Sunday, 28 August 2016

A Party Poem for Betjeman's Birthday

Today is the 110th birthday of John Betjeman, 'poet and hack' (as he described himself). He was perhaps the last truly popular poet laureate we'll ever have, a writer of easy-to-read 'light verse' that is often surprisingly dark-edged and always strangely ambivalent.
 In this poem, False Security, Betjeman abandons his usual jogalong metre to re-enter his Highgate childhood, recreating its fears and anxieties and its redeeming joys...

I remember the dread with which I at a quarter past four
Let go with a bang behind me our house front door
And, clutching a present for my dear little hostess tight,
Sailed out for the children's party into the night
Or rather the gathering night. For still some boys
In the near municipal acres were making a noise
Shuffling in fallen leaves and shouting and whistling
And running past hedges of hawthorn, spiky and bristling.
And black in the oncoming darkness stood out the trees
And pink shone the ponds in the sunset ready to freeze
And all was still and ominous waiting for dark
And the keeper was ringing his closing bell in the park
And the arc lights started to fizzle and burst into mauve
As I climbed West Hill to the great big house in the grove,
Where the children's party was and the dear little hostess.
But halfway up stood the empty house where the ghost is.
I crossed to the other side and under the arc
Made a rush for the next kind lamppost out of the dark
And so to the next and the next till I reached the top
Where the grove branched off to the left. Then ready to drop
I ran to the ironwork gateway of number seven
Secure at last on the lamp lit fringe of heaven.
Oh who can say how subtle and safe one feels
Shod in ones children's sandals from Daniel Neal's,
Clad in one's party clothes made of stuff from Heal's?
And who can still one's thrill at the candle shine
On cakes and ices and jelly and blackcurrant wine,
And the warm little feel of my hostess's hand in mine?
Can I forget my delight at the conjuring show?
And wasn't I proud that I was the last to go?
Too overexcited and pleased with myself to know
That the words I heard my hostess's mother employ
To a guest departing, would ever diminish my joy,

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Bird, Beast and Flower

The other day I rediscovered a rather fine poetry anthology on my bookshelves - Bird, Beast and Flower, with watercolours by Marie Angel and poems chosen by Ian Parsons. I remember buying it some time in the Eighties when the children were small, but it isn't quite a children's anthology and I don't think it got much use. I had all but forgotten we still had it, and was delighted to find it again.
 It's a handsome quarto volume of sixty-odd pages, quite beautifully illustrated with watercolour plates and illuminated letters (Marie Angel was a calligrapher and illuminator as well as a watercolorist). These are not only beautiful but accurate, and a key to the illustrations tells us which flowers and animals are shown in each plate. The choice of poems is interesting: there are old favourites you'd expect - Blake's Tyger, Wordsworth's Daffodils, Browning's Home Thoughts, Keats's Autumn, songs by Shakespeare and his contemporaries - but some surprises too. An entire spread, with fittingly illuminated initial letter, is given over to Marianne Moore's Abundance, a celebration of the Jerboa, 'the sand-brown jumping-rat'; there's a page from Leaves of Grass ('There was a child went forth every day...'); Herrick is represented by the less than obvious The Sadness of Things for Sappho's Sickness. R.W. Dixon's Song - about which I've written before - is here, as are Christina Rossetti's lovely A Birthday ('My heart is like a singing bird...'), Emily Dickinson's A Narrow Fellow, Edward Thomas's haunting Out in the Dark, and  Edmund Blunden's The March Bee, which was new to me. But here's the one to end with - a vivid evocation of the kind of weather we've been having here in southeast England by one William Canton, a poet I had never heard of (of course he's in Wikipedia)...


Broad August burns in milky skies,
The world is blanched with hazy heat;
The vast green pasture, even, lies
Too hot and bright for eyes and feet.

Amid the grassy levels rears
The sycamore against the sun
The dark boughs of a hundred years,
The emerald foliage of one.

Lulled in a dream of shade and sheen,
Within the clement twilight thrown
By that great cloud of floating green,
A horse is standing, still as stone.

