Sunday, 4 December 2016

Well, Well

Yesterday morning - fine, bright and crisp - I took a stroll across Ashtead Common and onto Epsom Common, where I began noticing, every now and then, small signboards pointing the way to 'Epsom Well'. I decided to follow them and see what they led to, envisaging the usual grille-covered hole in the ground and a few sorry bricks, nothing to see here. But the signs eventually led off the Common and into a warren of curving, bungalow-and-semi-lined streets - a kind of suburban mandala, at the centre of which was... Epsom Well.
 There it was, a wellhead of undistinguished modern design (erected 1989) surrounded by circular paving, with a few brick steps leading up to it, the whole surrounded by Fifties bungalows, outside one of which a man was doggedly hanging up his Christmas lights. This, incredibly, was the well (long dry) around which England's first spa had grown up. To quote the inscription around the wellhead: 'The Epsom Well, the medicinal waters that in the the 17th century made Epsom the first spa town in England, a great resort and famous throughout Europe.'
 As I took in the curious scene - the titivated remnant of the historic well set in its bungaloid circus - something about it rang a bell. Yes, Iain Sinclair in London Orbital describes being led reluctantly to it (by the painter Laurence 'Renchi' Bicknell) in the course of his M25 circumambulation, and being duly underwhelmed. A tad harshly, he describes the 'new' Old Well as having 'a touch of the fishing leprechaun about it'. The Old Well, he concludes, is a case of 'lost heritage' - and, to be sure, it is hard, standing on that spot, to sense any connection with the well that made Epsom famous and launched the great fashion for 'taking the waters'.
 These waters were in demand because they contained a great deal of Magnesium Sulphate - 'Epsom salts' - reputedly health-giving, undoubtedly purgative in the quantities imbibed at the Epsom well. Visitors were encouraged to down as much as 15 or 16 pints of the often murky water, then walk on the Common until obliged to dart into the bushes. Men and women retired separately for this purpose, and locals could earn a few pennies acting as lookouts to preserve their privacy.
 As with many subsequent spas, there was something about Epsom that seems to have encouraged gaming, philandering and over-indulgence. Thomas Shadwell (immortalised in Poets' Corner and as the butt of Dryden's satirical barbs) had a hit with Epsom Wells, a stage comedy about the goings-on at the spa. As Sinclair drily remarks, 'The combination of bodily purging with amorous adventure, gaming houses and gluttony was perfectly suited to the English love of 'Carry On' humour. Farts, gropes, excursions.'
 Epsom may have been the first English spa, but its glory days were not long. Despite the digging of new wells in the town, Epsom had fallen out of fashion by the mid-18th century as the waters began to fail, Epsom salts became available (no need to drink the water) and other spa towns, with more attractive facilities, grew up around the country. But it was not the end of Epsom, which continued to thrive as a healthy and relatively civilised place quite close to London (with excellent horse-racing on the Downs) and is still a pleasant small town today. All's well that ends well, you might say.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Larkin again: 'Something people do'

Talking of Larkin, on this day in 1973 he signed off on one of his last long poems, Show Saturday (which was the last poem selected for High Windows, put in, on the poet's insistence, to add more substance). This is Larkin playing it straight with a solidly built, richly descriptive pastoral - no trace here of the Larkin of This Be the Verse or Annus Mirabilis or, say, The Life with a Hole in It. Show Saturday is in the gentler, more wistful, even affectionate mode of The Whitsun Weddings or Here or To the Sea. It was inspired by a visit to the Bellingham Show in Northumberland, and unfolds in long, slightly laboured lines, many of them enjambed, even between stanzas, to disguise the ABACBDCD rhyme scheme. As so often with Larkin, it ends beautifully...

Grey day for the Show, but cars jam the narrow lanes.
Inside, on the field, judging has started: dogs
(Set their legs back, hold out their tails) and ponies (manes
Repeatedly smoothed, to calm heads); over there, sheep
(Cheviot and Blackface); by the hedge, squealing logs
(Chain Saw Competition). Each has its own keen crowd.
In the main arena, more judges meet by the jeep:
The jumping’s on next. Announcements, splutteringly loud,

Clash with the quack of man with pound notes round his hat
And a lit-up board. There’s more than just animals:
Bead-stalls, balloon-men, a Bank; a beer-marquee that
Half-screens a canvas Gents; a tent selling tweed,
And another, jackets. Folks sit about on bales
Like great straw dice. For each scene is linked by spaces
Not given to anything much, where kids scrap, freed,
While their owners stare different ways with incurious faces.

