Sunday, 31 March 2013

Happy Easter

In church this Easter morning (my first visit, I fear, since last Easter, but I was ill at Christmas), the reader of the prayers suffered a strangely poetical slip of the tongue. Meaning to pray for 'those whose mortal remains lie buried in this churchyard', he slipped into 'remortal mains'. Remortal - dead again? Alive again? Mains - the principal parts, seas, channels? Mains before afters? Remortal mains - it has a ring to it...
Anyway, here's wishing a very Happy Easter to all who browse here.

Friday, 29 March 2013

A Hundredth Birthday, and a Ninetieth

Over on Anecdotal Evidence, Patrick Kurp notes that today is the centenary of the birth of R.S. Thomas. The Welsh are marking the occasion on quite a scale (largely, one suspects, for nationalistic rather than poetic reasons) and there's a new Uncollected Poems coming out. R.S. himself would no doubt take a dim view of this; he destroyed most of what he wrote and took care to leave as little as possible behind. Last year, in the course of reading Byron Rogers' wonderful biography of R.S., I posted quite often on him (try a search on Nigeness) - mostly on aspects of his extraordinary personality. But on this notable birthday, let's have a poem - also on a birthday theme - and remind ourselves of what a very very good poet he was, whether 'major' or 'minor' - who cares? And this poem also hints at what a very good priest he could be, at least for the poorer and less fortunate of his flock...

Ninetieth Birthday

You go up the long track
That will take a car, but is best walked
On slow foot, noting the lichen
That writes history on the page
Of the grey rock. Trees are about you
At first, but yield to the green bracken,
The nightjar's house: you can hear it spin
On warm evenings; it is still now
In the noonday heat, only the lesser
Voices sound, blue-fly and gnat
And the stream's whisper. As the road climbs,
You will pause for breath and the far sea's
Signal will flash, till you turn again
To the steep track, buttressed with cloud.

And there at the top that old woman,
Born almost a century back
In that stone farm, awaits your coming;
Waits for the news of the lost village
She thinks she knows, a place that exists
In her memory only.
You bring her greeting
And praise for having lasted so long
With time's knife shaving the bone.
Yet no bridge joins her own
World with yours, all you can do
Is lean kindly across the abyss
To hear words that were once wise.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

A Welcome Song

A sunny morning - though still unseasonally cold - and, as I walked along the path beside the railway track on my way to the station, came a burst of beautiful melodic song from somewhere low down in an ivy-clad pathside poplar. I paused and, as I peered round the tree, I saw, on a bare branch low down, a nondescript small bird of warblerish appearance throwing its head back, opening its beak and singing fit to burst. It looked very like a Garden Warbler - a bird distinguished by its complete lack of distinguishing features - but it can't have been, as it's far too early in the year and Garden Warblers are also famous for  hardly ever being seen, only heard. This lusty songster seemed quite happy to remain in view as I listened. He must have been a Blackcap (I was seeing him from below, so the cap would have been hidden), a warbler that - undeterred by our increasingly grim winters - has in recent decades changed its habits to overwinter here. I well remember the first time I saw one in the garden on a snowy winter's day some 30 years ago and could hardly believe me eyes...
Anyway, this burst of song was a heart-lifting sound on yet another cold morning when it seems that winter will never end and spring will never come. It will, and soon there will be Chiffchaffs and Willow Warblers and Whitethroats - and maybe even the odd unseen, undistinguished Garden Warbler.
[You can listen to a singing Blackcap here.]

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Political News

The decision by David Milliband, brother of Labour leader Ed, to take a new job heading up International Rescue exposes a deep ideological rift at the heart of the party (and indeed the Milliband family). Ed has long been known for his commitment to stop-motion claymation - indeed it is rumoured that he began life as an abandoned Aardman project. His close friendship with sinister Aardman mastermind Nick Park is viewed with suspicion by some, who claim Ed is 'in Aardman's pocket'. Brother David, on the other hand, has long been associated with the supermarionation techniques of Gerry Anderson and his followers. Now, by taking over from Jeff Tracy at the head of International Rescue, David has nailed his colours firmly to the mast. Socialists Are Go!