He stirs nor head nor hoof, although
The grass is fresh beneath the branch;
His tail alone swings to and fro
In graceful curves from haunch to haunch.

He stands quite lost, indifferent
To rack or pasture, trace or rein;
He feels the vaguely sweet content
Of perfect sloth in limb and brain.

Bird, Beast and Flower, which seems never to have been reprinted since its publication in 1980, is happily still available on AbeBooks, and on Amazon for as little as 1p.
And here's a fine example of Marie Angel's illumination (quoting Whitman)...

From a Golden Age

I'm passing this on - with grateful tips of the hat to Jonathan Law and Ian Beck - simply because it's a cheering story, with some rather beautiful images. How wonderful - and how characteristic of the period - that Lyons should respond to a postwar shortage of decorating materials by commissioning a series of fine art lithographs to brighten up their Corner Houses. It put me in mind of another artistic initiative from the same period - the School Prints - which I wrote about a while ago. With initiatives like these and the brilliant poster work being done for London Transport and the train companies (and businesses like Shell), this postwar period - and indeed the whole period from the Thirties through to the early Sixties - was surely a golden age of graphic art. The pictorial environment of this country was never richer - was it?
[The image above is Fishing at Marlow by Edwin la Dell.]

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Box Hill Blues

I took this so-so picture of part of the famous view from Box Hill this afternoon. Of course it does little justice to a view too wide and far and subtly toned to be captured in a photograph. Actually I'm not a great one for views as such (though I wouldn't go so far as John Byng, who, in the Torrington Diaries, declares flatly 'I abhor distant prospects'). This one, though, seen under a clear blue summer sky, is quite something.
 However, I was not at Box Hill to admire the view, and I'm happy to report that, in fields sloping down to the left of the picture, I found, after a good deal of fruitless searching, what I was looking for - the glorious Adonis Blue. As I wandered down the slope, I had a couple of possible sightings, but it wasn't until I had all but given up hope that I spotted a likely Adonis nectaring on a head of Scabious, wings folded. I crept up close enough to be pretty sure - and then this beauty opened its wings in a blaze of heavenly blue and flew off, to be joined almost immediately by another male, and then another... This wonderful butterfly summer just keeps on giving.

Monday, 22 August 2016

Ron Dante: From "Sugar, Sugar" to the Paris Review

Among today's notable birthdays is the 71st of Ron Dante (not to be confused with Troy Dante, of Troy Dante & the Infernos). Ron Dante is a music business all-rounder - singer, record producer, songwriter,  session singer and creator of virtual bands, most notably The Archies, a cartoon band who had a massive hit with the infernally catchy Sugar, Sugar (the top-selling record in the US in the year of Woodstock). Dante effectively was The Archies, producing their recordings and doing most of the vocals, male and female, himself (anonymously). His other 'bands' included The Cuff Links (Tracy), The Detergents, Two Dollar Question and another cartoon group, The Chan Clan. Under his own name he released a handful of albums, including a disco LP called, inevitably, Dante's Inferno (complete with a 12-inch red vinyl single, Fire Island).
 Rather more respectably, Dante was Barry Manilow's record producer from 1973 to 1981. Manilow returned the favour by producing a dance version of Sugar, Sugar sung by Dante under his own name. Dante also produced the successful musical Ain't Misbehavin' on Broadway - and it was around this time that his Manhattan neighbour George Plimpton invited him to be publisher of the esteemed literary quarterly The Paris Review (which Plimpton had co-founded), taking over the position from the Aga Khan, no less. Ron Dante served in this capacity from 1978 to 1985. So, next time you hear Sugar, Sugar, remember - this was made by the publisher of The Paris Review.

Friday, 19 August 2016

Is Radio 4 Risking a Diplomatic Incident?

