Monday, 31 March 2014

Apocalypse Soon, Beckett Now

As you'd expect, I'm still reeling from the impact of the latest IPCC Report, published today and instantly hogging top spot in the BBC's news agenda. Having been oddly muted last time around, the IPCC is now firmly back on the front foot and in ass-kicking form (if such a thing can be achieved while firmly on the front foot). This year's report is truly apocalyptic, promising the imminent arrival of at least three of the Four Horsemen - indeed it's so apocalyptic that one of the panel withdrew his name from the published report in protest. I know better than to stray very far into this heavily mined territory, but it did strike me as interesting that the report's authors condemned 'sceptics' for their reliance on 'disputable' science. Isn't it the very definition of a valid scientific proposition, at least since Popper, that it should be disprovable, i.e. thoroughly disputable. And, come to that, isn't scepticism the only respectable attitude the scientific mind can adopt towards any area of knowledge? Any bar one, it seems, where 'denial of the science is malpractice'...
  But today's more interesting story was the publication, by Faber & Faber, of a 'lost' story by Samuel Beckett, Echo's Bones (a title he subsequently reused). It's an early effort that was forcibly rejected by his publisher at the time ('it gives me the jim-jams'), and Beckett was never keen on publishing much of what he wrote before he found his true voice. I shan't be fighting to get my hands on this story, but specialists and completists will no doubt be pleased - and it got Beckett's name onto that BBC news agenda. There was a little discussion about it on Today, tying it to the current resurgence of interest in Beckett's stage plays. Why is this 'high modernist' suddenly so popular again? No one had much of an answer, and no more have I. Perhaps it simply shows that Becket is a classic writer, one who has been (and will be) in and out of fashion, but whose best works will surely never go away.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Wilbur and Plath: 'How large is her refusal'

Browsing last night in Richard Wilbur's Collected Poems, I was startled to come across this one, which I hadn't noticed before, recalling an awkward meeting of two poets who could hardly be less alike: Wilbur himself and the tortured young poet-in-waiting Sylvia Plath. In a note, Wilbur explains that 'Edna Ward was Mrs. Herbert D. Ward, my wife's mother. The poet Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) was the daughter of one of Mrs. Ward's Wellesley friends. The recollection is probably composite, but it is true in essentials.'

Cottage Street, 1953
Framed in her phoenix fire-screen, Edna Ward
Bends to the tray of Canton, pouring tea
For frightened Mrs. Plath; then, turning toward
The pale, slumped daughter, and my wife, and me,

Asks if we would prefer it weak or strong.
Will we have milk or lemon, she enquires?
The visit seems already strained and long.
Each in his turn, we tell her our desires.

It is my office to exemplify
The published poet in his happiness,
Thus cheering Sylvia, who has wished to die;
But half-ashamed, and impotent to bless,

I am a stupid life-guard who has found,
Swept to his shallows by the tide, a girl
Who, far from shore, has been immensely drowned,
And stares through water now with eyes of pearl.

How large is her refusal; and how slight
The genteel chat whereby we recommend
Life, of a summer afternoon, despite
The brewing dusk which hints that it may end.

And Edna Ward shall die in fifteen years,
After her eight-and-eighty summers of 
Such grace and courage as permit no tears,
The thin hand reaching out, the last word love.

Outliving Sylvia who, condemned to live,
Shall study for a decade, as she must,
To state at last her brilliant negative
In poems free and helpless and unjust.

When this was published, it was snittily received by Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell (in their letters), Bishop describing it as 'very bad - really unfeeling' and 'smug', and Lowell (another poet very, very different from Wilbur) agreeing that  the poem 'annoyed me too. Which way is the irony meant?' etc. In hindsight, their reactions seems perverse, and the poem stands as a tender and touching memorial to a poet and a person Wilbur knew he could not understand, still less help. The irony is all, as Lowell could surely see, directed against himself, the 'published poet in his happiness' who finds himself reduced to helplessness, 'a stupid lifeguard'.
 For the record, Ted Hughes himself described Cottage Street, 1953 as 'the single truest best thing' written about his late wife.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Socialist Hair

