Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Reading A.E. Coppard

I recently mentioned A.E. Coppard, a writer whose name was unknown to me when I came across it - and seems to be generally forgotten, though a book of selected stories, Weep Not My Wanton, was issued only last year by Turnpike Books (a paperback, with Eric Ravilious's Chalk Paths on the cover - a perfect choice). I have just read this selection and I have to report that Coppard is one very fine short-story writer.
 Weep Not My Wanton contains, in a mere 100 pages, seven stories: Dusky Ruth, the sad tale of a subjunctive sexual encounter at an inn; the title story, a horribly vivid vignette of human cruelty; Adam & Eve & Pinch Me, an eerie account of an out-of-body experience; The Higgler, a kind of love story, the longest in the book and perhaps the most gripping of them all; The Wife of Ted Wickham, a surprising character study; The Watercress Girl, a kind of tragic love story; and The Field of Mustard, in which a group of women, out gathering kindling, talk about men.
 What these very different stories have in common, above all, is a haunting quality that makes them hard to forget. They are often almost painfully vivid, and always told with a skill that is quite breath-taking. Frank O'Connor called Coppard 'the greatest of all the English storytellers' and that, I think, is not far wide of the mark. It seems astonishing, then, that he should be so nearly forgotten - except that the stories have a flavour of their time, at least in the prose style, which sometimes shows signs of a Georgian fondness for strained locutions and 'fine writing'. But this is incidental, for these are tough, sinewy, clear-sighted stories that never lapse into anything like whimsy or sentimentality; Coppard knew too much of the realities of poverty and rural life for that. 
 V.S. Pritchett - who admired Coppard hugely - also thought that he was unlucky in being a 'folkish' writer at the wrong time:
'I don't think he had any views about life in general, any kind of intellect, but he had a marvellous appreciation of the instant; he could describe a squirrel very well, he could describe a game‑keeper, he could describe a couple of old farmers arguing about whether, beef is better than veal to eat, or what pork is like, and things like that. He had a great decorative sense of comedy. He was unfortunately, when I look back upon it, a rather folkish writer; he came at a period when the peasantry were dead really and they only existed in pockets in England, in little places, and their traditional customs by that time had almost gone. It was when suburbia spread out and the countryside died. That curious old England went out...'
 Well, that's true enough, but stories as good, as well crafted and as grippingly told as Coppard's surely deserve to survive. Try them yourself and see if you agree.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014


Does this sonnet sound familiar?

When I in dreams behold thy fairest shade
Whose shade in dreams doth wake the sleeping morn
The daytime shadow of my love betray’d
Lends hideous night to dreaming’s faded form
Were painted frowns to gild mere false rebuff
Then shoulds’t my heart be patient as the sands
For nature’s smile is ornament enough
When thy gold lips unloose their drooping bands
As clouds occlude the globe’s enshrouded fears
Which can by no astron’my be assail’d
Thus, thyne appearance tears in atmospheres
No fond perceptions nor no gaze unveils
Disperse the clouds which banish light from thee
For no tears be true, until we truly see

Yes, you're probably thinking, it does sound familiar; it sounds rather like Shakespeare. And yet, there are, to put it mildly, a few problems, notably duff lines that Shakespeare could never have written (including a truly painful last line) and the overriding fact that it doesn't actually make any kind of sense. The music - or a fair simulacrum of it - is there, intermittently, but nothing else. The 'sonnet' reads, indeed, like what it is - a poem generated by a computer algorithm. All you need, apparently, is a dataset of Shakespeare's favourite words and a machine-learning Android app, and Bob - or rather Will's - your uncle. This piece gives a decidedly upbeat account of how it's done, overlooking the obvious fact that such a technique could never generate anything other than, at best, a pastiche. I don't think Shakespeare need fear for for his laurels any time soon. 

