Tuesday, 30 September 2014


Being on holiday this week, I am taking even less interest than usual in the passing scene, but I was struck by the above word, which I caught on a news bulletin. It was used by Boris Johnson - who else? - to describe the actions of defectors from the Tory party to UKIP, who were, as it were, throwing themselves out of the window.
 You can say what you like about Boris, but at least he's not afraid to use fancy words - no pandering to the demos from him. I remember another occasion when, in an interview with Paxman, he protested, 'I'm sure you don't wish to accuse me of Ignoratio Elenchi, do you, Jeremy?' This sort of thing certainly makes a change from the stultifying dreariness of most political discourse. In a world run by PPE graduates, Johnson is a lone classicist. This can only be a good thing. He also has that rare gift of making people feel a bit better, rather than worse, a bit cheered-up - the Ronald Reagan effect, it's a formidable weapon. He will probably be Prime Minister after the ignominious collapse of the Milliband government.

Monday, 29 September 2014

One Church

Talking of little-visited attractions, a great many of our smaller parish churches also stand unvisited, overlooked and underappreciated. And yet there are very few, even of the most unappealing and unpromising, that don't contain something of interest. A case in point: on Saturday I was up in the Peak District again, passing through the Staffordshire village of Wetton, where the parish church has a handsome old tower, but is otherwise essentially a Georgian box of around 1820 unconvincingly Gothicised with Y-tracery windows. It's an uninviting exterior, promising nothing and, on first sight of the interior, delivering nothing (though there's a plaque erected in 1905 by a Massachusetts lady - an Adams indeed - commemorating her 17th-century Wetton forebears).
  On the West well, however, is an initially baffling exhibit of squares of grey material bearing the outlines of feet - or rather shoes  (and the odd hand) - each bearing initials and a date. These images, it transpires, were pricked out on the lead roof of the tower over a period from the mid-18th century through to around 1820 by the bored and daredevil youth of the village, who had a tradition of climbing up onto the leads. There they would make their mark by tracing the outline of their shod foot, often embellishing it with patterns as well as initials and dates. These marks are 'lead graffiti' and something along their lines is to be found on most old lead roofs, often left by the makers. The tower roof of Wetton, however, had a remarkable collection of more than 200 visible at the time when the lead was replaced - at once a curious chronicle of village life and a record of changing fashions in footwear. A record was duly made of these graffiti and a range of the more interesting marks were cut out and displayed on the church wall.
 Among them is the outlined foot of the young Samuel Carrington, who became the village schoolmaster and a noted antiquarian and palaentologist. He emigrated to America with his father at the age of 21, but came back very soon, not liking what he found, and vowed to settle for the rest of his life in his native village. Which he did, becoming the 'wise man' of the village and energetically pursuing his antiquarian interests, digging out many of the ancient burial sites round about (with the more famous Thomas Bateman). When he died in 1870, a subscription raised the money for a gravestone designed by George Gilbert Scott Jr, no less. It is still in the churchyard, a Gothic design playfully embellished with carvings of Carrington's favourite fossils.
 All this from one unpromising village church.
 Wetton's pub, by the way, The Royal Oak, hosts an annual toe wrestling championship. But that's another story.

Friday, 26 September 2014


Today an organisation called VisitEngland (was it once the English Tourist Board?) unveiled England's least visited attraction. That's part of it above - Beacon Hill Fort at Harwich, and to be frank it doesn't look  very much like an attraction of any sort, though no doubt Jonathan Meades, with his love of military brutalism, might find something to enjoy. It's a coastal fortification with a long history but the present complex dates mostly to the 1890s, with additional work from both world wars, and it is now pretty much derelict. As the place is only open to visitors for a couple of hours each month, its tally of 12 visitors last year amounts to one every two hours, which is indeed not much of a throughput.
 Another attraction that's way down the list, I notice, is Wakefield's Gissing Centre, a birthplace museum dedicated to George Gissing, which last year attracted just 118 visitors, probably because - whatever the high opinions of some critics, who place him with Hardy and Meredith - Gissing remains largely unread. And it's hard to think of him as a Wakefield author, even though he spent his early years there, before going to college, getting involved with a woman of shady reputation, stealing from his fellow students and being sentenced to a month's hard labour. Yes, it was quite a life...
 For myself, I've had a soft spot for these out of the way, barely visited 'attractions' ever since the days when, in the course of my researches, I used to find myself visiting rather a lot of them (Richard Jefferies Museum anyone?). In their way, some of them can offer a more satisfying experience than more obvious and well visited sites. At least you are free to wander alone with your thoughts, untroubled by ingratiating 'interpretation' notices, and unmolested by that plague of popular historic attractions - out-of-work actors in fancy dress pretending to be figures from the past and accosting the unwary visitor with archaic greetings and invitations. Better the solitary desolation of Beacon Hill Fort than that.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Speed Reading with Flaubert

