Friday, 21 October 2016


I am up in Derbyshire just now (what, again? Yes, again). But meanwhile a piece by me about Sir John Soane's Museum is up on the website of Pooky, interiors and lighting mavens extraordinaire.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016


Your starter for ten. What do all these words have in common?

ambidextrous, antediluvian, analogous, approximate, ascetic, anomalous,
carnivorous, coexistence, coma, compensate, computer, cryptography, cylindrical,
disruption, electricity, exhaustion, ferocious, follicle, generator, gymnastic,
hallucination, herbaceous, holocaust, insecurity, indigenous, jocularity,
literary, locomotion, medical, migrant, mucous, prairie, prostate, polarity,
precocious, pubescent, 
suicide, therapeutic, ulterior, ultimate, veterinarian.

Rather amazingly, every one of them was coined by Sir Thomas Browne, who was born on this day in 1605 and died, with exemplary symmetry, on the same day in 1682. Browne has, indeed, a total of 775 entries in the OED for first use of a word - not all of them as useful, or as lasting, as those above. Even if he had not written his great works - Hydriotaphia (Urn Burial), Religio Medici and the vast and strange Pseudodoxia Epidemica (Vulgar Errors) - he would have earned some fame in the world of words.
Sir Thomas was also, very probably, the first man to say 'I am the happiest man alive.' And, from what we know of his life and character and can adduce from his portrait, it seems likely to have been true.

Monday, 17 October 2016

English Beauty

Today I thought I'd drop in on the V&A to take a look at the Opus Anglicanum exhibition.
 Opus Anglicanum - English work - is the name given to the extraordinarily high-quality embroidery that was produced in this country from the 12th to the 15th century and was in demand all over Europe and beyond. I wasn't expecting this exhibition to detain me long, but I thought I'd go along as there's not likely to be another on such a scale for many years - these pieces are extremely delicate and rare and seldom allowed to travel. As things turned out, I spent the best part of an hour and half exploring Opus Anglicanum.
 The thing is, these pieces - especially the church vestments - are just so beautiful. In design, drawing, colour and composition they are way beyond anything being done in painting, at least in this country - and it is all achieved with fantastically delicate and intricate stitching of coloured silks and gold and silver thread. The first exhibit you see, the Bologna Cope, is an absolute stunner, and in a wonderful state of preservation, considering it's 700 years old. Each panel is a little masterpiece, every detail is full of life (that's an incidental angel below) - it's altogether astonishing. And there is  more to come, of comparable quality - copes, chasubles, orphreys, dalmatics (it pays to increase your word power...). There's a cope from the Vatican, no less, another from Toledo, there's an extraordinarily beautiful Tree of Jesse from Lyon, there's even English work from as far afield as Iceland.
However closely I examined these glorious pieces I could hardly believe that such effects had been created with nothing more that stitches in cloth. The explanatory labels, with their talk of underside couching, split stitch and stem stitch, did little to enlighten me, and even a video installation showing the stitches being made was not much help. The whole thing seems all but miraculous. It's a wonderful exhibition.
 When I eventually tottered out - through the gift shop, inevitably - I was immediately hit by a blast of Whiter Shade of Pale, a symptom of the V&A's concurrent Sixties exhibition, You Say You Want a Revolution? Not me, thanks.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

From the Stacks to the Stage

Jean Alexander, the great character actress who played Hilda Ogden in Coronation Street for many years, has died, just three days after her 90th birthday. I was delighted to learn that, before she took up acting, Jean Alexander was a librarian, and she continued to be an active supporter of public libraries all her life. A librarian going into showbiz! That doesn't often happen, though I did once meet Caron Wheeler (later of Soul II Soul) when she was a Saturday library assistant. She didn't look like a career librarian to me...
 Plenty of writers were also librarians, of course - Philip Larkin, Anne Tyler, Angus Wilson, etc - but have there been any actors, other than Jean Alexander, who began as librarians? Don't say Elizabeth Taylor - it was the other one, the writer. Over to you, Dave Lull?

Friday, 14 October 2016

A Bit More Bobness

Since the Dylan Nobel brouhaha is still going on, even on this blog, let me add this suggestion of another way of looking at Dylan's lyrics. Those who claim him as a bona fide poet always seem to support their case by quoting his most obviously, showily 'poetical' songs, such wordy, image-packed epics as Desolation Row, Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands or Stuck Inside of Mobile (all damned fine, indeed wonderful songs). I would suggest that Dylan actually comes closest to writing words that can stand on their own when he stays closest to ballad form. In particular I'd opine that the album John Wesley Harding contains not only some of his most perfect songs but some of his finest words - all the best of them in simple, concentrated ballad form. I Dreamed I Saw Saint Augustine, I Pity the Poor Immigrant... Of course they're better when they're sung, but those words on their own pack quite a punch, don't they?