Monday, 28 April 2014


In Derbyshire this weekend, the sun - blatantly defying the Met Office - was for much of the time shining, often bright and warm. Does this mean (you'll be clamouring to learn) that there were butterflies to be seen? My friends, there were indeed: those cheerful little Orange Tips were flying in glorious abundance, and there were also Peacocks and Tortoiseshells, Speckled Woods and the familiar whites. The grand surprise, though, was to find a single Dingy Skipper, settled on the ground, wings spread, at a spot where I had seen them before, but surprisingly early in the year - and (on this occasion) in pretty weak morning sun. These 'endangered' skippers live in very small colonies, and are probably more numerous than is generally thought; they are easily missed, being fast and erratic in flight and hard to spot after they've landed. And they do, let's face it, live up to their name. They're easily mistaken for little day-flying moths (and vice versa) and are not the kind of butterfly to set the pulses racing - unless you're a fan like me, of course...
  Also, no trip to Wirksworth would be complete without a visit to my favourite bookshop (helpfully called The Bookshop, and mentioned more than once on this blog). I never leave it empty-handed (or empty-pocketed -  prices tend to be almost unbelievably low), and this time I picked up a copy of Kay Ryan's The Best of It: New and Selected Poems (a handsome Grove Press paperback) and Samuel Beckett's Mercier and Camier (a 1999 reprint, marking the 50th anniversary of John Calder's publishing firm). It's a very long time since I read the latter (it might even have been in the French original) and I remember little about it, so I am looking forward to the reread.  

Friday, 25 April 2014

Breughel's Winter

An ekphrastic poem by Walter de la Mare, born on this day in 1873. A print of this picture (Hunters in the Snow) used to hang in the main corridor of my grammar school, so it's quite deeply imprinted on me...

Jagg'd mountain peaks and skies ice-green
Wall in the wild, cold scene below.
Churches, farms, bare copse, the sea
In freezing quiet of winter show;
Where ink-black shapes on fields in flood
Curling, skating, and sliding go.
To left, a gabled tavern; a blaze;
Peasants; a watching child; and lo,
Muffled, mute--beneath naked trees
In sharp perspective set a-row--
Trudge huntsmen, sinister spears aslant,
Dogs snuffling behind them in the snow;
And arrowlike, lean, athwart the air
Swoops into space a crow.
But flame, nor ice, nor piercing rock,
Nor silence, as of a frozen sea,
Nor that slant inward infinite line
Of signboard, bird, and hill, and tree,
Give more than subtle hint of him
Who squandered here life's mystery.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

'And shall Trelawny Die?'

From the radio this morning came the stirring sound of a Cornish male voice choir belting out the county's 'national anthem', Trelawny. This was in honour of Cornwall having been granted national minority status under EU rules (so the rest of us will no longer be able to persecute this oppressed minority with impunity). Trelawny (or The Song of the Western Men), long believed to be of ancient origin, was actually written by the Victorian parson-poet Robert Stephen Hawker, and the Trelawny in question could be one of two rebellious Cornishmen, both of whom fell foul of the English and were imprisoned.

'A good sword and a trusty hand!
A merry heart and true!
King James's men shall understand
What Cornish lads can do!
And have they fixed the where and when?
And shall Trelawny die?
Here's twenty thousand Cornish men
Will know the reason why!
And shall Trelawny live?
And shall Trelawny die?
Here's twenty thousand Cornish men
Will know the reason why!
Out spake their Captain brave and bold:
A merry wight was he:
Though London Tower were Michael's hold,
We'll set Trelawny free!
'We'll cross the Tamar, land to land:
The Severn is no stay:
With "one and all," and hand in hand;
And who shall bid us nay?
And shall Trelawny live?
And shall Trelawny die?
Here's twenty thousand Cornish men
Will know the reason why!
And when we come to London Wall,
A pleasant sight to view,
Come forth! come forth! ye cowards all:
Here's men as good as you.
'Trelawny he's in keep and hold;
Trelawny he may die:
Here's twenty thousand Cornish bold
Will know the reason why
And shall Trelawny live?
And shall Trelawny die?
Here's twenty thousand Cornish men
Will know the reason why!'

Hawker of Morwenstow was, even by the standards of Victorian parson-poets, a prime fruitcake, though some of the stories about him - dressing up as a mermaid, excommunicating his cat for mousing on a Sunday - are probably mythical. He certainly dressed in a  most unclerical manner, sporting a claret-coloured coat, a fisherman's jersey and sea-boots, and a kind of poncho made from a yellow blanket, in imitation (he claimed) of the Welsh saint Padam. And he talked to the birds, entertained his nine cats in the church, and had a lively belief in the 'little people' and a Lord Emsworth-like attachment to his pet pig. He spent much time writing, brooding - and smoking opium - in a driftwood hut (now known as Hawker's Hut, and the National Trust's smallest property) overlooking the Atlantic breakers.
  But if Hawker was eccentric - and addicted to opium - it is hardly surprising. His Cornish parish was poor, weatherbeaten and extremely remote (there was no railway at all into Cornwall until 1859: Wilkie Collins's early Rambles Beyond Railways describes what it was like to travel there in the earlier 1850s). The worst of it was that Morwenstow was a notorious haunt of wreckers, happy to lure ships onto the treacherous rocks of the coastline, regardless of the cost in human lives. Hawker, humanely determined to give every drowned man a Christian burial, had to cope with the grisly consequences of these frequent wrecks, as well as witnessing the hopeless struggles of drowning men just off the rocky shore. Despite these tribulations, he produced several volumes of  antiquarian studies and verse, including the first part of an Arthurian epic, The Quest of the Sangraal, that was praised by Tennyson. He also, in 1843, instituted the Harvest Festival as we know it today - a tradition no more ancient than The Song of the Western Men.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Red Letter Day

