Tuesday, 31 January 2017

And Monuments

That's all very well, but what about monuments? Have you no church monuments to report on?
 Very well, then... Here is the unicorn (sans horn) that lies at the feet of Elizabeth, Lady Williams, whose grand tomb chest stands in St Mary's church, Thame.

And here, equally beautifully carved, is the unicorn's canine companion, a greyhound, who lies at the feet of Lord Williams. The effigies are of alabaster...

And, talking of alabaster, here we are in Derbyshire, in the church of All Saints, Ashover, at the tomb of Thomas Babington and his wife, Edith, erected around 1511 when Edith died. The figures, which have been knocked about a bit, are of alabster, and still retain their original colouring, albeit much refreshed over the centuries. The Babingtons' plain dress belies the grandeur of their tomb.

Thomas's feet rest on what is presumably intended to be a lion.

But the main interest of this monument is in the exquisitely carved, characterful and remarkably lively figures that line the sides of the tomb chest. Pevsner describes them as 'small figures of saints, angels and "mourners"' (and, surely, at least some of the Babingtons' fifteen children). Some are single figures, others are grouped in twos

and in far from mournful threes, all under pretty ogival arches.

Thomas Babington's great-grandson was executed for his part in the 'Babington plot' of 1586. His wife, Edith, was the daughter of one of those Fitzherberts whose magnificent tombs stand in the church of SS Mary and Barlok in Norbury - about which I have written elsewhere.

Monday, 30 January 2017

Ancient and Modern

No, I didn't take a diversion to Finland - this is England. It's the extraordinary interior of the new chapel of Ripon College, the C of E's high-toned training establishment at Cuddesdon in Oxfordshire. The old buildings (in French Gothic style by G.E. Street) are very fine, and the new chapel, which stands alone in the grounds, keeps up the standard, while working in an entirely different idiom. It's built to an ingenious design that allows light to flood in from every angle, offers a range of different spaces for different purposes, and opens views out across the grounds and into the tree tops. Those beautiful soaring arches, which rise to a keel-shaped roof, are made of nothing more exalted than Glulam, laminated glued timber - a lesson in what can be achieved with workaday materials, plus thought and imagination.

And here (below) is St Mary, Nottingham, caught in the light of the setting sun. In the tree at the far right, a very chatty and numerous charm of goldfinches were gradually settling down to roost, but not before many little alarums and excursions. St Mary's is a large and glorious medieval church, in the Perpendicular style (a style that really deserves a better, less geometric name), which is also testimony to how good those Victorian restorers could be when they put their minds to it - and how fine their stained glass could be: there's lots of it in St Mary's, and most of it is of superb quality. The modern age has contributed one very welcome innovation - a heated wooden floor, making this surely one of the warmest large churches in the land.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Aubade and Matin

I'm off on my (English) travels again for a few days, but I'll leave you with a couple more poems from the TLS anthology - one very well known, the other far less so.
 Philip Larkin's Aubade is perhaps the most famous poem to have made its debut in the TLS. The last long poem he published, it is quintessential late Larkin, uncompromisingly bleak, aghast at the prospect of oblivion. But, as ever with Larkin, the beauty of the poem's shaping creates subtle and nuanced counter-melodies...

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.   
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.   
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.   
Till then I see what’s really always there:   
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,   
Making all thought impossible but how   
And where and when I shall myself die.   
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse   
—The good not done, the love not given, time   
Torn off unused—nor wretchedly because   
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;   
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,   
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being 
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,   
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,   
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,   
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill   
That slows each impulse down to indecision.   
Most things may never happen: this one will,   
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without   
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave   
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.   
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,   
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,   
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring   
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

Thirteen years after Aubade, in 1990, Larkin's friend Kingsley Amis published Matin, his own take on the early-morning experience of groping one's way back to the waking world.  When Larkin and Amis were young, it seemed clear that the former was going to The Novelist and the latter The Poet. As we know, it turned out quite otherwise, but Amis continued to write poems, even after he apparently signed off on his poetic career with his Collected Poems in 1979. Matin is a slighter work than Aubade. Amis awakes more relieved to be free of his troubled dreamworld than terrified of what faces him; his timor mortis is no more than a 'small thought'. If nothing else, this poem makes a fascinating pendant to Aubade.

