Thursday, 21 September 2017

The Japanese have a word for it...

And the word is Tsundoku. It describes a phenomenon that will be familiar to any book buyer - buying books that are destined to spend the rest of their lives standing neglected and unread on the groaning shelves. We are all guilty - though I like to think I'm a lot less so than I once was. Good to know there's a word for it anyway.

Meanwhile, I must report that I'm off again, to Derbyshire and Lincolnshire, where the hunt for Epiphanius Evesham monuments continues...

A Nigel Writes

It seems the once proud name of Nigel is dying out - see, for example, this wittily titled piece from the Guardian. The writer - a Nigel himself - gets most of the notable Niges in there (including Nigel Blackwell of Half Man Half Biscuit), but unaccountably omits Spinal Tap's Nigel Tufnel and my own hero and role model Nigel Molesworth [above].
 For myself, I owe my moniker - which, like most Nigels, I've never liked - to a combination of my mother's transparent snobbishness and my father's enthusiasm for the historical novels of Arthur Conan Doyle, a couple of which feature the adventures of Sir Nigel and the White Company. He might also have been thinking of the great locomotive engineer Sir Nigel Gresley - I'd like to think so.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Johnson and Johnson

Good to hear Boris Johnson describing the current Cabinet as 'a nest of singing birds' (in the full knowledge that 'nest of vipers' would be nearer the mark). The phrase might ring a bell with readers of Boswell's life of another eminent Johnson. After looking back on his days at Pembroke College, Oxford - days when he was 'mad and violent, being miserably poor and thus opposed to all authority' - Johnson rejoices that his old college has produced so many eminent men. 'Being himself a poet, Johnson was peculiarly happy in mentioning how many of the sons of Pembroke were poets; adding, with a smile of sportive triumph, "Sir, we are a nest of singing birds."'
 Before Johnson - both Johnsons - the phrase was widely used to describe England in the reign of Elizabeth. Widely and, it seems, aptly. John Jewel, Bishop of Salisbury, noted in 1560 that sometimes at St Paul Cross there would be six thousand people singing together (surely an exaggeration, but even so). Before the sermon, the congregation would always sing a psalm, with choir and organ, all making glorious music together. 'I was so transported,' wrote Jewel, 'that there was no room left in my whole body, mind or spirit for anything below divine and heavenly raptures.'

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

A Departure

I thought I'd take a break from the likes of Elizabeth Jenkins and Ivy Compton-Burnett and read something completely different - a crime novel. I'd come across something online about the American crime writer Donald E. Westlake and particularly liked the sound of his posthumously published The Comedy Is Over. I duly bought a copy, complete with garish dust jacket (which I promptly disposed of), and began to read...
 I was, of course, instantly hooked - Westlake really knows what he's doing (he's been described as 'the writer's writer's writer') and loses no time reeling the reader in.  The Comedy Is Over introduces us straight away to the character at the centre of the action - Koo Davis, a wise-cracking old-school comedian whose style and CV resemble Bob Hope's. The time is the late Seventies, and Davis is back on top after a career wobble when he found himself on the wrong side of public opinion over the Vietnam war. Now he has his own high-rating TV show - from the set of which he is suddenly, shockingly kidnapped.
 Koo's kidnappers are a bunch of sad but dangerous leftovers from the heady days of 'revolutionary' action, and they don't seem to realise that times have changed, leaving them behind - like Davis after Vietnam, but with no route to a comeback. Their inept attempt to secure the release of ten 'political prisoners' in return for Koo Davis ends in farce, and the gang become increasingly desperate, as does Koo's plight...
 Westlake draws us into Davis's ordeal by taking us into his head and by describing his situation so deftly that we're right there with him, in first one and then another California modernist 'safe house'. And he makes him likeable, despite his many human flaws - and funny, with his unstoppable flow of one-liners. Not many crime novels are as full of gags as this one. Nor, I think, are they likely to include a sex scene in which the male participant recites a passage from Pope's Essay on Man while in flagrante.
 I've got a feeling I might be reading more Westlake in future.

Monday, 18 September 2017


A few places ahead of us in the queue for the London-bound EuroStar was a familiar figure - none other than Frank Field, one of our most intelligent and honourable MPs (there aren't many of them - they should be treasured). He was conversing amiably with his travelling companion as we all shuffled along, clearing security and heading for the train...

  Later, at St Pancras, as I was making my way along one of those endless tiled corridors to the Victoria Line, I found myself behind a short, rotund superannuated hippy with an impressively dense tail of matted hair hanging from his nape and an unmistakably cannabinoid smell emanating from his baggy t-shirt. From his gait, I got the impression of a genial soul, still truckin' after all these years. As I overtook him, he called out: 'Hey, aren't you...? Oh no' [scrutinising my face] 'you're not.'
'No, I'm not,' I replied. 'Are you?'
'No,' he replied, chuckling by now, 'I'm not either.'
'I often wish I was,' I said as I picked up speed, and we bade each other a cheery farewell.
I liked him, He had something of The Fugs about him, or Fat Freddy of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. Quite took me back...

 Then, at Victoria, as I got off the Tube, there was Frank Field again, walking towards me. I gave him a conspiratorial smile, but I don't think he noticed.

And Back

Well, Maastricht was good - a fine town, with all the Dutch virtues in evidence, embodied in solid handsome architecture, clean and orderly streets and public spaces, a magnificent railway station (that's a corner of it above, early in the morning, with a woman playing Fur Elise on the piano), and decently dressed citizens riding about town on sit-up-and-beg bicycles. No Lycra, no cycle helmets, no racing bikes - that sort of thing is only to be seen in the countryside; urban cycling is just a natural extension of walking, with no hint of the ferocious competitiveness and aggression of cycling in London.
 As well as streets lined with good-looking, well-built houses of all periods - and surviving stretches of medieval walls and later defensive ramparts - Maastricht also has the wide river Meuse and two cathedral-sized churches of ancient origin, with imposing, castle-like westworks. Sadly, as so often in Catholic regions, the interiors fail to live up to the promise of the exterior, partly as a result of accretions of bad sculpture, bad painting and oversized bondieuseries of every description, and, in Holland, partly because of the activities of the Cuypers brothers, ubiquitous church restorers whose aim seems to have been to make every old building look as fresh and crisp as if it had been made yesterday. All rather regrettable.
 We got out of town - by train - and took a walk down the river valley (the Geul, a tributary of the Meuse), along almost too well-kept paths, through spick-and-span villages, sleepy pastures and green woodland just beginning to show its autumn colours. Along the way, we came across the enigmatic, rusting frame of what seemed to have been some kind of industrial building. A notice explained that this was the remnant of a Nazi slave labour enterprise, built into the limestone caves - a chilling reminder of the suffering endured, within living memory, by this so long fought-over land.

