Saturday, 22 July 2017

The Poetry of Labels

I've just been cleaning the oven with a product that, the label assures me, 'laughs in the face of baked-on food. Without the need for rubbing, scrubbing or agitating, it dissolves stubborn baked-on grease, oil and fat within minutes... Simply sponge or brush on and after five minutes wipe off for [a] gleaming, sparkling oven every time.' The Directions include the soothing injuction, 'Leave to dwell for five minutes.' I like that 'dwell'...
  Needless to say, far from laughing in the face of baked-on food, this cleaner sighed weakly and capitulated. Even with a deal of rubbing, scrubbing and agitating, it left behind a black impasto of rock-hard gunk, from which only the major promontories had been rubbed, scrubbed and agitated away. Not a gleam or a sparkle to be seen, and if there was any laughing, it was the gunk laughing in the face of the puny oven cleaner that promised to much. I covered the bottom of the oven with a patented liner (that also promises much) and hoped for better days.

Friday, 21 July 2017

Round the Corner Smith

Born on this day in 1863 was Charles Aubrey Smith, who, as C. Aubrey Smith, enjoyed a very successful film career playing Hollywood's idea of the 'archetypal Englishman' in a string of films from the 1920s through to the 1940s. Before that, he had tried his hand as a gold prospector in South Africa, where he succumbed to pneumonia and was pronounced dead by doctors. He also had a successful career as a cricketer, playing for Sussex and once leading England to victory in what turned out to be a Test match against South Africa (no one was quite sure at the time). He was chiefly a fast bowler, bamboozling the batsman with his long, curved run-up that began somewhere around deep mid-off. As he reached the wicket, 'Round the Corner Smith' would suddenly appear from behind the umpire, often with unnerving effect.
  In Hollywood, Smith formed the Hollywood Cricket Club, which he ruled with a rod of iron, expecting any English actors in the vicinity to turn out and play. The pitch was of imported English turf, and the HCC games afforded much amusement to the locals. Once, while fielding at slip, Smith dropped a tricky catch and sent his English butler to fetch his glasses, which he duly did - on a silver salver. Smith put them on, and promptly dropped a sitter, at which he whipped off his glasses and growled, 'Damn fool brought my reading glasses.'
  When in England, Smith would often visit Lord's. Once a member spotted him in the pavilion and remarked to another member, 'That chap looks familiar.' 'Yes,' he replied, 'Chap called Smith. Used to play for Sussex.'

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Grass Carnified

Talking of the cycles of nature, here's Sir Thomas Browne in the first part of his Religio Medici:

 'All flesh is grass, is not only metaphorically, but litterally, true; for all those creatures we behold are but the herbs of the field, digested into flesh in them, or more remotely carnified in our selves. Nay further, we are what we all abhor, Anthropophagi and Cannibals, devourers not onely of men, but of our selves; and that not an allegory, but a positive truth; for all this mass of flesh which we behold, came in at our mouths; this frame we look upon, hath been upon our trenchers; in brief, we have devour'd our selves.'

'Carnified' is one of Browne's 775 neologisms. A pity it hasn't lasted as well as his 'carnivorous'.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Natural Burial

Today a lonely impulse of delight led me to visit, for the first time, a 'natural burial ground'. I'd heard that it's alive with butterflies this summer, and that alone would have been enough reason, but I was also interested to see what a 'natural burial site' looks like, or indeed is.
 Alive with butterflies it certainly was - meadow browns, gatekeepers, ringlets, skippers and (common) blues in abundance, plus brown arguses, small coppers, late marbled whites, commas, peacocks, etc. And what it looked like was not a burial ground but a large wildflower meadow, with young woodland and a lake - nothing above ground to show that this is a burial place, except perhaps the minimum-impact glass pavilion. There's a reason for this, I discovered: no vertical memorials or markers are allowed, except for trees (native species only - quite right too). The whole idea of 'natural burial' is to be reabsorbed into the earth as soon as is naturally possible, leaving no lasting mark on the landscape (stone markers, even if horizontal, are not allowed).
 I was rather attracted by the idea, I must admit. Earth to earth, taking our place in the cycle of nature. Of course I have my own ideas about the kind of ceremony I would like to send me on my way, but as for the actual disposal of the body - or rather the ashes - I'd be quite happy for it/them to go this way, returning to the earth in surroundings like these, amid wild flowers and butterflies.
  It's a feeling that, I suspect, is in the ascendant, and natural burial is certainly becoming increasingly popular. The difficult idea of bodily resurrection no longer seems to make much sense to many people; the body surely belongs to nature and will return to it, whatever the fate of the soul. So why not recognise the fact, and help it on its way? Especially if it can be done in a dignified manner in such pleasant and appropriate surroundings.
 And yet, as a monument man, a wanderer in churchyards and reader of epitaphs, I cannot help but feel a strong nostalgia for the times when the dead were memorialised in enduring ways, when fine craftsmanship, even great art, was employed to that end, leaving a rich and glorious legacy of church monuments and (in a smaller way) carved stones and epitaphs.
 In the parish church a few hundred yards away from the natural burial ground, there's a grave board that reads
'In memory of Alfred Lemon, who died May 2nd 1851, aged 14 years.
When missing sorrow weeps the past
And mourns the present pain
How sweet to think of peace at last
And feel that death is gain.'
 Not great verse, not a great epitaph, but a genuine expression of grief and hope that has come down to us across more than a century and a half. With natural burial there will be no such survivals - nothing, after a short while, to mark the life, the death, the loss. Does this matter? Probably not, in an age when we seem to have lost the art of memorialising the dead, when even the urge to do so seems weak. And yet...