Over on the Dabbler, I consider the strange case of Edward Bulwer-Lytton - who, oddly, has come up elsewhere recently. A Bulwer-Lytton revival? Don't hold your breath...

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Pools and Bloom

Two great poets were born on this day - A.E. Housman in 1859 and Robert Frost in 1874.
Let us first look around  - and forward - with Frost, whose Spring Pools beautifully notates a scene that will be familiar to anyone who's walked in woodland this sodden late winter/'spring'...

'These pools that, though in forests, still reflect
The total sky almost without defect,
And like the flowers beside them, chill and shiver,
Will like the flowers beside them soon be gone,
And yet not out by any brook or river,
But up by roots to bring dark foliage on.
The trees that have it in their pent-up buds
To darken nature and be summer woods---
Let them think twice before they use their powers
To blot out and drink up and sweep away
These flowery waters and these watery flowers
From snow that melted only yesterday.'

And now to look forward with Housman to the real spring that must - despite all current appearances to the contrary - come...

'LOVELIEST of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.
Now, of my threescore years and ten,       
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room, 
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.'

When J.L. Carr - the Last Englishman - was a headmaster in Kettering,
he would, when the cherries were in bloom, lead the entire school through the nearby streets chanting this poem aloud. Many years later, some of his ex-pupils were surprised to find that hey still knew it by heart. That, I would suggest, is true education.

Monday, 25 March 2013

Flying Flapjack

It's hard to credit this story, but it does appear to be true, and those tireless newshounds of the BBC News website have worked hard to 'stand it up'. They also, in typical BBC fashion, provide an invaluable 'Three-point [is the gag intentional? Hard to say] Guide to Flapjack'. It does not say much for Essex County Council's flapjack that it can be used as an offensive weapon - though, looking back on the school dinners of my boyhood, most of what we were served could have been so employed, and quite often was. Anything was better than eating the stuff.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Bells on Sunday

It's good news (and pleasingly retroprogressive) that Notre Dame de Paris now has a decent sets of bells to ring out over the city in harmonies not heard since the original bells - all but Emmanuel, the great bourdon bell - were broken up and melted down during the French Revolution. The replacement bells that were hung in the 19th century were a sorry, out-of-tune substitute - but perhaps not as sorry and out-of-tune as Britain's most notorious peal of bells, those of St Mary's Church in Moseley, Birmingham. Made, in a spirit of rash experimentalism, out of Sheffield steel, they were presented to the church that is now the Steel City's Roman Catholic cathedral. Such was the insufferable noise they made that they were soon taken down, replaced with properly constituted bells and sold on to a businessman, who presented them to St Mary's. They soon fell silent there too and hung for many years rusting, out of tune and unused (and, in the case of the tenor bell, falling from the tower). Happily, the 'worst bells in Britain' have now been replaced - but not before a refurbishment in the 1980s restored them briefly to use. Their swansong in 1991 was recorded for posterity to wonder at. If you can stand it, you can listen to them clanging out their last in this faintly sinister video. The bells, the bells...

South Norwood's Finest Son

Leafing through my local freesheet, I was mortified to see that I'd missed Picklefest. The brainchild of the South Norwood Tourist Board (est. 2012), this event celebrates the day in 1966 when Pickles, a small black-and-white dog, found the missing football World Cup - the Jules Rimet trophy - in a bush in South Norwood. Pickles's owner, Dave Corbett, now 73, was guest of honour at Picklefest, and took part in a re-enactment, featuring a motorised papier-mache model (pictured) of the doughty collie.
A 'visibly emotional' Dave watched as 'world-leading Pickleologist' Richard Jones gave a historical account of the Great Finding, and Picklefest's 'resident poet' read a new poem, A Jar For Pickles, dedicated to 'South Norwood's finest son'.
Dave recalled how he originally thought what Pickles had found was a bomb: 'There was all that stuff about the IRA at the time, so I was a bit silly to open the package. I took it home to my wife and told her it was the World Cup. She said, "Dave, of course it's not the World Cup". Even when I took it to Gipsy Hill Police Station, I plonked it down in front of the desk sergeant and he said, "It doesn't look very World Cuppy, does it?"'
But the World Cup it was, and overnight fame followed for Dave and Pickles. 'It was ridiculous. If dogs could travel abroad at that time, we could have gone anywhere. We went on Blue Peter, he had the same agent as Spike Milligan, and he was even named Best Dog in Italy.'