Calendar-wise, today is the Big One for us Englishmen and women - St George's Day, and the traditionally accepted birth date of William Shakespeare (baptised April 26th) and his undoubted death date. There will always be those who, for one reason or another, look down on Shakespeare - Tolstoy and Bernard Shaw among them - or question his authorship of his works, or, reasonably enough, whether he deserves his prime position in the literary pantheon. Only the other night on Radio 3, the playwright Mark Ravenhill asked if Shakespeare's genius is beyond question. My answer would be, well, yes actually it is, if anybody's is ('Others abide our question. Thou are free,' as Matthew Arnold put it). Not only did Shakespeare give us reams of the most beautiful English poetry ever written; he also wrote at least a score of the greatest plays in any language. What's more, I would contend that all we need to know of human nature and the workings of the human mind is to be found in Shakespeare.
  This is the 450th anniversary of his presumed birth date. The last Big One, the 400th, was marked, rather reluctantly, by a special issue of postage stamps (then an infrequent event), designed by the brilliant David Gentleman. At the time they were highly controversial. Not only were these the first British stamps to feature an image of a commoner - that commoner's head was the same size as the Queen's. 'This caused a fuss that would be unimaginable now,' Gentleman wrote later, 'and there were jokes in Parliament about the proximity of the Queen's head to Shakespeare's Bottom.' How times change. But the greatness of Shakespeare does not.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

A Kingsley Amis Reread

I guess I first read Kingsley Amis's The Green Man some time in the early Seventies (it was published in 1969), and perhaps again not many years later. It struck me at the time as being in many ways the best of Amis's post-Lucky Jim novels, and I thought it was maybe time to reread it and see what I made of it now.
  I haven't read an Amis in quite some while. I gave up on him somewhere around the time of The Old Devils (but was pleased that it won him the (right author, wrong book) Booker), but I've had a niggling feeling for some while that he might be one to revisit - partly because his reputation seems to have survived in better shape in the US than it has in his home country (this is usually a good sign).
 So, The Green Man. The first thing to say is that it is an extremely well crafted novel, one that deftly weaves together a ghost story, a sexual comedy and the portrait of a crumbling marriage (and a man very close to crumbling), with a bit of social satire thrown in - and it really keeps you turning the pages. The narrator, Maurice Allington, is the hard-drinking, womanising landlord of The Green Man - an establishment we would now class as a high-end gastropub - in a village in rural Hertfordshire. He is also, of course, a surrogate Kingsley Amis, with very much the same outlook on life, not to mention the compulsive drinking and leching.
 The novel's weakness is in its characterisation, much of which is flimsy, and as a result some of the dialogue reads rather clunkily. But of course the tale is being told by someone for whom other people barely exist. For Maurice, nearly all other people divide into nuisances to be endured (most males) or sexual opportunities to be exploited (most females - and they too must be endured, for the sake of sexual conquest). The very lack of characterisation, then, is part of the characterisation of Maurice Allington, terrible man that he is - and yet somehow (perhaps because he is telling the tale) almost sympathetic, often engagingly funny, and refreshingly honest about himself.
 What is remarkable about The Green Man is its strikingly original rethinking of the ghost story genre. Amis makes it disturbingly believable by exploring the uncertain perceptual world in which Allington lives - one of drunken absences, corner-of-the-eye misperceptions, troubled states of mind and strange hypnagogic hallucinations due to heart problems (and drink). Locating the ghostly phenomena in this penumbra is often brilliantly effective. The visions, the horrors creep in at the edges, and are the more convincing for that.
 The ghost story has to come to a climax and find resolution - and, as with most ghost stories, the climax is the weakest part (suggestion is so much more effective than display). But happily there is a lot more going on in The Green Man than the ghost story, so it ends like what it has been all along - a fine novel, every bit as good as I remember it being. This probably means that I should reread more Amis, and perhaps I shall, in due course...