Monday, 17 July 2017

In Lucem: A Mystery

Strolling in one of my local parks the other day - a park I've known for nearly 60 years, and of which I thought I knew every inch - I was astonished to happen on something entirely new to me. It wasn't exactly hidden away either, but in the lawn by the boating lake, near the grand herbaceous border and just yards from the lakeside path - how on earth had I missed it for so long? This was a park I played in as a boy, it's adjacent to the grammar school I attended for seven years, I've walked there more times than I could possibly compute - and yet I'd somehow missed this.
  What was it? Good question. It was - and is - a small engraved stone tablet overlooking a miniature pool of water, the lowest point of a shallow V-shaped dip in the ground, into which a narrow brick path leads and from the other side of which it emerges. The whole thing is barely ten yards wide/long.
  It is, I have discovered, a remnant of the fernery that was part of the once famous garden that was incorporated into the park when the council bought the land. Why and how this curious feature survived I have no idea - can it really have been there all through my long years of walking in this park and failing to notice it?
  And what about the motto engraved on the stone? In lucem lucrum, ludum. I can see that it's something to do with light, profit and game/play - but what does it mean? And what can it possibly have to do with the cultivation of ferns? Any ideas?

Sunday, 16 July 2017

My Problem with Pugin

Over the weekend, in the course of my researches, I found myself in the Kent seaside resort of Ramsgate, a place I'd never visited before. I was greatly impressed by the magnificent location - harbour, cliffs, wide sandy beaches facing the sunny South, panoramic views of sea, sky and town (largely free of high-rise disfigurement) from the end of the harbour wall - and the fine Regency and Victorian terraces, crescents and squares that rise above the shore. No wonder this was such a popular watering place in Victorian times - so popular that in places every other building has a blue plaque commemorating some eminent Victorian's sojourn.  Today Ramsgate is clearly poised to be the next Margate - i.e. to be discovered, colonised and revitalised by arty/hipsterish London types - but it seems to be a slow process. What it needs perhaps is a new art gallery along the lines of Margate's Turner...
  What it has got, as its prime architectural/devotional attraction, is Pugin's church (now a shrine) of St Augustine, to which I naturally bent my steps. Lacking the spire that Pugin intended, the church has a rather dumpy aspect from outside, and the dark flint from which it is built does nothing for its beauty - but the glory of this church is, everyone says, its interior, the architect's masterpiece, the church he built for himself, with his own money, exactly as he wanted it. I entered with high hopes of an overwhelming aesthetic experience - but I'm sorry to say that, to my disappointment, I felt little more than a cool admiration for Pugin's architectural brilliance and ingenuity, and for the fine craftsmanship on display.
 The church, for me, lacked anything of the truly numinous, and I found the sheer relentlessness of its earnestly 'correct', highly detailed Gothic oppressive and rather distasteful.  What is the point of a Gothic revival that simply reproduces the Gothic in an age to which it is essentially alien (well, in as much as Gothic is ever alien to the incorrigibly anti-classical, anti-modernist English imagination)? As Heraclitus pointed out long ago, you cannot step twice into the same river; it will have flowed away. The re-creation of a supposedly authentic Gothic style - as against the reimagining and development of it for another age - is essentially an arid exercise, whatever the passion that might have fired it, and at St Augustine's, I'm afraid, it feels like it. Or rather it felt like it for me. I almost preferred Ramsgate's other Gothic revival church, St George's, where the Gothic is superficial, purely decorative, essentially Georgian, but somehow more fitting. Certainly more Anglican. Maybe that's my problem, my Anglican soul.  

Thursday, 13 July 2017

'A genuine interest in all the details'

Recently a quotation from William Morris caught my eye: 'The true secret of happiness lies in taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life.'
 Naturally one is chary of any statement beginning with those words; most are no more than pious nostrums. But in this case, I think Morris was really on to something. In my experience of bored, unhappy and world-weary people, I've found that they nearly all have one thing in common - they don't at all closely notice the detail of the world around them or take any real interest in it. Their minds are on, as it were, higher things and bigger pictures - a recipe for unhappiness if ever there was one. 'Short views,' as Sidney Smith counselled his depressed lady friend. The shorter and more concentrated the better - close attention to what is there, leading ultimately perhaps to that long-sought goal of 'living in the moment', at least getting somewhere near it. Paying attention is, it seems to me (and to many others), one of the three essentials of living a reasonably happy and balanced life in this world (the other two being something like humility, gratitude, a sense of perspective, and gusto, enjoying what can be enjoyed, taking pleasure in the things at hand. These two ultimately derive from the third, paying attention, so it is in that sense the most important.)
 I'm deeply suspicious of 'research findings', unless they confirm what is already known or intuited or belongs in the realm of 'common sense'. So I was glad recently to come across some research investigating why some people regard themselves as 'lucky' and others as 'unlucky' - what distinguishes the two types? The key finding was that the 'lucky' were those who paid attention and were alert to what was around them, while the 'unlucky' paid only partial and selective attention, their attention being more inwardly directed, and missed much of what was going on (thereby missing opportunities to turn their 'luck').
 If paying attention can be extended into 'taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life', so much the better (though there's a snag perhaps in the word 'genuine' - can a genuine interest be acquired or must it be innate? I think it's probably the former.) An interest in such details means that your chances of ever being bored are dramatically lowered, as these details are all around you all the time (especially in this digital age). It also means, usefully, that you'll always have something to talk about with those people - the majority - whose minds are not on higher things and bigger pictures (though, in my case, a large blank spot containing most sport, all cars, high-tech gadgets and other 'man stuff' can be a problem in male company).
 The more we take an interest in the detail of the world around us, the more richly interesting and involving it becomes - the more you see, the more you see there is to see (to paraphrase John Sebastian). The specific is invariably more interesting than the generic, and it is more present; we experience the world through its specifics. Who could be bored when there are swifts flying? 'Smell the roses' is not a bad injunction - pause, experience this one specific thing; that is living. But before I turn into a latter-day Donovan offering a gift from a flower to a garden, I'd better stop. Only adding that a genuine interest in all the detail of daily life is certainly invaluable to any blog writer.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Technical note