The wrestling starts, late; a wide ring of people; then cars;
Then trees; then pale sky. Two young men in acrobats’ tights
And embroidered trunks hug each other; rock over the grass,
Stiff-legged, in a two-man scrum. One falls: they shake hands.
Two more start, one grey-haired: he wins, though. They’re not so much fights
As long immobile strainings that end in unbalance
With one on his back, unharmed, while the other stands
Smoothing his hair. Bit there are other talents –

The long high tent of growing and making, wired-off
Wood tables past which crowds shuffle, eyeing the scrubbed spaced
Extrusions of earth: blanch leeks like church candles, six pods of
Broad beans (one split open), dark shining-leafed cabbages – rows
Of single supreme versions, followed (on laced
Paper mats) by dairy and kitchen; four brown eggs, four white eggs,
Four plain scones, four dropped scones, pure excellences that enclose
A recession of skills. And, after them, lambing sticks, rugs,

Needlework, knitted caps, baskets, all worthy, all well done,
But less than the honeycombs. Outside, the jumping’s over.
The young ones thunder their ponies in competition
Twice round the ring; the trick races, Musical Stalls,
Sliding off, riding bareback, the ponies dragged to and fro for
Bewildering requirements, not minding. But now, in the background,
Like shifting scenery, horse-boxes move; each crawls
Towards the stock entrance, tilting and swaying, bound

For far-off farms. The pound-note man decamps.
The car park has thinned. They’re loading jumps on a truck.
Back now to private addresses, gates and lamps
In high stone one-street villages, empty at dusk,
And side roads of small towns (sports finals stuck
In front doors, allotments reaching down to the railway);
Back now to autumn, leaving the ended husk
Of summer that brought them here for Show Saturday –

The men with hunters, dog-breeding wool-defined women,
Children all saddle-swank, mugfaced middleaged wives
Glaring at jellies, husbands on leave from the garden
Watchful as weasels, car-tuning curt-haired sons –
Back now, all of them, to their local lives:
To names on vans, and business calendars
Hung up in kitchens; back to loud occasions
In the Corn Exchange, to market days in bars,

To winter coming, as the dismantled Show
Itself dies back into the area of work.
Let it stay hidden there like strength, below
Sale-bills and swindling; something people do,
Not noticing how time’s rolling smithy-smoke
Shadows much greater gestures; something they share
That breaks ancestrally each year into
Regenerate union. Let it always be there.

Friday, 2 December 2016

Larkin in the Corner

Philip Larkin rightly took his place in Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey today, his memorial tablet set in place close to Thomas Hardy, Wilfred Owen, Henry James and D.H. Lawrence (whom he revered, for reasons best known to himself). He is also immediately below Edward Lear and very close to Lewis Carroll, so in illustrious and eccentrically mixed company.
 He is also, of course, among a good many poets whose names were expected to live for ever but have wellnigh disappeared - Thomas May, William Mason, Christopher Anstey, John Philips (no, not that one), William Gifford, to name a few. Not that it matters; Poets' Corner was a haphazard growth, never really planned, and standards have definitely tightened over the years - so much so that Larkin had a long wait for his place (a great deal longer than his bĂȘte noire Ted Hughes). But this was not owing to doubts about his poetic abilities; it was rather a by-product of the deeply silly hysteria provoked by the publication of Anthony Thwaite's edition of his letters and Andrew Motion's biography. That, happily, has now died down and a more nuanced assessment of Larkin the man has prevailed, along with a growing realisation that as a poet he was indeed the real thing. To quote Auden on a couple of other poets with bad reputations...
'Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.'
  And besides, Larkin has become a genuinely popular poet. His popularity might rest on the unequal tripod of This Be the Verse, Annus Mirabilis and An Arundel Tomb (whose last two lines inevitably supply the inscription on Larkin's tablet), but it is real enough, and many continue to read far beyond the greatest hits. If anyone deserves a place in Poets' Corner, it is Larkin. His poetry will surely live on.

Rodin and Dance

Yesterday I visited the Courtauld Gallery - always a pleasure (what a great gallery it is) - to take a look at Rodin and Dance: The Essence of Movement. This is a fascinating, tightly focused exhibition that traces the course of the great sculptor's late-life fascination with dance in various forms, some of them bordering on acrobatics. There are sketches - some more finished than others, some coloured in with blots of watercolour, others dashed off with pencil on paper in a few suggestive lines - and there are ranks of little terracotta models, few of them finished, most just quickly moulded (but eloquent) working models. All this work is the fragmentary record of a hugely ambitious, unfinished project whose ultimate aim was to capture movement, in its most intense and fluid form - dance - in the most static of media, sculpture.
 Happily I toured this exhibition with my cousin, who is a dancer and better able than I to appreciate the finer points, decipher what is actually going on in some of the more confusing sketches (is that an arm or a leg?) and to spot the occasional lapse from the merely difficult to the anatomically impossible. Rodin was constantly adjusting these sketches, sometimes using movable paper cut-outs or creating sets of slightly varying copies of the same drawing. Some of the sketches show the same pose from different angles, and some are so ambiguous that Rodin helpfully labelled the bottom of the drawing 'bas'. This way up.
 Rodin took his inspiration from many sources - not, primarily,  classical ballet (the preserve of Degas) but modern dance, acrobatic dancing and traditional Cambodian dance. The last fired Rodin's imagination when the national dance troupe visited France - there's a striking photograph of the elderly artist sketching them from life - and modern dance came Rodin's way via Diaghilev's Ballets Russes; there are sketches of Nijinsky himself in the strange angular poses of the Faun. The principal muse of Rodin's dance project, however, was a Parisian dancer and acrobat called Alda Moreno, whose extraordinarily flexible body we see photographed in an arty nude mag as well as in sketch after sketch, model after model by the fascinated Rodin.
 This quite small-scale exhibition inhabits the kind of cosy space that encourages visitors to chat about what they're looking at, usually making cheery comments along the lines of 'I wouldn't like to try that' or 'Could you do that?' What everyone tries to ignore is that most of these drawings depict naked bodies, often posed in positions that leave no doubt that the women are women and the men men. The pudenda femina and their male analogues follow you round the room, as it were. No wonder nude ballet never caught on.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