On the way back, we spent a few hours in Brussels, where the Grand Place was packed and noisy, with various hideous kinds of music being performed. After a mussel lunch in a decent bourgeois brasserie, we strolled awhile in what is now the Musée de l'Art Ancien, where a surprising number of paintings had been removed from the walls because of water damage (what happened?), but Breugel's Flight of Icarus remains in place, looking smaller, brighter and more freely painted than one might expect. The painting, of course, teaches a lesson...

Musée des Beaux Arts
(W.H. Auden)

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Off gallivanting again

I'm going to be in Holland (Maastricht and environs) for a few days, so there may be a hiatus...

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

A Visit to the Library

Yesterday my researches took me to my borough's 'award-winning' central library. It was, as ever, a bewildering experience: what had once been an easy to understand, easy to use library, with plenty of books arranged along conventional lines, is now a bizarre assemblage of largely unpeopled and unstaffed open spaces with gimmicky names - Page One, Media Too - and precious few books in evidence. Only on the upper levels of the building do things begin to get a little more recognisable - the children's library is little changed, and on the next level up is something that resembles the library as it was, complete with a (now apparently unstaffed) reference library. But even here there are large mysterious cubes bearing the names of primary colours and painted accordingly - are they intended as some kind of easy-to-understand classification system? If so, without an explanation of what the colours signify, they do not get us very far. Happily, on the shelves, the familiar Dewey decimal system still reigns supreme. And, happily, the library still has a handsome set of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, which was the object of my quest.
 Whenever I am in this library building, I take a look at a display case on one of the landings, which contains an open copy of the borough's printed Book of Remembrance. This lists the names and addresses of civilians killed by bombing during the Hitler war, their ages, and when and where they died. This chronicle of loss - often of entire families to one bomb - makes sad and sobering reading, and offers a salutary perspective on our present times. It seems almost inconceivable that, in living memory, ordinary people in a borough some miles from the centre of London went about their lives under relentless bombardment from the skies, knowing that each night could be their last. Against that, the perceived threats and dangers of our present world seem small beer indeed, and the self-obsessed psychobabble,  offence-seeking, virtue-signalling and grievance-mongering of our times look like the behaviour of thin-skinned moral infants who have never had real jeopardy and real calamity to deal with.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

The Test and the Encounter

I spent yesterday in a social whirl worthy (almost) of Jeffrey Archer in the heyday of his legendary blog. First I met Bryan A at Lord's, where we enjoyed 20 minutes of the morning session before the rain swept in. As it looked serious, we repaired to a café to ponder our next move - which was to head for the vicinity of Trafalgar Square. Having lunched at leisure, we strolled along to the National Portrait Gallery and had a look around their current exhibition, The Encounter: Drawings from Leonardo to Rembrandt, of which more below. As we emerged from the gallery, the weather was evidently clearing, so it was back to Lord's, where play had resumed. And so it was that - surrounded by a tiresome (but perfectly pleasant) gang of food-fighting, drink-spilling hoorays - we witnessed cricketing history when Jimmy Anderson clean-bowled the Windies' Kieran Powell to claim his 500th Test wicket. Something to tell the grandchildren - though they will neither care nor understand. Hey ho.
  But to The Encounter. It's a lovely little exhibition, just 48 portrait drawings and studies, ranging in date from the 15th to the 17th century and taking in such big names as Leonardo (a figure drawing), Dürer, Rembrandt (only a sheet of little figure studies, but fascinating to examine) and Hans Holbein the Younger. It's Holbein's portrait of John Godsalve [above] that greets you as you go in, and is arguably the star of the show. An unusually finished drawing in coloured chalks, ink and body colour with white heightening, it's beautifully executed, with all of Holbein's almost uncanny skill on show.
 Godsalve was a minor government official, a protégé of Thomas Cromwell and, some years after this portrait was drawn, Member of Parliament for Norwich. The portrait shows him as he was when Holbein first met him - a young man on the rise, meeting the artist's gaze with a look that is at once diffident and direct, anxious and sly, and surely speaks volumes about the precarious nature of life on the margins of the Tudor court. Holbein so valued this portrait that he kept it in his possession all his life, perhaps using it as an advertisement to show potential patrons what he was capable of. It's a stunning piece of work (on loan, like many others in the exhibition, from the Royal Collection).
  The poster boy for The Encounter is Giulio Pedrizzano, a lutensist, as portrayed by Annibale Carracci in a dashing little pen and ink drawing, fizzing with energy, that perfectly captures the intense, almost ferocious gaze of the sitter. Every bit as arresting and immediate as the Caracci, but much more highly finished, is a coloured drawing titled Middle-Aged Man with Curly Hair, attributed to Nicolas Lagneau, a 17th-century French artist better know for caricatures and grotesques.
His Middle-Aged Man [right] is no caricature, but a minutely detailed, closely observed study of the lived-in face of a man who stares out at the world with a kind of defiant resignation, and absolutely no illusions.
 Another gem attributed to a minor artist is a captivating drawing in black and red chalk, Young Girl Looking to Her Right [below], thought to be by Leendert van der Cooghen, an amateur painter active in Haarlem during the Dutch Golden Age. This drawing is executed with the utmost delicacy, and perfectly captures the youthful beauty - the 'bloom' - and the physical awkwardness of a girl poised between childhood and adulthood.
 The Encounter is on until 22 October, and I'd recommend it to anyone interested in the art of portrait drawing.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Buster, Stan and Ollie

I just saw this extraordinary photograph of Buster Keaton with Laurel and Hardy in the early Thirties; it was flashed on screen in the course of a documentary about Hal Roach. The picture is all too eloquent of Keaton's sad career slump. He looks like a man staring into the abyss, while Stan and Ollie look like, well, Stan and Ollie, living forever in the eternal sunshine of the spotless mind.

