Friday, 18 August 2017

Marble Motels, Shorter Years

On this day in 1958, Lolita was finally published in the United States, by Putnam's, after four other publishers had nervously turned it down. The nervousness was understandable: Lolita had been widely denounced as pornographic, and banned in France and the UK. When, in 1959, it was published in the UK by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, it effectively ended the political career of partner Nigel Nicolson (father of Adam).
 In the US, Lolita was an instant best-seller on a heroic scale, selling 100,000 copies in its first three weeks - and surely disappointing many thousands of hopeful smut hounds. In a Time interview, Nabokov, now a celebrity, declared that his real interest was not in nymphets but in motels: 'I would like to have a chain of motels - made of marble. I would put one every ten minutes along the highway, and I would travel from one to another with my butterfly net.'
 Checking the dates, I realise that when I first read Lolita, ten years after it came out in the UK, I was at the same distance in time from the first publication of Howards End, Clayhanger and The History of Mr Polly as I am now from the US publication of Lolita. Those post-Lolita years seem so very much shorter.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

A Mistake

I recently reread Eça de Queiroz's wonderful novella The Yellow Sofa - about which I've written elsewhere - and, finding that I loved it as much as ever, thought I'd seek out some more of his shorter fictions. I soon found a volume, published by Dedalus, titled Alves & Co and Other Stories and, as it was going for a song, I happily snapped it up. Only to discover that Alves & Co is the selfsame Yellow Sofa under a different title.
 If I still had a functioning memory for names, I might have recalled that Alves & Co is the family firm of Godofredo da Conceição Alves, the (less than heroic) hero of The Yellow Sofa. Ah well - at least, by buying this volume, I discovered that Dedalus, an enterprising small press based in Cambridgeshire, also publish translations of many of Eça de Queiroz's other works. I'll be on the look-out for them now, taking care not to repeat my mistake.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Meanwhile...

Here's something I wrote about Strawberry Hill House for superior interior specialists Pooky.

One More, and Back to England

Good news from Dieppe's other historic church, St Rémy, where a wholesale, long overdue restoration is now under way. Among the first fruits is the lady chapel [above], restored to its former splendour. If the rest of the church lives up to that, it will be quite something - and it might well be finished before the seemingly never-ending restoration of St Jacques is complete. But there’s a long way to go, and many of St Rémy’s side chapels have been, er, awaiting attention for some while [below].


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Back in England, we got on the train at Newhaven, that deeply dismal point of arrival, and I took a window seat from which to enjoy the passing scenery. Immediately a burly, stubble-chinned fellow in a below-the-knee floral print cotton dress piped up, informing me, at length, just how ‘rubbish’ the trains on that line are. They should have been scrapped and replaced years ago, he declared - although it would be a waste of time as the replacement rolling stock is rubbish too.
 Moving the conversation deftly along, he asked me what kind of day I’d had, expressing the hope – nay, expectation – that it had been better than his. I mentioned Dieppe and he expressed the hope – nay, conviction – that it was ‘better than this place’. I endeavoured to enjoy the landscape sliding by the window – sheep grazing in the river valley, a horizon of rounded hills, stocky church spires rising among trees – but by the time we got to Lewes he had also assured me that, in fifty years, all that would be gone and there would be nothing but houses. Welcome to England.
 

Friday, 11 August 2017

And

Also seen in a side chapel of St Jacques, Dieppe, awaiting who knows what.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Two Tablets, One Story

In a side chapel (La Chapelle des Noyés) of the magnificent church of St Jacques in Dieppe - a church whose much-needed restoration proceeds slowly - I noticed a tablet in memory of the priest Jacques Hamel. Père Hamel was butchered in his old age by a Jihadist fanatic, while celebrating mass at his church in St-Etienne-de-Rouvray. A few yards to the right of his tablet is one in memory of another priest, Clement Briche, who was guillotined in the public square of Dieppe in 1794, a victim of equally fanatical revolutionaries acting in the name of Reason and Enlightenment. The two tablets make a poignant pairing, and a sad reminder of what human beings are capable of when gripped by an Idea that seems to demand the death of all those who do not share it.
 The name Hamel appears on another tablet in the same chapel, this one celebrating the brothers Jean and Charles Hamel, who in 1656 sailed from their native Dieppe to start a new life in Quebec. Several other families are similarly celebrated, in tablets put up by their present-day descendants in Canada. I used to read such things with interest but no particular emotion, until a visit to Quebec a few years ago - and, especially, a reading of Willa Cather's wonderful novel of 17th-century Quebec, Shadows on the Rock - made me realise just what it meant to leave one life behind and try to establish a new one on an alien shore. Fiction, as ever, tells us far more than history can.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