I've been having very frustrating problems with my temperamental internet connection - hence recent sparsity of posting. I'm hoping it will settle down now and online life will resume its even tenor...

Back to Ivy

'"No one can speak in this house without meaning too much," said Nigel.'

  Yes, I've been reading Ivy Compton-Burnett again, in whose fictional houses - all essentially the same house - no one can speak without meaning too much, without subtexts of things meant but unspoken seething dangerously near the surface.
  This time I was feeding my ICB addiction with A Father and His Fate, published in 1957 and one of the shorter, funnier and more readable novels in the oeuvre. The theme is similar to The Present and the Past (the clue’s in the title), which I also read quite recently.

‘“It is the future we must think of,” said Constance [in A Father and His Fate]. “It is useless to pursue the past.”
  “It is needless,” said Audrey. “It will pursue us.”’

  Miles Mowbray, the monster at the centre of A Father and His Fate, is, as ICB’s male monsters go, a relatively benign one, a pompous, grandiloquent and absurd figure (whose absurdity is constantly being pointed up by his sharp-witted nephews Nigel and Rufus). However, when fate presents him with the opportunity – or appears to – he steps in briskly to steal his nephew’s fiancée, his junior by decades, and propose to marry her.
  This, or something very like it, actually happened in my own family, when my much-married and philoprogenitive great-grandfather stole his son’s fiancée and married her, fathering several more children. Miles Mowbray’s plans, however, are thwarted when the past makes an unexpected reappearance in the present. Unexpected, that is, by everyone except the reader, who will have seen it all coming; Ivy’s plots are nothing if not flimsy. She is the perfect exemplar of the Aristotelian distinction between plot and action: her plots are perfunctory to the point of absurdity, but the action of her novels – which unfolds almost entirely through the dialogue – is rich, complex, layered and dense with meaning. Yes, too much meaning.


Sunday, 9 July 2017

Common Day

On Bookham Common this morning, the Purple Emperor hunters were out in force - unlike the Purple Emperors, which were clearly not going to bother flying unless things got a good deal sunnier, if then. The Emperors are notoriously a law to themselves, at times charging around in the oak canopy like the butterfly equivalent of those young men who race Lamborghinis around Knightsbridge, at other times - most - disappearing completely, and at yet others flaunting themselves at ground level in all manner of unlikely circumstances, feeding greedily on the most disgusting things they can find or soaking up the sun on someone's parked car (see the extraordinary Purple Empire blog, passim) -
 And just as I was writing that, I looked up and saw that Countryfile (I only had it on for the weather, honest) was showing the latest Emperor's Breakfast, a tempting collation of fermented fish, stinking cheese and black pudding laid out by the Purple Empire's Matthew Oates and fellow Emperor obsessive Neil Hulme. It did the trick, drawing down an Emperor or two from the canopy to savour what was on offer, and dear old John Craven made off with a piece of the stinking cheese with which to 'surprise' his fellow presenter as they signed off. How we roared.
 No Emperors for me, of course, on Bookham Common, but I wasn't seriously expecting any. The second most showy of our butterflies, the Silver-Washed Fritillary, was out in force - too many to count - and I had the pleasure of seeing half a dozen or so of my favourite, the subtly beautiful White Admiral. And then I had the curious experience of rescuing a Ringlet from the trumpet of a Greater Bindweed. The poor thing had somehow got itself jammed at the narrowest point, perhaps going that bit too far in quest of nectar. It was quite still and I thought it was most likely dead, but when I carefully slit the trumpet and peeled it back, the Ringlet began to flutter weakly and, after a few seconds, flew off and settled on a leaf to recover from its ordeal. My good deed for the day.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