'The little gracefulnesses and tendernesses of human work..'

There are some landscapes, by reputation spectacularly beautiful, that somehow leave me cold and a little uneasy. It took me a while to realise what these landscapes have in common: it's the absence of all tangible signs of human habitation and activity. The fact is that I prefer landscapes inhabited and adorned by humanity, with an easy balance between the landscape and the buildings and settlements that sit naturally in it. The ideal setting (for me) is among gently rolling hills, with valleys and folds, farms and villages, patterns of field and wood. Not for me the desolation of an unpeopled landscape. And not, it seems, for John Ruskin, who begins The Two Paths by recounting the pain he felt in passing through such landscapes during a long holiday in the Scottish Highlands in the summer of 1857:

'As I passed, last summer, for the first time, through the North of Scotland, it seemed to me that there was a peculiar painfulness in its scenery, caused by the non-manifestation of the powers of human art. I had never travelled in, nor even heard or conceived of, such a country before; nor, though I had passed much of my life amidst mountain scenery in the South, was I before aware how much of its charm depended on the little gracefulnesses and tendernesses of human work, which are mingled with the beauty of the Alps, or spared by their desolation...'

 Ruskin goes on to compare what buildings there are in these Scottish wastes most unfavourably with the cottages and ruins that dot the Alpine scene. He continues:

'While these conditions of Scottish scenery affected me very painfully, it being the first time in my life that I had been in any country possessing no valuable monuments or examples of art, they also forced me into the consideration of one or two difficult questions respecting the effect of art on the human mind' - difficult questions that are considered at length in the remainder of the book.

 On the 1857 Highland holiday, Ruskin (then aged 38) was, like some sulky schoolboy,  reluctantly and resentfully accompanying his 'Papa and Mamma', as he recalls in notes that might in part explain his pained reaction to the Scottish scenery around him:

'My mother wants me to see the Bay of Cromarty and the Falls of Kilmorock. I consent sulkily to be taken to Scotland with that object. Papa and mamma, wistfully watching the effect on my mind, show their Scotland to me. I see, on my own quest, Craig-Ellachie, and the Lachin-y-Gair forests, and finally reach the Bay of Cromarty and Falls of Kilmorock, doubtless now the extreme point of my northern discoveries on the round earth. I admit, generously, the Bay of Cromarty and the Falls to be worth coming all that way to see; but beg papa and mamma to observe that it is twenty miles’ walk, in bogs, to the top of Ben Wyvis, that the town of Dingwall is not like Milan or Venice, - and that I think we have seen enough of Scotland.'

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Not Screened Off

Visiting St Etheldreda's, Hatfield, yesterday, I was delighted to find that the Salisbury Chapel in that fine church was not screened off but open to all. That made it possible to see (and photograph) from every angle this magnificent monument to the First Earl of Salisbury, with its superb statues of the Four Cardinal Virtues by Maximilian Colt, a Flemish sculptor who rose to become the King's Master Carver (the King being James I). Behind the statues and below the black marble slab on which the Earl lies in effigy is a skeleton, unadorned, on a rush mat. Memento mori.

Elizabeth Jenkins and the Jensen Owners' Club

I have just finished another Elizabeth Jenkins novel - her last in fact - A Silent Joy, published in 1992 when she was 86 years old. Set in 1957, among a still prosperous and servant-served upper middle class, it's a lumpy piece of work, and I probably wouldn't have finished it if I weren't on a mission.
 A Silent Joy is a rather schematic study of three kinds of love - the deep, disinterested affection of an elderly retired judge for the young daughter of a dead friend; the naked lust of said friend's widow for a dodgy wheeler-dealer; and the sweetly conventional love of a young couple (older daughter of said friend and cousin of another friend) who, in the course of the novel, get married. It is also a portrayal of the dire effects of easy divorce - in 1957! What would she have made of the situation today?
 The character development is uneven, with some of the above seriously underdrawn. In addition there's an equally uneven collection of minor characters - some well rounded, others more like caricatures inspired by Elizabeth Jenkins' (entirely laudable) loathing of 'progressive' ideas. Still, as with all of Miss Jenkins' novel, there's always something there that keeps you reading, some scenes and moments when thing come fully alive and she shows just how good she can be.
 The source of the title is The Rime of the Ancient Mariner - a marginal note in Part IV, about the moon and the stars 'that still sojourn, yet still move onward; and every where the blue sky belongs to them, and is their appointed rest and their native country and their own natural home, which they enter unannounced, as lords that are certainly expected, and yet there is a silent joy at their arrival.'
 A Silent Joy has the distinction of being the only Elizabeth Jenkins novel - perhaps the only literary novel by anyone? - to earn a notice in the newsletter of the Jensen Owners' Club. Here it is, with apologies for the white on black...

Despite appearances, this was no Mills & Boon pot-boiler but the prize-winning final book (1992) in the six decade long career of this noted author and biographer. Despite being in her late eighties when she wrote this account of life in 1950s London, she had the intelligence to put her hero in a Jensen:

 Neil had now bought a car, a Jensen 541 'R' and this was the first time he had driven Phyll in it. She had always known he was besotted with machinery, but until this morning she'd never realised that he regarded cars as if they were people. 

 Tom Mercer had been out on the drive with Neil, examining the wonders and beauties of the Jensen; now he came indoors. 

If you do come across a copy of this book, snap it up as it is collectable!