Radio 4's Book at Bedtime this week and next is Eight Months on Ghazzah Street. This is doubly gratifying: not only is Hilary Mantel's third novel an excellent piece of work, it is also - in its unflinching portrayal of the Hell on Earth that is Saudi Arabia - just the kind of thing you might have expected the PC multiculturalists of Radio 4 to avoid. I'm sure the Saudi embassy will be sorely displeased. So hats off to Radio 4 for making this bold choice of Book at Bedtime.
 They're making a good job of it too, with Anna Maxwell Martin a perfect choice of reader.  The collaborative abridgement by Hilary Mantel and Sara Davies seems to have lost nothing of the novel's disturbingly sinister atmosphere, nor the loathing and disgust that infuses it. It's a great listen (you can hear it all on the Radio 4 iPlayer) - just as the novel (which I reread a few years ago) was a great read.
 I first read Eight Months on Ghazzah Street - and the two earlier novels - after having been hugely impressed by Fludd, and I subsequently read each new Hilary Mantel as it came out (with one exception, which I'll return to): A Change of Climate (another, very different dystopian take on expat life), An Experiment in Love, the extraordinary Beyond Black...  The one I never got round to reading, despite my best intentions, was Mantel's big historical novel of the French Revolution, A Place of Greater Safety. And sure enough, when Wolf Hall came out - another big historical novel - and then Bring Up the Bodies, another one, I balked again. Reader, I have not read Hilary Mantel's best-known, best-selling, prize-winning and most praised novels, the ones with which she found literary fame - and this despite having been a Mantel fan almost from the start of her career.
 Is it just me being perverse? I don't think so (and my earlier non-reading of A Place of Greater Safety would suggest a pattern). I know of at least a few other Mantel readers who have found themselves strangely unable to read Wolf Hall and its successor. This seems to suggest that Wolf Hall created a whole new Mantel readership, bringing in huge numbers of new readers who only felt the urge to read her when she turned her attention to Thomas Cromwell. Which is odd - but good news for the author, who had certainly earned her eventual fame.

Monday, 15 August 2016

Snapshot and Essence

An interesting discussion on the radio this morning about a new bird book - Britain's Birds: An Identification Guide to the Birds of Britain and Ireland - which is illustrated entirely with digital photographs (and on a grand scale, with more than 2,700 images). The author, Rob Hume, made the case for this omniphotographic approach, while artist and illustrator Ian Griffiths argued for painted illustration.
 Some of Griffiths' points - about, for example, the illustrator's total control of viewpoint, lighting and background - were partially rebutted by the sheer versatility and flexibility of digital photography. However, in the end pictorial illustration will always have the edge over photography for this kind of book - especially if picture space is limited - as the knowledgable illustrator can design his single image to emphasise exactly what needs to be shown for identification purposes, and to convey the overall 'feel' of its subject. Even the cleverest photography captures, by definition, a snapshot; a good painted illustration captures an essence. The very stylisation of the hand-made image allows it to be, in a sense, more real than the 'real thing' caught by the camera lens.
 This morning's discussion ended in acknowledging the virtues of both approaches - and their complementarity. The best field guides are those that contain both photographs and painted illustrations - as does the brilliant Philip's Guide to Butterflies of Britain and Ireland by Jeremy Thomas, the best pocket guide to British butterflies. But then butterflies are much smaller than birds, and it seems to be a rule that the smaller the subject the less useful photographic illustration is, and the more the discriminating eye of the illustrator is called for. Well, up to a point.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

This Is Getting Ridiculous

There I was this morning, strolling around my little local nature reserve /  ecology centre, enjoying the company of a few Speckled Woods and Gatekeepers. Finding my favourite bench unoccupied, I sat down, and after a few minutes a brown butterfly flew down and settled a few feet away in the grass. It looked like a Gatekeeper, and yet not quite, so I went to investigate - and realised when I saw it closer up that this was, of all things, a male Brown Hairstreak! I say 'of all things' because to see this elusive species at all is, to quote Butterflies of Surrey Revisited, 'one of the most difficult tasks for a butterfly enthusiast' - and nearly all those that are seen close up are females.
 Like the White-Letter Hairstreak on that memorable day in Nonsuch Park, this specimen appeared from nowhere and tarried long enough for me to make a definite identification, obligingly showing both his upperside and beautiful golden underside. He only flew off when, like a fool, I tried to photograph him. I stood slack-jawed with amazement... This kind of thing never happens, and yet it's happened to me twice this summer. Truly this is the Year of the Hairstreak.
 Incidentally my White-Letter post has had more visits than any other post of recent years. I've no idea why - there can't be all that many Hairstreak obsessives out there. Perhaps it's related to the curious fact that this blog is now more popular in Russia than anywhere else, with Norway sliding way down the charts. All very odd.

