Saturday, 24 February 2018

An Essex Walk and a Gray Talk

An eleven-mile walk in rural Essex on a cold February day might not be everyone's idea of fun – to be honest, it's not mine. Especially when a biting East wind, claggy ploughland and vast, hedgeless fields must also be factored in. However, there I was yesterday, striding along with my walking friends through just such country in just such a Siberian wind, and I'm sure it did me good. Certainly it was long overdue, being my first proper walk of the year.
 The churches on the walk were small-scale, unassuming buildings, all on the same pattern – West tower, nave, chancel, sometimes a small porch – and few notable monuments. However, in the church of All Saints, High Laver, is the tomb of the philosopher John Locke, who spent his last years living nearby in the household of Sir John Masham. Standing against the South wall, it's plain and simple – stone slab above brick tomb – but the tablet bearing Locke's self-composed Latin epitaph now hangs, protected from the weather, on the inner South wall. It's rather good. Here it is in English:

'Stop, traveller. Near this place lieth John Locke. If you ask what kind of a man he was, he answers that he lived content with his own small fortune. Bred a scholar, he made his learning subservient only to the cause of truth. This thou will learn from his writings, which will show thee everything else concerning him, with greater truth, than the suspected praises of an epitaph. His virtues, indeed, if he had any, were too little for him to propose as matter of praise to himself, or as an example to thee. Let his vices be buried together. As to an example of manners, if you seek that, you have it in the Gospels; of vices, to wish you have one nowhere; if mortality, certainly, (and may it profit thee), thou hast one here and everywhere.'

Back home and thawing out, I caught a new Point of View talk on Radio 4 by John Gray, making a welcome return after a run of A.L. Kennedy (groan) and Howard Jacobson. Gray's subject was The Dangers of a Higher Education. He explored 'the ignorance of the learned' – the sad fact that the highly educated are especially prone to Grand Theories and 'dangerously absurd' ideas – to which, happily, the less educated are largely immune, having a greater share both of common sense and of experience of the realities of daily life. Quite rightly, Gray takes a dim view of the postmodern neo-Marxist 'mishmash' that is being force-fed to so many students of the humanities and social sciences. Does this in any way give them a better understanding of life, or in any way equip them for the world outside Academe? Here is the link...

 John Locke had his own perspective on all this: 'There is frequently more to be learned from the unexpected questions of a child than the discourses of men'. Very true.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Dead Parrot, Dread Czerny

No, this is not a picture of the daily parakeet feeding frenzy in my garden, but of a quite different species, the Carolina Parakeet, which became extinct on this day 100 years ago (worth a Google Doodle, I'd have thought?). One of only two indigenous parrot species in the United States (and the only one across its range), the Carolina Parakeet suffered a catastrophic decline in the 19th century, the result of loss of habitat (watery old-growth forest) and, probably, some kind of epidemic disease. Extinction happened remarkably fast, and the last known live bird, Incas, died at the Cincinnati zoo on this day in 1918. It met its end in the same cage in which Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon, had died four years earlier.

A slightly cheerier anniversary (though many piano students might not agree) is of the birth of Carl Czerny in 1791. Czerny was a prodigiously talented pianist and a prolific composer. As a child he was taught by Beethoven, and later had all the great man's works by heart, able to play any of them at the drop of an opus number. Czerny in turn taught and mentored Liszt, and wrote much music across many genres. But his name lives on for his didactic piano exercises and studies – 'the dread Czerny' as in Donald Justice's evocative sonnet...

The Pupil

Picture me, the shy pupil at the door,

One small, tight fist clutching the dread Czerny.
Back then time was still harmony, not money,
And I could spend a whole week practising for
That moment on the threshold. Then to take courage,
And enter, and pass among mysterious scents,
And sit quite straight, and with a frail confidence
Assault the keyboard with a childish flourish!

Only to lose my place, or forget the key,
And almost doubt the very metronome
(Outside, the traffic, the laborers going home),
And still to bear on across Chopin or Brahms,
Stupid and wild with love equally for the storms
Of C# minor and the calms of C.