Sunday, 20 April 2014


After a murky and persistently rainy day came blue skies and a blaze of late sunshine - and, flying fast and purposefully over the park, my first Swallows of the year, half a dozen of them. Summer is on its way!

Easter Sunday...

and I see the headline on the cover of the Easter issue of The Spectator is 'The Return of God'. Inside is a double-page piece by Theo Hobson headed 'Atheism's empty tomb', drawing attention to a crisis of faith in the New Atheism as the movement (or some involved in it) begin to realise just how bleak and profoundly problematic the human world can look once you've subtracted God from it. The piece also notes how the New Atheism has led some prominent figures to rediscover their Christian faith - presumably not the intended effect. It's heartening stuff, though there's plenty that could be disputed.
 More interesting, I think, is the companion piece by the excellent Douglas Murray, 'Ethics for Atheists'. Murray has grasped - and presents in a startlingly vivid manner - the kind of ethical problems that confront the atheist. Like Nietzsche, like Kierkegaard, he sees clearly that arguing yourself into atheism is the easy bit; living with the consequences and implications of removing God - that's the hard part. As Kierkegaard puts it in Fear and Trembling:
'If there were no eternal consciousness in a man, if at the foundation of all there lay only a wildly seething power which writhing with obscure passions produced everything that is great and everything that is insignificant, if a bottomless void never satiated lay hidden beneath all–what then would life be but despair?'
Murray is a thinking and feeling atheist, one who is very alive to what religion actually is (rather than the aunt sally set up by the likes of Dawkins) and what it offers, and equally alive to what is lost by its rejection. Indeed one of the best defences of religion I ever heard was delivered by him in a filmed debate in which he was the representative atheist. Having read his Spectator piece, and especially its final paragraph (ending, 'If that does not work, then there is only one other place to go. Which is back to faith, whether we like it or not'), I have a feeling that he might yet return to some kind of belief. He could be just the kind of apologist thinking Christanity needs.
 Incidentally, I am genuinely puzzled by both believers and atheists insisting that the question of 'the existence of God' is the crux of the matter of belief or non-belief. It's surely a philosophical question (and philosophy can stand up neither theism nor atheism but must default to an agnostic position). And it's a question that simply would not have occurred, would not have made sense, to anyone (apart from perhaps a few heterodox believers) until historically recent times, and still makes little or no sense to most of the world's population. It's surely a mistake to see Christianity, or any religion, as a checklist of dogmas to be ticked in full if you're to be a believer. As Marilynne Robinson (and many others, including Coleridge) has pointed out, Christianity is a life, not a doctrine. And, I would add, being a Christian should not depend on the answer given to an unanswerable philosophical question.
 Anyway, that's enough of that - I now wish everyone a very happy Easter.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Good Friday...

and I make no apology for returning to this image of the Crucifixion, which hangs in San Sebastanio in Venice, where I was admiring it just six months ago.
  The grand Veronese exhibition is under way now at the National Gallery and is attracting rave reviews (as are the Matisse cut-outs at Tate Modern). Perhaps this will be the year when Veronese's artistic reputation returns to the stratospheric level where it belongs - as even the above 'minor' work I think demonstrates.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Formica, Fablon

Well, you live and learn. This morning, listening to the radio, I discovered the etymology of Formica, that ubiquitous wipe-clean, heat-resistant laminate. In as much as I'd given this any thought, I had assumed it was something to do with formic acid - but no. Originally, I learnt, the doughty laminate was used as a substitute for a mineral commonly used as electrical insulation - mica. Yes, it was substitute for mica. Formica. More like a crossword clue than etymology, isn't it?
 Any child of the Fifties will have memories - fond or otherwise - of Formica. All our parents fell victim to the Formica fashion, replacing all those old-style wooden surfaces with the smooth and characterless plastic, usually choosing strong bright post-Festival of Britain colours (my Formica memories seem to be mostly yellow). My mother seemed very pleased with the transformation, and my father was happy to go along with it. His moment was to come when the next transformative material turned up - Fablon, the original 'sticky-back plastic', which came in all manner of colours and patterns and could be used to cover just about anything: shelves, work surfaces, wood panelling, cupboard doors, tables. It also had a myriad of craft uses, as witnessed by Blue Peter week after week. Like many others, my father took to the stuff with relish, even using it to cover the broken-down spines of his old set of Arthur Conan Doyle. Not a pleasing effect, but it did the job. Isn't one of Doyle's historical novels called Micah Clarke...?