Friday, 22 March 2013

Can You See What It Is Yet?

So now we know what the 'oldest light' looked like. Kind of mottled. Apparently this image tells us that there's a bit more matter and a bit less 'dark energy' out there, that the Hubble Constant's slightly out, and that the universe is about 50 million years older than was previously thought, at 13.82 billion years. Happily this means that the Big Bang Theory theme song remains authoritative...
'Our whole universe was in a hot dense state,
Then nearly fourteen billion years ago expansion started. Wait...
The Earth began to cool,
The autotrophs began to drool,
Neanderthals developed tools,
We built a wall (we built the pyramids),
Math, science, history, unraveling the mysteries,
That all started with the big bang!'
That's enough science.

'... don't believe in anything That can't be told in coloured pictures'

The brilliant illustrator Randolph Caldecott was born on this day in 1846, in Chester (and died, less than 40 years later,in St Augustine, Florida, while on his travels in search of better health). His illustrations  - full of life and colour, fluently drawn and boldly designed - were like nothing else at the time, though his style was soon widely copied and adapted. Caldecott's illustrated children's books - which were his speciality (his nursery rhyme collections sold in huge numbers) - were much admired by Maurice Sendak: 'He devised an ingenious juxtaposition of picture and word, a counterpoint that never happened before. Words are left out — but the picture says it. Pictures are left out — but the word says it.' Shrewdly Sendak also appreciated the faint touch of darkness in some of Caldecott's work (perhaps owing something to his ill health and awareness that he would not live long): 'You can't say it's a tragedy, but something hurts. Like a shadow passing quickly over. It is this which gives a Caldecott book — however frothy the verses and pictures — its unexpected depth.' No sign of darkness, though, in the illustration above, which is taken from his edition of Cowper's John Gilpin (which I have in a King Penguin illustrated by another master, Ronald Searle).
Presenting one of Caldecott's picture books to a young friend, G.K. Chesterton wrote in it:
'You will not understand a word
Of all the words, including mine;
Never you trouble; you can see,
And all directness is divine—
Stand up and keep your childishness:
Read all the pedants’ screeds and strictures;
But don’t believe in anything
That can’t be told in coloured pictures.'
Wise words.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Diversification Bias and the Winner's Curse

If you've ever wondered why your bookshelves are groaning with books you've never read and almost certainly never will - don't worry, the boys in white coats are on hand with an explanation, or at least a name: it's Diversification Bias. Seems we all have this inbuilt tendency to multiply our options whenever and wherever we can, be it while shopping at the supermarket - hence all that unused stuff in our fridges and food cupboards - or in the bookshop. We have an unrealistically broad idea of our habits and inclinations, which in practice tend to favour the familiar rut. For myself, I must say that I've more or less cured myself of this bias, at least while book buying, and rarely purchase anything I'm not going to read, or at least browse in or refer to - but it has taken me years to achieve this discipline, and I'm still periodically clearing my shelves of the fruits of long-standing Diversification Bias.
The scientists will no doubt explain this bias in evolutionary terms - whatever is, is adaptive, or was at some time - but it seems to do us modern humans no favours at all. It's also behind the phenomenon known as the Winner's Curse, according to which the winner in an auction will invariably be making a loss. This is because a roomful of bidders will spray their bids all around the target, some low, some high, and the winning bid, being the highest, will always be above what the object at auction is really 'worth'. I should point out - as I sit here in my latest natty eBay suit, a snip at £44 - that eBay mitigates this effect, as the bidder is not required to pay his highest bid, only to top the others. More like the Winner's Blessing...

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

If I Ruled the World...