Here's an unmissable opportunity to test your reading speed and find out how long it would take you to read Game of Thrones (I know you've been wondering, as you anxiously weigh the pros and cons and decide exactly how much of your life you're willing to commit to George R.R. Martin's magnum opus). What's striking about the test is the passage they use to test your speed - yes, it's from the first chapter of Madame Bovary! By the way, my result is that I could read Game of Thrones in a mere 65 days. Not that I'm tempted.

Birthday Girl

Today we should remember England's greatest-ever all-round sportswoman, Charlotte 'Lottie' Dod, born on this day in 1871. A product of that late Victorian golden age when families who had made a pile in industry or commerce could devote acres of their time purely to leisure pursuits, Lottie, who never had to work in her life, never married and lived for many years with her equally sporty brother, was a sporting natural. She achieved a high standard in golf (British amateur champion), field hockey (English national team), archery (Olympic silver), skating, toboggan (Cresta Run) and mountaineering. But her main sport was lawn tennis (formerly known as Sphairistike), in which she won the Wimbledon Ladies' Singles five times, the first time at the age of 15 (she remains the youngest-ever women's singles winner). On that occasion she defeated the defending champion Blanche Bingley 6-2, 6-0, the second set reportedly lasting just ten minutes - and yet, like many female players of her time, she served underhand and rarely employed such fiendish devices as spin. How do you serve an ace underhand and unspun? It's hard to imagine...
 Lottie worked for the Red Cross in the Great War, but to her chagrin was not allowed to travel to the front because of sciatica (her Wimbledon days were long over). She lived a long and happy life, attending Wimbledon every year, and died in a nursing home in Hampshire at the age of 88 - while in bed listening to the tennis on the radio.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014


The first day of Autumn - marked by a rather nice Google doodle - though it's still more of an Indian Summer over much of the country, and long may it last. It looks as if it's a bit of a Mast Year too - that's two in a row. Certainly the Horse Chestnuts are fruiting in far greater abundance than I've seen in several years - fine, big, fully-formed conkers, raining down from the trees these past few days (I've nearly been hit several times, and would count it an honour if I were).
 This is very gratifying, as just a few short years ago it looked as if the Horse Chestnut might be on its way out, killed off by a lethal combination of Horse Chestnut Leaf Miner and a fungal pathogen. I remember seeing entire avenues apparently dead or dying. But it seems this fine tree is  fighting back and might even be regaining the upper hand. Having adapted to the threat by shortening its season, it now seems to be getting back to a more normal cycle. It was at just this time of year, more than half a century ago, that I would be out gathering conkers after school in the park. There is still nothing quite so fresh, so glossy, so richly brown, so entirely and essentially nutty as a newly fallen conker nestling in its green shell.
 (That's a Samuel Palmer above, by the way.)