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Swift Footnote

I had just finished writing the post below when I looked out of the window - and there was a swift! My first since exactly a week ago - and perhaps my last of the year? Ah, but there is no knowing...

A Tradition Honoured

Yesterday - before heading for Silver-Spotted Skipperland - I attended a curious ceremony in a corner of the churchyard of St Nicholas, Sutton (a 'not attractive' church, says Pevsner/Nairn harshly). The Gibson Mausoleum ('pyramid roof, rusticated quoins and a rusticated door surround') has stood in said churchyard corner since 1777, and is the subject of an unusual provision in the will of a spinster daughter of the London merchant, William Gibson, whose name is on the mausoleum. This daughter left a sum of money to provide for an annual inspection of the tomb, with the preaching of a sermon and the distribution of various monies and of stockings and shoes to the poor of the parish (without which they would be unable to find employment).
 The requirement 'to survey and examine the family vault and monument of the Gibsons' on the 12th of August every year (and make good any damage) has been fulfilled almost every year since. I say 'almost' because in 1985 the then Rector put an end to what he regarded as 'an undignified side-show', and the next Rector refused to conduct the examination on (dubious) health and safety grounds. However, the forces of reaction rallied and prevailed, and in 2015 the tradition was again embraced and the inspection performed with due ceremony.
 I missed it last year, so was determined to attend this year's ceremony - and I'm very glad I did. Happily the whole thing is taken seriously, treated not a folkloric curiosity but as the occasion for a genuinely thoughtful and moving outdoor service. It began with a procession from the church to the mausoleum, ceremonially carrying the key and the Bible, and some introductory remarks, followed by a reading of the will and the unlocking of the tomb. This revealed only darkness, into which the Rector and churchwarden descended for a brief inspection, emerging satisfied that nothing was amiss. The mausoleum was relocked to the comfortable words 'Rest eternal grant unto them, O Lord, and let light perpetual shine upon them'.
 Then Psalm 16 was read, and a nicely judged short sermon preached on it by the Archdeacon of Croydon. A string of prayers followed - all well chosen and all in proper prayer-book language - and we were dismissed with the traditional blessings. There were perhaps two dozen of us, standing in the dappled shade of the churchyard, and I for one left with the feeling that I'd been part of something rather special, that a tradition had been observed with respect and insight and due reverence. It was truly a 'lovely service'.
 I could have gone back into the church for refreshments, but I left straight away. I had an appointment with the butterflies of Denbies hillside.

Friday, 12 August 2016


'The big black eyes of a baby seal and the golden fur of a teddy bear...' That's Patrick Barkham rhapsodising about 'the cutest butterfly in Britain' - the Silver-Spotted Skipper. I was delighted to find a little group of these scarce downland skippers this afternoon nectaring on scabious (beside the old coach road at the foot of Denbies Hillside) , and I have to say - Barkham is right, they're just lovely. These heat-loving butterflies (they can't fly if the temperature's below 20C) are also, we are told, benefiting from 'global warming', expanding their range in recent years, after having come back from near-extinction in the Eighties. Good news.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