The Real Thing

Yesterday I was walking, with walker friends, in deepest Kent. Our objective - mine, anyway - was the little church at Otterden, an unpromising Georgian box (the private chapel of the 'big house', Otterden Place) which contains a range of fine monuments, including one by our old friend Epiphanius Evesham.
  It's not a church to visit casually, being almost permanently locked; but, by prior arrangement, the key - a large and serious key - can be had from the occupants of the big house. First impressions of the church interior are little better than those of the exterior - until you notice the monuments against the North and South walls. Three of these amount to a neat summary of English monumental art in the Jacobean period, ranging in quality from good to better to best: two standard forms competently executed and one work of art of a quite new kind. The earliest of these three, which memorialises William Lewin, has two recumbent effigies, man and wife, lying atop a tomb chest, with numerous offspring lined up along the base. Everything is straight off the production line and there is no real individual life in any of the figures. More interesting is a wall monument of a decade later that follows another standard pattern - man and wife praying, facing each other, at a prayer desk (with a daughter kneeling behind the mother). More unusually, there is a baby in a canopied cot separately figured on a shelf below. The modelling of the figures is rather better, but still pretty stiff and lifeless. Both of these monuments might shine more brightly in another church, one where they were not so entirely overshadowed by the sheer brilliance of Otterden's third Jacobean monument - the Evesham*.
  Sir Justinian Lewin, who died in 1620, is shown lying in his armour, his body not in repose but stiffened in death. His grieving wife kneels at the side of the chest on which he lies, her chin on her hand, her eyes, full of sorrow, gazing at his face. This is powerful - and original - enough, but there is still more emotion in the stricken, bewildered face of the child who kneels beside her, tugging at her skirt, desperate to be comforted. This is monumental art at its most convincingly expressive; there is nothing stylised or artificial or about this portrayal of grief - as with Evesham's Lynsted monument, this is the real thing.

  Sir Justinian, who was a gentleman of the privy chamber to James I, was the second son of William Lewin, and therefore has the rare distinction of appearing on two of the church's monuments - as a generic child on his father's and as a fully individual dead man on his own.
  One more thing about Otterden: in 1729, in the grounds of Otterden Place, the Rev. Granville Wheler, the house's then owner, and Stephen Gray succeeded in transmitting electrical current for an unprecedented 860ft along a length of oiled thread. You can read more about that here...

* The monument is unsigned, but is confidently (and surely rightly) attributed to Epiphanius Evesham - whose else could it be?

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Your Chance to See Philip Larkin's Knickers

As I was nodding off last night, I had the strange experience of hearing Philip Larkin chatting with his mother. This was on some late news programme, and they were playing a recording Larkin had made himself on a reel-to-reel tape recorder - a recording that was now part of a big new Larkin archive exhibition at the University of Hull.
  The chat between Larkin and his mother was easy and affectionate, and they obviously got on well with each other - but the inevitable editorial line was to claim that this was an astonishing revelation: was this not the poet who wrote that 'They f*ck you up, your mum and dad'? Oh dear - poor Larkin, to have ended up forever associated with that notorious line above all others. Note to the literal-minded: there are such things as personas, voices... It might have been more apposite to quote a poem like the tender, clear-sighted Mother, Summer, I -

My mother, who hates thunder storms, 
Holds up each summer day and shakes 
It out suspiciously, lest swarms 
Of grape-dark clouds are lurking there; 
But when the August weather breaks 
And rains begin, and brittle frost 
Sharpens the bird-abandoned air, 
Her worried summer look is lost, 

And I her son, though summer-born 
And summer-loving, none the less 
Am easier when the leaves are gone. 
Too often summer days appear 
Emblems of perfect happiness 
I can't confront: I must await 
A time less bold, less rich, less clear: 
An autumn more appropriate.

The exhibition in which the allegedly surprising recording features is Larkin: New Eyes Each Year, and it certainly does promise to take the visitor 'almost unnervingly close' to the poet. Was ever a poet's life so comprehensively archived? Did he really mean for everything he left behind in his house - from Beatrix Potter figurines to S&M pornography, from lawnmowers to knickers, from knitted rabbits to a statuette of Hitler (a gift from his father) - to be preserved and displayed? He took care to destroy his diaries (believed to be largely pornographic), so presumably he was content for the rest to be archived, if that was what the Larkin industry wanted. Perhaps he could see the funny side of all his preserved ties, duly archived, hanging solemnly on display...
  If nothing else, an exhibition this intimate shows that, as Auden wrote of Yeats, he was 'silly like us'. Or, as Jake Balokowsky, Larkin's imagined biographer, puts it, he was just 'One of those old-type natural fouled-up guys'.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

The Great and the Good

Having been hugely impressed by The Assistant, I've continued my reading of Bernard Malamud with the obvious next (or perhaps first) step, The Fixer. This was the author's most successful novel, winning not only a National Book Award but also a Pulitzer. There was a film version, starring Alan Bates, and The Fixer even turned up in Don Draper's hands in an episode of Mad Man (fifth season, At The Catfish Ball, fact fans).
  I read The Fixer in an edition furnished with an introduction by Jonathan Safran Foer, largely devoted to distinguishing between good books and great books (which took me back to my schooldays, when I made just such a distinction while discussing Beethoven's symphonies with a teacher - No 5 best, No 9 greatest, I opined). Anyway, Foer identifies The Fixer as a great book because, like all great novels, it reminds us that 'We must do something'. Really? Must we? Don't great novels rather remind us, in the fullest, most immediate and intimate way, what it is to be human in this world, what it feels like, what it means? Something like that, and by that measure I'd rate The Assistant a richer work of fiction than The Fixer.
  The Fixer (to some extent a fictionalisation of a real-life case) tells the story of Jakov Bok, a Jewish handyman who in Kiev on 1911 finds himself falsely charged with the ritual murder of a Christian boy - the old blood libel - and imprisoned awaiting a trial that may never come. We are left in no doubt of the violent endemic antisemitism of Tsarist Russia (early on, a chatty Russian casually advocates the Final Solution) and the brutality and degradation of prison life. Malamud draws us with wonderful skill into Bok's world as he undergoes a succession of misfortunes and hideous torments and remains, by sheer force of will, unbroken and determined to live long enough to prove his innocence.
 The author's problem is to maintain tension as things go from bad to worse to yet worse and Bok's life becomes a relentless catalogue of sufferings. Malamud succeeds, by a skilful deployment of events (few though they are) and clever modulations of pace and voice, of rising and falling hope, from the depths of despair to dreams of freedom, from placid acceptance to the borders of madness. He inhabits Bok's mind completely, and thereby ensure that we do too. I was gripped throughout, avidly turning the pages, but increasingly uneasy as those pages got fewer and the problem of an ending became ever more acute. How could this story possibly reach a satisfactory conclusion? Well, I'm not sure it does - but it's the right ending, perhaps the only possible ending.
  The Fixer is a wonderful piece of writing - a masterpiece of a kind - but for me it just doesn't have the deep multiple resonances of The Assistant, a book that strikes me on reflection as the nearest thing to a great novel I have discovered in quite some while.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Est. 1591