D***** Time Again

Alert regulars might have noticed that it's been a full ten months since I was last in Dieppe - was this going to be that rare thing, a Dieppeless year? The answer is of course no: Mrs N and I are heading that way again tomorrow (after overnighting in Lewes), taking the big lumbering ferry from Newhaven in the early morning.
 It now takes longer to get from London to Dieppe than it did in the later 19th century, when there were boat trains and fast and frequent steam packets delivering les Anglais smoothly into the heart of the old town, within yards of the restaurants on the Quai Henri IV. Even in the 1990s, as I remember, it was still possible to nip over to Dieppe for lunch and return in the early evening... Ah well, at least the ferry - unlike so many others - is still running.
 I might be filing the odd report from Dieppe, but if not I should be back in action some time next week.

Monday, 7 August 2017

God: Certainly a Gentleman

In the closing years of the 19th century, the young Somerset Maugham was befriended by the elderly Augustus Hare and paid several visits to the eminent Victorian's home, near Hastings. Here Hare followed the morning routine that was still standard in the great houses of the time, reading prayers and passages from the Bible to the assembled guests and servants before the hearty breakfast was broached.
 Maugham noted that some of the prayers were not spoken in the familiar form, and discovered that the book used by Hare had been edited, certain phrases being removed. When Maugham asked his host why this was, Hare replied: 'I've crossed out all the passages in glorification of God. God is certainly a gentleman, and no gentleman cares to be praised to his face. It is tactless, impertinent and vulgar. I think all that fulsome adulation must be highly offensive to him.'
 I rather think my father (whose mindset was decidedly Edwardian) would have endorsed the idea of God as a 'gentleman' - though he would surely have added the adjective 'English'.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Suspected Resident

One of these strange creatures was nectaring on the Buddleia outside my bedroom window this morning. It's a Hummingbird Hawk Moth - a moth that looks and behaves like a cross between a Hummingbird and a Bee Fly (Bombylius). The wings are a blur, while the body hangs in the air absolutely static and the long tongue probes deep into the flower. It moves with all the suddenness of a hoverfly, here one second, somewhere else the next, with no visible movement from A to B. And, of course, unlike most hawk moths, it's day-flying. It's quite common and widespread in the UK, but it's still a strange and wonderful sight. Butterfly Conservation UK lists its status as 'Immigrant, suspected resident' - let's hope it's not in breach of regulations.

Friday, 4 August 2017

Larry Knechtel


Born on this day in 1940 was the great keyboard player and all-round musician Larry Knechtel, a core member of Phil Spector's legendary Wrecking Crew - probably the greatest-ever concentration of talent in one band - and, later, of Bread. Knechtel worked with everyone: that's him on piano in Simon and Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water (a turn that won him a Grammy), on keyboards in the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, and on bass in the Byrds' Mr Tambourine Man. And, among much else, Knechtel played keyboards on John Phillips' ill-fated solo album (along with James Burton, Buddy Emmons and Red Rhodes on guitars, Joe Osborn on bass and Hal Blaine on drums - what a band). Phillips deeply disliked the album (though it contains much of his best work) and thought it would have sounded better if his voice had been mixed out altogether. Well, with those musicians, it would certainly have sounded good - but who'd be without a song like this?


Wednesday, 2 August 2017

What Happened?

In Bloxham church, Oxfordshire, Sir John Thornycroft (d. 1725) reclines at ease, perfectly confident that the life to come will be every bit as agreeable as the present one, with frequent toga parties and ample opportunities for him to strike elegant poses and coin equally elegant bons mots. Pevsner describes the figure of Sir John, in periwig and 'diaphanous draperies', as 'effete' - and so he is, but his monument is sadly typical of an unfortunate phase in the history of English church monuments.
  The chapel that Sir John's monument attempts to dominate is a beautiful building, lit by large and magnificent Perpendicular windows. Its builders could have had no conception that it would one day house a monument of such absurd pretension (and such entire lack of any Christian content). What happened? And, more to the point, what happened in the decades between the golden age of English church monuments - the age of Evesham and Stone and the great artists from the low countries - and the coming into fashion of overblown Baroque monuments of this type?
 I guess the answer to that is the Civil War and the Restoration, a period that brought about a revolution in taste and attitudes. However, it still seems extraordinary that English men (and women) could suddenly regard it as perfectly normal to pose for their monuments in Roman dress, quite at ease in an imagined version of classical antiquity, as if nothing had happened between Roman times and the new Augustan age - except that periwigs came into fashion. No wonder there was, eventually, a reaction against these excesses in the form of an austere and 'correct' classicism. Being alien to the English temperament, however, this did not last long before the revivalist excesses of the Victorians swept it away, beginning the last great flowering of monument-making. After which - or in the course of which - this once great English art form went into decline and petered out.