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Back to the News

When I was in Canada (I know - I'm beginning to sound like Commander Campbell on the Brains Trust: 'When I was in Patagonia...'), I was in the happy position of being more or less cut off from the world news. The Canadian papers I glanced at were full, as they always seem to be, of the latest cases of corruption and scandal in high places (plus news of the separatists' well deserved trouncing in the Quebec elections), and odd snippets of news still reached me, including the death of Mickey Rooney, whose 90-year showbiz career was tragically cut short last week. But otherwise I was pleasantly isolated from the crazy world of news.
 Now, of course, I am back in it - and what's, er, new? Terrorists everywhere apparently - Ukrainians tackling Russian 'terrorists', Russians tackling Ukrainian 'terrorists', and a top anti-terrorist honcho called in to investigate the alleged Islamisation of schools in Birmingham - an appointment that has caused a great hoo-ha since, as we all know, there is no connection at all between Islamist extremism and terrorism (why, the very thought...). The Cyril Smith child (or rather boy) abuse scandal - which I remember reading all about decades ago in Private Eye - is now all over the media. A London barber  has received a visit from North Korean officials demanding that he take down a picture of their dear leader Kim Jong-Un captioned 'Bad Hair Day?' And a UN 'special rapporteur', one Rashida Manjoo, has declared the UK the most sexist country in the world. So how did you enjoy your stay in Saudi Arabia, Ms Manjoo? Crazy world indeed...


I'm on the Dabbler with a touching tale of deer and plagiarism.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Cardinals and other firsts

So I return from my too short week away to find myself thoroughly workwhelmed. To lift my spirits - and, I hope, yours - I post a picture of the spectacular Cardinal Bird. I saw my first-ever Cardinals last week - both the male and the more subtly beautiful female - along with a range of other firsts for me: Juncos, Mourning Doves, Chipping Sparrows, Red-Winged Blackbirds, White-Breasted Nuthatches, Brown-Headed Cowbirds, Red-Tailed Hawks, Grackles, and American Goldfinches galore - delightful birds, and every bit as addicted to niger seeds as their more colourful British cousins. Already it seems too long ago...

Monday, 14 April 2014

Back to Green

I'd heard about the ice storm that struck eastern parts of Canada and the US last December, but hadn't realised just how devastating it had been until I arrived in Ontario. Where we were staying - in a well-wooded part of the Niagara Escarpment, in a small town, not far from Milton (which of us is?) - the aftermath (almost literal: after the mowing) was shockingly apparent. The woods looked as if they had suffered an artillery bombardment, with shattered, decapitated and fallen trees and broken branches hanging on at crazy angles or scattered on the ground amid masses of woody detritus. All this devastation was wrought by the weight of the ice that formed on these weather-blasted trees - and it had been impossible to clear up until halfway through the week I arrived, because the ground was still frozen. (I'll resist, not without difficulty, any sardonic mentions of 'global warming' at this point.)
 In the course of my short stay, the thaw set in, the ice melting on the lakes and ponds and the snow retreating to reveal a withered terrain of pale buffs and greys with scarcely a green shoot in sight, and the trees still without a leaf. By contrast England never looked more intensely green and abundantly flowery than when I returned yesterday to a glorious April morning, with the Queen Anne's lace in flower, along with apple blossom and early lilac and wisteria, and the horse chestnut trees already candled and in full leaf. What's more, I saw my first Holly Blues of the year, and a single Orange Tip. Some consolation for the sharp pain of parting from loved ones after a wonderful, but too brief, week.

Friday, 4 April 2014


Tomorrow morning I'm off to Canada (Ontario) for a week to commune with Frankly Adorable Sam and his parents. Normal service will resume after I return. Play nicely while I'm away...


