Monday, 20 February 2017

The Year Begins

At last, my patience (what patience? It's only February - Ed.) has been rewarded and I've seen my first butterfly of the year. I was taking a hopeful stroll around a local nature reserve called Wilderness Island - which was indeed a tangled wilderness when I was a boy but has since been tamed and cleared sufficiently to provide a habitat for a good range of wildlife, from bats to butterflies. The sun was out, there was a vernal warmth in the air - and there, on a brisk questing flight among the trees, sulphur yellow against  holly-and-ivy green, was a Brimstone. The year's begun! Spring is round the corner, soon there will be more butterflies, more of these joyous moments. Indeed, I had seen four or five more Brimstones before I left the island, a happy, smiling aurelian. And so home.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Best Second

The Royal Society of Literature is running a poll to find The Nation's Favourite Second Novel, which seems an excellent idea - here's the (not very) shortlist. There's probably a pattern there somewhere - in many cases that of a successful second novel following an undistinguished debut. Would a failed first-timer get a second chance in today's publishing climate?
  And it can take more than two attempts for some novelists to get it right (J.G. Farrell, for example, whose Troubles was preceded by three duds). Any of today's novelists who have a second commission are more likely to find themselves in the unenviable situation of musicians faced with the 'difficult second album' problem. However, the number of recent titles in the RSL list suggests that at least some have been allowed a second chance after a less than brilliant debut.
  But what of the list? Leaving aside Ulysses and Tristram Shandy as being in another league altogether, I think from these titles I'd probably vote for Larkin's A Girl in Winter, an underrated novel that has haunted me ever since I read it (and one that was preceded by something very much inferior).  As for omissions, I'd certainly have included Ivy Compton-Burnett's Pastors and Masters (a second novel so different from her first that it could have been written by someone else) and Angus Wilson's Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, Shirley Hazzard's The Bay of Noon, W.G. Sebald's Vertigo, maybe Nabokov's King, Queen, Knave.
 Any thoughts? More omissions? Which title would get your vote?
 (More on how to vote here.)

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Beautiful Exceptions

I know it's still February, but I'm itching to see my first butterfly of the year. Six species have already been logged on the Butterfly Conservation website (beginning with Red Admiral and Peacock both on January 1st), but I've yet to see one, and it's been too long - three and a half months in fact, since I saw one last Holly Blue on All Hallows' Eve last year.
 Yesterday being sunny and just about warm, I went down the garden to eat my lunchtime sandwich - first time this year - and hoped that perhaps some early butterfly would flutter my way. No such luck, I'm afraid, but I was amply entertained by the next best thing - the goldfinches flying down to feast on my nyger seed feeders. These birds have been a constant, and very welcome, presence ever since I put those feeders up - or rather ever since the day, several weeks later, when they finally plucked up the courage to come and feed.
 It's a wonderful thing that these brilliantly coloured little birds are now so abundant over much of the country. When I was a boy, it was quite an event to see one at all, but now they are, in effect, the new sparrows - they're everywhere, flying about with their darting, dipping flight, twittering their silvery song, feasting on nyger seeds when not busy with thistle heads. And it's a joy to see them - especially in these times, when almost all the birds that are thriving in suburbia are big, noisy, aggressive types: all our corvid friends and, round here, the phenomenally successful and phenomenally raucous ring-necked parakeets.
 I recently read a book about the bird life of Australia which painted a nightmare picture of burly, loud-beaked, thuggish birds dominating the parks and gardens of suburbia to such an extent that they pose a threat to life and limb - human as well as avian; deaths and injuries from bird attacks are quite common Down Under. And yet their besotted human victims continue - despite legal bans - to feed these monstrous birds, often with gobbets of raw flesh. It's a kind of avian Stockholm syndrome...
 Happily we in this country are not there yet, and it's unlikely that we'll ever have to cope with the likes of cassowaries and brush-turkeys - but the trend towards larger, louder and hungrier birds driving out the weaker songbirds is worrying enough. Along with the still thriving tits - and the easily overlooked dunnock - goldfinches are the beautiful exceptions. Long may they thrive.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