The Uses of Boredom

A 'developmental psychologist' was on the radio earlier today, arguing that these days children have far too many activities organised for their holidays and leisure time, and should be left to their own devices rather more, even - perish the thought - allowed to be bored. In my childhood, I'm happy to say, children were generally left to their own devices far more, the adult world and that of childhood being more clearly divided and the place of children in the family rather less central. We children were free to roam to an extent that seems incredible today - and were equally free to experience, as a normal part of life, great tracts of grinding boredom. When activities and outings were organised for us, I generally found them quite bewildering, sometimes frightening and quite often every bit as boring as having nothing to do - but that was probably just me.
 Looking back, I'm quite impressed by how much of my time I seem to have devoted to doing nothing and feeling bored stiff. However, I don't regret it: I'm sure blankness and empty tracts of time have their place in forming us, in developing resilience and endurance, and in generating if not creativity, at least the possibility of it, by allowing the mind and imagination to roam at will. I have a feeling too that experiencing plenty of boredom in your early years can immunise you against ever feeling it again to any serious extent. In my adult life I have rarely been bored - certainly not when in any situation under my own control - and any boredom I might feel is always tempered by the sense that, despite appearances, something is happening that is somehow worth paying attention to. My boredom is not the profound, soul-gnawing kind, bordering on depression, in which everything and all possibilities seem weary, flat, stale and unprofitable.
 Someone defined boredom as the feeling that everything is a waste of time, and serenity as the feeling that nothing is. Maybe I've achieved serenity then - at least some of the time and in some sense - but if that's the case I have no idea how or why. Perhaps it has something to do with trying to maintain perspective, paying full attention to what is around us, and taking pleasure in small things. Marianne Moore expressed it in three words: 'Humility, concentration, gusto.' These things certainly militate against boredom, but perhaps to develop them we need to have a good grounding in being bored, an early education in the uses of boredom.

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

All the Tea in China

I see Bryan is lamenting (on Twitter) the disappearance of his favourite Darjeeling tea from supermarket shelves and its replacement by the ubiquitous Earl Grey. I sympathise. And there's another tea-related mystery - the disappearance of China tea (and indeed, in Sainsbury's case, of their excellent China-Darjeeling blend).
 When I was growing up, it was routine in tearooms and hotels to be asked 'Indian or China?', the China option being a decent refreshing blend of black Chinese teas. This hasn't happened for donkey's years, and generic black 'China tea' seems to have all but disappeared, replaced by countless versions of green tea and the tarry stalwart Lapsang Souchong. Even online and in specialist shops it's quite hard to track down black China tea, especially in teabag form (yes, I know this marks me out as a philistine in these matters, but I really can't be doing with cold soggy tea-leaves). Isn't it odd that in an age when everything we buy is made in China, the one thing they aren't supplying us with is tea.

Celebrating with the Birthday Boy

Today is Philip Larkin's birthday. If he were still alive he'd be 94, but it never seemed likely that he'd make that kind of age, or want to - Larkin wasn't exactly Mr Lust for Life. For his 60th birthday (three years before he died), he was interviewed for the South Bank Show by Melvyn Bragg, who recalled that a drunken Larkin had to be evicted by police from the restaurant where the two men had enjoyed a rather too liquid lunch. The resulting documentary - in which nothing was seen of the 60-year-old Larkin but his hands turning the pages of a book - was a typically bland South Bank product, but there was also a sour half-hour TV special in which the politician and hack writer Roy Hattersley (once represented on Have I Got News for You by a tub of lard) attacked Larkin for his exaggerated pessimism, relentless gloom and parochial narrowness of view. If more had been known at that time about Larkin's personal life, he'd have had a lot more ammunition...
 As it was, Larkin told a friend that watching the programme 'gave me some idea of what being a writer in Russia must be like, arraigned in public for bourgeois formalism, counter-revolutionary determination and anti-working-class deviation. That great bloated unsmiling accuser and his silent audience was the most depressing thing I've had to endure for a long time.'
Ten years earlier, as he hit 50, Larkin looked back and forward with equal dismay:

'The view is fine from fifty,
Experienced climbers say;
So, overweight and shifty,
I turn to face the way
That led me to this day.
Instead of fields and snowcaps
And flowered lanes that twist,
The track breaks at my toe-caps
And drops away in mist.
The view does not exist.
Where has it gone, the lifetime?
Search me. What’s left is drear.
Unchilded and unwifed, I’m
Able to view that clear:
So final. And so near.'

