips of my desire:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

There's more about Dowson, the ultimate Doomed Poet, here...

Saturday 8 June 2024

The Abstract Election

Needless to say, I didn't watch last night's seven-cornered election debate, having better things to do (like watching some paint dry), but I gather that feisty redhead Angela Rayner and doughty sword-bearer Penny Mordaunt were, in the words of the Daily Mail, 'going at it like fishwives'. In the course of their exchanges, La Rayner had an inspired moment, accusing the Tories of 'fourteen years of abstract failure'. No doubt the prosaic explanation is that she meant 'abject', but 'abstract' is in fact the very word for the past fourteen years, and no doubt for the next fourteen: it might have been 'abstract failure' or 'abstract success' – either way it would look much the same, i.e. very much like nothing. Political discourse now seems to be entirely abstract, bearing little or no relationship to real actions and real outcomes, and still less to the real life of real people. Whatever governments say they are doing, or say they are going to do, in the event it all dissolves into air, and things go on much the same,  as we roll downhill on the hell-bound handcart: only the speed of descent is at issue in the forthcoming election.  The one sure effect of government action/inaction (they are increasingly indistinguishable) is that taxes carry on rising – as they will under whichever government comes next. Taxes seem to be the only concrete reality in all this; the rest is abstract. And of course this is the Abstract Election – Angela Rayner has given it a name. 

Thursday 6 June 2024

The Done War

 Thom Gunn again – 


After the history has been made,
and when Wallace's shaggy head

glares on London from a spike, when
the exiled general is again

gliding into Athens harbour
now an embittered foreigner,

when the lean creatures crawl out of
camps and in silence try to live;

I pass foundations of houses,
walking through the wet spring, my knees

drenched from high grass charged with water,
and am part, still, of the done war.

Although I was born two decades later than Gunn, I also felt, as a boy, part of that 'done war'. It was still recent when I was born, there were still bomb sites aplenty all through my boyhood, and 'the War' (as it was always called) hovered over everything as an event that had changed lives and fortunes and provided the clearest of historical markers: 'Before the War' was another world, the past. Nobody who had served in the armed forces spoke much of their experiences, and when they did it was seldom to lament the suffering, the loss and waste, more often it was to recall the camaraderie, the humour, the sense of all being in it together, doing a job that had to be done. For many, too, it had undoubtedly opened the way to a new and better life, with new skills and wider horizons. ( In D-Day: The Unheard Tapes, Major John Howard, one of its most compelling characters, speaks feelingly of how military service rescued him from an early life of abject poverty.) My father – who served in R.E.M.E. in Egypt and Palestine and, to his regret, saw no real action – would join his comrades to march past the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday, and would enjoy somewhat riotous regimental reunions, but over the years these observances died away. One family friend, a dashing figure who had had a miraculous escape after being left for dead in the Burmese jungle, actually wrote a book about his wartime experiences, but  another, who had survived a string of missions with Bomber Command (death rate 44.4 percent), had little or nothing to say, and that was the norm. English reticence was still a thing back then: if you'd had a bad war you wouldn't want to dwell on it (or even mention it), and if you'd had a good one you wouldn't want to boast about it. The emotional loosening of recent decades has gradually changed all that, and instituted a kind of inverse sentimentality that encourages emotional unburdening, emphasises the waste-and-futility side of war, and labels every veteran a 'hero'. This sentimentality finds expression in the ever more insistent, ever more unreal Remembrance celebrations, which, as the actual events fade from living memory, become more and more detached from reality. Many of my father's generation would be astonished at this development, especially as, by the Seventies, it did look as if Remembrance was becoming less of an event every year, with only a few diehards still marking it with any conviction. Now, as we drift out into unreality, Remembrance is big business, a national wallow in... well, in what? Whatever it is, it seems to me that it has less and less to do with the actuality of that war that hung over my boyhood and changed the lives of my parents' generation. And an unfortunate by-product of this drift into unreality is the growing insistence, stoked by military and political interests, that we must gear up for another world war. Having done so much to hollow out the nation state, weaken the armed forces and undermine patriotism, the technocrats apparently think the populace can still be made to fight a serious war.  Hey ho – 'tis a mad world.

Wednesday 5 June 2024

'Falling toward history'

 As is only right, there have been many programmes on television and radio to mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day and the subsequent operation that eventually brought about Victory in Europe – all of which will soon have passed from living memory. One three-part TV series stood out head and shoulders above everything else – D-Day: The Unheard Tapes, which ended last night. This showcased audio tapes of D-Day reminiscences made, not long after the event, by survivors from the British, US, Canadian – and German – armies, as well as French civilians and resistance fighters. The tapes had been digitally remastered, and sounded as fresh as if they'd been recorded yesterday, and – a risky technique, but one that paid off brilliantly – they were lip-synched, perfectly, by young actors who bore some resemblance to their real-life originals. With only minimal and useful interruptions from historians, the result was an extraordinary level of intensity and intimacy, which grew as the series progressed and the individual stories deepened. This was a remarkable, and deeply moving, piece of television. If you didn't catch it, do seek it out on the BBC iPlayer. 
   A matter of weeks after D-Day came the 21st July Plot, one of many failed plots to assassinate Hitler (Wikipedia lists no fewer than 42) and the one that came closest to achieving its object. The leader of the plot, Claus von Stauffenberg, took a briefcase full of explosives to a conference at the Wolf's Lair, and placed it next to Hitler, but someone unwittingly moved it behind a table leg at the last moment and Hitler escaped with singed trousers and a perforated eardrum. Four people died, but none of them was Lucky Adolf. In a fine poem collected in My Sad Captains (1961), Thom Gunn commemorates the failed plot...