Monday, 4 September 2017

'Be the tree your sleep awaits'

Sad news that John Ashbery has died, at the consolingly grand old age of 90. A giant figure, he was and remained hugely divisive, some regarding his work as one of the great achievements of American poetry, others dismissing it as a corpus of largely incomprehensible ramblings.
 My own relationship with Ashbery's poetry began in my youth as a total, fascinated immersion  - no other contemporary verse seeped to deeply into my being as his - and the fascination lasted at least until the wonderful Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror. After that, I gradually began to take less and less interest, as Ashbery became more and more prolific, not to say prolix. I remain susceptible to the sheer music of his poetry, but if I ever read him now, it is to those early, relatively spare poems that I return. Poems like this early Sonnet -

Each servant stamps the reader with a look.
After many years he has been brought nothing.
The servant’s frown is the reader’s patience.
The servant goes to bed.
The patience rambles on
Musing on the library’s lofty holes.

It pushes to the top stain of the wall
Its tree-top’s head of excitement:
Baskets, birds, beetles, spools.
The light walls collapse next day.
Traffic is the reader’s pictured face.
Dear, be the tree your sleep awaits;
Worms be your words, you not safe from ours.
       His pain is the servant’s alive.

Saturday, 2 September 2017

Screened Off

I was walking yesterday, with friends, in the outer reaches of Betjeman's Metroland, along the valley of the Chess, a beautifully clear chalk stream, from Chesham to Rickmansworth. On the route was Chenies, where the parish church contains a magnificent collection of monuments to members of the Russell family, the Dukes of Bedford. Naturally I was looking forward to seeing these, but better informed members of the party warned me not to get too excited, as all the monuments are in the Bedford Chapel, which is screened off from the rest of the church and the entrance to which is more or less permanently locked. The screen is of foliate wrought iron, so it is possible to squint through into the gloom and get a rough idea of what these splendid tombs look like from one particular angle - or even poke a camera through and take a picture - but essentially this chapel is out of bounds, an outpost of the Bedford estate rather than an integral part of the parish church. I could only put my face against the screen, see what I could see, and imagine what it would be like to walk among hose magnificent tombs.
 This depressing situation is certainly not unique to Chenies - I've peered through many a screen at many a closed-off family chapel, and at least one other collection of monuments of national importance, the Spencer tombs at Great Brington in Northamptonshire, is similarly closed off from the church it stands in. Why should this ever be the case? It might have made some kind of sense once, but surely not now. If monuments are in a parish church, they should be as accessible as any other part of that church - especially if they are its principal glory. The great assembly of Rutland monuments at Bottesford - probably the greatest in the land - inhabits the parish church in a perfectly natural and appropriate way, with no screens and no separation, and surely that should be the model. Take down those screens!

Thursday, 31 August 2017

The Poet Pours Himself a Drink

The greatest description in all literature of the mixing of a G&T is surely the first six lines of Philip Larkin's Sympathy in White Major, written (or signed off) on this day 50 years ago...

When I drop four cubes of ice
Chimingly in a glass, and add
Three goes of gin, a lemon slice,
And let a ten-ounce tonic void
In foaming gulps until it smothers
Everything else up to the edge,
I lift the lot in private pledge:
He devoted his life to others.

While other people wore like clothes
The human beings in their days
I set myself to bring to those
Who thought I could the lost displays;
It didn't work for them or me,
But all concerned were nearer thus
(Or so we thought) to all the fuss
Than if we' d missed it separately.

A decent chap, a real good sort,
Straight as a die, one of the best,
A brick, a trump, a proper sport,
Head and shoulders above the rest;
How many Iives would have been duller
Had he not been here below?
Here' s to the whitest man I know -

Though white is not my favourite colour.

It's a rather strange poem, the clarity and plain speaking of the two outer stanzas contrasting with the more elliptical and meditative second stanza. Like Self's The Man, the poem ponders one of Larkin's recurrent themes - selfishness and selflessness. Specifically, whether the life Larkin leads is especially selfish and whether others, who appear more selfless, truly are.
 For extraneous reasons - Larkin's posthumous reputation as a 'racist' - the last two lines read oddly now, but back in 1967, of course, 'white' could be used unblushingly as a synonym for decent, honest and upright. As for the synaesthetic title, this is adapted from Gautier's Symbolist poem Symphonie en Blanc Majeur - a poem with which Larkin's has nothing else in common.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

End of Season

Sorry to be back on the butterflies so soon, but this will probably be the last lepidopteral post of the year - the weather is turning tomorrow, and September looms. Today, though, was warm again and, off and on, sunny, so I headed for my favourite hillside to see what I might find. I was hoping - hoping more than expecting - that I might see that lovely, late-flying chalk downland specialist, the Silver-Spotted Skipper.
 What greeted me was a glorious abundance of Adonis Blues - yes, again; I've never known such a year - and large numbers of that other, paler blue beauty, the Chalk-Hill Blue. There were also lots of busy little Brown Arguses, Small Heaths galore, and of course Meadow Browns everywhere (including a rather pretty aberration with creamy white patches on the forewings - I took a photo, but it was no good). But no Silver-Spotted Skippers - until, suddenly, from nowhere, there was one on the path, just a couple of yards ahead of me, its wings neatly folded to show off those silver spots (more spangles, really, than spots) against that subtle olive-green ground. Not for the first time this butterfly season, but perhaps for the last, I felt that sudden surge of joy and gratitude that every true butterfly lover knows.
 In the next couple of hours, I saw four more of these beautiful Skippers, all nectaring on Scabious. A glorious end to a wonderful season.

Monday, 28 August 2017

A Shorter Boswell

Here's a nice little book I picked up for almost nothing today at our local 'environmental fair', an annual event on which the wizened hippies of South London and beyond descend to savour the convivial Green vibe, the live music and the queue for the beer tent. For myself, my main objective was to buy some of the excellent local honey and a few other odds and ends - and to scan the book stalls. The above volume was my reward - A Shorter Boswell, edited with an introduction by John Bailey [not to be confused with the much later John Bayley], author of Dr Johnson and His Circle. Published by Nelson in 1925, A Shorter Boswell was in its 25th printing by the time of my copy (I'd guess late Fifties or early Sixties), so clearly a successful book, one of Nelson's The Teaching of English series. I guess it's a survival from the days when Boswell's Johnson was routinely taught in schools - as it wasn't even in my schooldays, more's the pity.
 Anyway, this little book contains nearly 200 choice passages from the great biography of the equally great man, and it seems to me perfectly adapted to settle in on my bedside bookshelf.