I see our old friend Kim Jong-Un persists in his tireless efforts to make life in North Korea even more fun. His latest wheeze, it seems, is to decree that all male citizens of the Glorious People's Republic must sport the Supreme Leader's own style of haircut, that irresistible combination of buzzcut back and sides and centre-parted moptop.
 Actually, the chances are that no such decree has been issued; what is reported about North Korea's news media is scarcely more reliable than what is reported on them. For example, rumours earlier this year that North Korean news outlets were reporting the successful landing of one of their countrymen on the Sun were, probably, untrue. However, in the matter of hair, the North Korean leadership has form, having in 2005 issued an illustrated guide to the 28 officially sanctioned haircuts (18 for women, 10 for men), and it seems there was recently a TV campaign against long hair, under the slogan 'Let us trim our hair in accordance with the Socialist lifestyle'. Let us indeed. Me, I'm torn between the ideologically rigorous Kim Jong-Un cut and the more relaxed (but only slightly less weird) Ed Milliband.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Frost-Housman Day

On this blog, the 26th of March is Frost-Housman day - the day on which both Robert Frost (1874) and A.E. Housman (1859) were born. Last year I posted Frost's Spring Pools and Housman's Loveliest of Trees. This year's pair of poems both pay tribute to other poets.
 In Robert Frost's To E.T, he honours his brother in verse ('Edward Thomas was the only brother I had'), a man as vital to his own flowering as a poet as he was to Thomas's, and a friend with whom he had once been so close that Thomas seriously considered throwing in his lot with him and emigrating with his family to New Hampshire. But instead he went to war...

I SLUMBERED with your poems on my breast
Spread open as I dropped them half read through
Like dove wings on a figure on a tomb
To see, if, in a dream they brought of you,
I might not have the chance I missed in life      
Through some delay, and call you to your face
First soldier, and then poet, and then both,
Who died a soldier-poet of your race.
I meant, you meant, that nothing should remain
Unsaid between us, brother, and this remained—       
And one thing more that was not then to say:
The Victory for what it lost and gained.
You went to meet the shell’s embrace of fire
On Vimy Ridge; and when you fell that day
The war seemed over more for you than me,      
But now for me than you—the other way.
How over, though, for even me who knew
The foe thrust back unsafe beyond the Rhine,
If I was not to speak of it to you
And see you pleased once more with words of mine?


And here is A.E. Housman, taking his cue from Robert Louis Stevenson's famous Requiem, fashioning an austerely beautiful lyric...


Home is the sailor, home from sea:
  Her far-borne canvas furled
The ship pours shining on the quay
  The plunder of the world.

Home is the hunter from the hill:
  Fast in the boundless snare
All flesh lies taken at his will
  And every fowl of air.

'Tis evening on the moorland free,
  The starlit wave is still:
Home is the sailor from the sea,
  The hunter from the hill.

This was not the only poem to spin off from Stevenson' Requiem; Philip Larkin took the line 'This be the verse' as the title of his most notorious work.  

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Buon Compleanno, Venezia!

Any excuse for a Venetian picture on this blog - and today's excuse is the 1,593rd birthday of the city. For it was on this day, according to tradition, in the year 421, at the stroke of noon, that Venice was founded, by the consecration of the church of San Giacomo di Rialto (above).
 It's a funny little church, dark inside, awkwardly shaped and - by Venetian standards, which are of course very high - not particularly interesting. But it does, undeniably, feel very old. Unlike most of the lesser Venetian churches, it is seldom quiet, being placed as it is hard by the Rialto, with its markets and its thronged streets lined with tourist tat and tourist tratts. The Gothic portico outside - once a common feature of Venetian churches, now a rare survival - was originally used by bankers and money changers, heedless of the views of Jesus on the subject. From here were issued some of the world's first bills of exchange, laying the foundations for Venice's burgeoning wealth. And as its wealth increased, so did the beauty of the city. It doesn't seem to work like that these days, does it?