Today is the Vernal Equinox - the First Day of Spring, though you wouldn't know it from the weather. If I ruled the world, every day would be the first day of spring - and hang the consequences. With iron will and immovable resolve, I would sit out the ensuing calendrical confusion. 'What about the rest of spring?' they will ask pitifully. 'When are we going to get that?' Pygmies, blind to the grandeur of my mighty scheme! They return, mopping their brows and fanning themselves. 'Surely,' they moan, 'this is summer - it is not the first day of spring!' Purblind moral midgets - I dismiss their mean-minded whining. Shivering and clapping their hands together for warmth, back they come. 'It is winter!' they proclaim in their blind ignorance. 'Winter is upon us!' I dismiss them with the scorn they richly deserve, and the days pass - and lo, it is the first day of spring again! And again. And again. And again... Eventually I am overthrown in a popular revolt, fomented by reactionary calendrist elements, and banished. In my brooding exile, I begin to write letters. 'Today,' each letter begins, 'is the first day of spring. My heart is heavy...'

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Irving Wallace, Jeremy Beadle, Sex and Death

Born on this day in 1916 was the megaselling American writer Irving Wallace. I don't think any of his novels ever crossed my path, even in the days when I would read anything that came to hand, but from what I can gather, he seems to have found a highly successful formula: underdog story, diligent factual research, liberal spicing of sex - how could it fail? And there's a curious dash of prescience in one of his novels, The Man, in which a black man becomes President - however, this is only as the result of a freakish cluster of deaths, and the unfortunate President is soon targeted by white racists and black activists alike, ends up being impeached on false charges, and understandably decides against standing for re-election. Not quite a prerun of Obama then...
Later in his career, Wallace's writing developed into something of a cottage industry, with his wife and sons joining in. They produced three editions of The People's Almanac - which I do remember, a wonderfully eccentric collection of out-of-the-way facts and lists that was actually a useful and browsable reference book in its day (I wish I still had my copy) - and three editions of The Book of Lists. Wallace was a pioneer listomaniac and The Book of Lists did much to fuel the craze in the Seventies. In the course of his researches, he advertised in the London Times for listomamiacs to declare themselves, and among those who responded - with the best lists of all, Wallace reckoned - was TV prankster and fact magnet Jeremy Beadle. He and Wallace had long telephone conversations, and Beadle became London editor of The People's Almanac 2. He was the biggest contributor to the Sex and Death chapter in the Book of Lists, and also helped the Wallaces with another publication, The Intimate Sex Lives of Famous People, which drew heavily on Beadle's extensive library of erotica. At which point, I think we'd better let the curtain fall... 

Monday, 18 March 2013

Peter Taylor: Amazingly Good

I must admit I had never heard of the American short story writer Peter Taylor until, last Christmas, Mrs N gave me a volume of his - The Old Forest and Other Stories (Dial Press, 1985) - having seen a reference to Taylor somewhere and decided that he might be 'the kind of thing I like'. Reader, he is - Taylor is  amazingly good and I've been hugely enjoying this selection, wondering why he isn't better known (at least over here - I've seen him described in his own land as 'the American Chekhov'). It may be something to do with his being a Southerner who sets his stories in the South in the Thirties and Forties, a world poised between the old ways and the modern world, where use of what we must now call 'the n word' (and even the related 'd word') is standard. (I imagine this alone would debar his work from today's syllabus.) But damn, he is good. His stories are generally light on plot, strong on characterisation, scene-setting, telling detail. They work at an unforced pace and by the subtlest of means to open out from some small incident or a portrait of one character into a wholly convincing, engrossing picture of a time and a place and a group of people living their lives in it.
  The title story, for instance - almost long enough to be a novella - revolves around a young woman passenger in a car jumping out after it's involved in an accident, and disappearing into the forest. The young man she was travelling with is engaged to another young woman, with a higher position in society. The story progresses by following through the implications and ramifications of this incident, tracing the shock waves, in tandem with the search for the missing woman. The incident itself is the catalyst for the process of revelation and shifting relationships that forms the body and substance of the story. By the end, you feel you fully know this world and these people - and that they know themselves rather better than they did before.
  Other stories achieve extraordinary effects in a much smaller space - one, A Walled Garden, is a short but deeply chilling monologue. Some (The Gift of the Prodigal, Promise of Rain, Porte Cochere) portray father-son relationships, invariably from the father's point of view. Family dynamics, often awkward and unstable, and the painful interdependence of masters/mistresses and servants (whites/blacks) are central to most of the stories. In one of them - the agonising A Long Fourth - race relations are openly discussed, but only because the discussion is at that point necessary to the story. Taylor spells nothing out, makes no judgments, he is not present in his stories. They are extraordinary creations, and I'm sure I'll soon be seeking out more, if I can find them...

