Sunday, 29 June 2014

Over the Border - and even in Watford

Leek, over the border in Staffordshire, is a town I'd never visited before, and I loved it. It's a bit rough at the edges, and some of its streets are heavy with traffic, but the core of the old town has survived in good working order, with many fine buildings - especially from the Victorian era, when the local father-and-son firm of William Sugden and William Larner Sugden did impressive work - and the pleasant, lively feel of a largely unspoilt (but not preserved in amber) town that has come back to life in recent years and is undergoing something of a renaissance.
  It also contains an architectural gem, in the broad, sturdy shape of All Saints Church. Described by Pevsner as 'vigorous and personal', this is one of the rather few churches designed by Norman Shaw ('You know I am not a church man,' he once confessed, 'I am house man, and soil pipes are my speciality.' ) All Saints makes brilliant use of a sloping site to create an interior more lofty and spacious than you'd ever expect, entering through the broad, low porch. The effect is enhanced by the broad arcades and lack of clutter in the well-lit, white-painted interior; this is a church built on sound Tractarian principles, with the altar visible from everywhere in the church and the very substantial font prominently placed at the West end.
 This beautifully ordered space is enhanced by quite superb furnishings, designed by Shaw's collaborators W.R. Lethaby and Gerard Horsley. Lethaby designed the impressive font and the pulpit, beautifully carved in Gothic-style pierced work, as well as the reredos (above), which has painted by F. Hamilton Jackson. The windows are mostly by Morris & Co, some to Burne-Jones designs, many of them executed after Morris's death - perhaps just as well, as Shaw had no high opinion of Morris's business methods: 'Morris is no good. His work is sometimes splendid (not always) but he is so full of cranks and general stubbornness that is is nearly impossible to do anything like "business" with him - being an advanced Socialist he cannot do with much less than 100% to 250% clear profit in his work - and so his work is dear!!!'.

If you ever find yourself anywhere near Leek, do go and have a look - both at the town and at Shaw's extraordinary church. Similarly - with a violent shift of location - if you ever have the misfortune to find yourself in Watford, do not despair. I was there the other day and can assure you that this ill-favoured town contains a quite brilliant church - Holy Rood - designed by J.F. Bentley, whose most famous work is Westminster Cathedral. A fine tall building in flint with stone bands, the style is pure Gothic but many of the details are Arts and Crafts bordering on Art Nouveau. It makes brilliant use of a basically square plot, and the interior is a treasure house of late Victorian church furnishing, with every surface gloriously enriched. I can't find a picture that does it justice - nor can I of Watford's other fine church, St Mary, where the chief attraction is the Morison Chapel: this contains large and stunningly good early 17th-century monuments by the greatest English sculptor of his time, Nicholas Stone. Sadly, St Mary is usually locked, so if you do plan to brave Watford for the sake of its ecclesiastical gems, you'd be wise to call ahead...

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Back from D****shire

Yes, I've been up in the Peak District for a couple of days, where in Wirksworth all the talk is of the StarDisc - that rather wonderful work which I've mentioned here before. It has just been shortlisted for the National Lottery Arts Awards, and it deserves your vote - you can vote here...
 Revisiting Ashbourne was a joy. This is a fine and flourishing town, full of handsome buildings, including the house of John Taylor, Dr Johnson's old schoolfriend, whom he often visited. A most unclerical cleric, Taylor's chief interest lay in his herd of milch-cows - the finest in Derbyshire - but he read the service at Johnson's funeral.
 Also in Ashbourne, in the tall-spired church of St Oswald, is one of the finest and most touching of all English church monuments - that of Penelope Boothby, exquisitely carved in Carrara marble by Thomas Banks in 1791. It shows the little girl - she was just five when she died - lying on her side as if peacefully asleep. Life-sized and life-like, it is all the more heart-breaking for the contrast with the relatively stiff and formulaic effigies of other Boothbies in the family chapel in which it stands - and for the fact that Penelope is turned away from them all, toward us alone.
 Penelope's father, Brooke Boothby, was the subject of a famous portrait by Joseph Wright of Derby (above), in which he reclines in a sylvan setting, with a volume of Rousseau in his hand. This was painted ten years before his daughter's death and, though he too lies on his right side, the contrast between the two images could hardly be starker.
 Brooke Boothby never really recovered from losing his only daughter, and wrote a book of sonnets dedicated to her memory. Sonnet XII describes the monument in Ashbourne church:

Well has thy classick chisel, Banks, express'd
The graceful lineaments of that fine form,
Which late with conscious, living beauty warm,
Now here beneath does in dread silence rest.
And, oh, while life shall agitate my breast,
Recorded there exists her every charm,
In vivid colours, safe from change or harm,
Till my last sigh unalter'd love attest.
That form, as fair as ever fancy drew,
The marble cold, inanimate, retains;
But of the radiant smile that round her threw
Joys, that beguiled my soul of mortal pains,
And each divine expression's varying hue,
A little senseless dust alone remains.

More eloquent are the words inscribed on that monument: 'She was in form and intellect most exquisite. The unfortunate Parents ventured their all on this frail bark. And the wreck was total.' 

Monday, 23 June 2014

Back from D*****e

This year's stay in Dieppe was even more leisurely than usual, thanks to the antics of Mrs N's sciatic nerve - but we did get out to the Bois des Moutiers, a few miles away at Varengeville-sur-Mer (where Braque is buried). This (and I'm surprised I haven't written about it before) is a glorious combination of a fine early Lutyens house, an equally fine Gertrude Jekyll garden, and acres of carefully planted, richly rewarding woodland. The house itself is not open to the public (though, some years ago when the family were keen to get the place noticed, we were once shown round by the very friendly and impeccably Anglophone chatelaine), but the exterior alone is remarkable enough, at once plain and grand, an English Arts and Crafts house with a distinctively Norman flavour and plenty of Lutyens' originality and sheer dash. He was only 28 when he came up with the design, for the Anglophile artistic banker (and Theosophist) Guillaume Mallet - but Lutyens tackled the commission with the gusto and self-confidence of a much more experienced architect, and the result is a joy to see, especially as it emerges from and blends with the suite of garden 'rooms' that re-create the house's bold interiors. Lutyens designed these himself, while Gertrude Jekyll took care of the planting, which is classic Jekyll and feels thoroughly English. However, the distinctive qualities of the house prevent the whole ensemble from feeling like a pastiche, a bit of England transplanted to alien Norman soil; it works brilliantly as it is and where it is. Even though the house is closed to visitors, this is surely the grandest experience of the Lutyens-Jekyll magic to be had anywhere - and it's on the other side of the Channel!

It was in the gardens of the Bois des Moutiers that I saw my first (and most definitely not my last) Meadow Brown of this year. There were big, bright Red Admirals flying in abundance, as there were in Dieppe, where I also saw, up by the castle, my first (again not last) Large Skippers, and, on the Mini Golf course - which now has a flourishing flower garden a l'Anglais - a single Clouded Yellow. The best of it, though, was my return visit to the colony of Small Blues I discovered last year. I was fearful that the roadside site, under the cliffs hard by the ferry port, might have been lost to the municipal mower. But no, it was still there and flourishing, richly flowered with Knapweed, Bird's Foot Trefoil, Clover, Kidney Vetch, Black Medic, Scarlet Pimpernel, Hawkweed, Stonecrop and more. Summer mowing had been restricted to a swathe that curved round to offer a little promenade through the flowers - and the butterflies. And there they were! Small Blue galore, dancing from flower to flower, with Meadow Browns flapping lazily around, Large Skippers darting about, Red Admirals and Tortoiseshells gliding by, a couple of busy Hummingbird Hawk Moths, and what I'm pretty sure was my first Gatekeeper of the year. That too won't be my last - and nor will this, I fancy, be my last trip to dear old Dieppe.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Crustacean News