(That's quite a rhyme in the last stanza - 'lifetime', 'unwifed I'm'!).
 By the time his 60th birthday came around, Larkin was all but written-out, but if he'd had another birthday poem in him it would surely have been no cheerier. Never mind - his is still a birthday worth celebrating, for the rest of us if not for him, for the poems he left us if not for the man who wrote them. 

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Saint and Skulls

I've been away for a couple of days walking in Cheshire with my brother and our Derbyshire/Cheshire cousin. There is fine countryside not far out from Chester - rolling pastures dotted with oak trees, quiet canals, and the occasional dramatic crag topped with a ruined castle (Beeston the most spectacular, with tremendous panoramic views). The sun shone, butterflies were flying in good numbers, and of course there were churches, including the large and handsome St Boniface, Bunbury (nothing to do with Algernon's imaginary friend in The Importance of Being Earnest).
 The above image is from Bunbury. Part of a mid-15th-century parclose screen, it shows St Apollonia, an Alexandrian martyr who has become the patroness of dentists and pray-to saint for toothache sufferers. She holds a pair of tongs with a tooth clasped in its pincers, and wears an expression of mild surprise. Her composure is admirable in view of the grisly manner of her martyrdom - which I won't go into here.
 Also looking surprisingly cheerful are the death's-heads shown below. This is an image from a notably macabre Baroque monument in Chester's 'second cathedral', St John the Baptist. The monument, to Diana Warburton, was designed in 1693 by Edward Pearce, a pupil of Wren. It depicts a standing skeleton holding up a shroud on which an effusive epitaph is written. This ends
'... Her Religion Was Not A Bare Shew Or Empty Noise But Solid Substantial Even And Uniform Humble & Patient In Her Sickness In The Midst Of Pain Without Murmuring And Despondency Submitted Herself To God And With Great Constancy Of Mind, & Cheerfulness Resigned Her Life To Him In One Continued Act Of Devout Praises & Prayers Of Heavenly Meditations & Discourses Suitable To The Entertainments Of A Departing Soul...'

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Shipbreaking in the Studio

My latest find at the local charity shop that keeps on coming up with big fat art books at knock-down prices (most recently Whistler, Max Beerbohm, Carl Larsson) was Great Painter-Etchers from Rembrandt to Whistler. This handsome volume was originally published as a lavish special edition - with more than 200 plates - of The Studio magazine in 1913. My copy has been rebound, perhaps by the owner whose bookplate reads 'Ex Libris C.A. Lascarides, New House, Ham Common' (with a woodcut of what looks very like a new house on Ham Common).
 Happily the binder retained the 16 pages of advertisements at the front of the volume. These are mostly what one might expect - art dealers, etchers and etchings, suppliers of materials - but one rather more unexpected item caught my eye. This was an advert for Castle's Shipbreaking Co. Ltd, of Baltic Wharf, Westminster, and their range of 'man-o'-war teakwood garden furniture'. Benches and a folding table are illustrated, and around the margin runs a long list of 'some historic ships broken up by the firm'.
 This world of garden furniture made out of wood from broken-up ships - hard oak as well as teak - was new to me, but after a little research I discovered that (a) such outdoor furniture was highly desirable, the wood being proof against any weather and needing no paint or varnish, and (b) there was a brisk market in man-o'-war teak for many years. King George V was one happy customer, buying a quantity of garden furniture made of teak from the cruiser Melampus, which he had commanded when he was the Duke of York. Liberty & Co, when rebuilding their famous store in 1922, made extensive use of oak from two broken-up training ships - and, as it happens, this volume of The Studio carries a full-page advertisement for Liberty's 'artistic Xmas cards, calendars & gift books'.
 And here's an art-historical footnote: it is to Castle's shipbreaking yard that the 'fighting Temeraire' is being towed in Turner's famous painting.