Monday, 24 March 2014


I guess David Cameron must be taking some comfort from the fact that, in the latest polling, a mere 27 percent of those asked classified him as 'very weird' or 'somewhat weird'. This certainly put him well clear of Ed Milliband - 41 percent - and, occupying the middle ground of political weirdness, Nick Clegg, on 34 percent. The worrying thing about all this is that the polls reflect a sad truth - today's politicians are, for the most part, more or less weird. Perhaps you have to be pretty weird even to want to get into serious politics these days but, more to the point, today's politicians are increasingly only politicians - a  caste apart, with little direct contact with or experience of what most of us would call the 'real world'. The voters feel increasingly alienated from the political elite - hence the rise of UKIP and the like...
 But when did all this start - this perception of politicians as 'weird'? I blame Tony Blair - a weird man himself, if ever there was one - whose idea of political debate was to point at the Tory front bench and cry 'Weird! Weird! Weird!' And of course he had a point... Before that, 'weird' was not a word you ever heard in this context - politicians, whatever their faults and quirks, seemed more or less like us, or at least recognisably human, didn't they? Apart from Ted Heath, of course...

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Wyatt: They flee from me...

By a small miracle, there are now two good history series running on BBC2 - Monday's The Plantagenets and Friday's A Very British Renaissance, presented by the suave art historian James Fox. Last night's programme featured Sir Thomas Wyatt's great poem They Flee From Me - in itself a powerful demonstration of an English literary renaissance under way in the reign of Henry VIII (though Wyatt's poems were not intended for publication and were only published some years after his death). Wyatt died of a sudden illness at the age of 39, having more than once had a narrow escape from the executioner's axe. Imprisoned in the Tower of London after being accused of adultery with Anne Boleyn, he very probably watched from his cell window as she was beheaded, preceded by five men accused of being her lovers. Luckily for Wyatt, he had powerful protectors, and each fall from grace was followed by a return to favour. But there were other falls from favour from which there was no returning, as They Flee From Me makes clear..
  When, last year, I was posting a personal Anthology, I was going to include this poem, partly because I still remember the electrifying impact it had on me when I first read it - at school, under the tutelage of the inspirational English teacher of whom I've written elsewhere. For many years I had it by heart, and can still, with an effort, retrieve it all. The first great (short) poem in the (modern) English language? Certainly the first great poem of its kind, influenced by Italian models but unmistakably English, in its intensity and frankness of address looking forward to the Metaphysicals, and thence to us, to whom this poem, nearly five centuries old, still speaks with astonishing directness.

They flee from me that sometime did me seek
With naked foot, stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them gentle, tame, and meek,
That now are wild and do not remember
That sometime they put themself in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range,
Busily seeking with a continual change.

Thanked be fortune it hath been otherwise
Twenty times better; but once in special,
In thin array after a pleasant guise,
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her arms long and small;
Therewithall sweetly did me kiss
And softly said, “Dear heart, how like you this?”

It was no dream: I lay broad waking.
But all is turned thorough my gentleness
Into a strange fashion of forsaking;
And I have leave to go of her goodness,
And she also, to use newfangleness.
But since that I so kindly am served
I would fain know what she hath deserved.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Stumbling out of The Magic Kingdom

I mentioned a while back that I'd embarked on reading Stanley Elkin's The Magic Kingom. Well, the other day I finished it - or rather, I emerged reeling from my immersion in the quite extraordinary world of language and imagination that Elkin creates.
 The story of a group of variously afflicted dying children on a visit to Disneyland in the care of a group of variously dysfunctional adult helpers, it's the kind of subject most novelists would run a mile from, unless they were prepared to baste it in maudlin sentimentality - and that is something Elkin has absolutely no intention of doing. Instead, he deploys all his  magnificent linguistic exuberance on it, letting loose his mighty onward-rolling spiel, flinching from nothing, mixing the lyrical with the clinical in a quite unique way as he enters this world of dying children, their diseases and their dreams, their killer genes and extravagant, rampaging afflictions.
 At once hysterical and profound, the novel is a mingled cry of protest at and acceptance of the brute fact of death, encompassing comedy, tragedy, fantasy and lashings of sex in its tumultuous, tortuous progress. Elkin's prose is simply overwhelming - you either succumb or turn away - and normally I don't like to be overwhelmed, preferring subtler attractions, but for Elkin I'll always make an exception. I can understand why many might turn away from The Magic Kingdom - it is strong meat, a book I'd recommend only with caution - but me, I succumbed instantly to its dark charms, and I'm glad. This was one of the most extraordinary, exhilarating reading experiences I've had since - well, probably since the last Stanley Elkin I read. I think it will stay with me a long time. I should add, by the way, that it is very, very funny, and ultimately, despite appearances, compassionate.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Beards and Beardmen

