Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Betjeman Again: 'a whim of iron'

Watching last night's BBC4 documentary Return to Betjemanland, I was struck by a phrase used by Antony Powell to describe Betjeman: he had, said Powell, 'a whim of iron'. It's just the phrase to describe the mix of cuddly insouciance and steely purpose in Betjeman's personality - and, by extension, the tension in his verse between whimsy and something very much darker. No doubt Powell thought of the phrase himself, but it seems it was in circulation, having been attributed to Oliver Herford, 'the American Oscar Wilde', who is supposed to have said that his wife 'has a whim of iron'. Curiously the phrase also crops up in a song by the contemporary American folk singer Slaid Cleaves: 
 'She had a whim of iron.
 You couldn't tell her no.
 And if you did she'd prove you wrong
 And say - I told you so!'
Anyhoo, Return to Betjemanland was a solid job, presented by the ever more parsonical A.N. Wilson in a brown three-piece tweed suit of antiquated cut. He took us on a pleasing tour of the familiar landmarks, aided by dips into the extensive Betjeman TV archive, and it was all very enjoyable. Only towards the end did the tone darken, and Wilson was unflinching in exploring the dark underside of Betjeman's glittering surface - the well earned guilt, the secrets, the self-doubt, the literary and social insecurity, the complicated love life... The very things, I suppose, that put the iron in his whimsy.

Monday, 1 September 2014

In the Slow Lane

I was delighted to learn that the Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources has finally been completed, a century and a year after the great project was launched. I don't suppose it will be joining my reference collection, but I love the fact that there are still such glacially slow academic projects coming to their belated ends even in these high-speed digitised times.
 When it comes to Latin, sales too can be equally slow. The record is held by David Wilkins' translation of the Coptic New Testament into Latin. Published by the Oxford University Press in 1716 in an edition of 500 copies, it remained in print until 1907. I guess they didn't sell off remainders in those days.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

More Ford

I wrote recently about E.B. Ford, 'the Kenneth Williams of Zoology', the decidedly eccentric author of Butterflies, the first in the classic New Naturalist series. Browsing in The Aurelian Legacy (a book I have surely mentioned before), I came across another anecdote about 'Henry', as he was called in ironic reference to his deep distaste for the modern world. Among the things he disapproved of were the radio, newspapers and fish-and-chips, and for him it was invariably a 'photographic camera' and a 'cinematic projector', while any complex piece of machinery required for the laboratory was 'the engine'. But to the anecdote.
 Miriam Rothschild, the great entomologist who became one of the few women Ford was prepared to regard as a thinking organism, first came across 'Henry' in the Zoology Department at Oxford. Meaning to introduce herself, she knocked on the door of his office and waited..
'After a moment's silence there was a rather plaintive long drawn out cry: "Come in!" I opened the door and found an empty room. I looked round nervously - not a soul to be seen, but an almost frightening neatness pervaded everything. Each single object, from paper knife to Medical Genetics was in its right place. Each curtain hung in a predestined fold... the sight of this distilled essence of neatness and order took my breath away. I stood there, probably with my mouth open, trying to reconcile this vacant room with that ghostly cry - had I dreamed it? - when suddenly Professor Ford appeared from underneath his desk like a graceful fakir emerging from a grave. Apparently he had been sitting crosslegged on the floor in the well of his writing table, lost in thought, but he held out his hand to me in a most affable manner... "My dear Mrs Lane [her married name] - I didn't know it was you."' Miriam Rothschild concluded 'you never have to ask a great man for an explanation.'
Not E.B. Ford anyway.