(Or: Homage to Mogadona)

Awake at last, groaning with relief,
In dull daylight, I struggle to remember,
Then promptly to forget, that clouded scene
(Urban always) full of unknown people
Busy at something, talking, hurrying,
Perhaps searching or playing. Not that they
Ignore me, no, they are most interested;
They move closer with rapid hands and eyes
And what must be machines, tall ones, small ones
That dart about like animals, and animals
Like no animals anywhere. And I
Have to get out, or get home, find my book,
Or find my wife. What is this place?
Three jockeys - are they jockeys? - strut forward,
Walls lurch and crinkle, a dark sky shows through;
A headless bulk bobs at me, stirring up
Only sluggish bewilderment, not fear,
Not so much fear.
                              Awake at last, I huddle,
Swill water, grope for glasses, slippers; now
Mocktown must fade, but not the small thought
Of being suddenly back
Among the frozen tramcars and thick poppies
With no daylight at the end.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

From the Fifties

To return to the Fifties (ah, there's a prospect), it's certainly the best decade in the TLS 100 anthology - things go downhill with the Sixties and never really recover. As well as the poetic luminaries mentioned in my earlier post, others represented include Muriel Spark, with this -


We found it on a bunch of grapes and put it
In cotton wool, in a matchbox partly open,
In a room in London in wintertime, and in
A safe place, and then forgot it. 

Early in the cold spring we said "See this!
Where on earth did the butterfly come from?"
It looked so unnatural whisking about the curtain:
Then we remembered the chrysalis. 

There was the broken shell with what was once
The head askew; and what was once the worm
Was away out of the window, out of the warm,
Out of the scene of the small violence. 

Not strange, that the pretty creature formalised
The virtue of its dark unconscious wait
For pincers of light to come and pick it out.
But it was a bad business, our being surprised. 

A shame she isn't more descriptive of the butterfly (or moth, as it might have been), but that last stanza is very good.
And there's a well-made, bittersweet piece by John Betjeman, aching with nostalgia -


How did the Devil come? When first attack? 
  These Norfolk lanes recall lost innocence, 
The years fall off and find me walking back 
  Dragging a stick along the wooden fence 
Down this same path, where, forty years ago, 
My father strolled behind me, calm and slow. 

I used to fill my hands with sorrel seeds 
  And shower him with them from the tops of stiles, 
I used to butt my head into his tweeds 
  To make him hurry down those languorous miles 
Of ash and alder-shaded lanes, till here 
Our moorings and the masthead would appear. 

There after supper lit by lantern light 
  Warm in the cabin I could lie secure 
And hear against the polished sides at night 
  The lap lap lapping of the weedy Bure, 
A whispering and watery Norfolk sound 
Telling of all the moonlit reeds around. 

How did the Devil come? When first attack? 
  The church is just the same, though now I know 
Fowler of Louth restored it. Time, bring back 
  The rapturous ignorance of long ago, 
The peace, before the dreadful daylight starts, 
Of unkept promises and broken hearts.

And in 1958 the TLS published a poem by R.S. Thomas that was to become one of his best known. It's a sonnet of sorts, in four-stress lines with much enjambment, no rhyme scheme and no turn. A meditation on time and death, on Christian ministry, on God of course - present or absent - it evokes a world already gone in Thomas's time. The tone is certainly not nostalgic, but this is Thomas in tender mode - and somewhere near his best.

The Country Clergy

I see them working in old rectories
By the sun's light, by candlelight,
Venerable men, their black cloth
A little dusty, a little green
With holy mildew. And yet their skulls,
Ripening over so many prayers,
Toppled into the same grave
With oafs and yokels. They left no books,
Memorial to their lonely thought
In grey parishes; rather they wrote
On men's hearts and in the minds
Of young children sublime words
Too soon forgotten. God in his time
Or out of time will correct this.

Monday, 23 January 2017

Birthday Flowers

It's become something of an annual tradition on this blog to celebrate the birthday (in 1832) of the great, unclassifiable French painter Edouard Manet (often gracing the occasion with an excruciating pun - but we've had too manet of those, so please, no more).
 This year's picture, Pinks and Clematis in a Crystal Vase, is one of many beautiful flower paintings Manet executed in his long final illness. It was painted in 1882 and now hangs in the Musée d'Orsay. As with most of these late studies, the arrangement of the flowers seems artless and casual, as if Manet is happy to paint whatever comes his way, to absorb it with his hungry gaze and recreate it in paint. These are flowers put in a vase with little thought - you can even see the twine still on the bunch that forms part of this display - but glorified by Manet's art, by the rapt attention he directs on them and on the crystal vase in which they stand. These paintings are almost as much studies of light on glass and water as they are of flowers. They radiate light; casual though they seem, they are a kind of apotheosis of flower painting.
 A few years ago the Royal Academy staged a fine exhibition of Manet's portraits. I do wish they'd devote one to his flower paintings - it would be a surefire hit and, more importantly, a wonderful aesthetic experience.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Wallace Stevens under the Sail of Ulysses

The TLS 100 anthology is, among other things, a reminder of how many distinguished poets were still active in the Fifties. Those represented include W.H. Auden, Marianne Moore, Walter de la Mare, Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Dylan Thomas, John Berryman, Robert Frost - and Wallace Stevens. In 1954 the TLS published this magisterial piece:

Presence of an External Master of Knowledge

Under the shape of his sail, Ulysses,
Symbol of the seeker, crossing by night
The giant sea, read his own mind.
He said, "As I know, I am and have
The right to be." He guided his boat
Beneath the middle stars and said:

"Here I feel the human loneliness
And that, in space and solitude,
Which knowledge is: the world and fate,
The right within me and about me,
Joined in a triumphant vigor,
Like a direction on which I depend . . .