I came across the Thornycroft monument in the course of a very fine church-crawl that took in three of Oxfordshire's finest - St Mary Bloxham, St Peter and St Paul Deddington, and St Mary Adderbury. After that I spent a few days with my cousin in Derbyshire where, among other things, I enjoyed a cello and piano performance in the magnificent setting of the StarDisc, and a muddy but very wonderful walk along the beautiful Chee Dale - that's a part of it below.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Footnotes

The day before yesterday I was picking blackberries on Mitcham Common, just yards from the thunderous main road, when I noticed something rather grey and moth-like fluttering around on the bramble patch. It was only when it (she, in fact) settled on a nearby leaf and folded its wings in a most unmothlike manner that I suddenly realised what it was. To quote myself on an earlier occasion - my friends, it was a Purple Hairstreak! A female, the upperside duller and browner than the male, but the underwing, with those subtle washes of greys, the thin meandering 'hairstreak', the tiny orange 'eyes' and tail, was unmistakable. A glorious surprise.
  Equally unmistakable was the Clouded Yellow that I saw a little later as it flew away from the trees and off over the golf course at high speed. This is a summer visitor that, if it turns up at all, can turn up anywhere (I once spotted one at South Mimms service station), and most years I count myself lucky if I see one at all. Last year I didn't - but that, of course, was the Year of the Hairstreak...
  The blackberries were delicious.

But enough of butterflies and blackberries - I'm off to Oxfordshire tomorrow, then to various parts of Mercia for a few days. There will probably be a brief hiatus. Enjoy it while it lasts.
 

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Ha! Ha! Among the Trumpets

'The common people do not understand poetry, are shy of poetry,  and though they have been taught to admire the true poets of the past are loath to admit that the race is not yet extinct. This is why very little work by living poets has a wide circulation except what is comfortably third-hand and third-rate. The people are not to be blamed: their difficulty is that despite all the charlatans, racketeers and incompetents who have disgraced the poetic profession, an aroma of holiness still clings to the title 'poet', as it does to the titles 'saint' and 'hero', both of which are properly reserved for the dead. It is only when death releases the true poet from the embarrassing condition of being at once immortal and alive in the flesh that the people are prepared to honour him...'
 They don't write Forewords like that any more. It's the opening of Robert Graves's foreword to the war poet Alun Lewis's posthumous collection Ha! Ha! Among the Trumpets (published 1945, the year after the poet's untimely death). I picked it up in a charity shop on my recent visit to Egham. The title is from the Book of Job: 'He [the horse] saith among the trumpets, Ha, ha; and he smelleth the battle afar off, the thunder of the captains, and the shouting.'
 Alun Lewis is best known for the much anthologised All Day It Has Rained, a poem with something of an Edward Thomas flavour (written, in fact, in Edward Thomas country), and the touching Goodbye, which is in the Ha! Ha! volume. So too is Song (on seeing dead bodies floating off the Cape), an extraordinary, death-soaked poem that was the first of Lewis's I ever read:

The first month of his absence
I was numb and sick
And where he’d left his promise
Life did not turn or kick.
The seed, the seed of love was sick
The second month my eyes were sunk
In the darkness of despair,
And my bed was like a grave
And his ghost was lying there.
And my heart was sick with care.
The third month of his going
I thought I heard him say
‘Our course deflected slightly
On the thirty-second day – ’
The tempest blew his words away.
And he was lost among the waves,
His ship rolled helpless in the sea,
The fourth month of his voyage
He shouted grievously
‘Beloved, do not think of me.’
The flying fish like kingfishers
Skim the sea’s bewildered crests,
The whales blow steaming fountains,
The seagulls have no nests
Where my lover sways and rests.
We never thought to buy and sell
This life that blooms or withers in the leaf,
And I’ll not stir, so he sleeps well,
Though cell by cell the coral reef
Builds an eternity of grief.
But oh! the drag and dullness of my Self;
The turning seasons wither in my head;
All this slowness, all this hardness,
The nearness that is waiting in my bed,
The gradual self-effacement of the dead.
Lewis, initially a reluctant soldier (he was a pacifist and joined up as an engineer), inexplicably took a commission in an infantry battalion and was sent to India, then Burma. This gave him the material for many of the poems in his last collection, but the depression that had always dogged him grew worse - perhaps exacerbated by a love affair in India (he was married) - and he died not in combat but by his own hand. He was just 28.