Friday, 15 March 2013

Butterfly News (from elsewhere)

Speaking for myself, I've yet to see a single butterfly this year. I guess that's hardly surprising, as down my way there's only been one day of anything like vernal warmth so far - but there's surprising news on the Butterfly Conservation website of a couple of very early sightings: an Orange Tip as long ago as 27 February and a Small Copper on 5 March (and the Speckled Wood put in an even earlier appearance than last year - in Cornwall on New Year's Day!). Overall, though, the picture is not good, with no Whites (Large, Small or Green-Veined) and no Holly Blues yet. This time last year, I remember, we were building up to an early spring heatwave - but alas there's no sign of any such thing this year as the Southeast still shivers under grey drizzly skies. The other night I dreamed a Speckled Wood, a Meadow Brown and a Large Skipper. I console myself that I shall soon see them - and many another - in the waking world, however unlikely that seems now, in the dismal fag-end of this long dreary winter. As a butterfly lover, I can't help wishing we'd get some of that warming we were so confidently promised by the Experts at the turn of the century.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Buzzards and Kites

Sauntering towards NigeCorp HQ the other morning, I was startled to see what I took to be a Buzzard hovering just above the parapet of that noble edifice. It was, as I very soon realised, no such thing - in recent years the Buzzard has spread from its rugged mountain fastnesses into every county and even soars above the suburbs, but would surely not descend to picking pigeons off central London rooftops. What I was seeing, circling, hovering, swooping and dipping on the air currents in a pretty lifelike way, was a tethered kite (no, not a Kite - a kite) made in the shape of a large raptor, complete with stylised, Buzzard-like markings. I stood for some while watching it admiringly, and thought no more of it - until the next morning when, flying above the tool hire company that overlooks my station (remember, the one that's serious about tool hire?) was another, identical Buzzard kite! Clearly they are catching on. Perhaps they will become a fixture on the London roofline - but I think the design still needs some work: when I last saw it, the NigeCorp kite had reached the end of its tether and was draped limply around the top of its tethering pole like so much wet lettuce. I hope it's flying again today.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Another Coffee Mystery

'A small dry cappuccino,' the chap after me at the coffee stand on Victoria station said. Just like that, as if he was in a pub asking for a dry white wine. The barista didn't turn a hair (though she'd given a look of startled incomprehension, eyes darting from side to side, when I'd asked for my single espresso - I think I have a problem with articulate speech before 10 in the morning). A 'dry cappuccino', eh? What the hey would that be? Cappuccino in powder form? Cappuccino with a shot of angostura bitters? I've written before about the mysteries of the White Americano - now here was a new one. Tragically I have since done an online search and discovered the sorry truth - it's a cappuccino with more foamed milk than steamed milk, whereas the reverse is a 'wet cappuccino', and a cappuccino with all foamed milk is a 'bone-dry cappuccino'. Can coffee possibly get any more complicated? 
By way of contrast, things are still straightforward in some quarters. Lunching in a Buckinghamshire pub at the weekend, with my brother and mother, coffee was ordered - and what turned up was three cups of  milky, barely dissolved, dishwater-grey instant. I didn't drink it, of course, but it took me back to those simpler times before Britain discovered real coffee, in all its ever expanding, ever more complicated variety.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

More Men than Women?