All but forgotten: Elizabeth Jenkins

Does the name Elizabeth Jenkins ring any bells? It didn't with me when it came up on my last visit to my favourite bookshop (The Bookshop in Wirksworth). The proprietor had just sold an Elizabeth Jenkins and was pleasantly surprised to find that she was still being read. Elizabeth who? I asked, and he gave me the basics - distinguished writer, up there with the other Elizabeths, Bowen and Taylor, in her day, widely read and highly regarded. And now all but forgotten.
 She had in fallen out of fashion long before she died, at the extraordinary age of 104, in 2010 (she published a memoir in her 100th year). She was a prolific writer - of biographies and historical studies as well as novels - but, held back by her diffident nature, she did little to sustain her career, shunning all publicity and self-promotion (she would have sunk like a stone in today's literary world). Happily, though, one novel of hers - The Tortoise and the Hare - was rediscovered by Carmen Callil and republished as a Virago Modern Classic. This remains the only Elizabeth Jenkins novel that is easily available. Naturally I bought it, and have now read it. It is startlingly good.
 The Tortoise and the Hare, published in 1954, relates the break-up of a marriage - a common enough subject, but handled with rare imaginative flair and originality. Imogen is the beautiful, sensitive young wife of Evelyn Gresham, a handsome, brilliant and successful barrister with a high opinion of himself and a strong sense of entitlement, neither of which his compliant wife has done anything to dent. The Greshams have plenty of money, a big house in Berkshire and a place in town, a loyal cook, and a standard of living that might make today's readers blink in disbelief. But are they happy? Of course they are not.
 The opening paragraph sets the tone - indeed it tells you almost all you need to know about these two and their relationship:
 'The sunlight of late September filled the pale, formal streets between Portland Place and Manchester Square. The sky was a burning blue yet the still air was chill. A gold chestnut fan sailed down from some unseen tree and tinkled on the pavement. In the small antique-dealer's a strong shaft of sunlight, cloudy with whirling gold-dust, penetrated the collection of red lacquer and tortoiseshell, ormolu and morocco. Imogen Gresham held a mug in her bare hands; it was a pure sky blue, decorated with a pattern of raised wheat ears, of the kind known in country districts as a 'harvester'. Her eye absorbed the colour and her fingers the moulding of the wheat. Her husband however saw that there was a chip at the base of the mug, from which cracks meandered up the inside like rivers on a map.
 'You don't want that, surely, ' he exclaimed. 'It would come apart in no time.' He turned abruptly to the window through which he could see his car standing at the kerb. Imogen with bent head slowly put down the mug...'
 Imogen has not told Evelyn that she wanted to buy something as a favour to the antique-shop's elderly proprietor, who is on his uppers. It wouldn't have cut any ice with him if she had.
 What that opening also demonstrates is Elizabeth Jenkins' ability as a descriptive writer. There are some arrestingly beautiful passages in the book, especially describing effects of light on water - the Greshams' Berkshire home is on the river, with water all around (and a key scene towards the end takes place on the Thames by Tower Bridge, after a riverboat trip). Jenkins is a writer highly attentive to surroundings, both outdoors and in. She is also highly attentive to the movements of Imogen's mind and emotions as the story unfolds and she begins to realise - but not before it is too late - what is going on between Evelyn and the wildly improbable, therefore easily dismissed, 'other woman'.
 This is Blanche Silcox, tweedy, frumpy, older than Evelyn, pillar of village society, spinster, wearer of ludicrous hats, but wealthy, capable, knowledgable in practical affairs and strong-minded. It is in those last attributes - all of which Imogen lacks - that Blanche's fatal attraction lies. With Imogen we have to watch in horror as Blanche gradually engulfs Evelyn's life, leaving no room for his wife. Imogen's passivity, her failure to force a crisis and 'have it out' with Evelyn before it is too late, is at once deeply frustrating and entirely believable. Blanche Silcox has outflanked her, defeating her on her own ground. When it becomes clear that Evelyn 'adores' Blanche and even finds her more sexually satisfying than Imogen, it is all over. Imogen cannot fight back. As a male friend remarks, bluntly summing up the debacle, 'Women who are attractive in that sort of way, it's their thing. They never think about anything else, practically. That's why they're such good value, up to a point. But an affront to that side of them, and they're beaten to the floor. It wouldn't occur to them to try to patch the thing up...'
 As it happens, there is an element of autobiography in The Tortoise and the Hare. Elizabeth Jenkins, a beautiful, sensitive woman herself, was dumped by a married lover (a man quite as distinguished and self-important as Evelyn Gresham) in favour of a rival every bit as improbable as Blanche Silcox. The novel was written in a burst of creative frenzy in the immediate aftermath, though you'd never guess that it was written at speed. Jenkins is an elegant stylist, very much in the Jane Austen mould (she wrote a well-thought-of biography of Austen and was a founder of the Jane Austen Society) - and her perception is similarly sharp and often merciless. The novel includes some extremely caustic descriptions of 'progressive' and 'arty' types, and there is a thoroughly Austenesque skewering of a featherbrained babbler along the way.
 There is a decent range of well drawn, sympathetic secondary characters, providing some necessary shifts of viewpoint away from the unhappy Imogen. She, however, remains the centre of our fascinated, sometimes appalled interest, and it is her desperate situation that draws us in. The Tortoise and the Hare is a remarkable novel, and I have no argument with those who rate it as one of the classics of postwar English fiction. I'm certainly going to keep my eyes peeled for more Elizabeth Jenkins - she is a writer far too good to be forgotten.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

His Bobness

I guess I'd better get my twopenn'orth in on the subject du jour - the sensational news that Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. This is, if nothing else, a capital joke (who said the Swedes have no sense of humour?) and I'm sure Dylan will take it in that spirit. This particular Nobel prize has long been one kind of joke, and now it is another.
  Though I yield to no man (unless he is called Bryan Appleyard) in my admiration for Dylan's work, I have not for a very long time mistaken that work for literature. Dylan is a songwriter of rare, indeed unique, genius, but songs are what he writes - not poems, not literature (pace Christopher Ricks). It's great that he has won, but probably better to think that what he's won is the Nobel Prize for Bobness. It was high time.