It's time for a painting - and this is one of many versions of the same subject, The Peaceable Kingdom, painted by the Quaker minister, failed farmer and fairly successful decorative painter Edward Hicks, who as it happens was born on this day in 1780, in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. The image, inspired by passages in Isaiah, takes me back (not necessarily in a good way), because in my student days I used to have a large colour print of it pinned to the wall of my room. I'm not quite sure why I bought it, but I guess it does exude a sense of calm, peace and wellbeing that was not always conspicuously present in my life at the time. As a painting, it's a pretty crude piece of work - you can tell Hicks made his living from painting tavern signs and carriages - but it has a deal of sweetness, warmth and charm. My print was with me for some while, until it became so tatty and torn it had to be thrown away.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

A couple of things

Well, here's a thing. I actually agree with these MPs about the BBC's coverage of 'climate change' - the Corporation should indeed distinguish more carefully between opinions and scientific fact - but I reach, you will not be surprised to learn, the opposite conclusion: that the BBC's failure to do so has resulted in a relentlessly pro-warmist agenda. This is the same BBC that decided its 'line' on such matters as the result of a high-level closed meeting at which they were assured the 'the science is settled' - by a group consisting overwhelmingly of lobbyists and activists, with barely a scientist, let alone a climate scientist, in sight. They were curiously reluctant to reveal this at the time...
  Enough of that. I recently remarked on the sheer weirdness of our political elite. I was reminded of it again watching clips of the great Nigel Farage-Nick Clegg ding-dong. Clegg, once described by David Cameron (before the enforced love-in) as his 'favourite political joke', retains his mysterious inability to find a suit that appears to fit him. He lives on planet Euro, which is - well, just weird. As for Farage, you might hope that a man who has so far lived outside the political mainstream might be less weird than the rest - but if anything he's even weirder. He has the face of an amphibian and gapes and blinks like one, he stands at all times in the posture of a man in a saloon bar, pint in hand, holding forth. At least he's recognisably human - but the kind of human you'd instinctively edge away from if you came across him, say in the saloon bar. And he wears blazers. Enough said.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Bad Air

Well, this air pollution is a rum do. I knew something was up when I noticed how many cars in London were coated in a thin layer of sand, blown in from the Sahara - but there's also, we are assured, a sky-high level of various industrial pollutants in the air over most of southern England. Indeed the highest levels have been reached in, of all places, North Norfolk, where the whelk and the Appleyard play. When the air pollution story topped the news this morning, with official advice to those with chest or heart problems not to overdo it, I didn't take much notice - until I set out for work and discovered that the air is indeed in a bad way. It seemed to take that much more effort to breathe it in, and I arrived at NigeCorp with stinging eyes and sore throat, feeling very far from chipper. It's not like the London smogs of yesteryear, but it's still pretty unpleasant. No doubt it's all down to climate change.
 Talking of which, the Met Office has added yet more computing power to its whizzy supercomputers and is promising that its long-term forecasts will eventually achieve 80 per cent accuracy, a massive improvement on the usual lamentable performance. That's right, the Met is forecasting that this will happen, in the long term... Meanwhile, businesses that need to know are ignoring the Met Office and relying on commercial forecasters, who might not have the Met's mighty computer power but somehow tend to get it right.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Sid Field: You had to be there...

All Fools' Day, but you'll find no silly pranks here. Instead let us turn out attention to a now all but forgotten giant of British comedy - Sid Field. Born on this day ('It's a girl! Ha ha, April fool!') in 1904, Sid was a compulsive entertainer from his earliest years, and got his first break standing in for Wee Georgie Wood. To steady his nerves, his mother gave him a glass of port before he went on - which was not very wise: young Sid was alcohol-dependent by the time he was 13, and remained so for the rest of his high-functioning alcoholic life.
 After serving his time in the music halls, perfecting an unusually wide range of characters, routines and impressions, Field hit the big time with a series of West End revues in the Forties that apparently had audiences literally falling off their seats. He had fans in high places, including Cary Grant, Chaplin, Eisenhower, Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Olivier - and Bob Hope, who described him as 'probably the best comedian of them all'. And virtually all the stars of the British comedy firmament hailed him as an innovative genius and a huge influence. All of which is quite mystifying, as surviving footage of Field in action (check out YouTube) is sorry stuff. He seems to have been a classic case of a 'you had to be there' comedian.
 Perhaps if he'd lived another decade or so and tailored his act to the rising medium of television, something more convincing might have survived him. But he died early, at the age of just 45. At a matinee benefit for his wife and children, a cast of some 240 performed in tribute to him - Danny Kaye, Laurence Olivier, Orson Welles, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Judy Garland, Elizabeth Taylor, Vivien Leigh, Peter Ustinov, Richard Attenborough, and a veritable Who's Who of British comedy, stage and variety. That's fame. How soon it can fade...  

Dabbler alert

Over on The Dabbler you'll find my review of some Peter Taylor short stories.