From the responses that have come in, via Comments and by way of Patrick Kurp and Frank Wilson, to More Women Than Men (below), we can assemble quiet an impressive list of 20th-century male novelists worthy of more attention and/or a higher reputation.
Henry Green is certainly deserving, but I suspect he never has got his due and never will - and he is too 'difficult' (rather as Ivy Compton-Burnett is 'difficult') ever to be widely read.
L.P. Hartley has The Go-Between most definitely keeping his name alive - it's a fixture on GCSE syllabuses over here - but I've never heard a good word about any of his other novels. Maybe they're worth a look...?
Richard Hughes is an excellent candidate, with at least two novels (A High Wind in Jamaica and The Fox in the Attic) that are not only very good but very readable - and yet he seems permanently on the margins.
John Cowper Powys has often been commended to me by readers of sound judgment, yet something keeps holding me back from reading him. I wonder what it is - perhaps the daunting scale of his oeuvre?
William Gerhardie wrote two brilliant early novels (Futility and The Polyglots), which deserve to be better known and more highly valued. But he then seems to have embarked on kind of prolonged career suicide - is any of his later stuff worth reading?
Ford Madox Ford seems to have come back to public attention, thanks to the BBC dramatisation of Parades End - I've actually seen people reading the tie-in paperback on the train - but I imagine he'll slip back into relative neglect. Leaving aside the trilogy and The Good Soldier, his work is too uneven and diffuse, and he simply wrote too much.
I must confess I've never warmed to Anthony Burgess, early or late, though I'm quite prepared to believe he is/was good.
V.S. Pritchett is probably the most underrated English 20th-century writer of all - but underrated (at least in England) for his short stories, criticism and other writings, rather than the novels.
And of course G.K. Chesterton, yes, abundantly - and of course Ronald Firbank, though his works will never attract more than a cult following.
Somerset Maugham anyone? J.B.Priestley? Even H.G. Wells these days... and what about Arnold Bennett? Wait a minute - it's beginning to seem as if the men are the underrated ones now...

Monday, 11 March 2013

Lack's Robins

'The world was made to be inhabited by beasts, but studied and contemplated by man: 'tis the debt of our reason we owe unto God, and the homage we pay for not being beasts. Without this, the world is still as though it had not been, or as it was before the sixth day, when as yet there was not a creature that could conceive or say there was a world. The wisdom of God receives small honour from those vulgar heads that rudely stare about and with a gross rusticity admire His works. Those truly magnify Him whose judicious enquiry into His acts and deliberate research into His creatures return the duty of a devout and learned admiration.'
That's Sir Thomas Browne in Religio Medici - and it's the first epigraph of David Lack's The Life of the Robin. Beneath it is a second epigraph - from Thomas Love Peacock's Nightmare Abbey - and a third, from Anita Loos's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes:
'So we rode around the park until quite late talking and philosophising quite a lot. And I finally told him I thought, after all, that bird life was the highest form of civilisation....
Gerry says he has never seen a girl of my personal appearance with so many brains.'
And on the title page verso the book is 'dedicated to all those robins who patiently bore my rings and permitted my intrusion into the intimacies of their lives'.
Originally published in 1943, The Life of the Robin is an enchanting book, as well as being a pioneering study of the facts - not always terribly attractive - about the well loved garden bird, that tireless singer, fierce fighter and beady-eyed meeter and greeter. As the first epigraph suggests, Lack was a believing Christian as well as a scientist; later in his career, he wrote a book with the self-explanatory title Evolutionary Theory and Christian Belief: The Unresolved Conflict (he believed, reasonably enough, that science and religion each has its own sphere). He was also, clearly, a very well read man with a sense of humour and a notably well furnished mind. In The Life of the Robin, the literary references come thick and fast: the chapter on Song has epigraphs from Keats, Cowper, W.H. Davies and Spenser, and features quotations from Pliny, Nicholas Cox, Peacock (again), Wells, Marco Polo, Porphyry and more - including even some scientists. For this is, at bottom, a scientific study, complete with diagrams, graphs and statistics.
If only - I can't help feeling as I read it - if only scientists wrote like that these days. If only they read like that, if only they thought like that... 
The Life of The Robin ends with an Epilogue for the Reader Now Closing This Book - Robert Herrick's lines Upon Mrs Eliz. Wheeler, Under the Name of Amaryllis.
I see Lack also wrote a book on swifts - Swifts in a Tower - but this seems to be long out of print and prohibitively expensive. Some enterprising publisher should reissue it, with attractive illustrations - like those by Robert Gillmor that decorate my copy of The Life of the Robin.