'A stupid person's idea of a clever person' and other misattributions

As everyone is continually pointing out, we live in an era of 'fake news' - which means that 'fake news' is in the, er, news - you know, the other news - and there's quite a lot of it around, thanks to the opportunities presented by social media, the world wide web, etc. No doubt this is true, though I fancy the borderline between 'fake' and 'real' in this area can be a little porous, and 'fake' news can sometimes point to a kind of truth (though more usually to a pack of lies).
 But I'm not going to get drawn into all that - I'd rather take a look at the proliferation of undoubted 'fake quotes' on social media. Me, I only dabble in Facebook and have never emitted a tweet, but I'm constantly coming across quotations that are obviously misattributed. They often become very successful 'memes', and some of them are presented as words of strangely topical wisdom from sages of the past. In these cases, some plainly modern usage usually gives the game away.
 This doesn't bother me greatly, but today it led me to delve, in an idle moment, into the wider field of misquotation and misattribution - two mis-es that have been thriving since long before the internet. Examples include 'I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it' (never said by Voltaire but put into his mouth by an English writer called Evelyn Beatrice Hall) and 'Elementary, my dear Watson', 'Play it again, Sam' and 'You dirty rat!' (never said by, respectively, Holmes, Bogart and Cagney). I was interested to learn that 'The end justifies the means' goes back all the way to Ovid (exitus acta probat). Then there are quotations that are obviously biblical - expect that they're not: 'Between a rock and a hard place' originated in early 20th-century America and caught on fast - and as for 'God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb', that is from Laurence Sterne, of all people (in one of the sermons of Yorick - about whom, of course, the words 'Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him well' were never spoken).
 But one of the best misattributions I came across was 'A stupid person's idea of a clever person', generally believed to be Julie Burchill skewering Stephen Fry. But was it? By Burchill's account, 'My husband claims that it was I who coined the line about Stephen Fry being "a stupid person's idea of a clever person". And if I weren't a sober person's idea of a booze-addled person, I might be more useful in remembering whether this was true or not. Whatever, it's pretty damn good.' Indeed it is. And it was first said in the Thirties by Elizabeth Bowen, about Aldous Huxley - who surely fits the bill at least as well as Fry.


Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Frank Harris: 'Had he not been a thundering liar...'

I need hardly remind my readers that today is Ss Cyril and Methodius' Day. It is also, probably, the anniversary of the birth of Frank Harris in, probably, 1855. I say probably because, thanks to Harris's compulsive self-mythologising, almost nothing in his early life story can be reliably identified as fact. The year of his birth might have been 1856, or as early as 1852, and the place might have been Tenby in Wales rather than the more generally accepted Galway in Ireland. Whatever the facts, young Harris (who in later life would reminisce about his schooldays at Rugby, while wearing an old Etonian tie) at some point attended the grammar school at Ruabon, North Wales.
 Here's Hugh Kingsmill, Harris's first biographer, on young Frank's schooldays:
'On what foundation of actual fact Harris has erected the super-structure of his youthful triumphs, even the most indulgent reader of his autobiography will pause to wonder. At the age of thirteen he was already in the school cricket eleven; he had learnt Paradise Lost by heart in a week; as Shylock he had anticipated the particular piece of business so much applauded fifteen years later in Henry Irving's rendering of that part; he had made love to a girl his own age in church, and had come within measurable distance of overpowering a French governess in a rustic summer-house; he had rejected the supernatural element in religion, but hoped to profit by the example of Christ's life [!]; he had awakened to the beauty of nature, and at all times of day and night, he tells us, caught glimpses that ravished him with delight and turned his being into a hymn of praise and beauty; and he had thrashed the school bully, a boy of seventeen or eighteen, the captain of the cricket eleven.'
 Not long after, Harris ran away from school and set sail for America, where various adventures, actual and fictitious, awaited him, including a spell working at the Fremont House hotel in Chicago, where the protagonist of Bryan Appleyard's Bedford Park first comes across him. But that's another story...
 'Had he not been a thundering liar,' Time magazine reflected in 1960, 'Frank Harris would have been a  great autobiographer...  he had the crippling disqualification that he told the truth, as Max Beerbohm remarked,  only "when his invention flagged".' Talking of Max Beerbohm, here is one of his choicest caricatures of Harris: 'Had Shakespeare asked me...'

Sunday, 12 February 2017

And, talking of Brexit...

Here's Susan Hill in the current Spectator:
'Brexit has been as bad as any surge [her previous paragraph is about tidal surges] in washing away hitherto strong foundations. I am talking about friendships. I have never known the like. To be called a racist, a 'little Englander' and worse was bad enough, but to have people one has long known and liked say they could no longer be friends with 'someone like you' was very shocking.'
Shocking it is indeed, but all too common in the wake of the referendum. It's a terrible reflection on how low the level of discourse has sunk in this country, and how completely many of our fellow citizens have lost all sense of proportion, let alone basic human decency.

'just-bearable small talk mutating into unbearable large talk'

It's not often that anyone - still less a journalist - puts in a good word for those of us who don't much like talking, find even the most agreeable conversation something of a strain, and would just as soon remain silent, thanks very much. But in today's Telegraph, one Lucy Mangan utters a heartfelt plea for understanding on behalf of the irredeemably laconic and taciturn.
We are suffering more than usual at the moment, thanks to recent political developments. As she puts it, 'Brexit and Trump have not just increased our engagement with the world at large, which is a terrible depredation on our need for psychical and actual solitude, but also increased the threat of just-bearable small talk mutating into unbearable large talk - loud, impassioned, and with no end or resolution ever in sight - to frightening proportions.... For the naturally extrovert, these are glory days. The rest of us curse the sunny hours we wasted not fixing the roof of the lead-lined bunker that we need to hole up in during these controversially apocalyptic times.' Hear, hear.
I would provide a link to this piece, but it counts as 'premium' content on the Telegraph website, so you'd have to pay. Members of the Telegraph's wonderfully persistent sales force keep phoning to plead with me to sign up for this paid content, but I ain't going to do so for the sake of the occasional gem (as Virgil put it, Apparent rari nantes in gurgite vasto).