Pictured above is Whitehall, a rather wonderful survival in the Surrey suburban village of Cheam. This historic house is now undergoing a big refurbishment, and as a result much of it is enclosed by hoardings. They bear the name of the company doing the building work - 'R. Durtnell & Sons, Est. 1591'.
 Yes, established 1591 - that's the kind of vintage you don't often come across in these times, when 'Est. 2011' is considered an index of probity and long standing. But how reliable is that 'Est. 1591'? Is the present company really that old? The answer is emphatically yes: this is a family firm that has come down from father to son through 13 generations, and is still based in its original home town, Brasted in Kent. One of the Durtnells' first buildings was Poundsbridge Manor [below], built by John and Brian Durtnall (as it was then spelt) in 1593. When the house was hit by a stray bomb in the Second World War, R. Durtnell & Sons were called in to rebuild the damaged parts, and the Manor is still in splendid shape, a highly desirable (and phenomenally expensive) private house.
  It's good to know that a company of similar vintage to the house is at work on restoring Whitehall.

Friday, 30 June 2017

Beddoes: Algae and Pearls

Born on this day in 1803 was the death-obsessed poet Thomas Lovell Beddoes (son of the founder of the fun-loving Pneumatic Institute). He spent much of his troubled, rather short life abroad, studying and practising medicine, apparently in the hope of finding physical evidence of the immortal soul, and writing lyrical pieces, often fragmentary, and tragic dramas in a heightened Jacobean mode.
  As a dramatist, he lacked all the essentials (as did so many would-be playwright poets of the Romantic period) - but the best of his lyrics are something else, something quite unique. Edmund Gosse, in the preface to his 1890 edition of Beddoes' works, puts it like this: 'At the feast of the muses he appears bearing little except one small savoury dish, some cold preparation, we may say, of olives and anchovies, the strangeness of which has to make up for its lack of importance. Not every palate enjoys this hors d'oeuvre, and when that is the case, Beddoes retires; he has nothing else to give. He appeals to a few literary epicures, who, however, would deplore the absence of this oddly flavoured dish as much as that of any more important piece de resistance.' Ezra Pound talks of Beddoes in terms of 'a mass of algae and pearls' and 'the odour of eucalyptus or sea wrack'...
 This is his best-known, most anthologised lyric, a thing of seamless perfection:


If there were dreams to sell,
     What would you buy?
Some cost a passing bell;
     Some a light sigh,
That shakes from Life's fresh crown
Only a roseleaf down.
If there were dreams to sell,
Merry and sad to tell,
And the crier rung the bell,
     What would you buy?


A cottage lone and still,
     With bowers nigh,
Shadowy, my woes to still,
     Until I die.
Such pearl from Life's fresh crown
Fain would I shake me down.
Were dreams to have at will,
This would best heal my ill,
     This I would buy.


But there were dreams to sell,
     Ill didst thou buy;
Life is a dream, they tell,
     Waking, to die.
Dreaming a dream to prize,
Is wishing ghosts to rise;
     And, if I had the spell
     To call the buried, well,
     Which one would I?


If there are ghosts to raise,
     What shall I call,
Out of hell's murky haze,
     Heaven's blue hall?
Raise my loved longlost boy
To lead me to his joy,
     There are no ghosts to raise;
     Out of death lead no ways;
     Vain is the call.


Know'st thou not ghosts to sue?
     No love thou hast.
Else lie, as I will do,
     And breathe thy last.
So out of Life's fresh crown
Fall like a rose-leaf down.
     Thus are the ghosts to woo;
     Thus are all dreams made true,
     Ever to last!

  Here is Beddoes in livelier, but more macabre mode:

Old Adam, the carrion crow,
The old crow of Cairo;
He sat in the shower, and let it flow
Under his tail and over his crest;
And through every feather
Leak'd the wet weather;
And the bough swung under his nest;
For his beak it was heavy with marrow.
Is that the wind dying? O no;
It's only two devils, that blow,
Through a murderer's bones, to and fro,
In the ghosts' moonshine.

