Saturday, 21 January 2017

Say What?

At the top of the BBC's 10 o'Clock News coverage of the Inauguration, their man in Washington, the lugubrious Jon Sopel, pronounced it 'a scenario few thought scarcely possible'.
 Presumably he meant 'a scenario most thought scarcely possible' or 'a scenario few thought possible'. Seems the BBC is still so dazed and confused by the way the world is going at the moment that it's having trouble making sense - or the sense intended anyway.
 There were reports too that part of the live coverage was subtitled with captions from the children's drama series The Dumping Ground (with curious results).
 Ah well, this was never going to be the BBC's finest hour, and it is not to the BBC that sensible people turn at times like these. Me, I can't help it - I'm strangely addicted to the dreadful News at Ten, come what may.

Friday, 20 January 2017

A Century of Poems

My latest charity shop find was a slim little paperback titled A Century of Poems, published by the TLS in 2002 to celebrate its centenary. It is, as you might have guessed, an anthology of poems published in the TLS in the course of its first century of existence, but it's not in the form of 'a poem a year' - partly because the TLS published no poems between 1917 and 1936, and partly because some of the early poetical contributions were too dire to merit reprinting. Things picked up with the Second World War (both Keith Douglas and Alun Lewis are represented, also Alan Pryce-Jones), which was followed by phases in which the TLS became fixated on translated verse and on American poetry, before settling down in the Seventies to publishing something more or less like the best stuff being written in the British Isles (Geoffrey Hill's The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy was published in its entirety in the TLS, and is represented here by an excerpt).
 Some of the poems in the anthology were published posthumously in the TLS - including this fine piece by Ivor Gurney, written around 1926 and resurrected by Geoffrey Grigson in 1978):

 Going Out at Dawn
Strange to see that usual dark road paving wet
With shallow dim reflecting rain pools, looking
To north, where light all night stayed and dawn braving yet
Capella hung, above dark elms unshaking, no silence breaking,
And still to dawn night’s ugliness owed no debt.
About eleven from the touch of the drear raining,
I had gone in to Shakespeare and my own writing,
Seen the lovely lamplight in golden shining,
And resolved to move no more till dawn made whitening
Between the shutter-chinks, or by the door mat.
Yet here at five, an hour before day was alive . . .
Behold me walking to where great elm trees drip
Melancholy slow streams of rain water, on the too wet
Traveller, to pass them, watching and then return,
Writing Sonata or Quartett with a candle dip.

  I shall be returning to this anthology - there's some wonderful stuff in it.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Retroprogressive News

I must admit I was delighted to discover that there are now freight trains running from China all the way to Barking. Perhaps I'm being naive - this is, after all, part of Xi Jinping's plans for a new Silk Road and his 'One Belt, One Road' policy (whatever that means - just one of each? No braces? No sideroads?) - but I love the idea of long freight trains trundling across China, though Kazakhstan and Russia, Belarus and Poland, into Germany and France and then on through the Channel tunnel to England (and, by way of Duisburg, into Spain and Italy). We retroprogressives must rejoice that this is - despite the best efforts of Southern Rail, ASLEF and the RMT - the age of the train (as the late Jimmy Savile used to assure us back in the Seventies, thereby delaying its coming by several decades).
 While I was on the BBC News website, I was of course unable to resist the sidebar item teasingly  titled 'Remember These? Where have all the courgettes gone?' This turns out to be a fine example of BBC News house style, a story stretched thinner than filo pastry over paragraph after paragraph. (Nutshell version: Cold wet weather in Spain and Italy.) I particularly like the sentence 'He is awaiting delivery of a lorry load of courgettes which should have arrived on Wednesday but will not be in the UK until Friday.' Well, thank heavens I have a courgette in the fridge. Perhaps I'll put it up on eBay and see what happens...

Cézanne: 'a new link'

Here's something warming for a chilly winter morning - pine trees and rooftops in Mediterranean light, as only Cézanne could paint them.
 The artist was born on this day in 1839. His work is a shining example of how a genuinely new art is achieved not by breaking with all that has gone before but by absorbing it and building on it, enriching not terminating the tradition. 'One does not substitute oneself for the past,' he wrote, 'one merely adds to it a new link.' Wise words, as were his advice to his fellow artists: 'Keep good company - that is, go to the Louvre.'
 By extension, this becomes the best advice to those who would be writers: 'Keep good company - read the classics.'