A longer, deeper breath sustains
This eloquence of right, since knowing
And being are one ­- the right to know
Is equal to the right to be.
The great Omnium descends on me,
Like an absolute out of this eloquence."

The sharp sail of Ulysses seemed,
In the breathings of that soliloquy,
Alive with an enigma's flittering,
And bodying, and being there,
As he moved, straightly, on and on
Through clumped stars dangling all the way.

These 24 lines were salvaged from an unhappy commission - to write and recite a poem for the Phi Beta Kappa exercises on the occasion of Columbia's 200th Commencement. Dissatisfied with that work, Stevens took what he deemed worthwhile in it and reworked it into Presence of an External Master of Knowledge. Writing it, Stevens must surely have had in mind Tennyson's Ulysses - always worth rereading - whose ageing hero resolves to 'follow knowledge like a sinking star, Beyond the utmost bound of human thought'. Stevens's own explorations beyond those bounds were soon to culminate in his last, or last but one, poem, Of Mere Being -

The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze decor,

A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.

You know then that it is not the reason 
That makes us happy or unhappy. 
The bird sings. Its feathers shine.

The palm stands on the edge of space. 
The wind moves slowly in the branches. 
The bird's fire-fangled feathers dangle down.

Then he revisited an earlier poem, First Warmth, to craft his farewell, As You Leave the Room -

You speak. You say: Today's character is not
A skeleton out of its cabinet. Nor am I.
That poem about the pineapple, the one
About the mind as never satisfied,
The one about the credible hero, the one
About summer, are not what skeletons think about.
I wonder, have I lived a skeleton's life,
As a disbeliever in reality,
A countryman of all the bones in the world?
Now, here, the snow I had forgotten becomes
Part of a major reality, part of
An appreciation of a reality
And thus an elevation, as if I left
With something I could touch, touch every way.
And yet nothing has been changed except what is
Unreal, as if nothing had been changed at all.

Wallace Stevens died in 1955, a year after his TLS appearance.

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Say What?

At the top of the BBC's 10 o'Clock News coverage of the Inauguration, their man in Washington, the lugubrious Jon Sopel, pronounced it 'a scenario few thought scarcely possible'.
 Presumably he meant 'a scenario most thought scarcely possible' or 'a scenario few thought possible'. Seems the BBC is still so dazed and confused by the way the world is going at the moment that it's having trouble making sense - or the sense intended anyway.
 There were reports too that part of the live coverage was subtitled with captions from the children's drama series The Dumping Ground (with curious results).
 Ah well, this was never going to be the BBC's finest hour, and it is not to the BBC that sensible people turn at times like these. Me, I can't help it - I'm strangely addicted to the dreadful News at Ten, come what may.

Friday, 20 January 2017

A Century of Poems

My latest charity shop find was a slim little paperback titled A Century of Poems, published by the TLS in 2002 to celebrate its centenary. It is, as you might have guessed, an anthology of poems published in the TLS in the course of its first century of existence, but it's not in the form of 'a poem a year' - partly because the TLS published no poems between 1917 and 1936, and partly because some of the early poetical contributions were too dire to merit reprinting. Things picked up with the Second World War (both Keith Douglas and Alun Lewis are represented, also Alan Pryce-Jones), which was followed by phases in which the TLS became fixated on translated verse and on American poetry, before settling down in the Seventies to publishing something more or less like the best stuff being written in the British Isles (Geoffrey Hill's The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy was published in its entirety in the TLS, and is represented here by an excerpt).
 Some of the poems in the anthology were published posthumously in the TLS - including this fine piece by Ivor Gurney, written around 1926 and resurrected by Geoffrey Grigson in 1978):

 Going Out at Dawn
Strange to see that usual dark road paving wet
With shallow dim reflecting rain pools, looking
To north, where light all night stayed and dawn braving yet
Capella hung, above dark elms unshaking, no silence breaking,
And still to dawn night’s ugliness owed no debt.
About eleven from the touch of the drear raining,
I had gone in to Shakespeare and my own writing,
Seen the lovely lamplight in golden shining,
And resolved to move no more till dawn made whitening
Between the shutter-chinks, or by the door mat.
Yet here at five, an hour before day was alive . . .
Behold me walking to where great elm trees drip
Melancholy slow streams of rain water, on the too wet
Traveller, to pass them, watching and then return,
Writing Sonata or Quartett with a candle dip.