Ho! Eve, my grey carrion wife,
When we have supped on king's marrow,
Where shall we drink and make merry our life?
Our nest it is queen Cleopatra's skull,
'Tis cloven and crack'd,
And batter'd and hack'd,
But with tears of blue eyes it is full:
Let us drink then, my raven of Cairo!
Is that the wind dying? O no;
It's only two devils, that blow
Through a murderer's bones, to and fro,
In the ghosts' moonshine. 

  Here is one of Beddoes' favourite forms - a 'dirge':

If thou wilt ease thine heart 
Of love and all its smart, 
Then sleep, dear, sleep; 
And not a sorrow 
Hang any tear on your eye-lashes; 
Lie still and deep, 
Sad soul, until the sea-wave washes 
The rim o’ the sun to-morrow, 
In eastern sky. 

But wilt thou cure thine heart 
Of love and all its smart, 
Then die, dear, die; 
’T is deeper, sweeter, 
Than on a rose bank to lie dreaming 
With folded eye; 
And then alone, amid the beaming 
Of love’s stars, thou ’lt meet her 
In eastern sky. 

  And here's another dirge celebrating the romantic allure of death:

We do lie beneath the grass
In the moonlight, in the shade
Of the yew-tree. They that pass
Hear us not. We are afraid
They would envy our delight,
In our graves by glow-worm night.
Come follow us, and smile as we;
We sail to the rock in the ancient waves,
Where the snow falls by thousands into the sea,
And the drowned and the shipwrecked have happy graves.

  Finally, one more - an exquisite lyric that might have come straight from a Jacobean (even a Shakespearean) drama:

The swallow leaves her nest,
The soul my weary breast;
But therefore let the rain
On my grave 
Fall pure; for why complain?
Since both will come again
O'er the wave.
The wind dead leaves and snow
Doth hurry to and fro;
And, once, a day shall break
O'er the wave, 
When a storm of ghosts shall shake
The dead, until they wake
In the grave.

  The death-loving Beddoes took his own life (with poison) in Basel, at the age of 45, having written the same day to his executor, Revell Phillips: 'I am food for what I am good for - worms.'

Thursday, 29 June 2017

They Know Me So Well

'We know you better than you know yourself' declared Amazon in their latest email to me. Well, that's a bold claim, even for Amazon, so I thought I'd open this one and have a look...
  It seems the 'me' they know so well is some kind of alter ego of mine, with a lively interest in 'joggers' (they appear to be some kind of misshapen trousers) and 'combat work pants' (ditto), a chap who might well be tempted by the prospect of owning 140 jam/pickle jars, fancies owning a Hornby OO train set, and is keen to buy, er, women's dresses. Sometimes I wonder if these algorithm things are quite all they're cracked up to be.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

A Momentous Withdrawal

Yesterday, unaccountably, I missed a momentous 50th anniversary - that of the first use of a bank cash machine (in Enfield, by cockney twinkler Reg Varney). Clearly it's time to dig this one out from the archives... Enjoy.

Monday, 26 June 2017

A Different Church

My church crawling took a new turn over the weekend when, with my cousin, I visited this one - Lud's Church in Staffordshire. Hidden away in woodland known as the Back Forest, in the White Peak, this deep, narrow, moss-grown chasm in the rocks can only be entered through even narrower passages at either end, from which steps lead down into a dank sunless world, with craggy rock faces towering on either side, and trees outlined against a narrow strip of sky above.
 It's a quite extraordinary place, with something of the feel of a naturally formed cathedral nave; indeed one of the more plausible legends about Lud's Church is that it was used for secret worship by persecuted Lollards. More fanciful tales about this handy hiding place have linked it to Robin Hood and Friar Tuck, Bonnie Prince Charlie and local Luddites  - from Lud, the legendary King of England who gave his name to London and Ludgate, to the equally legendary leader of the machine-smashers, Captain Ludd, by way of some local Lud whose name is otherwise lost.
 Others have identified Lud's Church with the Green Chapel where Sir Gawain kept his fateful appointment with the fearsome Green Knight. As the poem describes the chapel as a hollow grass-grown mound (suggesting a barrow), this seems more than fanciful. However, Lud's Church would have made a perfect setting for the climactic drama; it's easy to imagine the sound of the Green Knight's axe-grinding echoing off the walls of the chasm as a trepidatious Gawain steps down into its depths.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Donald's Dream

Here's Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, quoting John Lennon's Imagine today, a propos his dream of a repentant UK seeing the error of its ways and rejoining the EU: 'You may say I'm a dreamer [twinkly pause] but I'm not the only one.' And here's me quoting the late Fleet Street legend Sir John Junor: 'Pass the sick bag, Alice.'
  Donald Tusk is a distressing enough phenomenon in himself, but Donald Tusk quoting Imagine is beyond endurance. Maybe it's time for the EU to drop the Ode to Joy as its anthem (I'm sure Beethoven would be relieved) and replace it with Imagine. 'Imagine there's no countries, It isn't hard to do...' (Isn't it? I can't even imagine no counties - talking of which, I'm off to Derbyshire for the weekend.)

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Monuments and Fritillaries

Having made a fine job of cataloguing some 210,000 paintings in public collections in the UK - many of them in store or otherwise unavailable to the public - Art UK now plans to do the same for the nation's sculpture. This is excellent news - but, if I read the description of the project's remit rightly, it seems to omit a hugely significant part of the national sculpture collection: the monuments that stand in our churches. Those in Westminster Abbey alone constitute one of our greatest national collections, but more to the point, so many of the very best sculptures of every period (but particularly the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries) are scattered around the country, often in very out-of-the-way churches, many of which are more or less permanently locked. To be able to access images and descriptions of these works online would surely enhance appreciation of an undervalued treasury of sculpture (as well as, ahem, being an invaluable resource for those of us engaged in writing about English church monuments)...