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Picturing England

Another nice Ravilious, eh? Well no actually, though you might easily take it for one Eric Ravilious's lovely High Street series. It's actually by Barbara Jones, as artist I had not been aware of until I happened to catch a programme on Radio 4 Extra about the wartime Recording Britain project. This was the brainchild of Kenneth Clark who, at the height of the Second World War, sent an elite force of watercolour artists out across the land, armed only with paints and brushes, to record whatever caught their eye so that, whatever happened, a picture of England (and it was mostly England) as it was at that point in time should survive for posterity (this must have been undertaken in the hope of an Allied victory - the Nazis could hardly be relied on to keep such a record, created by artists of whom they would by and large have disapproved).
  The principal focus of the radio programme was Thomas Hennell, described by presenter Patrick Wright as 'the nearest thing England had to a Van Gogh'. This is a curious assertion; all the work of Hennell's I have seen online seems firmly in the English watercolour tradition, and rather towards the watery end of it. He was passionately interested in the vanishing scenes of rural crafts and husbandry that he painted - and was a very intense man, whose mental health was frail - but that's about as far as the Van Gogh analogy goes. For all his frailty, though, he went on to be become a serving war artist, being initially sent to Iceland to replace Eric Ravilious, tragically lost in 1942. Hennell took part in D-Day, following the 1st Canadian Army, then a Royal Navy unit in Belgium,  before heading to the Far East towards the end of the war, and on to Java, where it seems he was attacked by a crowd, spurred on by Indonesian nationalists, as he painted. That was the last that was heard of him - a terrible end.
 Barbara Jones, whose style was very different from Hennell's - closer to coloured drawing that wash painting - was fascinated by more urban trades, by details, unexpected scenes and overlooked corners of small towns. The optician's shop above (now an anonymous branch of Vision Express) is in Croydon, where Barbara grew up. In the radio programme, there is much discussion of the painting below - Savage's Yard, King's Lynn - a haunting image of fairground figures in storage, with something about it that looks forward to Paula Rego and back to Goya. It has a strong sense of transience about it, as if these are fragments of a fast vanishing world (the oil drum representing the world to come?). I'm pleased to discover that there's quite a lot of appreciative writing about Barbara Jone on the blogscape. One of a hugely talented Royal College of Art generation along with Piper, Bawden, Ravilious and Ardizzone, she surely deserves to be as well known as them.

Friday, 19 September 2014


'See Nature, rejoicing, has shown us the way
With innocent revels to welcome the Day...'
Sorry, I was listening to Purcell on the way in. But here we are - the Union still stands, a little dazed and swaying slightly, but intact. Phew. Now we can turn our attention from the knuckle-end of England to the wider world - in particular to North Korea, whence this rather alarming story issues. It seems our old friend Kim Jong-Un is piling on the pounds, and sporting a limp. No one is quite sure whether this is in emulation of his grandfather Kim Il-Sung, 20 years dead but still Eternal President - or if this growing corpulence is down to Kim Jong-Un's addiction to Emmental cheese (the Emmental President as against the Eternal President?).
 This is a bit of a jolt for me, as I also love this particular cheese - indeed, if all other cheeses were to be thrown overboard in the general wreck, it is the one I would keep (along with the one alcoholic drink - whisky - and the one symphony, Schubert's 9th). Kim, it is reported, is trying to get his elite cheese monkeys to create a decent Emmental in North Korea, but they cannot possibly succeed: even French and Bavarian emmentals are sorry substitutes for the Swiss original. Kim will just have to keep jetting the stuff in.
 By the way, in case you were wondering what a piece of Emmental looks like, keep scrolling down on that story and you'll find a picture, alongside one of Kim Il-Sung's face. From now on, I fear, every time I slice an emmental, I'll be looking for the face of the Dear Leader.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

'A continual state of Inelegance'

It's seriously warm in London today - unseasonably warm. 'What dreadful Hot weather we have!' wrote Jane Austen on this day in 1796, down in Kent. 'It keeps one in a continual state of Inelegance.' Well, quite.