Tuesday, 25 July 2017

A Gender-Neutral Post from N.C. Andrew

I hear that male novelists have taken to writing for the women's market - the only fiction market that seems to be thriving - under names that give no indication of their sex, forenames being represented by initials. The wisdom of the market is that women only want to read novels by other women - preferably novels with titles containing the word 'Girl' or, at a pinch, 'Woman'. Among recent titles, Final Girls, The Girl Before and The Woman in the Window were all written by men using 'gender'-neutral names - and so was the big-selling Before I Go to Sleep, a Girl-free title.
  If it's true that women only want to read novels by other women - and, by the same logic, men only want to read men - then it's a dismal lookout. (Me, I seem to greatly prefer women novelists - but then, I'm not in the market for contemporary, or genre, fiction.) It might seem like some kind of payback that male novelists are now having to pass themselves off as women, rather than the other way round. However, I've never really bought the notion that, in the bad old days, women writers could only expect to be taken seriously if they pretended to be men. For one thing, it's a pretence that isn't going to last long; it might be useful in order to get published, but after the first successful publication, the truth will out, and will make no difference. The Brontes were a special case in every way,  and did Mary Ann Evans really have to call herself 'George Eliot' in order to be published and taken seriously? Was there anyone still under the impression she was a man by the time Middlemarch was published? Did any male reader, discovering the subterfuge, fling it aside as a novel fit only for women? Most Victorian women writers of all kinds kept their own names and were taken no less seriously for it.
  All of Ivy Compton-Burnett's novels were published under the name 'I. Compton-Burnett'. Was this a serious attempt to pass as a man? Did readers recommend 'the new one by this chap Ian Compton-Burnett'? It seems unlikely.

Monday, 24 July 2017

A Visit to Egham

Egham, an unlovely semi-suburban Surrey town on the opposite side of the Thames from Staines, is the kind of place you wouldn't be inclined to visit without good reason. My reason was, of course, research: St John's church in Egham contains two monuments to members of the Denham family, both of which are well worth the time of any monument man.
 The church, conveniently near the station, stands in a large churchyard, an enclave of old Egham in a town centre that, for the most part, looks much like any other. The church - a big, ugly Georgian rebuild in yellow brick and stone - shows evidence of being a thriving institution with a taste for evangelism (an impression confirmed by its website). It has been much extended and modernised in recent times and is the very model of an urban evangelical church. Though it opens for a couple of hours on Mondays, I fancy this is not for the benefit of antiquarian thrill-seekers like me.
 I entered with trepidation, and was greeted cordially by a man and a woman, neither of whom, to my relief, had the evangelical glint in their eyes. 'I'm here to have a look at the Denham monuments,' I declared breezily. A puzzled silence ensued; they clearly knew of no Denham monuments. 'I'm pretty sure they're in here somewhere,' I persisted, and the woman volunteered to help me find them, after I'd wandered round the body of the church and into the vestry and found no Denham monuments. She took a key and led me into the vestibule and up to the gallery to check the monuments there: nothing. This was odd.
  As we were going down the stairs from the gallery, I looked up at the opposite wall - and there, above us, was Sir John Denham*, rising from the grave in triumph, his shroud still over his head, the tomb beneath him a riot of skeletons and cadavers. 'I'd never noticed that,' said the woman, impressed. After admiring it a while, I set out to find the other Denham monument - could it be...? Yes, it was in exactly the same position on the other staircase to the gallery. A less dramatic affair than Sir John's monument, it portrays his two wives, with a baby and a free-standing miniature child. The design is brilliant, obviously Italian-inspired, and the figures of the two women (especially the one holding the baby) are full of life and wonderfully expressive. It looks like nothing else of its time. According to the Oxford DNB, there is good reason to think it might be by - yes - Epiphanius Evesham. The presence of this monument too was news to my guides, and they seemed glad to have noticed it. It's certainly prettier than Sir John's memorial.
 Visiting churches these days, you rarely meet the likes of the Rev. Henry D'Ascoyne (from Kind Hearts and Coronets) - 'I always say that my West window has all the exuberance of Chaucer - without, happily, any of the concomitant crudities of the period' - and that's no bad thing: it can be very tedious being shown round a church by an enthusiast who knows the building and its history in rather too much detail. On the other hand, it does seem odd that often the custodians of our churches, the believers who keep them functioning - even thriving - as places of worship, are often unaware of much of the beauty and interest of their buildings. But at least they are preventing them from falling into disuse, and are keeping Christian worship alive, even if in forms that some of us might find problematic. If we aesthetes, monument men and High Anglican sentimentalists were to take over the job, we surely wouldn't make much of a fist of it.