Claus Von Stauffenberg
of the bomb-plot on Hitler, 1944

What made the place a landscape of despair,
History stunned beneath, the emblems cracked?
Smell of approaching snow hangs on the air;
The frost meanwhile can be the only fact.

They chose the unknown, and the bounded terror,
As a corrective, who corrected live
Surveying without choice the bounding error:
An unsanctioned present must be primitive. 

A few still have the vigour to deny
Fear is a natural state; their motives neither
Of doctrinaire, of turncoat, nor of spy.
Lucidity of thought draws them together.

The maimed young Colonel who can calculate
On two remaining fingers and a will,
Takes lessons from the past, to detonate 
A bomb that Brutus rendered possible.

Over the maps a moment, face to face:
Across from Hitler, whose grey eyes have filled
A nation with the illogic of their gaze,
The rational man is poised, to break, to build.

And though he fails, honour personified
In a cold time where honour cannot grow,
He stiffens, like a statue, in mid-stride
– Falling toward history, and under snow.

Tuesday 4 June 2024

Winifred, Patience and Hutch

 Born on this day in 1907 was Winifred Emma May, who, under the adopted name Patience Strong (taken from a book by the American writer Adeline Train Whitney),  became a very successful writer of sentimental verse of an uplifting, soothing kind, which sustained readers of the Daily Mirror, Sunday Pictorial and Woman's Own for many years. Before she embarked on this line of work, young Winifred had been a prolific lyricist, with more than 100 published songs to her name by the time she was 21. Her greatest achievement in that field was writing the English lyrics for the tango 'Jealousy' by Jacob Gade – a job she polished off in a quarter of an hour, having had the tune played to her over the phone. Here is that very uncharacteristic Patience Strong product, sung by society darling Leslie 'Hutch' Hutchinson...

Monday 3 June 2024

Envy, Hair, Stuff

 'I envy you, ' said the man who had come up to my café table on purpose to apprise me of the fact. What in particular did he envy, I wondered: it could be anything from the jacket potato I was about to devour to my all-round fabulouslness. But no – it was my hair. He himself, a man of similar age to me, had the usual cropped hair disguising extensive loss, whereas I have at present rather alarmingly luxuriant locks. I discovered recently that my hair (which has never shown serious signs of thinning) had changed its ways, becoming wavier and growing in new directions, with the result that I now seem to be able to let it grow unchecked without turning into an Albert Einstein lookalike. The man, who was South African, had much to say on the subject of hair and its loss, among other things, while my knife and fork hovered expectantly over that appetising baked potato.  Eventually he went. In my new hirsute condition, I guess I'll have to get used to this kind of thing. It makes a change from being told I'm the image of Jimmy Stewart, or Ian McKellen, or whoever. 
  The café in question was at Calke Abbey in Derbyshire, which I was visiting with my cousin. It's a fascinating place, a rare example of a house taken over by the National Trust when far along the road to dereliction and, instead of being spruced up and sanitised, maintained in something like the condition it was in when the family, having sealed up most of its many, many rooms, finally abandoned the place altogether. The rooms now open to the public are, for the most part, more like cluttered lumber rooms filled with miscellaneous junk than the neatly presented rooms of the standard stately home – which is refreshingly different, and gives an unusually comprehensive view of the kind of more or less mundane things a large country house might have contained. However, with the blinds down to keep out destructive light, the result is a depressing gloom and, most of the time, a sense of being oppressed – oppressed by all that stuff. I was glad to be outside again, wandering in the extensive and rather beautiful grounds. 
  The stuff in the house includes large numbers of stuffed animals and birds, mounted trophy heads, and cabinets full of specimens. These represent a mere fragment of the natural history collection left behind by the obsessive collector Sir Harpur Vauncey Crewe, who used his vast wealth to amass a hoard that was said to be second in size only to the more systematic, properly curated collections of the 2nd Baron Rothschild at Tring (which included 300,000 bird skins, 20,000 birds' eggs, 300,000 beetles and two and a half million mounted butterflies and moths). The eccentric Sir Vauncey was so fixated on his precious collections that he ordered fires to be maintained day and night in every room of Calke Abbey, the family seat in Derbyshire, to maintain ideal conditions. Any servant who failed in this duty was issued with an immediate dismissal notice, but as Sir Vauncey hardly knew one servant from another, these were usually ignored. One of his staff, however, was his constant companion – the head gamekeeper, the gloriously named Agathos Pegg, with whom Sir Vauncey would go on collecting expeditions on his extensive estates. Once, when the unlikely pair were collecting butterflies near Repton Park, a house occupied by one of the Harpur Crewe cousins, there was an altercation of some kind, following which Sir Vauncey ordered that Repton Park be razed to the ground, which it duly was...
  But now I must go and comb my hair.