Day of Destiny

Well yes, here it is at last, after a campaign that seems to have been going on an awfu' lang time (as they say Up There). There's a fine, clear-headed summing-up of the whole sorry business by expat Scot Daniel Kalder over on The Dabbler. But at one point he says that the 'Better Together' campaigners 'failed completely to articulate a positive sense of Britishness'. Well, I'm not surprised. Speaking for myself, I have never felt a positive sense of Britishness, and have no clear idea of what it would feel like if I did. I feel a very strong and positive sense of Englishness - never more so that when I spent a year living in Scotland, which seemed to me then and still seems to me now to be essentially a foreign country. And this was 40 years ago - in oh so civilised Edinburgh.
 I've never had any very strong feelings about that country being united with England in an entity called the United Kingdom - it seemed to work, which is the main thing, and I was happy to overlook the fact that it was increasingly working in favour of the decidedly junior partner. But now it's all up in the air, and who knows where the pieces will fall? We should never have started on this road (thank you, Tony Blair) and, now that it's come to the crunch, we should have handled it with a great deal less panic-stricken ineptitude than has been displayed recently. If ever there was a thing that should be left firmly alone, it's the British (English) Constitution. No good will ever come of tampering with it, especially for ideological reasons.
  Meanwhile, here's a simple test. When you're abroad and someone in the ordinary course of conversation asks you your nationality, do you reply 'British'? I don't recall ever having done so, and I doubt I'd be well understood if I did.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014


We all know the art world is one mad world - but does it not take the biscuit when a major drawing prize, the Jerwood Drawing Prize - yes, that's drawing, a prize for drawing - is won by a 40-second audio recording in which the Artist reads from an archaeological description of a Roman pot? What next - a sculpture prize won by an audio description of a marrow? We all know prizes like the Turner can be awarded for Anything - but a drawing prize - really...
It's such a shame too, as the runner-up, Sigrid Muller's Seed Pods (above, in part), is lovely work and would have been a worthy winner. If, by the way, you bother to listen to the winning audio, the reference to 'a little Muscovite' has nothing to with Vladimir Putin. Muscovite is a mineral, a form of Mica, with, according to Wikipedia, 'a highly perfect basal cleavage'. Intriguing.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014


'A touch of cold in the Autumn night—
I walked abroad,
And saw the ruddy moon lean over a hedge
Like a red-faced farmer.
I did not stop to speak, but nodded,
And round about were the wistful stars
With white faces like town children.'

A seasonal poem - Autumn - by T.E. Hulme, born on this day in 1883 and killed by an artillery shell in West Flanders in 1917. Autumn, with its stark, spare language and deployment of images as something more than descriptive, is often described as 'the first Imagist poem' (which is perhaps its chief point of interest). It was published in 1909. Hulme's criticism, imbued with a bracing anti-Romanticism, was also pioneering stuff, pre-echoing  T.S. Eliot, having a big influence on Wyndham Lewis, and championing the likes of David Bomberg and Jacob Epstein. The phrase 'spilt religion', which Hulme applied to Romanticism, has, I have found, a thousand and one uses in this supposedly post-religious age.
 Hulme had the distinction of being sent down from Cambridge twice - once for rowdy behaviour on Boat Race night (a la Bertie Wooster), a second time after a scandal involving a Roedean girl. He also on one occasion came to blows with Wyndham Lewis over a woman - an encounter that ended with Lewis dangling by his trouser cuffs from the railings of Great Ormond Street. That would have been a sight to see. 

Monday, 15 September 2014

The Master

I've been reading The Master by Colm Toibin - a book I'd been vaguely meaning to read for some while. When I spotted it on the shelves of Britain's Best Bookshop (The Bookshop, Market Place, Wirksworth, Derbyshire), I took this as a sign that I should finally get round to it, and I'm not sorry I did. It's a fine example of a hybrid form that embodies biography in the form of a novel - an episodic one in this case, dipping into Henry James's life at various points, each of which also becomes a way into the past, explores the fascinating emotional cross-currents of James's family life, and often throws light on the inspiration of  his works. It's cleverly done (appropriately in the third person and past tense), Toibin catching the subtle modulations of the Jamesian tone very well, with scarcely a false note - indeed, as he acknowledges, the text is peppered with quotation from James's letters and other writings.
 It's a life famously short of incident, one that the Master chose to devote single-mindedly to his Art, but James's very withdrawal from life - especially from human intimacy - itself becomes the subject. There is something chilling, almost pathological, in the way in which 'Henry' repeatedly invites intimacy, then, if it is returned in too great a measure, recoils. We are left in no doubt of the human cost of this, particularly to two vulnerable women who made the mistake of getting too close, taking too much for granted. James's exquisite sensibility, it seems, could only cope with so much. He was more than capable of hardening his heart and turning his back, in the higher cause of his Art. And yet Toibin manages to make him a sympathetic character and to keep us, for most of the time, on his side.
 The novel at least feels as if it stays very close to the facts of James's life and state of mind (in as much as that can be known), and I'm sure it must be a more enjoyable read than any biography - though, having never read one, I may well be wrong. It has inspired me to read more of James's fiction - which I love in its shorter forms but have, to my shame, found all but unreadable in its later doorstop form. Time for another crack at The Wings of the Dove? Or perhaps I'll add that to my bulging portfolio of Retirement Projects...

