Monday, 27 February 2017

Loitering with Intent

Wandering into a local charity shop the other day, I couldn't help but notice a first edition of Muriel Spark's Loitering with Intent, in its original, rather loud dust-wrapper. It was keenly priced (£4.99) and I hadn't read it - though I'd read and enjoyed (and even reviewed, for the late lamented Listener) its literary near relation from the Eighties, A Far Cry from Kensington. So I bought Loitering with Intent, and I've read it, and I enjoyed every moment - indeed, this might even be my favourite Muriel Spark.
  Like A Far Cry from Kensington, it's a return visit to Spark's life as a struggling young would-be poet and novelist in Kensington - then a less than respectable part of London - 'in the middle of the twentieth century,' as she puts it. The story is briskly told, with never a wasted word - or emotion; the narrator has all the cool, sharp-witted detachment we expect of a Spark heroine. What unfolds is an intriguing, beautifully engineered tale, in which the narrator, Fleur Talbot, takes a job with one Sir Quentin Oliver, an almighty snob who is also, Fleur gradually realises, probably mad and almost certainly bad. He runs an outfit called the Autobiographical Association, whose members - a bunch of dim and variously needy minor eminences - he encourages to write their memoirs with 'absolute frankness'. Fleur's job, such as it is, is to knock these pathetic writings into some kind of shape.
  Fleur has been writing her first novel, Warrender Chase, and she is increasingly disturbed to find that events from her novel are playing themselves out in the eccentric world of the Autobiographical Association. And Warrender Chase is not the only book feeding into the action of Loitering with Intent: Newman's Apologia Pro Vita Sua and Cellini's Autobiography are permanent presences, and also in the picture are Fleur's new novel, All Souls' Day, and the one she plans to follow it with, The English Rose (a key phrase in Loitering with Intent). But this is most definitely not a dreary exercise in meta-fiction - in fact it's a notably jolly piece of work, with elements of farce and a whiff of Ealing comedy about it (quite fitting for the period). There's a sinister edge to it (as in many Ealing comedies), but it's most definitely a comedy, and a notably inventive, ingenious and entertaining one that kept me eagerly turning the pages - and there are only 220 of them (those were the days!). Better shaped and more ambitious than A Far Cry from Kensington, it's classic Spark. If you have a taste for her (and I know many don't) and haven't read this one - do seek it out.

Saturday, 25 February 2017

From Essex to Edward Thomas's Field

I spent yesterday walking in eastern Essex, around Rochford - not quite Essex badlands but with some of the salient features: straggling bungaloid growth, big brash houses behind pseudeo-baronial gates and railings, overextended roadhouse pubs with huge car parks, the odd breaker's yard, a brackish creek with boats rotting away at the moorings... However, the area also has a curious charm - a bleak kind of charm perhaps, but charm nonetheless. Wide views and tall skies, vast fields of turned clay, beds of wind-blown rushes, flocks of swans grazing, buzzards mewing, a scattering of pleasant old buildings - Georgian brick houses, clapboard cottages - surviving among the later excrescences. And there were several good-looking, homely churches of stone and brick on our route - the grandest and most handsome of them St Andrew, Rochford, pictured above.
  En route to the start of the walk, we breakfasted at an improbably located cafe in a small off-road industrial estate. The place was called Childerditch - a name that must resonate with any Edward Thomas fan.
 In April 1916, while convalescing from an illness, Thomas wrote a set of four 'Household Poems', of which the first is addressed to his elder daughter, Bronwen.

If I should ever by chance grow rich 
I'll buy Codham, Cockridden, and Childerditch, 
Roses, Pyrgo, and Lapwater, 
And let them all to my elder daughter. 
The rent I shall ask of her will be only 
Each year's first violets, white and lonely, 
The first primroses and orchises-- 
She must find them before I do, that is. 
But if she finds a blossom on furze 
Without rent they shall all forever be hers, 
Codham, Cockridden, and Childerditch, 
Roses, Pyrgo, and Lapwater,-- 
I shall give them all to my elder daughter. 

The original of this sweet, musical poem, in Thomas's hand, survived among his documents - you can see it here. The Childerditch he was thinking of was a field, of course, and far from Essex.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Doris Day

With Storm Doris raging - well, blowing hard, here in the Southeast - the Met Office is taking the opportunity to tell us what a spiffing wheeze it was on their part to start giving every storm a name. You know how it works - starting each year with an A and advancing alphabetically, naming storms alternately with male and female names. This, a Met Office lady told us on the Today programme this morning, has really captured the public's imagination, raising awareness and encouraging 'engagement through social media channels' - every storm a Twitterstorm, as it were.
  Well maybe, but the storm naming business has also given the long-suffering British people yet another reason to laugh at the Met Office, especially when an ominously-named storm turns out to be no more than a puff of wind, or a storm with a totally pathetic name proves to be a real one - Doris, for heaven's sake...
  Last year's naming didn't get beyond Katie, thereby depriving us of the eagerly awaited Storm Nigel. If we get as far as K this year, we'll have Storm Kamil; a little farther and we'll get to the terrifying Storm Malcolm, or even the verbally challenging Oisin, by way of this year's N - Storm Natalie (be afraid...). If, by some meteorological fluke, we get as far as W, we'll have what must be the most pathetic storm name ever - Storm Wilbert. But now I must go out into Storm Doris - I may be some time.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Piperise Your Snaps