Friday, 8 March 2013

More Women than Men

An interesting piece in this week's Spectator - The Birth of the Walking Book Club by Emily Rhodes (it's on the website, but behind a paywall). Miss Rhodes has set up a book club where - instead of sitting around with wine and takeaway curry and talking about their families - members take a health-giving walk on Hampstead Heath while they actually, you know, talk about books! What's more, these books are not the latest self-nominating 'book club' books but genuinely worthwhile titles from the 20th-century past by writers who are now less fashionable and even in danger of being forgotten - the likes of Muriel Spark, Elizabeth Taylor, Penelope Fitzgerald. The funny thing is that every writer Emily Rhodes mentions is a woman - but then I'm not that surprised. When I look back at my own reading - specifically at the English novelists I've discovered/rediscovered in recent years - I find the list is overwhelmingly female (keen-eyed readers will note that this post shares its title with an Ivy Compton-Burnett novel I wrote about a while ago). The male novelists are far fewer in number, and almost all American. Does this tell us something? It would surely be a caricature to present 20th-century criticism in England as a story of overinflating male literary reputations while undervaluing equally (or more) talented women novelists - or would it? I've been trying to make a list of 20th-century male English novelists whom I'd regard as underrated, neglected or worthy of rediscovery, and frankly I'm not getting very far... Has anyone got any suggestions? (Not Patrick Hamilton, please.)  

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Land of Deer

We retroprogressives have long relished the fact that Britain's deer population is back up to medieval levels - but now the news gets even better: the deer population, according to the latest research, is the highest it's been since the last Ice Age. Naturally this news has its down side, as deer populations this large do damage their environment, especially in woodland - so a cull of 50 percent is being called for. Is a new age of cheap venison on the way? Don't hold your breath...
  Despite this burgeoning population, deer remain elusive creatures, and seeing one is always a bit magical, like an encounter with a creature from another age. Menaces to the environment though they may be, they are beautiful to the eye and seem to walk in a kind of enchanted air, in a world very much their own, to which we can have no access. Many poets have written about deer - none more hauntingly perhaps than Edward Thomas in Out in the Dark... And then there was one deer poem that was so good it was, by some mysterious process, written twice. Behold - here is The Deer by Helen Mort, which won the Cafe Writers Open Poetry Competition in Norwich in 2009:

The deer my mother swears to God we never saw,
the ones who stepped between the trees
on pound-coin coloured hooves,
I brought them up each teatime in the holidays
and they were brighter every time I did;
more supple than the otters that we waited for
at Ullapool, more graceful than the kingfisher
that darned the river south of Rannoch Moor.
Then five years on, in the same house, I rose
for water in the middle of the night and watched
my mother at the window, looking out
to where the forest lapped the garden's edge.
From where she stood, I saw them stealing
through the pines, and they must have been closer
than before, because I have no memory
of those fish-bone ribs, that ragged fur
their eyes, like hers, that flickered back
towards whatever followed them.

And here is The Deer at Exmoor, which won the Hope Bourne poetry prize for Christian Ward in 2011:

The deer my father swears to God we never saw,
the ones who stepped between the trees
on pound-coin coloured hooves,
I brought them up each teatime in the holidays
and they were brighter every time I did;
more supple than the otters we waited for
at the River Exe, more graceful than the peregrine
falcon landing at Bossington Beach.
Then five years on, in the same house, I rose
for water in the middle of the night and watched
my father at the window, looking out
to where the forest lapped the garden's edge.
From where he stood, I saw them stealing
through the trees, and they must have been closer
than before, because I have no memory
of those fish-bone ribs, that ragged fur
their eyes, like his, that flickered back
towards whatever followed them.

Not surprisingly this coincidence caused a bit of a kerfuffle in poetry circles, with Christian Ward professing himself 'deeply sorry', while asserting that it was all a mistake and he had had no intention of 'deliberately plagiarising' Helen Mort's poem. Ah well, these things happen.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Happy Days

Patrick Kurp recently posted some wise words from John Updike about the pleasures of growing older - or rather the pleasures that we become more intensely aware of as we age, consoling us with what has been there all along. Another of the pleasures that come with ageing - at least for some of us - is that of seeing new lives beginning, as our children have their children, and we grandparents revisit the wonder and joy of early parenthood, this time at one remove, without the sharp urgency, the edge of danger and novelty and fearful responsibility of the first time around. This time the joy is more mellow and relaxed, enriched and deepened by the perspective of years. Or so it has been for me over the past wonderful month, with my baby grandson (the aforementioned Frankly Adorable Sam) and his lovely mother over from their New Zealand home. Sadly they leave tomorrow, in the early morning, and the parting will be painful indeed. But life will go on, sweeter and richer for all the concentrated happiness and love of the past few weeks. And there's always Skype, thank heavens...