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

A Most Unlikely Tour

Last night on Radio 4 I heard a repeat of an engaging programme about Yorkshire County Cricket Club's unlikely tour of North America in 1964, when Beatlemania was at its height. There's an article about the tour, written by Dan Waddell (son of 'Voice of Darts' Sid, fact fans),  here  – a more complete account of events, getting increasingly bizarre, and funny, as it goes along. Stick with it – it's a great read for anyone who remembers the Yorkshire team in their mid-Sixties pomp.
 Many of those Yorkshire greats are dead now – but not, of course, the one and only Geoffrey Boycott, who contributed a few memories to the radio documentary. Young Boycs suffered an abreaction to a smallpox vaccination on the flight to New York, so was not in the best shape when the tour began. Another (non-Yorkshire) contributor remembers him sitting in silence as a party, drinking beer after beer – which seems uncharacteristic of him, though not of the rest of the team, whose drinking often left them groggy and hungover when play began, a factor that no doubt contributed to a couple of shaky performances. Boycott recalls Fred Trueman striding into the opposition's dressing room, cigar in hand, to remind them what rubbish they were – and, on one occasion, coming to the crease wearing a stetson. Of the Beatles, Boycott concedes that 'They were a little bit bigger than us'.
 Also sharing his memories was John Hampshire ('Me name's John – call me Jack and th'interview's over'). He ruefully recalled the extent of the touring Yorkshire team's sponsorship – 'a collapsible chair and a raincoat'. Different times...

Monday, 19 February 2018

Herons Letting Themselves Down

Remember those far-off days when herons were mysterious and elusive birds, dwellers in remote watery places, rarely encountered and, when spotted, quick to take off and fly away? Seeing one at all was an event, and there was a magic in their angular primeval appearance, their improbable expanse of wing ('the heron shakes out his pac-a-mac of wings'), heavy flight and length of leg and beak. There was no other bird like it in this country – and that is still the case, though the broadly similar egrets are making inroads.
 Now, however, herons are so numerous that seeing one – for anyone who keeps even half an eye open for bird life – is very far from being an event. And, what's worse, the herons have lost all their shyness around humans and joined the ever swelling ranks of loud, aggressive suburban scavengers. In my local park (the one with the most water), there was great excitement yesterday afternoon as a dozen and more herons gathered on a lawn where someone was scattering bread around in considerable quantities. I've seen plenty of herons in the park before, stalking in the shallows, perching in the trees and  hanging around on the edges of the regular crow-gull-pigeon-duck-squirrel-goose feeding frenzies. But this lot were something else. These herons were mobbing their benefactor, fighting with each other, shrieking and flapping their huge wings, and seeing off all smaller birds in their eagerness to stuff themselves with all the food available.
 This display of ruffianly behaviour was an ugly and depressing sight – and no doubt a sign of things to come. The herons are taking over. I just hope the infinitely cleverer crows are busy planning a sustained counter-offensive.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Uncle Logan

'During the meal Uncle Logan was almost silent. He ate, and addressed a few practical remarks to his sister about the coming weekend arrangements, but all was done without once raising his eyes from his plate, or changing his expression or the dead tone of his voice between coming into the dining room and going out of it again. His eyelids, drawn permanently down so that he could see nothing but the food upon his plate, hooded him as the lowered curtain in a theatre hoods the empty stage between performances. At such times Uncle Logan seemed engulfed in a lack of interest in the living world so absolute that I was shocked. Deeply shaken. I suppose it was the first time I had seen someone I knew and admired and talked with every day who was yet afflicted with this particular sickness. Many years later I was told the name of Logan's illness: the doctor pronounced him to be Manic-Depressive. But at the time of which I'm speaking I had no knowledge that my uncle was the victim of any illness at all, nor do I believe that anyone else was aware of his particular trouble.
  As soon as the last spoonful of apple charlotte and the last crumb of biscuit and cheese were finished, Logan rose up stiffly from his chair, and unheedingly letting his crumpled napkin fall to the floor, he would start to shuffle doorward again as one stunned...
  I would watch his bowed shoulders in his navy serge suit, his handsomely carved ruddy face with the weariness lying over it like a grey powdered dust. Watch him disappear through the fine panelled Georgian door that the parlourmaid Katie would be holding open for him. I felt deep dismay at the spectacle of this fallen God...'