It's not often (actually it's never) that I get an idea for an 'app', but one came to me the other day, so I pass it on for the benefit of any hot young app designer who might be reading this, unlikely as that is. Here's the pitch...
  We've all been there. You're on a church crawl, you come across a particularly striking church  in a fine setting that will surely make a good picture. You duly photograph it, look at the resulting image, are mildly disappointed, and think 'What would John Piper have made of this scene?'
  If you're at Binham Priory, say, you can easily find out. Let's say this is your photograph -

  And here is Piper's picture of the same scene, infused with dramatic presence and a brooding sense of imminent apocalypse - or at least rain ('pretty unlucky with the weather, Mr Piper,' as George VI remarked) - by the artist's bold and well loaded brush -

 But what if you've photographed a church - or it might be a historic house or some random ruin - and there is no John Piper picture of it? Well, that's where the John Piper app comes in. With a touch of a button you can Piperise your snap and transform it into a work of art, with computer-generated pen-and-ink detailing and washes of glowing (or glowering) Pipercolour. How good would that be? I'd buy it like a shot.

Monday, 20 February 2017

The Year Begins

At last, my patience (what patience? It's only February - Ed.) has been rewarded and I've seen my first butterfly of the year. I was taking a hopeful stroll around a local nature reserve called Wilderness Island - which was indeed a tangled wilderness when I was a boy but has since been tamed and cleared sufficiently to provide a habitat for a good range of wildlife, from bats to butterflies. The sun was out, there was a vernal warmth in the air - and there, on a brisk questing flight among the trees, sulphur yellow against  holly-and-ivy green, was a Brimstone. The year's begun! Spring is round the corner, soon there will be more butterflies, more of these joyous moments. Indeed, I had seen four or five more Brimstones before I left the island, a happy, smiling aurelian. And so home.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Best Second

The Royal Society of Literature is running a poll to find The Nation's Favourite Second Novel, which seems an excellent idea - here's the (not very) shortlist. There's probably a pattern there somewhere - in many cases that of a successful second novel following an undistinguished debut. Would a failed first-timer get a second chance in today's publishing climate?
  And it can take more than two attempts for some novelists to get it right (J.G. Farrell, for example, whose Troubles was preceded by three duds). Any of today's novelists who have a second commission are more likely to find themselves in the unenviable situation of musicians faced with the 'difficult second album' problem. However, the number of recent titles in the RSL list suggests that at least some have been allowed a second chance after a less than brilliant debut.
  But what of the list? Leaving aside Ulysses and Tristram Shandy as being in another league altogether, I think from these titles I'd probably vote for Larkin's A Girl in Winter, an underrated novel that has haunted me ever since I read it (and one that was preceded by something very much inferior).  As for omissions, I'd certainly have included Ivy Compton-Burnett's Pastors and Masters (a second novel so different from her first that it could have been written by someone else) and Angus Wilson's Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, Shirley Hazzard's The Bay of Noon, W.G. Sebald's Vertigo, maybe Nabokov's King, Queen, Knave.
 Any thoughts? More omissions? Which title would get your vote?
 (More on how to vote here.)

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Beautiful Exceptions

I know it's still February, but I'm itching to see my first butterfly of the year. Six species have already been logged on the Butterfly Conservation website (beginning with Red Admiral and Peacock both on January 1st), but I've yet to see one, and it's been too long - three and a half months in fact, since I saw one last Holly Blue on All Hallows' Eve last year.
 Yesterday being sunny and just about warm, I went down the garden to eat my lunchtime sandwich - first time this year - and hoped that perhaps some early butterfly would flutter my way. No such luck, I'm afraid, but I was amply entertained by the next best thing - the goldfinches flying down to feast on my nyger seed feeders. These birds have been a constant, and very welcome, presence ever since I put those feeders up - or rather ever since the day, several weeks later, when they finally plucked up the courage to come and feed.
 It's a wonderful thing that these brilliantly coloured little birds are now so abundant over much of the country. When I was a boy, it was quite an event to see one at all, but now they are, in effect, the new sparrows - they're everywhere, flying about with their darting, dipping flight, twittering their silvery song, feasting on nyger seeds when not busy with thistle heads. And it's a joy to see them - especially in these times, when almost all the birds that are thriving in suburbia are big, noisy, aggressive types: all our corvid friends and, round here, the phenomenally successful and phenomenally raucous ring-necked parakeets.
 I recently read a book about the bird life of Australia which painted a nightmare picture of burly, loud-beaked, thuggish birds dominating the parks and gardens of suburbia to such an extent that they pose a threat to life and limb - human as well as avian; deaths and injuries from bird attacks are quite common Down Under. And yet their besotted human victims continue - despite legal bans - to feed these monstrous birds, often with gobbets of raw flesh. It's a kind of avian Stockholm syndrome...
 Happily we in this country are not there yet, and it's unlikely that we'll ever have to cope with the likes of cassowaries and brush-turkeys - but the trend towards larger, louder and hungrier birds driving out the weaker songbirds is worrying enough. Along with the still thriving tits - and the easily overlooked dunnock - goldfinches are the beautiful exceptions. Long may they thrive.