As a chap grows older, the world becomes an ever more bewildering place - not least in the matter of bizarre fashion trends. I remember when I first saw (in trendy Kensington, of course) a fellow with hugely distended earlobes into which he had thrust half-crown-sized discs. In need of a little care in the community, I thought, and took no more notice - until, within months, this form of self-mutilation had become quite commonplace and was to be seen everywhere.
 The trend that is now in the ascendant in all fashionable parts of the metropolis is the sporting of huge, bushy, boxy beards, set off by a short-back-and-sides haircut, sometimes with another growth of hair perched atop the head. The standard dress that goes with this follicular exuberance is a jacket several sizes too small, tight trousers and sturdy boots. What does it all mean? Are these fashion victims aiming to look like Wild West old-timers, in the manner of Luke, bearded stooge of The Eagle's cowboy hero Jeff Arnold ('Goldurn it, Jeff, there's a galoot lyin' on the trail')? Fortyniners, men of the Yukon and the Klondike, where a man must grow a beard against the elements and buy whatever size of jacket is available at the frontier town's general stores? Is it part of a straining for authenticity, for seriousness? They certainly look very serious, peering out from behind their mighty beards. As these trend-setters probably work in such radically unserious, inauthentic areas as PR and the yartz, they perhaps feel the need more than most... It is all very mysterious. But then, I write as one incapable either of growing a convincing beard or taking himself seriously. When I once grew an experimental beard it was a sadly moth-eaten affair, giving me the air of a disgraced rabbi. Never again.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Oil Drum Cello

I don't know about you, but I find this little film about a youth orchestra who play on home-made instruments, recycled from rubbish, intensely moving. A powerful demonstration of the transforming power of music - and a reminder of how immensely privileged we are who have music on tap and the money to buy  instruments... Incidentally, this orchestra has just been booked to support Metallica!

Tuesday, 18 March 2014


Last night I watched the first part of a new BBC2 history series, The Plantagenets, presented by my favourite TV historian, Prof. Robert Bartlett (who also brought us The Normans). Bartlett firmly turns his back on all the tropes that make so much TV history irksome, if not unwatchable. He is not on a 'journey of discovery' - he already knows this stuff; he's a historian, dammit - and he makes no attempt to ingratiate himself with the viewer: dressed at all times in a dark overcoat and scarf, he stands in an appropriate location, glowers balefully at us, and tells the story - no frills, no gimmicks, no nonsense, no set-up encounters with experts, no trying his hand at medieval crafts, no dashing about (he moves slowly, if at all), no dressing up, no straining after 'relevance', no laboured reconstructions (just the odd impressionistic micro-budget scene). And he tells the story - a long, complicated and extremely bloody one - lucidly and well, with an eye for the telling detail and the human element in the great dynastic saga. This is narrative TV history at its best. If you missed it, it's available on the BBC iPlayer...
Meanwhile, here is Geoffrey Hill's stunning sonnet summing up the blood-boltered dynasty in 14 dense, sinewy lines:

Requiem for the Plantagenet Kings

For whom the possessed sea littered, on both shores,   
Ruinous arms; being fired, and for good,
To sound the constitution of just wars,
Men, in their eloquent fashion, understood.

Relieved of soul, the dropping-back of dust,   
Their usage, pride, admitted within doors;
At home, under caved chantries, set in trust,   
With well-dressed alabaster and proved spurs   
They lie; they lie; secure in the decay
Of blood, blood-marks, crowns hacked and coveted,   
Before the scouring fires of trial-day
Alight on men; before sleeked groin, gored head,   
Budge through the clay and gravel, and the sea   
Across daubed rock evacuates its dead.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Coppard and Company