Friday, 12 September 2014

Sinden, Lear

Dear old Donald Sinden, the fruity-voiced ultimate thespian, has died, just short of his 91st birthday. In his time, Sinden did the lot - stage, films, telly, talk shows, comedy, tragedy, Shakespeare... including, of course, Lear. When someone asked him about the problems of playing Lear, he replied, 'Well, it's a very long time till the first laugh.'
 Sinden probably had enough sense to realise that Lear is just too big for any mortal actor - though they all feel obliged to tackle it, these days in early middle age. Best not get too pompous about it. I remember Michael Gambon once assuring an interviewer that playing Lear was 'a piece of cake'. All you have to do, he confided, is 'stay down stage, shout, wave you arms a bit - and never take your eyes off the bloody Fool.' Wise words.

Thursday, 11 September 2014


The workstorm rages on, but here's a little retro fun to lift the spirits (sorry if you have to endure an ad before it starts).

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Sonnet Time

I am work-whelmed this week - but there's always time for a sonnet. Here's one by Philip Larkin, in the Italian form, with the turn, unusually, after the ninth rather than the eighth line. It proceeds steadily, building up a quiet, static scene from provincial life - a scene imbued with the seedy melancholy of a Sickert interior - until, at the very end, a sudden swerve of tone changes everything and delivers a very different kind of poem.

Friday Night at the Royal Station Hotel

Light spreads darkly downwards from the high
Clusters of lights over empty chairs
That face each other, coloured differently.
Through open doors, the dining-room declares
A larger loneliness of knives and glass
And silence laid like carpet.  A porter reads
An unsold evening paper.  Hours pass,
And all the salesmen have gone back to Leeds,
Leaving full ashtrays in the Conference Room.

In shoeless corridors, the lights burn.  How
Isolated, like a fort, it is --
The headed paper, made for writing home
(If home existed) letters of exile:  Now
Night comes on.  Waves fold behind villages.

There's a similar - and similarly effective - swerve towards the end of Larkin's Money.

And the Royal Station Hotel is now the Mercure Hull Royal Hotel, which, 'with its iconic status as one of the central landmarks of the city, offers the splendor of Victorian architecture with a dramatic, luxurious and modern twist in decor and style.' How delightful.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

When I Was Inorate

A new word swam into my ken last night. It will probably be swimming out of it again fairly soon, as it has little to commend it. The word is 'oracy', and according to Wikipedia it has been current among educationists since the Sixties. I heard it on the Radio 4 programme Word of Mouth, where someone - presumably an educationist - was saying what a fine thing it is. It represents the 'speaking and listening' element in education - the element that used to be quite a substantial component of the GCSE English exam. Since it was dropped, GCSE English grades have fallen markedly, suggesting that, as was suspected, it was not being 'robustly marked'.
 It was different in my day, when it was actually possible to fail Spoken English (which counted for 20 percent of an English Language GCE) - I know, because I managed to do so. I'm not quite sure how I did it; it probably happened because I didn't have a clue what was going on (as was often the case, and indeed still is). I certainly took against the examiner, couldn't understand why he was asking me such fatuous questions, and firmly dead-batted all his attempts to get the conversational ball rolling. That was probably what did for me - a fundamental lack of oracy. I was, indeed, inorate.