Meanwhile, the heat wave continues - rather wearing for us humans, but great news for the butterflies. On Monday I was out among them on a favourite hillside haunt, where Marbled Whites were flying in great abundance - even more perhaps than last year - and I saw not one, not two (the suspense!) but six Dark Green Fritillaries [below], each seen individually and all in flight, but unmistakable, and very beautiful. Then this morning, on Ashtead common, I found large numbers of my favourite White Admirals flying, along with slightly smaller numbers of spectacular Silver-Washed Fritillaries. After a run of dismal Junes, these past couple of weeks have been a joyful reminder of what this glorious month can be.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Still a Serious House on Serious Earth

I was delighted to come across this story - not only because it contradicts the received (wishful?) thinking that church congregations are old and dying out, but because of what it says about the church's attempts to woo young people. It is not, it seems, 'youth groups' or the infantile Youth Alpha course that are attracting them, but the 'old hat' stuff: prayer, bible reading, spiritual experiences - and visiting churches and cathedrals. The numinous force field of these buildings - regarded by some of the more go-ahead clergy as nothing more than 'plant' - is drawing young people into the world of faith.
 And yet - as I, an inveterate church-crawler, know only too well - many of these churches stand more or less permanently locked against the world. Let's hope these new findings will boost the Bishop of Worcester's admirable campaign to persuade more parishes to keep their churches open. If you want to 'bring people in' to the church, it would surely make sense to let them in to our churches.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

A Good Haul

A couple of lucky finds at a garden fair yesterday. One was Butterflies by the egregious E.B. Ford - 'the Kenneth Williams of zoology' - the first title in Collins' excellent New Naturalist series. I already have my late father's battered copy of it, but I snapped up this one (a 1946 reprint, still wearing the remains of its dust jacket) as I know someone who'll welcome it as a gift. The other book I bought was a Folio Society volume, The Plums of P.G. Wodehouse (no sniggering please), a selection of Wodehouse gems chosen by Joe Whitlock Blundell and illustrated - half the reason I bought it - by Paul Cox (that's one of his above). Also snapped up - a John Prine CD, Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings. A good haul, and in a good cause - supporting the local ecology centre and nature reserve, where the Ringlets are happily flying again.

Saturday, 17 June 2017

Uncle Bill's Dead Bird - and Georgie's

This fine watercolour of a dead Tree Creeper is by Edward 'Uncle Bill' Wilson, who died on Scott's ill-fated second Antarctic expedition. It was found recently in the expedition's hut at Cape Adare, buried under a deal of penguin guano and dust and quantities of papers - but in astonishingly good condition, having been thereby protected from air and light (and, of course, heat.)
 Wilson was the leader of the extraordinary 'Winter Journey', an expedition whose sole aim was to acquire some Emperor Penguin eggs, which scientists were convinced would afford evidence of the evolutionary link between reptiles and birds. This 60-mile journey was undertaken by Wilson, 'Birdie' Bowers and Apsley Cherry-Garrard in total darkness in the depths of the Arctic winter, with temperatures falling to minus 70  Centigrade. And then a blizzard blew up and carried their tent away, leaving them stranded in their sleeping bags for a day and a half under thick snow (by sheer luck, they then found the tent, lodged in rocks half a mile away)... Cherry-Garrard later wrote a book about it all, accurately titled The Worst Journey in the World. The expedition succeeded in collecting three Emperor Penguin eggs, which survived the terrible journey back to base - only to prove that the scientists were wrong all along.
 Wilson's Tree Creeper painting reminded me of a picture in the Tate - this one, by Georgiana MacDonald...

Friday, 16 June 2017

Browning's Bishop

It's high time we had a poem - and yesterday, as it happens, I found myself reading this, one of the best of Browning's dramatic monologues, in which a dying bishop in 16th-century Rome seeks to assure his undying fame (and his ascendancy over a rival) by securing himself a suitably pompous and assertive tomb...