My edition of James Joyce's Dubliners was published in Jonathan Cape's series The Travellers' Library in 1926. These are handsome little volumes, nicely designed and printed with care, a real pleasure to handle. I hadn't realised quite how many titles there were in the series until I took a look at the list at the back of Dubliners - it runs to 114, though more might well have been added later. The list constitutes, I suppose, a snapshot of middle-to-high-brow taste in the mid-1920s, and offers a fascinating mix of names and works that have endured, others that have been altogether forgotten, and yet others halfway down the slipway to oblivion.
 The very first title in the series is Can Such Things Be? A Volume of Stories by Ambrose Bierce, and it is not the only Bierce title in the list - nor is his the only American name: Sinclair Lewis, H.L. Mencken, Sherwood Anderson and Edith Wharton are all present. The cisAtlantic names are a wonderfully mixed bunch - and the choice quotations from the critics under each title are an entertainment in themselves. 'To say that this is the best book on the subject is probably true; but it is more to the point to say that it is the only one,' says the TLS invitingly of Percy Lubbock's The Craft of Fiction, one of several Lubbock titles. Does anyone read him now? 'Something worth doing and done... It was a thing intended, wrought out, completed and established. Therefore it was destined to endure, and, what is more important, it was a success,' writes a bloviating Hilaire Belloc of the long forgotten Ernest Bramah's The Wallet of Kai Lung. Dubliners itself is praised but faintly: '... brave, relentless and sympathetic pictures of Dublin life; realistic, perhaps, but not crude; analytical, but not repugnant. No modern writer has greater significance than Mr Joyce, whose conception and practice of the short story is certainly unique and certainly vital.' Hmm.
  One name that keeps cropping up in the list (at No 2 first) is that of A.E. Coppard, a short story writer whose name, I must admit, meant nothing to me. What little I've been able to find about him - a Wikipedia entry and a few appreciative blogposts - suggest that he may well be a writer worth seeking out. Born into extreme poverty, he left school at nine and educated himself - and started writing - while working at any job he could find. By the early 1920s he was mingling with the New Elizabethans in Oxford, meeting and attracting the attention of literary men, and soon getting his stories published. Among those who admired him was Ford Madox Ford, and his reputation was soon high - as attested by the half dozen of his volumes in The Travellers' Library. I see that a recent selection of his short stories is available on Amazon, and... yes,  I'm intrigued enough to buy it. Indeed, I've bought it. I'll report back in due course.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Euripides Endures

I heard a radio report on this extraordinary production of Euripides' The Trojan Women - a rare (unique?) example of something good coming out of the hideous Syrian conflict. In The Way of All Flesh, Samuel Butler (in the person of his protagonist Ernest Pontifex) fires off a lengthy polemic against the Greek tragedies, dismissing them as, by and large, sorry stuff that has been wildly overrated and will not endure. But, over the best part of two and a half millennia, they have endured, because they treat of things that never change - among them, sadly, war and exile and the suffering of the innocent.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Cavafy on the Tube

So (he says, hastening the day - surely not far off - when every utterance in English will be preceded by a redundant 'So'), there I was, sitting on the Tube last night, when I raised my weary eyes from my book to the line of posters above the windows - and was pleasantly surprised to find this:

'Though we have broken their statues,
though we have driven them out of their temples,
the gods did not die because of this.
O Ionian land, it is you they still love,
it is you their souls still remember.
When the August morning dawns upon you,
a vigour from their life moves through your air;
and at times a figure of ethereal youth,
indistinct, in rapid stride,
crosses over your hills.'

It is Ionian Song (Ionikon) by the Alexandrian poet Constantin Cavafy - memorably described by Forster as 'a Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe'. It's an elegant little poem that needs no gloss, and is one of six Greek Poems on the Underground, a series launched last month. Greek poems they are, but by English and Irish poets too, with Keats's great and glorious sonnet On First Looking into Chapman's Homer rightly included, and a stanza from Byron's The Isles of Greece (not, alas, this one -    
'Fill high the bowl with Samian wine !
     Our virgins dance beneath the shade—
I see their glorious black eyes shine ;
     But gazing on each glowing maid,
My own the burning tear-drop laves,
To think such breasts must suckle slaves.')
Why this set of Greek poems? It is to mark Greece's current Presidency of the European Union - which must be nice for them, having a stint as Presidents of the union that's engaged in pauperising them.
You can read (if your eyesight's up to it) all six poems here.

Over there...