* Father of the poet.








Sunday, 23 July 2017

Augustus Hare:A Spectacularly Unhappy Childhood

The other day I took a book from the shelf that I must have reviewed (perhaps for The Listener?) back in 1985 when it came out, but of which I remember very little indeed. It's a biography: Augustus Hare, Victorian Gentleman by Malcolm Barnes. I thought I'd have another look at it, by way of a break from my fiction reading.
 Augustus J.C. Hare was one of those Victorian writers who were very successful in their day but soon sank below the horizon as the century turned. He wrote a wide range of popular travel guides - his Walks in Rome was the most successful - as well as biographies of aristocrats (he adored the nobility) and family histories, but he was also an autobiographer on a grand scale. His Story of My Life runs to six fat volumes, supplemented by Memorials of a Quiet Life, the life and letters of his mother in three volumes. No shortage of material for the biographer, and Malcolm Barnes (who also edited an abridged version of the autobiography) makes good use of it.
 What I had remembered of this biography was that Hare had an unhappy childhood. Re-reading it, I realised just how unhappy. Even by the standards of Victorian children born into ultra-evangelical families with sadistic leanings, Hare's was a spectacularly unhappy childhood. Given away, for purely selfish reasons, by his natural mother, young Augustus was raised by his father's sister, Maria, a death-obsessed evangelical who was firmly convinced that children are innately evil and that sin must be driven out of them. The idea was that, by denying a child anything that might give them pleasure, the will could be broken and the child 'saved'. This was mainstream stuff in evangelical circles at the time, and Maria's harshness was softened to some degree by natural affection, so that life with 'Mother', however oppressive, was bearable to Augustus, and even had its pleasures.
  Unfortunately there were others on the scene, whose attitudes to child-rearing made Maria's look like the utmost leniency. Augustus's uncle Julius, the Rector of Herstmonceux, lived nearby and dominated Maria and Augustus's life with his demands, his strictures and his ferocious presence, in which the boy was expected to sit still, in silence, and be totally ignored. But worse was to come after Julius married Esther, a sister of F.D. Maurice, the 'saintly' theologian and Christian Socialist (saintly to Charles Kingsley and many adoring followers, 'puzzle-headed' and 'wrong-headed' to Ruskin). Esther set about tormenting the unhappy Augustus - for his own good, of course - with all but psychopathic relish.
 As well as being made to sleep through the harshest winter weather in a solitary unheated room and (despite his chilblains) wash in the morning in water that was often frozen, he was also forced to eat sauerkraut precisely because its very smell made him sick. On other occasions, delicious puddings would be presented at table, with every display of relish, only to be taken away again intact. Esther also decreed that, on Sundays, Augustus should be locked into the vestry for three hours between services, with only the rats for company. But the climax of her campaign of vicious sadism came when she took Augustus's favourite cat from him and hanged it from the branch of a tree, taking the boy out to see its quivering body.
 When not suffering this brutal domestic regime, Augustus would be enduring a succession of horrendous boarding schools (one run by the father of Francis Kilvert, the diarist) where conditions were so appalling that he longed to be home. In the course of all this, he often, unsurprisingly, fell seriously ill, on one occasion being obliged to wear a kind of iron cage over his body for months on end.
 Happily, there were times when more agreeable people entered his life - one of them Walter Savage Landor, with whom Augustus dined regularly when attending a school near Bath, the meals with Landor saving him from starvation. Augustus revelled in the conversation (or monologue) of the old man, who would sit with his white Spitz dog on his head while holding forth. The Hares were phenomenally well connected, and not all of their connections were ecclesiastical - a fact that stood Augustus in good stead in later life when cultivating the aristocracy, with many of whom he could claim some kind of cousinly connection. This was a man who was never happier than when attending a house party at one or other of the stately homes of England.
  That Augustus Hare was capable of happiness at all - that he became a sociable, well-liked and apparently well-adjusted man with a successful career - after such a start in life as he endured is little short of miraculous. Indeed, it's a wonder he survived at all.

