Sunday, 27 August 2017


Another excellent Point of View talk by Roger Scruton on Radio 4 this morning - this time on J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter novels. In my opinion, he over-praises their literary merit - when I tried one I found it literally unreadable - but his wider point about the impact of 'Potterism' is well made. I hadn't joined the dots between the magical thinking of Potterism and the 'soft socialism' of the snowflake generation, but it seems to make perfect sense. You can listen to the talk via this link...

Friday, 25 August 2017

All This Useless Beauty

Today was a warm and sunny day at last, after altogether too many cloudy ones, so I headed straight for Box Hill in the hope of seeing an Adonis Blue or two.
 I've written before about this dazzlingly beautiful little butterfly - arguably our most beautiful, at least for fans of the colour blue (like me). No other British butterfly is so intensely blue - it's like the iridescent blue of those big Morpho butterflies that grace every tropical butterfly house, but subtler, and often tending towards turquoise. The Adonis Blue is quite unmistakable (and unphotographable), and always a thrilling sight to see - and today I was blessed with a prodigious abundance of them. In the fields below the Box Hill viewpoint, so many were flying that I gave up counting - if I'd carried on, I'd have been well into triple figures by the time I headed back to the viewpoint and down the leisurely dip slope.
 I've never in my life seen so many Adonis Blues, or anything like as many. This was an afternoon to remember - one to inspire, in Nabokov's words about the ecstatic joy of being among butterflies, 'a thrill of gratitude to whom it may concern'. And there were even some slightly battered Chalkhill Blues as well - my first of the year.
 As if that wasn't enough, as I got off the return train, I looked up into the afternoon sky and saw a plane laying a vapour trail that happened to bisect the faintly visible new moon. As I was enjoying this sight, a familiar shape flew into view - a swift! Surely my last of the year.

As Orwell Didn't Say...

'The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.'
 This quotation, allegedly from George Orwell's 1984, is all over the social media at the moment, no doubt in response to the current wave of historical iconoclasm in the US. (Sometimes it's 'a people' instead of just 'people', which makes better sense.) The sentiment is one that Orwell, who knew plenty about the historical iconoclasm of the Soviet Union, might well have endorsed, but it seems he never wrote those words - certainly not in 1984 and, as far as anyone can discover, not in any other of his works.
 This appears to be one of those plausible misquotations/ misattributions that come from nowhere, as if by spontaneous generation, and spread, for a while, like wildfire. It doesn't really matter much: just as the internet enables these false quotations to suddenly emerge and spread, so it enables the vigilant to call them out promptly. However, if any of my erudite readers have any ideas or information about where this 'Orwell' quote came from, or indeed if it occurs in some obscure corner of his works, I'd be glad to know. One for you, Dave Lull?
 Meanwhile, here's another relevant quotation that I believe is genuine: 'I think little of people who will deny their history because it doesn't present the picture they would like.' That's George MacDonald Fraser, best known as the author of the Flashman novels.  Or is it?

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Harriet Like Harman

On Radio 4 this morning the ghastly Harriet Harman was looking back over her career in an interview with the ever courteous Peter Hennessy. It was the usual self-justifying spiel - The Perils of Little Hatty in the World of Big Nasty Men - and the only 'revelation' was that she now believed she would have beaten Ed Milliband to the Labour leadership if she had stood. Why didn't she? Well, by that time, you see, her self-esteem had been so thoroughly ground down by the patriarchy that it didn't occur to her that a woman, a mere woman, could hope to beat all those men. Yeah, sure.
 What struck me, though, as I clung to consciousness, was that Ms Harman has taken to dropping the word 'like' randomly into her discourse, in the manner of an inarticulate teenager rather than the QC she is. Does she realise she's doing this? Is it deliberate, a feeble attempt to sound like one of the common people? She never quite managed the full glottal stop (unlike those masters of the dropped 't', Messrs Blair and Osborne) - too nicely brought up, I daresay - so perhaps she's simply gone for the, like, easier option. I do hope she doesn't keep it up.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017


Ranking quite high among the things you don't expect to find on the pavement of a busy shopping street is surely a dead dragonfly. But there it was. At first I thought someone had dropped a rather gaudy bracelet, but a closer look showed that it was indeed a large, brilliantly coloured and newly dead dragonfly (a Southern Hawker, I think). I lifted it by one gauzy wing to take a closer look, and was inevitably reminded of the Grandaddy song The Group Who Couldn't Say, about a band of co-workers who win a day out in the countryside - in particular the verse
'Becky wondered why
She'd never noticed dragonflies
Her drag and click had never yielded
Anything as perfect as a dragonfly'

(How's that for an internal rhyme?)
Here's the whole song, one of the best on a great album, Sumday -

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Debussy Plays Debussy

The great composer Claude Debussy was born on this day in 1862.
 The other day I heard, on Radio 3, a rather lovely orchestral arrangement of his La Cathédrale Engloutie, a brilliant 'impressionistic' Prelude written for solo piano. How would Debussy himself, a fine pianist, have played the piece? Happily, thanks to the wonders of piano roll technology (a subject I've mentioned before), we have a pretty good idea. Enjoy...

Strange Goings-on on the Ponds

The other day I was walking along beside Carshalton's famous ponds when I noticed something surprising. Sitting atop the nest - a great pile of sticks and detritus - that a pair of Coots had built to raise their young was a female Tufted Duck and her brood of five ducklings, all huddled cosily together and looking perfectly at home. The Coots had sent their young out into the watery world some while back, so the nest had served its purpose - how cheering that it was now being put to good use for a second time by an unrelated species. What a fine example of mutually beneficial co-operation in the natural world...
  Half an hour later, passing by the ponds again, I saw that all had changed. The nest was now occupied by two burly adult Coots, looking about them with a decidedly proprietorial, not to say threatening, air. The family of Tufted Ducks was nowhere to be seen.
 We should never rely on Nature to live up to our amiable fantasies.