OnThe Dabbler today, I write about David Lack's wonderful Life of the Robin.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014


A sesquicentenary today, and one worth marking - 150 years since the birth of William Halse Rivers Rivers. I knew of this remarkable man only as the humane, sympathetic (and conflicted) psychiatrist who treated Siegfried Sassoon (and Robert Graves and Wilfred Owen) for 'shell shock' at the Craiglockhart War Hospital - and with Sassoon it seems to have been, in a closeted Edwardian way, a case of mutual love at first sight. But Rivers was far more than a pioneering psychiatrist: he was also a notable anthropologist, neurologist, ethnologist and traveller, a participant in the ground-breaking Torres Strait expedition and author of seminal works on kinship. As well as the gruelling Torres Strait journey, Rivers also travelled for ethnographic purposes in Melanesia, Egypt, India and the Solomon Islands, as well as traversing much of the globe for recreation.
  All of this was accomplished despite disadvantages that would stopped many another man dead. He had a serious stammer and a curious lack of sensory memory - which he self-diagnosed as a response to a major childhood trauma. Rivers lost his last year at school - and his chance of a Cambridge scholarship - to a bout of typhoid fever, but this merely caused him to switch track and qualify in medicine, which he did in double-quick time, graduating MD at the prodigiously early age of 22. Amazingly, in view of all his subsequent achievements, he was never really in good health and needed much sleep, sometimes for days on end. One of his biographers stated that for many years of his life he could only work for four hours a day. They must have been very special Rivers hours...
And it was a short life; he died at just 58, of a strangulated hernia, when he was about to stand for Parliament (in the Labour interest).
 What's more, this remarkable man was by all accounts blessed with a personality so cordial and attractive that he inspired huge affection in all who crossed his path. No wonder Sassoon fell for him.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Wrong on Song?

Talking of birds, it seems Darwin was wrong about their song - or rather, he over-generalised, and his generalisation, as is so often the case (especially with a revered name like Darwin), hardened into dogma, to the point where observers were obliged to overlook what their eyes and ears were plainly telling them - that female birds often sing as lustily as males. Or at least they do in Australia; when it comes to our own birds, Darwin's generalisation seems to hold true. None of this, of course, really addresses what is still essentially a mystery - why birds sing as they do, why some of them are capable of such astonishingly rich, varied and inventive song, why they devote so much of their time to it, and why we humans find this alien sound so affecting and meaningful. So profound is this mystery that the naturalist, philosopher and musician  David Rothenburg has devoted an entire book to it - Why Birds Sing. His researches lead him to believe that the simplest answer might be closest to the truth - that songbirds sing so extravagantly, dispensing round their magnanimity of sound, because (silence please) they enjoy it.

Monday, 10 March 2014

'Jays are also very fond of green peas...'

There it was, in the window of the local hospice shop -
British Birds and Their Nests
by Brian Vesey-Fitzgerald,
with colour illustrations by Allen W. Seaby.
A Ladybird Senior, with Seaby's kingfisher on the wrapper (and a line-drawing of a thrush in full song on the board beneath). This was the bird book of my earliest childhood, before even the Observer's Book of Birds.
Naturally I bought this portal to the past. It was a copy still in good condition, the flyleaf effusively inscribed
'To Eric
from Gran and Grandad. Glasgow, 1955.'
The author, Brian Vesey-Fitzgerald, was a massively prolific writer on natural history and country life, a radio broadcaster and, from 1938 to 1946, editor of The Field. His foreword to this Ladybird book ends by urging children to 'look at these lovely pictures very closely, and then go out and see how many of the birds in this book you can find. You can try to find their nests as well, but if you do, do not take the eggs - just look at them. Good Hunting!'
 Yes, this book dates from a period when children routinely sought out birds' nests, but when the official line discouraged the taking of eggs. Nowadays a children's bird book showing nests and eggs would be unthinkable - which is a sad loss, as knowledge of nesting habits and appreciation of the ingenuity of their construction and the beauty of the eggs was an important and basic part of our knowledge of and relationship with birds.
 Seaby's illustrations include an inset image of the bird's egg, with a line drawing of its nest at the foot of the facing page. The pictures of the birds are delightful - tending towards a kind of prettiness that is of its period, but deftly and accurately conveying the appearance, habitat and typical behaviour of the species depicted. The accompanying words by the doughty Vesey-Fitzgerald are equally effective thumbnail sketches. Here is the first bird in the book, the Yellowhammer - and it is hard to imagine the essence of the bird captured much better in so few (and child-friendly) words:

'This is the little tubby bird, with the bright yellow cap, that sits on the telegraph wires or the very tops of the hedges, and sings to you as you pass by: "A-little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheee-ee-se."
 The Yellowhammer builds a very neat and tidy nest close to the ground (sometimes right on it), in a bush or on a hedgebank.
 This bird does a great deal of good, for the Yellowhammer eats hardly anything but insects, and catches many more to feed its chicks. It seems to sing all day long, too, and is a very busy, happy little bird.'

Vesey-Fitzgerald takes a firm line on the moral character of birds, and there are clearly some he does not at all approve of. Here he is on the Jay:
'Their voices are not nearly so beautiful as their feathers - being just a loud scream - and as soon as you go into a wood where Jays live, they screech at you, warning all the other birds that you are coming.
 In fact, Jays are not nearly so nice as they look, for they steal other birds' eggs, and sometimes kill and eat little birds as well.
 Jays are also very fond of green peas.' [he concludes through gritted teeth. Vesey-F is clearly a gardener.]
He is no easier on the Magpie:
'The Magpie, like the Jay, is a very beautiful bird with a rather nasty nature. It is, in fact, a cousin of the Jay...
 Magpies kill young birds and steal eggs, but they do much less harm in gardens than Jays.' [he says in mitigation].
 All the birds in this little book are, Vesey-F assures his readers, common. He was writing at a time when a suburban boy could expect to see Linnets and Yellowhammers without looking far from home, when the Tawny Owl (Brown Owl to Vesey-F) hooted in every park and garden, and the Turtle Dove - the Turtle Dove! - was a common summer visitor. Ah those far-off summers when the voice of the turtle was heard in the land...
The illustrator Allen Seaby, by the way, was a distinguished figure, Professor of Fine Art at Reading, where among his pupils was Kathleen Hale, who gave the world Orlando the Marmalade Cat. And Seaby's grandson is Robert Gillmor, artist and ornithologist, who makes rather wonderful linocuts of British birds. Those are his Sea-Pies - Oystercatchers - below.

Friday, 7 March 2014


My first butterfly of the year - a Comma! There it was, in  a small grassy clearing beside one of the woodland paths in Holland Park, basking in the suddenly warm sun. It was a small specimen, surprisingly fresh and lively. Between basks he would take off on a few short gliding circuits - almost brushing me with his wings as he passed - before settling again in a sunny spot. After ten minutes or so of my rapt attention, he flew off into the woods, and I went on my way, grinning like an imbecile. The butterfly year begins! And a full month earlier than last year.
(That's not my photograph, by the way.)

Heliograph of the Day

A big day for birthdays today - my Derbyshire cousin for one. But it's also the birth date (in 1765) of the great French inventor Nicephore Niepce, who in 1825 created what is accepted as the oldest surviving photograph. It's not much to look at - an almost abstract view of a roof and some angles of a building  - so I've put a more decorative later still life above this post, one that neatly compendiates the French preoccupation with the table. Niepce called his photographic technique 'heliographie' - 'sun drawing' (it involved a mixture of bitumen and lavender oil). Years before this, in 1807, Niepce had also built the first working internal combustion engine, which was used to power a boat on the river Saone. The combustive mixture included clubmoss spores, and Niepce called his engine a 'pyreolophore' - 'bearer of fire and wind'. How poetical the language of science and technology once was...
Today is also the birthday (in 1792) of the mathematician, astronomer and much else, Sir John Herschel (below) - who, happily, was in his old age the subject of some extraordinarily expressive portrait photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron.
And it's the 139th birthday of Maurice Ravel - which Radio 3 is marking by devoting the entire day to his works. Bravo! say I.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

