Sunday, 22 April 2018

And Back Again

The Mani in April continues to give a very convincing impression of paradise on earth. The air is full of butterflies – we spotted thirty-odd species, with swallowtails, fritillaries and Cleopatras especially abundant – and the scent of flowering broom and orange blossom, and birdsong and the humming of innumerable bees. The walking is good, if sometimes a little challenging, the views are magnificent, and the profusion of little Byzantine churches, in various states of decay and repair, is quite astonishing.
   It was a dry and forward spring this year, so at lower altitudes such beauties as the scarlet anemones, the wild cyclamen and many of the orchids were already past their best or altogether over – but higher up, they were still in their full glory. And we did get high up – one day by four-wheel drive along a seriously unmade, rock-strewn, rutted and fissured road, to something like 1,100 metres, where we paused by a flower meadow spangled with Star of Bethlehem and dotted with orchids, and enjoyed a sweeping, almost Alpine view spread before us.
  Sadly the inhabitants of this earthly paradise are finding it ever harder to make a living, burdened as they are with a government (EU-imposed) and banks that function chiefly as engines of extortion. But the black economy and the Greek resilience of spirit keep things ticking over, even if more and more of the smaller villages are becoming all but depopulated, and the tourist trade, outside of the high season, is not what it was. If you fancy visiting this part of Greece, book your accommodation direct (not through an agency), and take cash rather than plastic.
  My holiday reading this time was Peter Ackroyd's short novel The Lambs of London, about Charles and Mary Lamb and their (fictional) relationship with the Shakespearean forger William Henry Ireland. It's a fine piece of work, and very readable, so I thought I'd recommend it to the great Lambian Patrick Kurp – but of course he'd already written about it, nine years ago. Here is his characteristically perceptive review.
  And then I got home to discover that the country I had left in what felt and looked like winter had, in a matter of days, been transformed into a lush, verdant, flower-strewn, blossom-decked land, basking in warm sun – as warm as the Mani. And the butterflies are flying.

Monday, 16 April 2018

Off Again

The long gallivant that is my post-retirement life continues when I fly off at an ungodly hour tomorrow to the Mani, for a few days of walking etc. (mostly etc, with any luck)...

Waugh's Crowded Years

For bedtime reading, I recently plucked Auberon Waugh's Four Crowded Years: Diaries, 1972-76 (Private Eye/ Andre Deutsch) off the shelf. It must be the best part of 40 years since I last looked at this collection, and I wasn't at all sure it would still work – but I needn't have worried: these 'diaries', set in a personal fantasy world loosely based on reality, are as funny as ever, yielding a laugh-aloud rate of at least once a page, which is very good going (if not terribly conducive to sleep). What's more, the volume is illustrated by the great Nicolas Bentley, whose pictures perfectly fit Waugh's humour, and it even has helpful footnotes to identify some of the forgotten figures of the Seventies.
  Amid all the comedy, there are moments of real insight and even foresight (I hesitate to say prophecy). As an equal-opportunities offender, the rectionary Waugh was very much in the vanguard. I hadn't realised quite how much until I read this passage, from 1973:

Thursday 14th March
Delighted to see they have burnt down the British Council Library in Rawalpindi again – this time in protest against the shooting of two Pakistani youths in London. The last time they burnt down this particular library was in February 1970, in protest against an article I had written in The Times, telling a joke about Allah which I had heard in the Army. This burning remains the only public recognition my little jokes have ever received.

The story is told in A.N. Wilson's Our Times. Waugh, it seems, had 'jestingly referred to the baggy trousers worn by Turkish men in the days of the Caliphate. British soldiers used to call them "'Allah-catchers". There were demonstrations by Muslims outside The Times building in Printing House Square. In Rawalpindi an angry mob, many of whom, it is safe to guess, were not readers of The Times, stormed the British Council building and burned the library to the ground. Far from being supportive of Waugh, The Times sacked him, and this was the usual pattern of behaviour, from employers and governments in our time, when confronted with an angry Muslim mob.'
  So, the reflex appeasement of Islamic fanaticism had begun as early as 1970. I had always thought it started with Rushdie's Satanic Verses, when our boys in blue cheerfully stood around watching Muslims burn copies of the book and demand the death of Rushdie and all other 'blasphemers'.   Talking of Rushdie, here's Waugh later, writing in the Way of the World column in the Telegraph in 1993. He commiserates with 'poor Bill Clinton, who has been called the most hated man in Islam since he received Salman Rushdie in the White House. I am sure that Clinton, like most of us, has never read a word of Rushdie's novels and probably thought he was a carpet salesman. That won't save either of them from the fundamentalists. In Egypt, the fundamentalists have taken to murdering anyone they suspect of being lukewarm towards the Mohammedan religion. Once again, they claim that under Islamic law, Muslims have the right to kill any apostate.'
 A quarter of a century on, nothing has changed (for the better) on that front. But happily such serious matters don't often impinge on Waugh's comic world, one firmly based on the puncturing of self-importance and pomposity – neither of which is ever in short supply, especially in the worlds of politics and the 'yarts'.