  I shall be returning to this anthology - there's some wonderful stuff in it.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Retroprogressive News

I must admit I was delighted to discover that there are now freight trains running from China all the way to Barking. Perhaps I'm being naive - this is, after all, part of Xi Jinping's plans for a new Silk Road and his 'One Belt, One Road' policy (whatever that means - just one of each? No braces? No sideroads?) - but I love the idea of long freight trains trundling across China, though Kazakhstan and Russia, Belarus and Poland, into Germany and France and then on through the Channel tunnel to England (and, by way of Duisburg, into Spain and Italy). We retroprogressives must rejoice that this is - despite the best efforts of Southern Rail, ASLEF and the RMT - the age of the train (as the late Jimmy Savile used to assure us back in the Seventies, thereby delaying its coming by several decades).
 While I was on the BBC News website, I was of course unable to resist the sidebar item teasingly  titled 'Remember These? Where have all the courgettes gone?' This turns out to be a fine example of BBC News house style, a story stretched thinner than filo pastry over paragraph after paragraph. (Nutshell version: Cold wet weather in Spain and Italy.) I particularly like the sentence 'He is awaiting delivery of a lorry load of courgettes which should have arrived on Wednesday but will not be in the UK until Friday.' Well, thank heavens I have a courgette in the fridge. Perhaps I'll put it up on eBay and see what happens...

Cézanne: 'a new link'

Here's something warming for a chilly winter morning - pine trees and rooftops in Mediterranean light, as only Cézanne could paint them.
 The artist was born on this day in 1839. His work is a shining example of how a genuinely new art is achieved not by breaking with all that has gone before but by absorbing it and building on it, enriching not terminating the tradition. 'One does not substitute oneself for the past,' he wrote, 'one merely adds to it a new link.' Wise words, as were his advice to his fellow artists: 'Keep good company - that is, go to the Louvre.'
 By extension, this becomes the best advice to those who would be writers: 'Keep good company - read the classics.'

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Harriet: A Cold Hand

When I tried the page 117 trick the other day to see what 2017 held for me, the book that came to hand was Harriet, the latest novel by Elizabeth Jenkins (see here and here) that I've tracked down.
 Like Dr Gully, Harriet is a fictional treatment of a Victorian murder case. Unlike Dr Gully, it is one of the most harrowing books I have ever read. The case it is based on - dubbed the 'Penge mystery' - caused a sensation at the time, involving as it did the apparent starving to death of a young woman by members of her family eager to get their hands on her inheritance. The worst of it was that the young woman, the Harriet of the title, was a 'natural' (or, as we would say today, had 'learning difficulties'). Her mother had raised her with care and affection, encouraging her to dress well and present a good front to the world (that's her in the photograph, posing for her engagement portrait), and she spent a good deal of time staying with various family members, who were glad enough of the money they were paid to look after her. All was well until a handsome and utterly ruthless fortune hunter with connections to the family found out about her inheritance, wooed and married her, in the teeth of fierce opposition from Harriet's mother, who could do nothing to stop him...
 The facts of the real-life 'Penge mystery' are not entirely clear-cut (as evidenced by a successful appeal against the initial death sentences on all the defendants), but Elizabeth Jenkins sees in the case a stark and terrible lesson about the depths of evil to which outwardly normal, quite decent people are capable of sinking. She drives the lesson home by establishing the comfortable milieu in which Harriet, when we first see her, is settled, and by depicting the characters around her as normally, humanly, fallible, with normal human weaknesses, no more. There is a hint of danger in one of them - Patrick, an aspiring painter, self-centred and short-fused - and, more obviously, in Lewis, the brother who hero-worships him. Lewis it is who single-mindedly sets his sights on marrying Harriet and getting his hands on her money. Once he has done so, that comfortable milieu dissolves away and Harriet is gradually drawn into a wholly alien world of deprivation, degradation and suffering.
 The events that unfold are, as they draw near their terrible denouement, almost too painful to read. The pain is less in the details of Harriet's ordeal, hideous though they are, than in the depiction of the steady growth, in those supposed to be looking after her, of an ability to regard her as something less than human, something whose suffering and fate are a matter of indifference. The novel was published in 1934, and reading it I couldn't help but think of how a similar process was about to unfold across Europe ('and the seas of pity lie, Locked and frozen in each eye'), as quite ordinary people found it easy enough to believe that certain of their fellow humans were untermenschen who could be mistreated and killed without compunction. I also found myself thinking of more recent events, particularly of the horrific cases of child neglect, starvation and cruelty that are continually coming to light...
 In Harriet, Jenkins's vision of humanity is bleak indeed - which wouldn't be so unbearable if she wasn't such a damned good writer, with the gift of drawing you into an entirely convincing world. A review in The Observer described this novel as 'like a cold hand clutching at the heart' - and that, for once, is no overstatement.