Monday, 21 August 2017

'I decided not to "write" at all': Willa Cather's O Pioneers!

It took me a long time to get round to Willa Cather, and it's taken me even longer to get round to her first novel (the first in her own voice, after a Jamesian flop) - O Pioneers!
  The first of her Great Plains trilogy (My Antonia is the last), it recounts the struggles of a Swedish family - led by the redoubtable Alexandra Bergson - as they try to make a living on the hostile prairie land of Nebraska. These struggles pay off handsomely, thanks to Alexandra's vision, but at a terrible human cost...  It's an extraordinary book, one that leaves you - well, left me - stunned, shaken and wondering, as always with Cather, how on earth she pulled it off.
 On the face of it, there is so much wrong with O Pioneers! - the faults of the first-timer, perhaps. An uncharitable reader could identify passages of stilted dialogue and lumpy exposition, a thinness of characterisation (as if the characters were in danger of being overwhelmed by those mighty Nebraska landscapes), a wild unevenness of tone, veering between intense lyricism and the plainest of plain speaking, between something like sentimentality and the starkest realism, and an under-writing of key events as if they were incidentals.
 However, I fancy that it is in these very faults (if you can call them that in the context of such a powerfully effective book) that the strength of the novel resides. Cather keeps you guessing, wrongfoots you, softens you up, then lands the punch that takes your breath away. It's a risky way of writing - you'd better be some kind of genius to try it - but, heavens, it comes off in the case of O Pioneers! It's not nearly as assured a performance as the equally remarkable My Antonia, but I'm sure it will live with me for just as long.
 Willa Cather said of O Pioneers! that 'I decided not to "write" at all, - simply to give myself up to the pleasure of recapturing in memory people and places I'd forgotten'. And that's how it reads - 'like a memory, almost,' to quote a New Yorker centennial review, 'rather than a representation'.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

The Iniquity of Oblivion

Yesterday my researches took me deep into Essex, to visit an extraordinary monument in the church of Holy Cross, Felsted. It's almost certainly by the great Epiphanius Evesham and it commemorates the 1st and 2nd Barons Rich. I'll spare you the details, but suffice to say that it's a magnificent monument, beautifully designed and executed, with a grand architectural framework, brilliantly modelled figures of the two Barons, father and son, and a range of panels demonstrating Evesham's skills in relief carving and in incised design. The impact is stunning - not for the first time when encountering Evesham's work, I gasped audibly - and, at the same time, decidedly unsettling.
 Look at the 1st Baron Rich [above], who reclines in his Lord Chancellor's robes of office atop the chest tomb - that's not a face you can examine for long without a growing uneasiness. It certainly isn't the face - or the pose - of a man serenely awaiting the afterlife. It seems to be an all too vivid portrait of an angry, impatient man. Rebarbative is the word that comes to mind (reinforced by that absurdly long beard). This is no portrait, though - the 1st Baron R died in 1567. Nor is it a portrait of the son, the 2nd Baron [below], who died in 1581. He kneels at the head of the tomb chest, with one arm missing and his detached left hand, holding his right gauntlet, lying eerily on the plinth of the monument.

The much delayed monument was finally erected some 40 years after the death of the 2nd Baron, the issue having been forced by the 3rd Baron, who stipulated in his will that his illustrious grandfather and father should have their memorial within 18 months of his (the 3rd Baron's) death.
 So, who was the 1st Baron Rich, whose unsettling non-likeness dominates this magnificent monument? He was, even by the standards of the Tudor court, a notably unscrupulous and ruthless operator, of whom no one had a good word to say in his lifetime or since. He not only survived but thrived, amassing wealth and titles, through the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary Tudor and on into the early years of Elizabeth. His modus operandi was to get close to the most powerful personages, then betray and abandon them as soon as it became expedient and move on to the next rising power. He sedulously persecuted Catholics and Protestants alike, as the wind blew, and even participated in torture himself, turning the wheel of the rack on the unfortunate Anne Askew, the only woman ever to have been tortured in the Tower of London. There's a colourful account of the worst of his misdeeds here...
 And yet he lies memorialised by the greatest monument-maker of his time, in his grandest surviving monument. Truly (as Sir Thomas Browne wrote), 'the iniquity of oblivion blindly scattereth her poppy, and deals with the memory of men without distinction to merit of perpetuity.'

Friday, 18 August 2017

Marble Motels, Shorter Years

On this day in 1958, Lolita was finally published in the United States, by Putnam's, after four other publishers had nervously turned it down. The nervousness was understandable: Lolita had been widely denounced as pornographic, and banned in France and the UK. When, in 1959, it was published in the UK by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, it effectively ended the political career of partner Nigel Nicolson (father of Adam).
 In the US, Lolita was an instant best-seller on a heroic scale, selling 100,000 copies in its first three weeks - and surely disappointing many thousands of hopeful smut hounds. In a Time interview, Nabokov, now a celebrity, declared that his real interest was not in nymphets but in motels: 'I would like to have a chain of motels - made of marble. I would put one every ten minutes along the highway, and I would travel from one to another with my butterfly net.'
 Checking the dates, I realise that when I first read Lolita, ten years after it came out in the UK, I was at the same distance in time from the first publication of Howards End, Clayhanger and The History of Mr Polly as I am now from the US publication of Lolita. Those post-Lolita years seem so very much shorter.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

A Mistake

I recently reread Eça de Queiroz's wonderful novella The Yellow Sofa - about which I've written elsewhere - and, finding that I loved it as much as ever, thought I'd seek out some more of his shorter fictions. I soon found a volume, published by Dedalus, titled Alves & Co and Other Stories and, as it was going for a song, I happily snapped it up. Only to discover that Alves & Co is the selfsame Yellow Sofa under a different title.
 If I still had a functioning memory for names, I might have recalled that Alves & Co is the family firm of Godofredo da Conceição Alves, the (less than heroic) hero of The Yellow Sofa. Ah well - at least, by buying this volume, I discovered that Dedalus, an enterprising small press based in Cambridgeshire, also publish translations of many of Eça de Queiroz's other works. I'll be on the look-out for them now, taking care not to repeat my mistake.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017


Here's something I wrote about Strawberry Hill House for superior interior specialists Pooky.