Monday, 4 March 2013

Left, Right and Centre

Much talk over the weekend of whether or not the Tories would take a 'lurch to the Right' after the unfortunate events at Eastleigh. Why is any movement to 'the Right' (whatever that is) described as a 'lurch' - desperate, uncontrolled, uncoordinated? Whatever happened to the good old (pleasingly alliterative) 'lurch to the Left'? It seems a long time since anyone in British politics proposed any movement in that direction... Does this tell us something - perhaps that the Centre is now situated somewhat to the Right of where it once was? Will the Tories therefore be lurching (or not) toward the Centre? What kind of a lurch is that?

The Kenneth Williams of Zoology

One of my most treasured books is a battered copy of Butterflies by E.B. Ford, the first in the Collins' New Naturalist series. I value it partly because it was a present from my mother to my late father (Christmas 1945) and partly because it is a handsome, profusely illustrated volume - but I can't say I have ever read it through, and I doubt if even my father did. It is, alas, very, very dry stuff, an account of our British butterflies written from the point-of-view of an evolutionary geneticist, which is what Ford was. The short history of British butterfly collecting with which he begins is readable enough - though nothing like as engaging as The Aurelian Legacy - but after that, it's on to the unreadable stuff: structure, classification, genetics, evolution, complete with statistics and diagrams.
  E.B. Ford is most definitely not the most scintillating of writers, and I had always assumed that he was a dry old stick, as dry as his prose. Until, that is, I dipped into Marek Kohn's A Reason for Everything: Natural Selection and the English Imagination, and discovered the true Ford - a flamboyantly eccentric 'confirmed bachelor', a living parody of the Oxford aesthete, and one of the most notorious University 'characters' of his time.
  Ford flaunted the worst kind of gay misogyny, disparaging 'female women' at every opportunity (though he made an exception for Miriam Rothschild). If only women - no men - turned up for a lecture of his, he would look around, declare 'Nobody present' and walk out. He affected an exaltedly patrician tone, reacting to his first sight of a fish-and-chip van with the declaration, 'I would not have believed it possible that there could be so much wickedness in the world.' But Ford also had a taste for Carry On-style innuendo, raising his hat to a friend's nanny whenever he called and inquiring, 'How is our pussy?' He ate moths (ostensibly as part of his research), talked to himself, affected strange walks, and would speak of 'my friend the Pope' (how very Firbankian). And every summer, he would lead his young researchers on a pub crawl, tasting all the beers of Oxford, cleansing his palate with a gin after each pint, and remaining to all appearances quite sober. So Butterflies, it seems, was written by the Kenneth Williams of zoology - who'd have guessed? If only some hint of his character had got into his prose - it might have been a very different book.
  The biographical sections of A Reason For Everything present the reader with a fine collection of dingbats and delusional ideologues - is there something about Evolution that attract them?  I am now reading Kohn's brilliant, clear-eyed chapter on Richard Dawkins, on which I might well report back...

Friday, 1 March 2013

St David and More

Today is, as Google's dragon image reminds us, St David's Day (the one-eighth of me that's Welsh is sporting a small charity daffodil) - not to mention the day of Ss Albinus, Suitbert who managed to convert the Frisians, and Monan, 'a legendary saint about whom very little is known'. On a secular level, it is the 92nd birthday of the great American poet Richard Wilbur - an occasion I marked on this day last year. It is also the birthday of the late Welsh actress Doris Hare (b1905, d2000), a game old bird who, as well as starring in the dire sitcom On The Buses with Reg Varney and Christine Lagarde, also appeared in three entries in the Confessions canon: Confession of a Pop Star, Confessions of a Driving Instructor and Confession from a Holiday Camp. But enough of that - March 1st is also Beer Day (in Iceland), National Pig Day (in the US) and Self Injury Awareness Day. I calculate that this is therefore the worst possible day in the calendar for getting drunk and wrestling a pig.