Monday, 16 January 2017

Pooky Alert

A piece I wrote about the extraordinary Linley Sambourne House (now officially 18 Stafford Terrace) has come up on Pooky, the splendid interiors and lighting website.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Found - and Lost

A while back, I passed on a comment from an alert reader who pointed out that, despite the evident Dutch love of flowers and flower painting, the painted interiors of the Golden Age are strangely lacking in flowers, with not so much as a bowl of tulips or a few blooms from the garden in evidence in any of the paintings any of us could think of. We kicked around a few theories about their absence, but no one came up with an exception to the rule.
 Well, yesterday I was in the marvellous Dulwich Picture Gallery and I found one - a Golden Age Dutch interior painting featuring a bowl of flowers. It was Gerrit Dou's Woman Playing the Clavichord, a lovely piece of work in which colours, textures and the fall of light are all perfectly harmonised - and there, on the windowsill, at the far left of the picture space, is a vase of flowers. It's a glass vase full of quite humble-looking white, blue, red and yellow flowers, catching the clear strong light of the world outside. Is it on the windowsill for artistic effect, or was this standard practice, at least on fine days? Who knows? The fact remains that Dutch interior paintings rarely show flowers on display - but I was glad to find this beautiful exception.
 After the Picture Gallery, I walked to the library where, in an earlier life, I spent the best part of fifteen years working in the reference department. I hadn't revisited the place in at least ten years, and was pleased to find that the library was still in business and apparently doing a brisk trade. The lending library was impressively full of books - something you can't count on these days - sensibly classified and well displayed, with thematic selections, recommendations, etc. The only staff to be seen were two dejected men and a 'Saturday girl', whereas in my day there would have been eight or ten dejected persons of both sexes - but that was before barcodes and scanners took over. Otherwise, this was still recognisably the same library I had known a quarter of a century ago.
 Upstairs, however, in what had been the Reference Library and was now a Study Area, all was changed, change utterly. What had been quite a complicated layout was now but one large open space, lined with books and filled with tables at which students toiled away, with no sign of the kind of people who used to haunt the old reference library, reading the papers, scanning encyclopaedias, muttering to themselves, snoozing, keeping warm... I could no longer work out the interior geography, not even where the desk had been at which I spent so many hours working (mostly, I must admit, on my various extracurricular projects). No need for an office desk now, in this unstaffed space.
 Somewhat disoriented and unable to work out quite what had been done to the old place, I made my way downstairs, and out into the chilly dusk.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Dabbler alert

A book review I wrote for The Dabbler is up today...

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Your 2017

Want to know what 2017 has in store for you? The smart way, I hear, is to reach for the book nearest to you, open it on page 117, and read the second sentence. That is your 2017.
 Naturally I had to try this latest form of bibliomancy, and here's what I found:

'Behind the stretch of wood, and about half a mile distant from Patrick's house, was a small property consisting of a comfortable little eighteenth-century dwelling house, to which had later been added a small byre and dairy, the cows of which pastured on what had once been the pleasure grounds of the house.'

Well, that sounds most agreeable - a nice little 18th-century house with dairy attached (and, as it turns out, a resident dairyman to do the work). The year is shaping up well.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

The Somerset Maugham Incident

Yesterday, in one of my local charity shops, as I drew near the book shelves, I heard a conversation going on between a man and a woman of a certain age (i.e. around my age, maybe a bit older). The word 'Landor' (as in Walter Savage) came into it - a name not often heard in these parts - so my ears pricked up. As the overheard conversation developed, I realised that the woman was on the phone to someone, perhaps her son, and was conveying the message from the man that he'd found a Somerset Maugham first edition, if he (the one at the other end of the phone) was interested. He wants to know what it's called, the woman reported back. As she couldn't catch the title, he held the spine of the book towards her. Ah, wait a minute, she said down the phone, it's A, H... A.H. King, it's a book about Somerset Maugham by A.H. King. No, the man with the book gently corrected her, it's a volume called Ah King. He turned to me at this point, having noted my interest. No, I've never heard of it either, I said...
 They bought it anyway - it was probably a bargain - and I bought a selection from Mayhew, edited by Peter Quennell, to replace my rather ugly edition from the Sixties. But that strange name - Ah King - stuck in my mind, so I duly checked it out. It's a collection of short stories about colonial life, and it really does sound rather good, especially the story called The Book Bag, which is rated by Maugham fans as one of his best. I'm beginning to wish I'd found it first, but at least it's reminded me of Maugham, a writer I've barely read anything of (and that a long time ago) - I think I'll seek out a selection of his short stories...