Saturday, 22 July 2017

The Poetry of Labels

I've just been cleaning the oven with a product that, the label assures me, 'laughs in the face of baked-on food. Without the need for rubbing, scrubbing or agitating, it dissolves stubborn baked-on grease, oil and fat within minutes... Simply sponge or brush on and after five minutes wipe off for [a] gleaming, sparkling oven every time.' The Directions include the soothing injuction, 'Leave to dwell for five minutes.' I like that 'dwell'...
  Needless to say, far from laughing in the face of baked-on food, this cleaner sighed weakly and capitulated. Even with a deal of rubbing, scrubbing and agitating, it left behind a black impasto of rock-hard gunk, from which only the major promontories had been rubbed, scrubbed and agitated away. Not a gleam or a sparkle to be seen, and if there was any laughing, it was the gunk laughing in the face of the puny oven cleaner that promised to much. I covered the bottom of the oven with a patented liner (that also promises much) and hoped for better days.
 

Friday, 21 July 2017

Round the Corner Smith

Born on this day in 1863 was Charles Aubrey Smith, who, as C. Aubrey Smith, enjoyed a very successful film career playing Hollywood's idea of the 'archetypal Englishman' in a string of films from the 1920s through to the 1940s. Before that, he had tried his hand as a gold prospector in South Africa, where he succumbed to pneumonia and was pronounced dead by doctors. He also had a successful career as a cricketer, playing for Sussex and once leading England to victory in what turned out to be a Test match against South Africa (no one was quite sure at the time). He was chiefly a fast bowler, bamboozling the batsman with his long, curved run-up that began somewhere around deep mid-off. As he reached the wicket, 'Round the Corner Smith' would suddenly appear from behind the umpire, often with unnerving effect.
  In Hollywood, Smith formed the Hollywood Cricket Club, which he ruled with a rod of iron, expecting any English actors in the vicinity to turn out and play. The pitch was of imported English turf, and the HCC games afforded much amusement to the locals. Once, while fielding at slip, Smith dropped a tricky catch and sent his English butler to fetch his glasses, which he duly did - on a silver salver. Smith put them on, and promptly dropped a sitter, at which he whipped off his glasses and growled, 'Damn fool brought my reading glasses.'
  When in England, Smith would often visit Lord's. Once a member spotted him in the pavilion and remarked to another member, 'That chap looks familiar.' 'Yes,' he replied, 'Chap called Smith. Used to play for Sussex.'

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Grass Carnified

Talking of the cycles of nature, here's Sir Thomas Browne in the first part of his Religio Medici:

 'All flesh is grass, is not only metaphorically, but litterally, true; for all those creatures we behold are but the herbs of the field, digested into flesh in them, or more remotely carnified in our selves. Nay further, we are what we all abhor, Anthropophagi and Cannibals, devourers not onely of men, but of our selves; and that not an allegory, but a positive truth; for all this mass of flesh which we behold, came in at our mouths; this frame we look upon, hath been upon our trenchers; in brief, we have devour'd our selves.'

'Carnified' is one of Browne's 775 neologisms. A pity it hasn't lasted as well as his 'carnivorous'.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Natural Burial

Today a lonely impulse of delight led me to visit, for the first time, a 'natural burial ground'. I'd heard that it's alive with butterflies this summer, and that alone would have been enough reason, but I was also interested to see what a 'natural burial site' looks like, or indeed is.
 Alive with butterflies it certainly was - meadow browns, gatekeepers, ringlets, skippers and (common) blues in abundance, plus brown arguses, small coppers, late marbled whites, commas, peacocks, etc. And what it looked like was not a burial ground but a large wildflower meadow, with young woodland and a lake - nothing above ground to show that this is a burial place, except perhaps the minimum-impact glass pavilion. There's a reason for this, I discovered: no vertical memorials or markers are allowed, except for trees (native species only - quite right too). The whole idea of 'natural burial' is to be reabsorbed into the earth as soon as is naturally possible, leaving no lasting mark on the landscape (stone markers, even if horizontal, are not allowed).
 I was rather attracted by the idea, I must admit. Earth to earth, taking our place in the cycle of nature. Of course I have my own ideas about the kind of ceremony I would like to send me on my way, but as for the actual disposal of the body - or rather the ashes - I'd be quite happy for it/them to go this way, returning to the earth in surroundings like these, amid wild flowers and butterflies.
  It's a feeling that, I suspect, is in the ascendant, and natural burial is certainly becoming increasingly popular. The difficult idea of bodily resurrection no longer seems to make much sense to many people; the body surely belongs to nature and will return to it, whatever the fate of the soul. So why not recognise the fact, and help it on its way? Especially if it can be done in a dignified manner in such pleasant and appropriate surroundings.
 And yet, as a monument man, a wanderer in churchyards and reader of epitaphs, I cannot help but feel a strong nostalgia for the times when the dead were memorialised in enduring ways, when fine craftsmanship, even great art, was employed to that end, leaving a rich and glorious legacy of church monuments and (in a smaller way) carved stones and epitaphs.
 In the parish church a few hundred yards away from the natural burial ground, there's a grave board that reads
'In memory of Alfred Lemon, who died May 2nd 1851, aged 14 years.
When missing sorrow weeps the past
And mourns the present pain
How sweet to think of peace at last
And feel that death is gain.'
 Not great verse, not a great epitaph, but a genuine expression of grief and hope that has come down to us across more than a century and a half. With natural burial there will be no such survivals - nothing, after a short while, to mark the life, the death, the loss. Does this matter? Probably not, in an age when we seem to have lost the art of memorialising the dead, when even the urge to do so seems weak. And yet...