One More, and Back to England

Good news from Dieppe's other historic church, St Rémy, where a wholesale, long overdue restoration is now under way. Among the first fruits is the lady chapel [above], restored to its former splendour. If the rest of the church lives up to that, it will be quite something - and it might well be finished before the seemingly never-ending restoration of St Jacques is complete. But there’s a long way to go, and many of St Rémy’s side chapels have been, er, awaiting attention for some while [below].


Back in England, we got on the train at Newhaven, that deeply dismal point of arrival, and I took a window seat from which to enjoy the passing scenery. Immediately a burly, stubble-chinned fellow in a below-the-knee floral print cotton dress piped up, informing me, at length, just how ‘rubbish’ the trains on that line are. They should have been scrapped and replaced years ago, he declared - although it would be a waste of time as the replacement rolling stock is rubbish too.
 Moving the conversation deftly along, he asked me what kind of day I’d had, expressing the hope – nay, expectation – that it had been better than his. I mentioned Dieppe and he expressed the hope – nay, conviction – that it was ‘better than this place’. I endeavoured to enjoy the landscape sliding by the window – sheep grazing in the river valley, a horizon of rounded hills, stocky church spires rising among trees – but by the time we got to Lewes he had also assured me that, in fifty years, all that would be gone and there would be nothing but houses. Welcome to England.

Friday, 11 August 2017


Also seen in a side chapel of St Jacques, Dieppe, awaiting who knows what.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Two Tablets, One Story

In a side chapel (La Chapelle des Noyés) of the magnificent church of St Jacques in Dieppe - a church whose much-needed restoration proceeds slowly - I noticed a tablet in memory of the priest Jacques Hamel. Père Hamel was butchered in his old age by a Jihadist fanatic, while celebrating mass at his church in St-Etienne-de-Rouvray. A few yards to the right of his tablet is one in memory of another priest, Clement Briche, who was guillotined in the public square of Dieppe in 1794, a victim of equally fanatical revolutionaries acting in the name of Reason and Enlightenment. The two tablets make a poignant pairing, and a sad reminder of what human beings are capable of when gripped by an Idea that seems to demand the death of all those who do not share it.
 The name Hamel appears on another tablet in the same chapel, this one celebrating the brothers Jean and Charles Hamel, who in 1656 sailed from their native Dieppe to start a new life in Quebec. Several other families are similarly celebrated, in tablets put up by their present-day descendants in Canada. I used to read such things with interest but no particular emotion, until a visit to Quebec a few years ago - and, especially, a reading of Willa Cather's wonderful novel of 17th-century Quebec, Shadows on the Rock - made me realise just what it meant to leave one life behind and try to establish a new one on an alien shore. Fiction, as ever, tells us far more than history can.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

D***** Time Again

Alert regulars might have noticed that it's been a full ten months since I was last in Dieppe - was this going to be that rare thing, a Dieppeless year? The answer is of course no: Mrs N and I are heading that way again tomorrow (after overnighting in Lewes), taking the big lumbering ferry from Newhaven in the early morning.
 It now takes longer to get from London to Dieppe than it did in the later 19th century, when there were boat trains and fast and frequent steam packets delivering les Anglais smoothly into the heart of the old town, within yards of the restaurants on the Quai Henri IV. Even in the 1990s, as I remember, it was still possible to nip over to Dieppe for lunch and return in the early evening... Ah well, at least the ferry - unlike so many others - is still running.
 I might be filing the odd report from Dieppe, but if not I should be back in action some time next week.

Monday, 7 August 2017

God: Certainly a Gentleman

In the closing years of the 19th century, the young Somerset Maugham was befriended by the elderly Augustus Hare and paid several visits to the eminent Victorian's home, near Hastings. Here Hare followed the morning routine that was still standard in the great houses of the time, reading prayers and passages from the Bible to the assembled guests and servants before the hearty breakfast was broached.
 Maugham noted that some of the prayers were not spoken in the familiar form, and discovered that the book used by Hare had been edited, certain phrases being removed. When Maugham asked his host why this was, Hare replied: 'I've crossed out all the passages in glorification of God. God is certainly a gentleman, and no gentleman cares to be praised to his face. It is tactless, impertinent and vulgar. I think all that fulsome adulation must be highly offensive to him.'
 I rather think my father (whose mindset was decidedly Edwardian) would have endorsed the idea of God as a 'gentleman' - though he would surely have added the adjective 'English'.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Suspected Resident

One of these strange creatures was nectaring on the Buddleia outside my bedroom window this morning. It's a Hummingbird Hawk Moth - a moth that looks and behaves like a cross between a Hummingbird and a Bee Fly (Bombylius). The wings are a blur, while the body hangs in the air absolutely static and the long tongue probes deep into the flower. It moves with all the suddenness of a hoverfly, here one second, somewhere else the next, with no visible movement from A to B. And, of course, unlike most hawk moths, it's day-flying. It's quite common and widespread in the UK, but it's still a strange and wonderful sight. Butterfly Conservation UK lists its status as 'Immigrant, suspected resident' - let's hope it's not in breach of regulations.

Friday, 4 August 2017

Larry Knechtel

Born on this day in 1940 was the great keyboard player and all-round musician Larry Knechtel, a core member of Phil Spector's legendary Wrecking Crew - probably the greatest-ever concentration of talent in one band - and, later, of Bread. Knechtel worked with everyone: that's him on piano in Simon and Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water (a turn that won him a Grammy), on keyboards in the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, and on bass in the Byrds' Mr Tambourine Man. And, among much else, Knechtel played keyboards on John Phillips' ill-fated solo album (along with James Burton, Buddy Emmons and Red Rhodes on guitars, Joe Osborn on bass and Hal Blaine on drums - what a band). Phillips deeply disliked the album (though it contains much of his best work) and thought it would have sounded better if his voice had been mixed out altogether. Well, with those musicians, it would certainly have sounded good - but who'd be without a song like this?