Monday, 9 January 2017

Drif Footnote

If you want to find out more about the enigmatic Drif and his infamous Guide, there's a fascinating piece here...

His Girl Friday

The other evening I watched the classic 'screwball' comedy His Girl Friday again. I've seen this adaptation of Hecht and MacArthur's The Front Page (with that one inspired change - a female Hildy) maybe half a dozen times over the years, and it still comes up fresh and funny with every viewing. The dialogue in particular is so rich, dense and phenomenally fast-moving that it just goes on giving - there's always going to be some little gem you missed the last time.
 Whenever Cary Grant (playing editor Walter Burns) and Rosalind Russell (playing Hildy Johnson, ace reporter and Walter's ex-wife) are together, the dialogue fizzes and crackles, careering along at breakneck speed, lines constantly overlapping or being left unfinished. Grant was often ad-libbing, while Russell would throw in lines she'd had written for her to liven things up, so both actors were on their toes throughout, and the exhilaration of working like this (encouraged by Hawks) brought out the best in them.
 It was in The Front Page that the comic persona Grant developed in The Awful Truth achieved perfection - and he had the perfect on-screen partner in Rosalind Russell. She, however, was far from first choice for the part (more like sixth or seventh), and director Howard Hawks initially seemed none too keen to have her. It surely can't have taken him long to realise that he had struck gold - Grant and Russell were a partnership made in movie heaven, and she was a revelation. Not only did the two of them give all-time great performances, they did it with effortless aplomb and masses of style, the latter enhanced by their quite fabulous costumes - Hildy's raffish hat, Walter's impeccable suits (Grant is one of those rare men who can wear a double-breasted suit with absolute conviction).
 In one of its most spectacular displays of obtuseness, the Academy entirely ignored His Girl Friday when Oscars time came round - not so much as a nomination, for Grant, for Russell, for Hawks, for anyone. Indeed Cary Grant, the finest comic actor of his generation, had only two Oscar nods in his entire career - neither of them for a comic role - and had to wait until 1970 for a belated honorary award, his only Oscar. He accepted it, of course, with good grace.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

The Basil Fawlty of Booksellers - and the Enigmatic Driff

It's good to know that there are still curmudgeonly booksellers around - you might have thought the second-hand book business was too precarious for shopowners to indulge the profound misanthropy that tends to go with the job. This chap in the Yorkshire town of Hawes -  the 'Basil Fawlty of booksellers' - has been in the papers this week, and good luck to him, I say: partly because anyone obliged to deal with the 'general public' on a daily basis has my sympathy, but also because one of the pleasures of second-hand book buying (or browsing) is that, when you open the door of an unfamiliar bookshop, you never know what you're going to find - and that applies as much to the bookseller as the stock. It's perhaps the last wholly unpredictable retail experience left to us in an increasingly standardised world. There are even some perfectly amiable, socially functioning booksellers (e.g. the owner of The Bookshop in Wirksworth) - they are not all 'men of a certain age who had been disappointed in life. Books were their only solace - friends who never let you down.'
 That sweeping characterisation was written by the book trade legend known as Driff Field, or Drif, or Driffield, or Dryfield, or even Dryfeld. An enigmatic figure, he achieved notoriety (and something dangerously like success) in the Eighties with his self-published guide to All the Secondhand and Antiquarian Bookshops in Britain, a uniquely exhaustive, frank and often scathing assessment of each and very shop, often including a little pen portrait of the owner: 'Owner has been unwell recently with bad back (possibly caused by turning it on the customers once too often).' The guide was actually a very useful tool in those pre-internet days, when hunting down books was a hard slog, and the entries pack a lot of information into few words: 'V. erratic but will answer if you ring bell. Med sz low key Nat Hist bk shp. Farts. Rumoured to be closing down.'
 A book trade 'runner' with an uncanny eye for rarities, Driff was a tall, dark man who fancied he looked like Raymond Carver - indeed he used a picture of Carver as his author photo. He had a habit of walking into a shop, looming over the unfortunate owner sitting at his desk, letting a tense silence build, then asking, 'Do you have any books on death?'
 Driff appears as a character in Iain Sinclair's White Chapell, Scarlet Tracings, and pops up in several of Sinclair's later works. He also made an appearance in The Cardinal and the Corpse, an 'occult documentary' made for Channel 4 by Chris Petit that seems to have sunk without trace. Driff, playing himself, was determined to prove that a pulp novel called The Cardinal and the Corpse was written pseudonymously by Flann O'Brien (or rather Brian O'Nolan).
 Enigmatic to the end, Driff disappeared some years ago, and no one knows even whether he is alive or dead.