Monday, 8 September 2014

A Roller and a Forecast

It's not often you see a Rolls-Royce with a commercial logo on the side - in fact, for me, it was a first. But there it was, negotiating a narrow back street in Kensington - a big black Roller, highly polished and looking fresh from the showroom, with the words 'expensive  properties. com' emblazoned over the side doors. I wondered briefly if this was some kind of elaborate situationist satire, but no, it was serious, as indeed was the demeanour of the immaculately turned-out chap behind the wheel. This company with the refreshingly honest name does indeed exist, selling properties whose USP is that they are expensive, just that - not luxurious, desirable, beautiful, just expensive. Very, very expensive. Prices start at £5 million, if you're interested...

Meanwhile, as this Scottish referendum business promises to dominate the news for the next ten dreary days (and, heaven help us, way beyond), it's time for Old Nige to utter his forecast. I  predict that the Scots will vote narrowly to stay in the Union - so narrowly that the rest of the UK will be obliged to appease the Nats by giving them just about everything they wanted, but without the risks and responsibility that would have gone with independence. And Tory England will continue, for most of the time, to find itself lumbered with governments it didn't vote for, beginning with a Milliband 'victory'. Chin up, eh?

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Only in France

Here's an amusing story from France - booksellers are refusing to sell a runaway bestseller, and on principled grounds. Only in France... Indeed the whole story is an 'only in France' one - right through from the wildly improbable elevation of the plainly hopeless Hollande to the Presidency, the catastrophic reign that has seen his popularity plummet to levels almost impossible to measure, certainly way below ISIL - and, on top of that, the tumultuous (and even more improbable) love life, which truly does not bear thinking about, but has now been laid bare for all to read by the vengeful fury Valerie Trierweiler. Well, 'chapeau' to those booksellers, I guess - it's hard to imagine anyone publishing a bestseller so deplorable that British booksellers would refuse to stock it.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Rivers on the Radio

Sad news that Joan Rivers has died, though she was a good age and working to the end. I always had a soft spot for her - not least for the memorable occasion on which she took on the appalling Darcus Howe. I should perhaps explain for American readers that Darcus Howe is a former (British) Black Panther whose sonorous tones, physical presence and 'dangerous' political past made him a great favourite of the metro-liberal chattering classes. He seemed to work on the assumption that white people are innately racist - music to the ears of the metro-liberals, who would eagerly roll over to have their little guilt-racked tummies tickled. But not Joan. When Howe made the mistake of casually accusing her of racism - on the usually innocuous Radio 4 talk show Midweek (where Howe was promoting a film he'd made about his relationship with his son) - all hell broke loose. Joan was seriously riled and let rip at him. It was electrifying radio...

Howe: Since black offends Joan I will make it..
Rivers: Wait. Just stop right now, Black does not offend me. How dare you, how dare you say that. Black offends me? You know nothing about me, you sat down here. How dare you.
Howe: The use of the term black offends you.
Rivers: The use of the term black offends me? Where the hell are you coming from? You have got such a chip on your shoulder. How dare you say that to me.
Howe: I think this is a language problem.
Rivers: No I don't. I think this is a problem in your stupid head. You had a child, you left them, your wife said you weren't there. You married a woman, you deserted her, now your son comes back he's got problems. Where were you when he was growing up, until he was eight years old?
Howe: May we continue?
Rivers: How dare you. Please continue, but don't you dare call me that. Son of a bitch.
Purves (Libby, the host): Right Darcus, can we just say you don't think Joan is a racist and then perhaps we can move on?
Howe: I don't know whether she is a racist or not. I don't care.
Rivers: You just said the word black offends me. That's the stupidest thing I ever heard.
Howe: Normally I wouldn't ever meet you in my life.
Rivers: No normally would I meet you, nor would I choose to meet you.
Howe: No she's not a racist.
Rivers: OK please continue about your stupid film.
Purves: Right can we talk about your tour Joan?
Rivers: Talk about anything you want.
Howe: I don't think you brought me here to be insulted.
Rivers: No I don't think I was brought here to be insulted by someone, to be called a racist.
Howe: Let's go on with my film please?
Rivers: Please go on with your film.
Purves: Well we have to move on for time reasons...