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Sylvia Townsend Warner in the Fourteenth Century

In a remote priory in the 1350s, a young nun, Dame Isabel, contemplates her approaching death:

'Throughout her short sickly life she had accepted the idea of an early death; but now she thought that, after all, she would be sorry to exchange the ambiguity of this world for the certitude of the next. There is pleasure in watching the sophistries of mankind, his decisions made and unmade like the swirl of a mill-race, causation sweeping him forward from act to act while his reason dances on the surface of action like a pattern of foam. Yes, and the accumulations of human reason, she thought, the proofs we all assent to, the truths established beyond shadow of doubt, these are like the stale crusts of foam that lie along the river-bank and look solid enough, till a cloudburst further up the valley sends down a force of water that breaks them up and sweeps them away.'

That remarkable passage is from Sylvia Townsend Warner's historical novel - which I'm reading now - The Corner that Held Them (the title from the Wisdom of Solomon: 'For neither might the corner that held them keep them from fear'). It's a novel that's full of deaths - the Black Death among them. Indeed it has a higher body count than many an action movie, beginning with a bloody and wholly unexpected murder on the second page. The death of Dame Isabel, when it comes, is protracted to the point where the attendant nuns' compassion gives way to mere endurance -

'The flies made everything worse. The smell of blood and sweat brought them in swarms, house-flies and blue-bottles and horse-flies. The lulling of prayers and the buzzing of insects was broken by shooings, scratchings and slaps at the flies which settled on cheeks and foreheads. There lay Dame Isabel, mute as a candle, visibly consuming away and still not extinguished. Every time she opened her eyes they were more appallingly brilliant...'

When she finally dies, sudden torrential downpours flood the land, spoiling crops, drowning cattle and filling Dame Isabel's ready-dug grave. Rapidly the local legend grows of a nun so wicked that death would not take her nor the earth receive her body. 'Her wickedness was an excessive learning: all day she sat reading forbidden books, and sometimes barking like a dog, for such was her knowledge of grammar that she could change herself into animal shape.'
 Happily death is not the only thing that happens in The Corner that Held Them, but it has an appropriately prominent place in the perilous, superstitious, Judgment-obsessed medieval world that is imagined by Sylvia Townsend Warner in all its terrible glory. The ease with which the author - always unsentimental and hard-headed - slips unfussily into an entirely convincing medieval way of thinking and seeing the world is quite extraordinary. There is no suggestion of the author standing outside this world, diligently notating it for us in terms we'll understand - still less of that tiresome figure, the off-page author with a long pointer directing our attention to the salient features and what we should be thinking about them (didn't someone once describe E.M. Forster in these terms?). Sylvia Townsend Warner has - like Penelope Fitzgerald in her later novels - the gift of total immersion in another time and place. She shows - they show - what historical fiction can be at its very best, and so seldom is.

Monday, 1 August 2016

In the Pulpit

Here's a piece I wrote for the 'Pulpit' page of the current issue of Literary Review, banging the drum for blogging. I've had a paid (yes, paid) subscription to Literary Review for years - it's by far the best mag of its kind - and it's a joy to be writing for it. And, on this occasion, to namecheck a few ornaments of the literary blogscape...

In Praise of Blogging

I am a blogger. This is something I hesitate to admit in polite society, where the response is likely to be a thinly disguised sneer. However, I’m sure I can safely ‘come out’ to the open-minded readers of Literary Review and proclaim, loud and clear, the joys of blogging.

I never intended to be a blogger. The name alone is enough to put anyone off – ‘blog’ is an ugly word – and besides, I’ve always been about as tech-savvy as an aardvark. Then one of my oldest and closest friends started a blog and the scales fell from my eyes. I realised that, in the right hands, a blog, which I’d lazily assumed to be an outlet for opinionated egos or a medium for look-at-me wittering, could actually be a thing of beauty, a repository of interesting and original thought, of humour and pleasure, of amiable interchange among friends.

I became a frequent contributor to my friend’s blog, then a co-blogger and stand-in. Finally, when the blog founder gave signs of losing interest, I decided to take the plunge and start my own. I was having too much fun to stop now. It’s very easy to set up a blog (if it hadn’t been, I’d never have managed it). Indeed it’s so easy that I was up and running before I’d given enough thought to my blog’s name. Hence I remain self-lumbered with ‘Nigeness’, modified now by the less blokey and more descriptive (I hope) ‘A Hedonic Resource’.