Monday, 17 July 2017

In Lucem: A Mystery

Strolling in one of my local parks the other day - a park I've known for nearly 60 years, and of which I thought I knew every inch - I was astonished to happen on something entirely new to me. It wasn't exactly hidden away either, but in the lawn by the boating lake, near the grand herbaceous border and just yards from the lakeside path - how on earth had I missed it for so long? This was a park I played in as a boy, it's adjacent to the grammar school I attended for seven years, I've walked there more times than I could possibly compute - and yet I'd somehow missed this.
  What was it? Good question. It was - and is - a small engraved stone tablet overlooking a miniature pool of water, the lowest point of a shallow V-shaped dip in the ground, into which a narrow brick path leads and from the other side of which it emerges. The whole thing is barely ten yards wide/long.
  It is, I have discovered, a remnant of the fernery that was part of the once famous garden that was incorporated into the park when the council bought the land. Why and how this curious feature survived I have no idea - can it really have been there all through my long years of walking in this park and failing to notice it?
  And what about the motto engraved on the stone? In lucem lucrum, ludum. I can see that it's something to do with light, profit and game/play - but what does it mean? And what can it possibly have to do with the cultivation of ferns? Any ideas?

Sunday, 16 July 2017

My Problem with Pugin

Over the weekend, in the course of my researches, I found myself in the Kent seaside resort of Ramsgate, a place I'd never visited before. I was greatly impressed by the magnificent location - harbour, cliffs, wide sandy beaches facing the sunny South, panoramic views of sea, sky and town (largely free of high-rise disfigurement) from the end of the harbour wall - and the fine Regency and Victorian terraces, crescents and squares that rise above the shore. No wonder this was such a popular watering place in Victorian times - so popular that in places every other building has a blue plaque commemorating some eminent Victorian's sojourn.  Today Ramsgate is clearly poised to be the next Margate - i.e. to be discovered, colonised and revitalised by arty/hipsterish London types - but it seems to be a slow process. What it needs perhaps is a new art gallery along the lines of Margate's Turner...
  What it has got, as its prime architectural/devotional attraction, is Pugin's church (now a shrine) of St Augustine, to which I naturally bent my steps. Lacking the spire that Pugin intended, the church has a rather dumpy aspect from outside, and the dark flint from which it is built does nothing for its beauty - but the glory of this church is, everyone says, its interior, the architect's masterpiece, the church he built for himself, with his own money, exactly as he wanted it. I entered with high hopes of an overwhelming aesthetic experience - but I'm sorry to say that, to my disappointment, I felt little more than a cool admiration for Pugin's architectural brilliance and ingenuity, and for the fine craftsmanship on display.
 The church, for me, lacked anything of the truly numinous, and I found the sheer relentlessness of its earnestly 'correct', highly detailed Gothic oppressive and rather distasteful.  What is the point of a Gothic revival that simply reproduces the Gothic in an age to which it is essentially alien (well, in as much as Gothic is ever alien to the incorrigibly anti-classical, anti-modernist English imagination)? As Heraclitus pointed out long ago, you cannot step twice into the same river; it will have flowed away. The re-creation of a supposedly authentic Gothic style - as against the reimagining and development of it for another age - is essentially an arid exercise, whatever the passion that might have fired it, and at St Augustine's, I'm afraid, it feels like it. Or rather it felt like it for me. I almost preferred Ramsgate's other Gothic revival church, St George's, where the Gothic is superficial, purely decorative, essentially Georgian, but somehow more fitting. Certainly more Anglican. Maybe that's my problem, my Anglican soul.  