Friday, 6 January 2017

'I could feel the charger about my person...'

A chap can't have too many pockets, I say - at least in his jacket. I'm always pleasantly surprised when I find a jacket that can comfortably accommodate my essentials in appropriately shaped and placed pockets  - my essentials being bank cards and such, codgercards (Freedom Pass, senior rail card etc), Victorinox Swiss Card classic (incorporating scissors, pen knife, nail file/screwdriver, tweezers, toothpick, emergency pen and 3" ruler), diary, notebook, smartphone and dumbphone, pen and reading glasses. That's a lot to carry, so clearly I need plenty of pocket space. However, having read this amusing piece on the BBC News website, I appreciate that it is indeed possible to have Too Many Pockets.
  Reporting from Las Vegas, Zoe Kleinman presents... the 42-pocket jacket! Actually it's not a jacket - it's that terrible thing, a gilet - and that's where the problems start. 'If style isn't necessarily your number one priority,' says a spokesman, setting more alarm bells ringing, 'you could fit everything you ever need in there.' But - and here's another rub - 'the firm does not recommend using all 42 pockets at once'. To judge by Kleinman's account of trying to do just that, the warning is well placed. Having nearly been pulled over backwards by the weight of her laptop in a back (literally) pocket, she managed to adapt and lumber about heavily for a while, but when it came to getting everything out of those pockets, it was far from plain sailing: 'I could feel the charger about my person but it took me a while to locate the pocket it was in.' Happily, each garment contains a little map to help you to find your way round the pockets.
 That, clearly, is a case of too many pockets - far too many. However, the rival product mentioned, with a mere 25 pockets, looks more promising - and it's actually a jacket, not a gilet...
 'I can't believe I've come to Las Vegas to write about pockets,' Kleinman concludes. Well, all I can say is I'm glad someone is.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Paper Dennett

Christmas may be over, but here's a gift that goes on giving - your very own paper Daniel Dennett! Imagine having this little chap on your desk, with his jutting beard and paunch, silently reproaching you 24/7 for your lazy thinking, your illusory beliefs, your lamentable all-round failure to be Daniel Dennett. What do you mean, pass me those scissors?

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

How to Accept an Oscar

Today is the 110th birthday of the film star Ray Milland, born in Neath (as Alfred Reginald Jones) on this day in 1907. Before he was persuaded to try the acting business, the improbably handsome Milland had served in the Household Cavalry, becoming a proficient rider and pilot and an expert marksman - all useful Hollywood skills. Working his way up through the studio system, he had his big - huge - break with Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend in 1945, playing an alcoholic writer. Milland was initially reluctant to take the part, fearing he wasn't up to 'serious acting', and initially he tried playing it while drunk, which was a disaster (you have to be sober to play a really good drunk - unless you're W.C. Fields or Frank Randle). But in the end Milland delivered a bravura performance in The Lost Weekend, and won a well deserved Oscar for it.
 Accepting the award from Ingrid Bergman at the 1945 ceremony, an ill-at-ease Milland gave one of the shortest acceptance speeches in the history of the Oscars - you can see it here in its entirety (along with other highlights of the ceremony). If only acceptance speeches were like that these days - though it has to be said that as recently as 1991 Joe Pesci managed something even shorter: 'It's my privilege. Thank you.'

Monday, 2 January 2017

The Winner of Sorrow

I've mentioned it in passing (here), but now that I've finished reading it, it's time to say a little more about Brian Lynch's The Winner of Sorrow.
 This novel takes us into the world of William Cowper, an 18th-century poet whose large output of well-wrought verse brought him fame in his day - and great popularity through the Victorian era - but is for the most part unread now. That it contains much that is well worth reading - and some that simply takes the breath away - is a fact known only to those who have made the effort to engage with this unfashionable (and, admittedly, sometimes pedestrian) poet.
 But who was William Cowper? The first paragraph of The Winner of Sorrow introduces us to the poet in old age and tells us right away what we need to know:

'It was the first day of a new century and in East Dereham the Christians were going to church. Amongst them, but not of them, was an old man, William Cowper, who believed in Christ and his infinite mercy, although he was also convinced that God hated him personally and was intent on sending him to hell, soon, for all eternity. That the belief and the conviction contradicted each other he understood clearly. He understood, too, that he was completely insane, or rather almost completely, but not quite. In the same nearly perfect way, he was sure that he had always been too contemptible to be loved by any living creature, but that loving him had destroyed the lives of four women, three wild hares and a linnet. These were passive destructions, but he had once actually killed something - he had cut the head off a big snake with a garden hoe. Apart from that, he had never been physically violent, except to himself.'