My blog has been running for eight years and I still enjoy writing it and being part of a particular corner of the blogscape, a loose community of the more-or-less like-minded whose interests revolve around books, pictures, music, the natural world, walking, church-crawling, drink and whatever oddities might catch our eye. But what I have particularly enjoyed is making new discoveries that otherwise might never have come my way.

In the literary field, my blog journey has led me to discover (or in some cases rediscover) several writers who are unfashionable, neglected or in danger of being forgotten, such as Christina Stead (The Man Who Loved Children), Stanley Elkin, Charles Portis (whose Masters of Atlantis is one of the funniest novels I’ve ever read), Flannery O’Connor, the inimitable Ivy Compton-Burnett and the poet Richard Wilbur. While much of the literary blogscape is devoted to discussing the new and fashionable, there is ample space where the sole concern is quality, regardless of the currents of contemporary 'relevance'.

Many of the names I’ve come upon are American (and some of them are big in America but oddly little known over here). I owe my discovery of them to some very distinguished American literary blogs – each of them a living riposte to those who might sneer at American culture. One example is Anecdotal Evidence, a blog about ‘the intersection of books and life’ written by the formidably well-read Patrick Kurp, whose tastes range all the way from Fulke Greville to A J Liebling and whose well-argued enthusiasms are infectious. First Known When Lost (yes, a quotation from Edward Thomas) is a series of fine mini-anthologies edited by Stephen Pentz, each on a different theme, all beautifully illustrated and linked by Pentz’s humane and thoughtful commentary. The invaluable Books, Inq., run by Frank Wilson, a former literary editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, is a kind of clearing house for all that is best on the literary blogscape, linking to a dazzling array of quality blogs and websites. Another giant of the American blogging scene is the indefatigable researcher Dave Lull, one-time Wisconsin librarian, who (in the words of Frank Wilson) provides the blog community with ‘a vast array of lovely links we might never otherwise see’.

Blogging at its best is essentially an extension of the essay form: brief and provisional, feeling its way through a subject, written with care but relaxed and not over-polished. One difference is that a blog post is published instantly and by the author; it takes its place in a conversation (with luck) and the blogger establishes his place in a community of taste and thought (ditto). This has its risks, but there is something deeply satisfying about it. Another difference is that the technology enables a blog post to open out in ways not possible with the printed essay: for instance, through hyperlinks embedded in the text, or through pictures, video and audio. And it can evolve into quite mind-boggling forms: take a look at Anatomy of Norbiton – a blog elaborating fantastically on the ‘ideal city’ and the ‘failed life’. A favourite game among literary bloggers is to speculate about which writers from the past might have taken to blogging – Montaigne, Sir Thomas Browne, Lamb, Hazlitt, Chesterton, Orwell…

The blog world is vastly wider and richer than I ever imagined. And talking of wider worlds brings me to the homegrown ‘culture blog’ The Dabbler, of which I was a founding editor. This blog and its crack team of contributors touched on all the arts and more, and was especially notable for the superb music posts contributed by ‘Mahlerman’. These greatly expanded my knowledge and enjoyment of music – as they would anyone’s, I think – and they can still be found on the Dabbler archive. The Dabbler itself, however, has migrated to Facebook.

Much else that used to be in blog form has also made the transition into other social media. Could it be that the ‘death of the blog’, which seems to have been predicted ever since blogging began, is now happening? I doubt it; I think it’s more that those who were using the blog form to pick fights, project their egos or drone on about their everyday lives are migrating to media better equipped for such purposes: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and the rest (neophilia is a strong driving force here). This might, one hopes, leave the blogscape open for those who blog because the form is a perfect fit with what they want to do, and who are impervious to the whims of technology. If blogging is unfashionable, so much the better, I say. So many of the best things, like so many of the best books and writers, are.