Friday, 29 August 2014

And a Moth

I spent some while last night trying to identify a moth - a fool's errand, of course.
 The moth had settled on the bathroom wall, and what piqued my interest was that its wings were held in a decidedly butterfly-like pose, half-way between flat and folded, much like a Blue butterfly - and indeed, in size it was on just that scale. The colour, however, could hardly have been less blue: a wheaten ground, with three wavy brown bars across the forewings, two very thin and one thicker and darker. What, I wondered, could it be? Foolishly I thought the butterfly-like pose might narrow down the field - not by much, I discovered, and, after a fruitless on-line search, I was soon forlornly rifling through my ancient, but notably compendious and well illustrated, book of British butterflies and moths, written by W.E. Kirby around a century ago. In the end, I had it narrowed down to some kind of Thorn moth - indeed, with its small size, it really should have been the Little Thorn (Cepphis advenaria) - but that one, I discovered, flies in May and June (and the August Thorn is too large).
 That's the trouble with moths - there are just too many of them. Whereas we British butterfly fanciers have barely 60 species to identify - in practice far fewer, unless we're making a point of travelling around the country ticking them all off the list - moth species add up to a daunting 2,400-plus, of which more than 800 are macro-lepidoptera (i.e. easily visible). The genus that includes the Thorns (Ennominae) alone includes more than 80 British species. Moths are undeniably beautiful, often in a subtle and understated way (as with my Thorny enigma), but really it is far easier just to say 'Oh - a moth', to look and enjoy, than it is to identify the little beauties (there are several species of Beauty moth in the genus Ennominae).
 As for the stranger on my bathroom wall, when I last saw it, it was resting in a much more moth-like pose, its banded wings spread flat. And this morning it was gone.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Birthday Betjeman

Born on this day in 1906 was John Betjeman, 'poet and hack' as he described himself in Who's Who. He was, of course, much more than that, but he was a  rare example of a literary (if often low-brow) poet who was hugely popular and well-loved, a 'national treasure' and a celebrity. His penchant for jogalong metre kept him firmly in the light verse tradition, but there is often in his works an interesting counterpoint between the jaunty rhythm on the surface and a strong undertow of melancholy below. Here is a curiosity, taken from a Michael Parkinson chat show (Betjeman was a great talk-show favourite), in which the late Kenneth Williams and Maggie Smith (now enjoying a late flowering as Lady Violet, the only character in Downton with any lines) reading Betjeman's early Death in Leamington, to the apparent delight of the author.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

'A permanent trail of imagination...'

Exciting news here for us retroprogressives, as the clacking of manual typewriters is heard again in the newsroom of The Times (where, sadly, it seems to be causing more bemusement than anything). I guess there must be many working in newspapers now who have never heard the sound, let alone used a manual typewriter - and if they did, they'd probably wonder how anyone ever managed to bash out a story with such a cumbersome machine. But for some, the manual typewriter still has a certain inky allure - not least Tom Hanks, who has even developed an app that gives the illusion of writing with an old-fashioned typewriter. Typing with a manual, he says, 'stamps into paper a permanent trail of imagination through keys, hammers, cloth and dye' - an eloquent expression of what is special about manual typing. It is closer to a craft process than the frictionless, resistance-free electronic transaction that is 'typing' with a modern computer keyboard - writing in cyberspace rather than on paper.
 It is surely true that the sheer cumbersomeness of manual typing and the difficulty of rewriting encouraged forethought, care and brevity, whereas the ease of the modern keyboard encourages the reverse - get it all down any old how, knock it into shape afterwards, and if it's too long, well, it's too long. The endless stories on the BBC News website (and many others) are classic products of keyboard writing - as, I suspect, are many overlong works of contemporary fiction. The modern keyboard has made writing too easy.  

Monday, 25 August 2014

Sign of the Times?

Talking of the Today programme, as we were the other day (and so often before - truly it 'sets the agenda for the day', alas), I noted recently that John Humphrys, while interviewing some big wheel in the warmist world, mentioned the inconvenient truth that 'global warming' has barely happened over the past 15 years or so. I wondered if this might be a sign that the times are changing, that even the BBC might now be open to a degree of scepticism that would have been condemned as heretical just a couple of years ago. Well, the other day I happened on this story on the BBC News website, which looks like a hopeful sign - up to a point. The 'pause' story is never presented in terms of 'Whoops, looks like we were wrong' but only as a case of certain factors having been overlooked - and, in this case, the new prediction is that warming will be even worse when it does happen. In other words, we might have got it hopelessly wrong last time, but this time we're right, you'd better believe it, there can't possibly be any factors we're overlooking. Hmm...