 So writes the novelist Julia Strachey, in a fragmentary memoir of her early life, recalling lunch times as Ford Place, where as a child she lived in the care of her 'Aunty Loo' (Alys, deserted wife of Bertrand Russell) and Alys's brother Logan – none other than Logan Pearsall Smith, author of the once very highly regarded (and still worth reading) Trivia volumes. I've written about him several times here, as a quick search will show, and had always imagined him much as he presented himself – an elegant idler, spending his time musing at ease and honing his little prose vignettes and aphorisms to a gem-like perfection. It comes as a shock to learn of the dark side of this brilliant creature, whose performances at the dinner table were in marked contrast to his lunchtime gloom.
 Julia Strachey recalls listening in on the conversation at the grown-ups' dinner parties:
'I could tell it was the very ne plus ultra of sophisticated gossip and dashing intellectual badinage. And the whole performance was led by Uncle Logan! There was wicked laughter and daring jests – how I adored those mischievous sessions! When Uncle Logan was in his glory he appeared to me the wittiest, handsomest and most stimulating man on earth.'

 Of course I should have known that the easiest-seeming art is often the product of the most intense effort, and the lightest, most sparkling effects are often born out of a struggle with darkness.

 The passages above are from Julia: A Portrait of Julia Strachey by Herself and Frances Partridge, assembled by FP, a lifelong friend, from an inchoate mass of writings left behind at Julia's death. In her lifetime Julia published almost nothing but two novellas, Cheerful Weather for the Wedding and An Integrated Man, both of which are all but perfect. I might well be rereading and writing about them later in the year.

Friday, 16 February 2018

Aristotle's Masterpiece Again

Radio 4's New Quiz is a programme I don't often bother with these days – too much of it is drearily predictable, smug and long-winded – but I caught an item this evening based on a news story I hadn't heard: an early copy of the 'banned Georgian sex manual' known as Aristotle's Masterpiece has come up for auction. I once had a copy myself, of a later (probably mid-19th century) edition, which I bought in Sheffield out of curiosity and subsequently lost or threw out. I blogged about it here back in 2009, a propos another book (Maurice Gorham's Londoners), so if you want to find out more, follow this link...

Thursday, 15 February 2018

The Year of Publishing Women?

Apparently in some quarters it's being suggested that 2018 should be the 'year of publishing women', the aim being to redress the 'gender imbalance' in the publishing industry, in literary award shortlists (quick question: how many women's literary awards are there, and how many for men only?), in space afforded to male rather than female reviewers on books pages, even in the sex of protagonists in prize-winning novels (more of them are men, apparently). Leading the campaign is the novelist Kamila Shamsie.
 The research cited 'reveals' that only 40 per cent of books submitted for the Booker Prize are by women – hardly surprising, I'd have thought, as it's perhaps the most masculine of the big prizes and publishers know it (though that hasn't stopped Eleanor Catton, Bernice Rubens, Anne Enright and Hilary Mantel (twice) winning it in recent years). The more female (and reader)-friendly Costa Book of the Year award has been won by the same number of women as men over the past decade (and it's 60:40 in favour of women across all the Costa awards).
 This whole campaign might seem somewhat mystifying to anyone who takes even the slightest notice of what's on the fiction shelves and in the windows of bookshops, or who occasionally glances at the bestseller lists. The fact is that fiction written by women is massively dominant in terms of sales, publicity and all-round success, to the point where nine out of the ten best-selling 'literary' authors in 2017 were women. Perhaps it's the male novelists who could do with a leg up (not a serious suggestion).
 One publisher has seriously taken up the challenge of the 'year of publishing women': Stefan Tobler of the excellent Sheffield-based small press And Other Stories will be publishing only women this year. I find this rather sad, but as he publishes barely a dozen titles a year it's hardly going to rock the industry.
 Meanwhile, this country somehow continues to do what it has, in my opinion, been doing for the best part of a century – producing rather more seriously good women novelists than men. Ivy Compton-Burnett, Muriel Spark, Penelope Fitzgerald, Elizabeth Bowen, Shirley Hazzard, Jean Rhys, Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Pym, Virginia Woolf if you must, Doris Lessing ditto... That's a gender imbalance that's absolutely fine by me.