Thursday, 4 September 2014

Environmental Crime Scene

On my way to work this morning I passed an Environmental Crime Scene. Admittedly anyone who works in London is liable to pass one or two of these every day, mostly committed by the planners - the City skyline itself increasingly resembles one vast environmental crime scene. But this was in a sidestreet in (largely) unspoilt Kensington, where every prospect pleases. The Environmental Crime Scene was, in fact... a bag. It was a plastic bin-bag, apparently containing some kind of builders' waste, and it was propped up against a wall. Someone had bound said bag tightly from top to bottom and left to right with wide sticky tape bearing the legend 'ENVIRONMENTAL CRIME SCENE'. I have never seen such a thing before. Was it, I wonder, the work of some kind of activists - or the heavy hand of the municipal authorities? The latter, I suspect, determined to make their point.

Over there...

Over on The Dabbler, I pay due homage to a giant of comedy...

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Quardle Oodle Ardle Wardle Doodle

Radio 4's marvellous Tweet of the Day, having brought us the various songs of every British bird species, has now gone global. This morning's Tweet, introduced by David Attenborough, was the extraordinary 'carolling' of the Australian Magpie. This bird - not a corvid like our native Magpie but a Butcher Bird - is something of a vocal virtuoso and is a highly regarded songbird in Australia, where standards (let's be honest) are not terribly high. The 'carolling' sounded to me like some kind of avant-garde experimental jazz, but it was very early in the morning...
 The song of the Australian Magpie has, however, given us what Wikipedia and Attenborough describe as 'one of the most famous lines in new Zealand poetry' (and I'm in no position to argue). The line is as follows:

'Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle.'

And here it is in context, in Denis Glover's poem The Magpies, a kind of Antipodean take on Thomas Hardy:

'When Tom and Elizabeth took the farm
The bracken made their bed
and Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle
The magpies said.

Tom's hand was strong to the plough
and Elizabeth's lips were red
and Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle
The magpies said.

Year in year out they worked
while the pines grew overhead
and Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle
The magpies said.

But all the beautiful crops soon went
to the mortgage man instead
and Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle
The magpies said.

Elizabeth is dead now (it's long ago)
Old Tom's gone light in the head
and Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle
The magpies said.

The farm's still there. Mortgage
corporations couldn't give it away
and Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle
The magpies say.'

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Betjeman Again: 'a whim of iron'

Watching last night's BBC4 documentary Return to Betjemanland, I was struck by a phrase used by Antony Powell to describe Betjeman: he had, said Powell, 'a whim of iron'. It's just the phrase to describe the mix of cuddly insouciance and steely purpose in Betjeman's personality - and, by extension, the tension in his verse between whimsy and something very much darker. No doubt Powell thought of the phrase himself, but it seems it was in circulation, having been attributed to Oliver Herford, 'the American Oscar Wilde', who is supposed to have said that his wife 'has a whim of iron'. Curiously the phrase also crops up in a song by the contemporary American folk singer Slaid Cleaves: 
 'She had a whim of iron.
 You couldn't tell her no.
 And if you did she'd prove you wrong
 And say - I told you so!'
Anyhoo, Return to Betjemanland was a solid job, presented by the ever more parsonical A.N. Wilson in a brown three-piece tweed suit of antiquated cut. He took us on a pleasing tour of the familiar landmarks, aided by dips into the extensive Betjeman TV archive, and it was all very enjoyable. Only towards the end did the tone darken, and Wilson was unflinching in exploring the dark underside of Betjeman's glittering surface - the well earned guilt, the secrets, the self-doubt, the literary and social insecurity, the complicated love life... The very things, I suppose, that put the iron in his whimsy.

Monday, 1 September 2014

In the Slow Lane

I was delighted to learn that the Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources has finally been completed, a century and a year after the great project was launched. I don't suppose it will be joining my reference collection, but I love the fact that there are still such glacially slow academic projects coming to their belated ends even in these high-speed digitised times.
 When it comes to Latin, sales too can be equally slow. The record is held by David Wilkins' translation of the Coptic New Testament into Latin. Published by the Oxford University Press in 1716 in an edition of 500 copies, it remained in print until 1907. I guess they didn't sell off remainders in those days.