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

What Happened?

In Bloxham church, Oxfordshire, Sir John Thornycroft (d. 1725) reclines at ease, perfectly confident that the life to come will be every bit as agreeable as the present one, with frequent toga parties and ample opportunities for him to strike elegant poses and coin equally elegant bons mots. Pevsner describes the figure of Sir John, in periwig and 'diaphanous draperies', as 'effete' - and so he is, but his monument is sadly typical of an unfortunate phase in the history of English church monuments.
  The chapel that Sir John's monument attempts to dominate is a beautiful building, lit by large and magnificent Perpendicular windows. Its builders could have had no conception that it would one day house a monument of such absurd pretension (and such entire lack of any Christian content). What happened? And, more to the point, what happened in the decades between the golden age of English church monuments - the age of Evesham and Stone and the great artists from the low countries - and the coming into fashion of overblown Baroque monuments of this type?
 I guess the answer to that is the Civil War and the Restoration, a period that brought about a revolution in taste and attitudes. However, it still seems extraordinary that English men (and women) could suddenly regard it as perfectly normal to pose for their monuments in Roman dress, quite at ease in an imagined version of classical antiquity, as if nothing had happened between Roman times and the new Augustan age - except that periwigs came into fashion. No wonder there was, eventually, a reaction against these excesses in the form of an austere and 'correct' classicism. Being alien to the English temperament, however, this did not last long before the revivalist excesses of the Victorians swept it away, beginning the last great flowering of monument-making. After which - or in the course of which - this once great English art form went into decline and petered out.

I came across the Thornycroft monument in the course of a very fine church-crawl that took in three of Oxfordshire's finest - St Mary Bloxham, St Peter and St Paul Deddington, and St Mary Adderbury. After that I spent a few days with my cousin in Derbyshire where, among other things, I enjoyed a cello and piano performance in the magnificent setting of the StarDisc, and a muddy but very wonderful walk along the beautiful Chee Dale - that's a part of it below.

Thursday, 27 July 2017


The day before yesterday I was picking blackberries on Mitcham Common, just yards from the thunderous main road, when I noticed something rather grey and moth-like fluttering around on the bramble patch. It was only when it (she, in fact) settled on a nearby leaf and folded its wings in a most unmothlike manner that I suddenly realised what it was. To quote myself on an earlier occasion - my friends, it was a Purple Hairstreak! A female, the upperside duller and browner than the male, but the underwing, with those subtle washes of greys, the thin meandering 'hairstreak', the tiny orange 'eyes' and tail, was unmistakable. A glorious surprise.
  Equally unmistakable was the Clouded Yellow that I saw a little later as it flew away from the trees and off over the golf course at high speed. This is a summer visitor that, if it turns up at all, can turn up anywhere (I once spotted one at South Mimms service station), and most years I count myself lucky if I see one at all. Last year I didn't - but that, of course, was the Year of the Hairstreak...
  The blackberries were delicious.

But enough of butterflies and blackberries - I'm off to Oxfordshire tomorrow, then to various parts of Mercia for a few days. There will probably be a brief hiatus. Enjoy it while it lasts.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Ha! Ha! Among the Trumpets

'The common people do not understand poetry, are shy of poetry,  and though they have been taught to admire the true poets of the past are loath to admit that the race is not yet extinct. This is why very little work by living poets has a wide circulation except what is comfortably third-hand and third-rate. The people are not to be blamed: their difficulty is that despite all the charlatans, racketeers and incompetents who have disgraced the poetic profession, an aroma of holiness still clings to the title 'poet', as it does to the titles 'saint' and 'hero', both of which are properly reserved for the dead. It is only when death releases the true poet from the embarrassing condition of being at once immortal and alive in the flesh that the people are prepared to honour him...'
 They don't write Forewords like that any more. It's the opening of Robert Graves's foreword to the war poet Alun Lewis's posthumous collection Ha! Ha! Among the Trumpets (published 1945, the year after the poet's untimely death). I picked it up in a charity shop on my recent visit to Egham. The title is from the Book of Job: 'He [the horse] saith among the trumpets, Ha, ha; and he smelleth the battle afar off, the thunder of the captains, and the shouting.'
 Alun Lewis is best known for the much anthologised All Day It Has Rained, a poem with something of an Edward Thomas flavour (written, in fact, in Edward Thomas country), and the touching Goodbye, which is in the Ha! Ha! volume. So too is Song (on seeing dead bodies floating off the Cape), an extraordinary, death-soaked poem that was the first of Lewis's I ever read:

The first month of his absence
I was numb and sick
And where he’d left his promise
Life did not turn or kick.
The seed, the seed of love was sick
The second month my eyes were sunk
In the darkness of despair,
And my bed was like a grave
And his ghost was lying there.
And my heart was sick with care.
The third month of his going
I thought I heard him say
‘Our course deflected slightly
On the thirty-second day – ’
The tempest blew his words away.
And he was lost among the waves,
His ship rolled helpless in the sea,
The fourth month of his voyage
He shouted grievously
‘Beloved, do not think of me.’
The flying fish like kingfishers
Skim the sea’s bewildered crests,
The whales blow steaming fountains,
The seagulls have no nests
Where my lover sways and rests.
We never thought to buy and sell
This life that blooms or withers in the leaf,
And I’ll not stir, so he sleeps well,
Though cell by cell the coral reef
Builds an eternity of grief.
But oh! the drag and dullness of my Self;
The turning seasons wither in my head;
All this slowness, all this hardness,
The nearness that is waiting in my bed,
The gradual self-effacement of the dead.
Lewis, initially a reluctant soldier (he was a pacifist and joined up as an engineer), inexplicably took a commission in an infantry battalion and was sent to India, then Burma. This gave him the material for many of the poems in his last collection, but the depression that had always dogged him grew worse - perhaps exacerbated by a love affair in India (he was married) - and he died not in combat but by his own hand. He was just 28.