The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed's Church

Vanity, saith the preacher, vanity! 
Draw round my bed: is Anselm keeping back? 
Nephews—sons mine . . . ah God, I know not! Well— 
She, men would have to be your mother once, 
Old Gandolf envied me, so fair she was! 
What's done is done, and she is dead beside, 
Dead long ago, and I am Bishop since, 
And as she died so must we die ourselves, 
And thence ye may perceive the world's a dream. 
Life, how and what is it? As here I lie 
In this state-chamber, dying by degrees, 
Hours and long hours in the dead night, I ask 
"Do I live, am I dead?" Peace, peace seems all. 
Saint Praxed's ever was the church for peace; 
And so, about this tomb of mine. I fought 
With tooth and nail to save my niche, ye know: 
—Old Gandolf cozened me, despite my care; 
Shrewd was that snatch from out the corner South 
He graced his carrion with, God curse the same! 
Yet still my niche is not so cramped but thence 
One sees the pulpit o' the epistle-side, 
And somewhat of the choir, those silent seats, 
And up into the aery dome where live 
The angels, and a sunbeam's sure to lurk: 
And I shall fill my slab of basalt there, 
And 'neath my tabernacle take my rest, 
With those nine columns round me, two and two, 
The odd one at my feet where Anselm stands: 
Peach-blossom marble all, the rare, the ripe 
As fresh-poured red wine of a mighty pulse. 
—Old Gandolf with his paltry onion-stone, 
Put me where I may look at him! True peach, 
Rosy and flawless: how I earned the prize! 
Draw close: that conflagration of my church 
—What then? So much was saved if aught were missed! 
My sons, ye would not be my death? Go dig 
The white-grape vineyard where the oil-press stood, 
Drop water gently till the surface sink, 
And if ye find . . . Ah God, I know not, I! ... 
Bedded in store of rotten fig-leaves soft, 
And corded up in a tight olive-frail, 
Some lump, ah God, of lapis lazuli, 
Big as a Jew's head cut off at the nape, 
Blue as a vein o'er the Madonna's breast ... 
Sons, all have I bequeathed you, villas, all, 
That brave Frascati villa with its bath, 
So, let the blue lump poise between my knees, 
Like God the Father's globe on both His hands 
Ye worship in the Jesu Church so gay, 
For Gandolf shall not choose but see and burst! 
Swift as a weaver's shuttle fleet our years: 
Man goeth to the grave, and where is he? 
Did I say basalt for my slab, sons? Black— 
'Twas ever antique-black I meant! How else 
Shall ye contrast my frieze to come beneath? 
The bas-relief in bronze ye promised me, 
Those Pans and Nymphs ye wot of, and perchance 
Some tripod, thyrsus, with a vase or so, 
The Saviour at his sermon on the mount, 
Saint Praxed in a glory, and one Pan 
Ready to twitch the Nymph's last garment off, 
And Moses with the tables . . . but I know 
Ye mark me not! What do they whisper thee, 
Child of my bowels, Anselm? Ah, ye hope 
To revel down my villas while I gasp 
Bricked o'er with beggar's mouldy travertine 
Which Gandolf from his tomb-top chuckles at! 
Nay, boys, ye love me—all of jasper, then! 
'Tis jasper ye stand pledged to, lest I grieve. 
My bath must needs be left behind, alas! 
One block, pure green as a pistachio-nut, 
There's plenty jasper somewhere in the world— 
And have I not Saint Praxed's ear to pray 
Horses for ye, and brown Greek manuscripts, 
And mistresses with great smooth marbly limbs? 
—That's if ye carve my epitaph aright, 
Choice Latin, picked phrase, Tully's every word, 
No gaudy ware like Gandolf's second line— 
Tully, my masters? Ulpian serves his need! 
And then how I shall lie through centuries, 
And hear the blessed mutter of the mass, 
And see God made and eaten all day long, 
And feel the steady candle-flame, and taste 
Good strong thick stupefying incense-smoke! 
For as I lie here, hours of the dead night, 
Dying in state and by such slow degrees, 
I fold my arms as if they clasped a crook, 
And stretch my feet forth straight as stone can point, 
And let the bedclothes, for a mortcloth, drop 
Into great laps and folds of sculptor's-work: 
And as yon tapers dwindle, and strange thoughts 
Grow, with a certain humming in my ears, 
About the life before I lived this life, 
And this life too, popes, cardinals and priests, 
Saint Praxed at his sermon on the mount, 
Your tall pale mother with her talking eyes, 
And new-found agate urns as fresh as day, 
And marble's language, Latin pure, discreet, 
—Aha, ELUCESCEBAT quoth our friend? 
No Tully, said I, Ulpian at the best! 
Evil and brief hath been my pilgrimage. 
All lapis, all, sons! Else I give the Pope 
My villas! Will ye ever eat my heart? 
Ever your eyes were as a lizard's quick, 
They glitter like your mother's for my soul, 
Or ye would heighten my impoverished frieze, 
Piece out its starved design, and fill my vase 
With grapes, and add a vizor and a Term, 
And to the tripod ye would tie a lynx 
That in his struggle throws the thyrsus down, 
To comfort me on my entablature 
Whereon I am to lie till I must ask 
"Do I live, am I dead?" There, leave me, there! 
For ye have stabbed me with ingratitude 
To death—ye wish it—God, ye wish it! Stone— 
Gritstone, a-crumble! Clammy squares which sweat 
As if the corpse they keep were oozing through— 
And no more lapis to delight the world! 
Well, go! I bless ye. Fewer tapers there, 
But in a row: and, going, turn your backs 
—Ay, like departing altar-ministrants, 
And leave me in my church, the church for peace, 
That I may watch at leisure if he leers— 
Old Gandolf, at me, from his onion-stone, 
As still he envied me, so fair she was! 

Saint Praxed is Santa Prassede, a virgin saint of the 2nd century who gave all her wealth to the poor and the Church - one of the little ironies of this poem. Like many of Browning's monologues, it creates a tension between self-deception and self-revelation, insight and delusion, the glimmer of how things might yet be and the gravitational pull of how they inevitably will be.
  It was first published, rather surprisingly, in Hood's Magazine and Comic Miscellany, a publication edited and largely written by Thomas Hood. Some years later, in his Modern Painters, John Ruskin acknowledged that 'It is nearly all I said of the central Renaissance in thirty pages of The Stones of Venice put into as many lines, Browning's being the antecedent work.'