318 Today

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, a prodigiously talented painter even by Venetian standards, was born on this day in 1696. A master of huge decorative schemes, but equally dazzling on a small scale, he is one of those artists who tends to be undervalued because he makes it all  look so easy. His best paintings are such airy creations, full of light and colour and movement, with little of the sombre or 'serious' about them, and his free, dashing brushwork gives the impression that they are just dashed off. Like Veronese's, they give a big hit of immediate sensory pleasure - and, to the more serious-minded, that will never do. Perhaps the forthcoming Veronese blockbuster at the National Gallery will change minds about him, but Tiepolo for now will have to wait.
 Meanwhile, here is a glorious Tiepolo ceiling panel - no one was ever better than him at turning a ceiling into a sky - depicting Nobility and Virtue defeating Perfidy, though the real subject is more like Celestial Blue and Ravishing Rose-Apricot defeating an exquisitely toned range of Greys. To think that just five months ago, I was looking up at this very painting on the first floor of Ca' Rezzonico. Hey ho...

Over on The Dabbler...

I write about a most extraordinary butterfly man.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Fixing our eyes on the distant Horizon...

I must be in a bad way; last night I watched a repeated Horizon on BBC4 about, er, what happened before the Big Bang. I've often wondered... Well no, to be honest, I haven't, but it was good to hear about the Big Ideas the boffins are tossing around these days - sometimes tossing at each other with a degree of force and venom. Roland Penrose, who was Mr Big Bang for years and was happy to declare that there couldn't be a 'Before' because Time 'came into being' with the Big Bang, has done a commendable volte face and now has his own ideas on Before. So do a whole battalion of other megabrains, who speak of Inflation (which seems to be the big alternative to Big Bang), Multiverses, Black Holes, Swiss cheeses, Gravity Waves, things called 'Branes (i.e. membranes) that exist in ten-dimensional space, whatever the heck that is... Towards the end, the succession of frankly geeky males was broken by the welcome surprise of a rather glamorous and exotic lady Prof who'd had a Eureka moment over a cup of coffee. It involved String Theory and the Universe being a Wave, and for some reason it seemed to mean that there needn't be a Before. I think.
  Okay, so what is all this about? Is it looking for something 'before Time' - surely a logical contradiction, as without Time there can't be a Before? Or is it a matter of pushing back yet further
the really big question - how does Something emerge from Nothing? Do any of these new ideas actually answer that? Can the question ever be answered in terms of Space-Time reality? Doesn't it ultimately belong somewhere else? Perhaps it loses some of its difficulty if we acknowledge the existence (hardly the word, but what can you do?) of a timeless world - a world such as we sometimes subjectively and intuitively know, and which, after all, we inhabit for a large part of our lives, 'Returning each morning from a timeless world', as Auden puts it. Incidentally, for those exercised by the question of whether God exists, this acknowledgment would, in a way, settle the matter:  'Dieu n'existe pas, Il est eternel.' I think that was Francois Mauriac. I'm sure he wasn't thinking about what happened before the Big Bang.


And then this morning, surfacing during Farming Today and managing to stay awake through the rest of the programme (whither Ukrainian grain?) - and then came Tweet of the Day. And it was the one and only Bill Oddie - and it was The Blackbird!
 Happily my window was open, and so it was that a radio blackbird joined in with the blackbird in my garden and those in the gardens beyond as they greeted the morning light - a magical few moments of perfect blackbird polyphony...
 Explaining how blackbirds' territories overlap, Oddie signed off with those beautiful closing lines of Edward Thomas's Adlestrop:

'And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.'

And outside my window, mistier, farther and farther, all the birds of Carshalton, Northeast Surrey and adjacent parts of South London sang on. I really should live in a shire.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Ain't It Enough

I've been laid low for a couple of days by what we used to call 'gastric flu'. It's been no kind of fun, but the upside of this kind of prostration is that I get to spend lot of time in bed or on the sofa, drifting in and out of sleep, with the radio on. And you never know what you might hear in your more wakeful moments. Early one morning I became aware that one of Garrison Keillor's radio shows was on (this must have been Radio 4 Extra), and there was some familiar-sounding music - as I surfaced, I realised it was Old Crow Medicine Show, and they were performing the lovely song Ain't It Enough. Ketch Secor was on vocals, but it's really better suited to the gentler voice of the peerless Willie Watson, as here...