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Harriet: A Cold Hand

When I tried the page 117 trick the other day to see what 2017 held for me, the book that came to hand was Harriet, the latest novel by Elizabeth Jenkins (see here and here) that I've tracked down.
 Like Dr Gully, Harriet is a fictional treatment of a Victorian murder case. Unlike Dr Gully, it is one of the most harrowing books I have ever read. The case it is based on - dubbed the 'Penge mystery' - caused a sensation at the time, involving as it did the apparent starving to death of a young woman by members of her family eager to get their hands on her inheritance. The worst of it was that the young woman, the Harriet of the title, was a 'natural' (or, as we would say today, had 'learning difficulties'). Her mother had raised her with care and affection, encouraging her to dress well and present a good front to the world (that's her in the photograph, posing for her engagement portrait), and she spent a good deal of time staying with various family members, who were glad enough of the money they were paid to look after her. All was well until a handsome and utterly ruthless fortune hunter with connections to the family found out about her inheritance, wooed and married her, in the teeth of fierce opposition from Harriet's mother, who could do nothing to stop him...
 The facts of the real-life 'Penge mystery' are not entirely clear-cut (as evidenced by a successful appeal against the initial death sentences on all the defendants), but Elizabeth Jenkins sees in the case a stark and terrible lesson about the depths of evil to which outwardly normal, quite decent people are capable of sinking. She drives the lesson home by establishing the comfortable milieu in which Harriet, when we first see her, is settled, and by depicting the characters around her as normally, humanly, fallible, with normal human weaknesses, no more. There is a hint of danger in one of them - Patrick, an aspiring painter, self-centred and short-fused - and, more obviously, in Lewis, the brother who hero-worships him. Lewis it is who single-mindedly sets his sights on marrying Harriet and getting his hands on her money. Once he has done so, that comfortable milieu dissolves away and Harriet is gradually drawn into a wholly alien world of deprivation, degradation and suffering.
 The events that unfold are, as they draw near their terrible denouement, almost too painful to read. The pain is less in the details of Harriet's ordeal, hideous though they are, than in the depiction of the steady growth, in those supposed to be looking after her, of an ability to regard her as something less than human, something whose suffering and fate are a matter of indifference. The novel was published in 1934, and reading it I couldn't help but think of how a similar process was about to unfold across Europe ('and the seas of pity lie, Locked and frozen in each eye'), as quite ordinary people found it easy enough to believe that certain of their fellow humans were untermenschen who could be mistreated and killed without compunction. I also found myself thinking of more recent events, particularly of the horrific cases of child neglect, starvation and cruelty that are continually coming to light...
 In Harriet, Jenkins's vision of humanity is bleak indeed - which wouldn't be so unbearable if she wasn't such a damned good writer, with the gift of drawing you into an entirely convincing world. A review in The Observer described this novel as 'like a cold hand clutching at the heart' - and that, for once, is no overstatement.

Monday, 16 January 2017

Pooky Alert

A piece I wrote about the extraordinary Linley Sambourne House (now officially 18 Stafford Terrace) has come up on Pooky, the splendid interiors and lighting website.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Found - and Lost

A while back, I passed on a comment from an alert reader who pointed out that, despite the evident Dutch love of flowers and flower painting, the painted interiors of the Golden Age are strangely lacking in flowers, with not so much as a bowl of tulips or a few blooms from the garden in evidence in any of the paintings any of us could think of. We kicked around a few theories about their absence, but no one came up with an exception to the rule.
 Well, yesterday I was in the marvellous Dulwich Picture Gallery and I found one - a Golden Age Dutch interior painting featuring a bowl of flowers. It was Gerrit Dou's Woman Playing the Clavichord, a lovely piece of work in which colours, textures and the fall of light are all perfectly harmonised - and there, on the windowsill, at the far left of the picture space, is a vase of flowers. It's a glass vase full of quite humble-looking white, blue, red and yellow flowers, catching the clear strong light of the world outside. Is it on the windowsill for artistic effect, or was this standard practice, at least on fine days? Who knows? The fact remains that Dutch interior paintings rarely show flowers on display - but I was glad to find this beautiful exception.
 After the Picture Gallery, I walked to the library where, in an earlier life, I spent the best part of fifteen years working in the reference department. I hadn't revisited the place in at least ten years, and was pleased to find that the library was still in business and apparently doing a brisk trade. The lending library was impressively full of books - something you can't count on these days - sensibly classified and well displayed, with thematic selections, recommendations, etc. The only staff to be seen were two dejected men and a 'Saturday girl', whereas in my day there would have been eight or ten dejected persons of both sexes - but that was before barcodes and scanners took over. Otherwise, this was still recognisably the same library I had known a quarter of a century ago.
 Upstairs, however, in what had been the Reference Library and was now a Study Area, all was changed, change utterly. What had been quite a complicated layout was now but one large open space, lined with books and filled with tables at which students toiled away, with no sign of the kind of people who used to haunt the old reference library, reading the papers, scanning encyclopaedias, muttering to themselves, snoozing, keeping warm... I could no longer work out the interior geography, not even where the desk had been at which I spent so many hours working (mostly, I must admit, on my various extracurricular projects). No need for an office desk now, in this unstaffed space.
 Somewhat disoriented and unable to work out quite what had been done to the old place, I made my way downstairs, and out into the chilly dusk.