Sunday, 15 April 2018


Yesterday I dropped in on the exhibition Charmed Lives in Greece at the British Museum (which seems to be a great favourite with Chinese tour parties – though this particular exhibition was not on their itinerary). The aptly named Charmed Lives celebrates the warm creative friendship between the artists John Craxton and Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika (mercifully better known as 'Ghika') and the writer, adventurer and fabulist Patrick Leigh Fermor. Their charmed lives were conducted against idyllic backdrops on the islands of Hydra, Crete and Corfu and at PLF's beautiful home at Kardamili (of which I've written before).
  As well as paintings and drawings by Ghika and Craxton, the exhibition includes letters, book-jacket artwork, personal possessions (including PLF's typewriter and rather weedy-looking binoculars), and lots of black-and-white photographs of the three men in various combinations, with fellow artists and writers, celebrities and wives/boyfriends. Here's one of the supremely photogenic PLF with a goat on board a caique...
Both he and Craxton were fascinated by goats and felt great affection for them. Here's one of Craxton's lively goat paintings...
Craxton also loved cats, but PLF was not keen, describing them as 'interior desecrators and downholsterers' – was this the first use of the word 'downholsterer'?
  As for the paintings, it was interesting to see a range of Ghika's work, which I didn't know at all (that's a poster design of his above). He was clearly a gifted painter and draughtsman with a strong feeling for Greek landscapes. At some points in their careers, his and Craxton's paintings are strikingly similar in approach – bright colours and strong design, mixing abstraction and naturalism across a strongly patterned field. However, there is usually something lighter and somehow easier about Craxton's works, and he is clearly more interested in structure than the looser, brushier Ghika, whose later paintings tend to get larger, freer and more complicated, while Craxton keeps it simple and, usually, smaller in scale.
  However, Craxton was certainly capable of ambitious large landscapes, like this superb Landscape, Hydra, 1963-7...
  His figure paintings are, I think, weaker, though the images of dancing sailors and cafe life are full of energy and charm. For my money, the star of the show is another of Craxton's larger landscapes, the extraordinary, ravine-shaped Moonlit Ravine, which is painted, believe it or not, in tempera mixed with volcanic dust.
  I'm glad to have caught this fascinating little exhibition – not least because I'm flying off to Kardamili for a few days' walking next week.

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Seventh Worst Butterfly Year...

Yesterday's news reports found room for Butterfly Conservation's annual Jeremiad about declining butterfly populations – and a good thing too, as a broad-brush consciousness-raising exercise: the more aware people are of butterflies, the threats to them and the ways in which we can help them, the better. However, it was something of a stretch to make headline news out of 2017 being the seventh worst butterfly year 'since records began' (i.e. 1976). As was acknowledged further into the story, it was actually the usual mixed picture of some species having a good year, others a bad one, against a background of undeniable long-term population decline caused by a combination of widespread habitat loss, 'climate change' and other environmental factors (e.g. rising nitrogen levels). No prizes for guessing which of those factors got the most attention (clue: it's the one in quotation marks), though it's hard to see how a tendency towards cold, wet springs and warmish winters (interrupted by two or three harsh winters and a couple of sunny springs in recent years) equates to anything more than fluctuating weather.
  As it happens, my own butterfly year bucked the trend to some extent, as in May I quite unexpectedly saw a couple of Grizzled Skippers – one of the fastest declining species – in a place where I had no idea they occurred, and in late summer I enjoyed such numbers of Adonis Blues as I had never before seen. If only this spring would brighten and warm up, 2018 might yet be a good year. We certainly had a properly cold winter, with plenty of frost and snow, and that always helps. If the forecasters are right, things could be warming up by next week. Here's hoping it’s not too late...

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Queeney According to Beryl

As one who's been browsing the book shelves of charity shops for many years, I've noticed how, from time to time, a particular author or title will suddenly start cropping up repeatedly. Leaving aside discarded dross such as Fifty Shade of Grey (still multiple copies everywhere) or the works of Dan Brown, literary authors and titles are also subject to these spates and gluts. Iris Murdoch has been turning up a lot in recent years, and Muriel Spark is an oddly persistent presence, while Hilary Mantel's Fludd continues to show up, invariably in the Penguin edition and often accompanied by Wolf Hall.
  But the most recent phenomenon I've noticed is a curious one – a sudden glut of Beryl Bainbridge's According to Queeney (published 2001). I've no idea why this should have happened, but in the past couple of weeks I've come across it four times, in three editions. I rather fancied re-reading it, as it had been a long time and I wasn't sure I still had it at home, so I bought a copy – the American first edition, as it happened. 
  It's a very clever piece of work, spry and sparely written, presenting the relationship of Samuel Johnson with his sometime protectors and friends, the Thrales, largely through the cool, sharply observant eyes of the young Hester 'Queeney' Thrale, for whom Johnson had a special fondness (I think I have a copy of The Queeney Letters somewhere). Bainbridge also skilfully recreates the bizarre goings-on in Johnson's house, recounting farcical and macabre incidents and misunderstandings in her usual matter-of-fact tone, and making surprising, under-the-radar connections. The narrative revolves around certain key incidents, each of which is given a chapter, and between the chapters are dismissive letters from the grown-up Hester to the inquiring biographer Laetitia Hawkins, letters that often seem to disown the novel's narrative. This injects an intriguing note of uncertainty into this fictional version of the best-documented life in English literature, while suggesting new levels of meaning and emotion barely hinted at in the biographies.
  Like Penelope Fitzgerald, Beryl Bainbridge found a new lease of authorial life when, quite late in her career, she turned to the historical past for inspiration. According to Queeney was her fourth historically-based novel – and, as it turned out, her last published work. If you spot it in a charity shop near you, do pick it up. 

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Ben, Bill and Billiards

Born on this day in 1894 was the artist Ben Nicholson, son of the illustrious William Nicholson. In contrast to his father, Ben embraced abstraction, and as a result his fame came to eclipse Sir William's, who never strayed from the unfashionable figurative path. This imbalance has been corrected to some extent in recent years; the big William Nicholson exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2004 surely opened many eyes (mine included) to his greatness.
  When young Ben was studying at the Slade, he spent most of his time (according to his fellow student Paul Nash) playing billiards. Nicholson claimed that the abstract formality of the green baize and the ever changing relationship between the coloured balls stimulated his aesthetic sense. Hmm.
  That's his First Abstract Painting (Chelsea, 1924) above.