 The episode with the snake is related later in the novel, with an astonished onlooker describing how Cowper decapitated the snake, which was threatening a family of kittens, then, 'while the body coiled and uncoiled upon itself and the eye in the head looked on at its own death, he flung the hoe across the yard and, crying out repeatedly 'Aaah!', kicked out with his legs and flailed his arms about as if trying to rid himself of some filthy, oozing, gluey substance'. But, by the next morning, he has made of this clearly traumatic episode an amusing bit of mock-heroic verse (The Colubriad).
 This incident encapsulates the peculiar tension between Cowper the tortured, hypersensitive man-child and the polished urbanity of (most of) his verse. His contradictory character is illuminated with great skill and conviction in Lynch's novel, which, beginning in Cowper's old age, takes us looping back through his childhood and early years, with their terrible mental torments, to his retirement from the world, initially in the small town of Olney in Buckinghamshire, and his discovery of his vocation as a poet. His torments never retreat far or for long, and he fends them off initially with intense evangelicalism (under the influence of John Newton), then with an ever deeper immersion in domesticity, gardening and the care of a succession of pet animals.
  All the while, as the pit of utter despair forever threatens to open under him, a widening sea of adoration grows around the poet, as a succession of women - the four women mentioned in the opening paragraph - fall under his strange spell. He has a sexual abnormality, which Lynch never quite spells out - probably a form of hermaphroditism - and is terrified of adult sexuality, as of just about everything else, but he basks happily in the quasi-maternal love of these women. The widowed Mrs Unwin is chief among them - and the most maternal - and remains with Cowper until her death, fighting off the competition ferociously and effectively.
 What attracted these women, and the poet's many male devotees? Lynch's Cowper has a curious but potent charm, compounded of his brilliant conversation, his combination of sharp intellect and tender sensibility, his child-like vulnerability, frail beauty and unthreatening sexual allure. But he also had a child-like vanity (and a Skimpole-like attitude to money) and a self-serving streak that managed to work every situation to his advantage, and enabled him to play his admirers off against each other. As the story unfold, his hands remain clean in the thick of some positively barbaric psychodramas - Cowper will come so close, but no closer.
  Lynch's creation of a convincing 18th-century world is pitch-perfect, with no anachronisms (as far as I could make out), dialogue that flows and seems fully of its period, and details of 18th-century provincial life touched in without drawing attention to themselves. The Winner of Sorrow is a feat of total immersion, a re-creation of a life and a world. Happily Lynch writes in the third person (and the past tense), keeping a necessary distance from  Cowper's tormented consciousness, and freeing himself to create a range of fully realised characters around the poet.
 This novel began life as a screenplay for television (a shame it was never produced), and its origins show in the way it proceeds episodically from scene to vivid scene. Lynch is perhaps best known as a poet, but this doesn't read like a 'poet's novel' in the pejorative sense. There is no verbal lushness here, but a rare insight into an off-kilter mind, embodied in a profusion of arresting images.
 Here, to give a flavour of the writing, is Lynch's description of the death of the Reverend Unwin, the death that leaves Mrs Unwin free to devote herself to Cowper:

'On this fine Sunday morning, after he had gone about a mile from home, the Reverend Unwin gave his placid old mare her head and, as he often did on this familiar journey, began reading a book. The church steeple came into view and the horse, needing only the merest nudge from his heel, ambled off the turnpike and headed down a narrow rutted track. Plodding along between high banks of lacy cow parsley, the mare shook her head just once as a hungry cleg found its way into the velvety coolness of her ear.
  Five minutes later, as they were rounding a bend, he looked up and saw a small golden-haired boy pissing figures of eight into the dust on the track. Just then the cleg found a vein in the mare's ear and pierced it. The mare reared up her great bulk and Mr Unwin was thrown off backwards.
  The boy was seven years old. In one pocket of his ragged coat he had a crust of bread and a chunk of cheese wrapped in the scrap of red flannel he slept with every night. In the other pocket, because he was running away from home, he had stowed his best treasure, a glass marble, perfectly blue. He stood there for a moment, then ran off, still unbuttoned, back to his mother.
  The Reverend Unwin's book, the Ars Amatoria, lay open beside a large stone, fanning its pages at the behest of the mild movements of the air. On the title page, beneath the author's name, Publius Ovidius Naso, was a speck of fresh blood.'

 This is an extraordinary, gripping novel, which deserves to be much more widely known. And you don't have to take my word for it - Patrick Kurp (of Anecdotal Evidence) recommends it highly, not to mention Nuala O'Faolain, Paul Durcan, Dermot Bolger and the late Clare Boylan...