From Bagpuss to 'an emergency of the too realized'

The adorable granddaughter Summer, being a three-year-old of taste and discernment, is a big fan of Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin's classic creation Bagpuss. Yesterday we were watching the very first episode, the tale of a ship in a bottle - or rather a shipwreck in a bottle, which is repaired and restored to ship shape by means of a little Bagpuss magic and music.
It put me in mind of a Kay Ryan poem, which I pass on with a tip of the hat to the incomparable Dave Lull...

Ship in a Bottle

It seems
not just a
ship in a
bottle but
wind and sea.
The ship starts
to struggle—an
emergency of the
too realized we
realize. We can 
get it out but
not without
spilling its world.
A hammer tap
and they’re free.
Which death
will it be,
little sailors?

No one shakes things up quite like Kay Ryan, and in so few, so precisely placed words.

Monday, 28 November 2016


Because it's his birthday (born on this day in 1912), and because he isn't represented in the Royal Academy's AbEx exhibition, here's a splash of Morris Louis colour to start the week.
It's called Point of Tranquility...

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Dr Gully: Stuff and Passion

Having found so much to enjoy in Elizabeth Jenkins' The Tortoise and the Hare, I've been seeking out her other novels, with limited success (this really is a very nearly forgotten novelist). I've just finished reading Dr Gully, which I found in a 1976 Penguin edition (published price 45p!). This is a fictionalised biography - or, more accurately, a fact-bound novel - that takes as its subject the eminent Victorian physician (and psychic researcher) James Manby Gully, who, towards the end of his life, became unwittingly embroiled in the sensational, and still unsolved, Charles Bravo murder.
 The most striking aspect of Jenkins' novel is that there is no mention of Charles Bravo until more than three-quarters of the way through, and the murder itself - and the ensuing inquests - don't happen until the closing chapters. This is all, as it were, back story. Charles Bravo doesn't even feature as a speaking or active character and is only heard of indirectly. That is how tightly focused the novel is on Gully's feelings and experiences. It is a rich and compelling portrait of a fascinating, clearly charismatic man with a mesmeric presence - a man whose spell the author herself seems to have fallen under.
 The essential action (as against plot) of the novel is embodied in the passionate love affair that develops between Gully and a beautiful, rich and very much younger patient, Florence Ricardo. She is trapped in a deeply unhappy mariage blanc with a hopeless alcoholic, while Gully is shackled by a defunct marriage to an older woman from whom he long ago parted but who is still alive. The course of the superficially unlikely romance between Florence and Gully is traced with such imaginative insight that it becomes entirely believable, and we follow its vicissitudes with real emotional involvement.
 Elizabeth Jenkins is not one of those rare novelists who don't so much write about the past as effortlessly inhabit it (think Penelope Fitzgerald). Rather she works her way in by building a world rich in abundant and intricate detail, a world of stuff - furniture, textiles, dresses, hats, coats, carriages, lamps, curtains, medications, mourning dress, stationery, wallpapers, toiletries, jewellery, wash stands, all the equipment of opulent upper-middle-class Victorian life. Jenkins not only tells you about these things, she often tells you which suppliers they came from - and you can be sure the information is accurate; this is a diligently researched book.
 In less skilled hands, this would be tiresome, but here it is essential to the writer's purpose, conveying the oppressive world of stuff - and servants, ever present, ever vigilant, ever gossiping - in which the principal characters are obliged to live their lives, while trying to keep their love affair secret. It is giving nothing away to say that this affair is ultimately doomed, and that in the end Florence Ricardo becomes Mrs Charles Bravo. By then she has parted decisively from Gully, and we have only indirect knowledge of what is going on in her life. Gully is now a helpless observer, looking on as the terrible climactic events unfold...
 After the parting of the lovers, a good deal of the heat goes out of the story, and it unfolds in a different manner, closer to a more conventional kind of true-crime historical fiction. This, however, is interesting enough in itself, and Gully's piecing-together of the events that led to Charles Bravo's death is entirely plausible. What is less satisfactory is the near-sentimentality of some of the final scenes, in which Jenkins seems almost besotted with her creation, her James Gully. She might have done better to end on a sharper, more ambivalent note. That said, though, this remains a very fine exercise in making a persuasive and involving fiction out of a mass of factual material. If you can get hold of it, do give it a try.
 (The picture above shows Dr Gully with the materialised spirit known as 'Katie King'.)