Thursday, 13 July 2017

'A genuine interest in all the details'

Recently a quotation from William Morris caught my eye: 'The true secret of happiness lies in taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life.'
 Naturally one is chary of any statement beginning with those words; most are no more than pious nostrums. But in this case, I think Morris was really on to something. In my experience of bored, unhappy and world-weary people, I've found that they nearly all have one thing in common - they don't at all closely notice the detail of the world around them or take any real interest in it. Their minds are on, as it were, higher things and bigger pictures - a recipe for unhappiness if ever there was one. 'Short views,' as Sidney Smith counselled his depressed lady friend. The shorter and more concentrated the better - close attention to what is there, leading ultimately perhaps to that long-sought goal of 'living in the moment', at least getting somewhere near it. Paying attention is, it seems to me (and to many others), one of the three essentials of living a reasonably happy and balanced life in this world (the other two being something like humility, gratitude, a sense of perspective, and gusto, enjoying what can be enjoyed, taking pleasure in the things at hand. These two ultimately derive from the third, paying attention, so it is in that sense the most important.)
 I'm deeply suspicious of 'research findings', unless they confirm what is already known or intuited or belongs in the realm of 'common sense'. So I was glad recently to come across some research investigating why some people regard themselves as 'lucky' and others as 'unlucky' - what distinguishes the two types? The key finding was that the 'lucky' were those who paid attention and were alert to what was around them, while the 'unlucky' paid only partial and selective attention, their attention being more inwardly directed, and missed much of what was going on (thereby missing opportunities to turn their 'luck').
 If paying attention can be extended into 'taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life', so much the better (though there's a snag perhaps in the word 'genuine' - can a genuine interest be acquired or must it be innate? I think it's probably the former.) An interest in such details means that your chances of ever being bored are dramatically lowered, as these details are all around you all the time (especially in this digital age). It also means, usefully, that you'll always have something to talk about with those people - the majority - whose minds are not on higher things and bigger pictures (though, in my case, a large blank spot containing most sport, all cars, high-tech gadgets and other 'man stuff' can be a problem in male company).
 The more we take an interest in the detail of the world around us, the more richly interesting and involving it becomes - the more you see, the more you see there is to see (to paraphrase John Sebastian). The specific is invariably more interesting than the generic, and it is more present; we experience the world through its specifics. Who could be bored when there are swifts flying? 'Smell the roses' is not a bad injunction - pause, experience this one specific thing; that is living. But before I turn into a latter-day Donovan offering a gift from a flower to a garden, I'd better stop. Only adding that a genuine interest in all the detail of daily life is certainly invaluable to any blog writer.





Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Technical note

I've been having very frustrating problems with my temperamental internet connection - hence recent sparsity of posting. I'm hoping it will settle down now and online life will resume its even tenor...

Back to Ivy

'"No one can speak in this house without meaning too much," said Nigel.'

  Yes, I've been reading Ivy Compton-Burnett again, in whose fictional houses - all essentially the same house - no one can speak without meaning too much, without subtexts of things meant but unspoken seething dangerously near the surface.
  This time I was feeding my ICB addiction with A Father and His Fate, published in 1957 and one of the shorter, funnier and more readable novels in the oeuvre. The theme is similar to The Present and the Past (the clue’s in the title), which I also read quite recently.

‘“It is the future we must think of,” said Constance [in A Father and His Fate]. “It is useless to pursue the past.”
  “It is needless,” said Audrey. “It will pursue us.”’

  Miles Mowbray, the monster at the centre of A Father and His Fate, is, as ICB’s male monsters go, a relatively benign one, a pompous, grandiloquent and absurd figure (whose absurdity is constantly being pointed up by his sharp-witted nephews Nigel and Rufus). However, when fate presents him with the opportunity – or appears to – he steps in briskly to steal his nephew’s fiancée, his junior by decades, and propose to marry her.
  This, or something very like it, actually happened in my own family, when my much-married and philoprogenitive great-grandfather stole his son’s fiancée and married her, fathering several more children. Miles Mowbray’s plans, however, are thwarted when the past makes an unexpected reappearance in the present. Unexpected, that is, by everyone except the reader, who will have seen it all coming; Ivy’s plots are nothing if not flimsy. She is the perfect exemplar of the Aristotelian distinction between plot and action: her plots are perfunctory to the point of absurdity, but the action of her novels – which unfolds almost entirely through the dialogue – is rich, complex, layered and dense with meaning. Yes, too much meaning.