Today, the little column of adverts that pops up alongside my Google mail - personally targeted to my every need by armies of fiendish surveillance wonks - reads as follows:

Barking Shopfronts (a rather alarming image)
Walk In Showers
5 Star Guest House in Cheltenham (handy for GCHQ?)
How to Declare Bankruptcy

There's a life story lurking in that list, I feel - but it's certainly not mine.
 Meanwhile, I was concerned to read the news about anxious crayfish. Scientists seem to have established, at least to their own satisfaction, that crayfish can feel anxiety, though as far as I can make out they seem only to have established that crayfish tend to avoid stressful situations in favour of non-stressful ones, which seems only sensible. I'm sure a crayfish has enough to think about without going and getting itself electrocuted. On the other hand, the crustaceans, bivalves, marine molluscs and other forms of edible sea life in the waters around Dieppe might have good reason to feel anxious if word's got around that Mrs N and I are heading that way next week...

Thursday, 12 June 2014

And a quick logroll

I must report that the excellent Bedford Park - see my Dabbler review here - has now completed its metamorphosis from ebook to paperback. Available at all good bookshops. Hurry hurry hurry while stocks last.

Butterfly news

and excellent news it is - the Continental Swallowtail is breeding in Sussex! I pass on this report partly for its happy content, and partly for the glorious sentence 'The UK's subspecies is smaller, darker and lives in Norfolk'.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014


Born on this day in 1815 - in Calcutta, where her father was an East India Company official - was the great (in the eyes of posterity) photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. In her own day she was not highly thought of by other photographers and her work has little impact, but today her portraits (if not her more fanciful attempts as 'high art') seem to among the most astonishing images of her times. Close-up, tightly cropped, carefully composed and painstakingly lit, they aimed deliberately for a soft-edged look, akin to the Italian painters' 'sfumato'. This was achieved by a combination of long exposure and soft focus - and, while her sitters were pleased and often came back for more, Cameron's fellow photographers geekily  regarded her efforts as technically incompetent. The portrait above is of Thomas Carlyle, and it surely tells us more about the man, and gives us a more vivid experience of his physical presence, than any of the painted likenesses of the Great Man.   

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

'For these I ask not...'

The Great War centenary hullabaloo is doing its bit to fuel the great Edward Thomas revival which, over the past few decades, has established the formerly overlooked poet in his rightful place. Considering that he was only writing poems for three years - two of them years of war service - it's surprising how many Thomas managed to write, and how high a proportion of them are seriously good or great. Browsing among them, I still find myself surprised by gems that I've somehow missed.
 Take this one - a fine example of Thomas's gift for 'swerving' a poem into unexpected territory. The first three of its plain ABBA stanzas seem to be steadily painting a picture of an idyll - but then comes the shock of the jarring, awkward, all but despairing final stanza. It has been suggested that, if Robert Frost hadn't got him writing poetry, Thomas might have descended so deeply into depression that he could even have ended his life. Reading For These, it's easy to believe. He was indeed a man who rarely found contentment - though he did, from time to time, know happiness, which is far more.

For These

An acre of land between the shore and the hills,
Upon a ledge that shows my kingdoms three,
The lovely visible earth and sky and sea
Where what the curlew needs not, the farmer tills:

A house that shall love me as I love it,
Well-hedged, and honoured by a few ash trees
That linnets, greenfinches, and goldfinches
Shall often visit and make love in and flit:

A garden I need never go beyond,
Broken but neat, whose sunflowers every one
Are fit to be the sign of the Rising Sun:
A spring, a brook's bend, or at least a pond:

For these I ask not, but, neither too late
Nor yet too early, for what men call content,
And also that something may be sent
To be contented with, I ask of Fate.   

Dieppe again

My last year's report from Dieppe is on The Dabbler today - and as it happens, we're heading there again next week for a few days. Creature of habit - moi?

Monday, 9 June 2014

The Empty Chair

On this day in 1870, Charles Dickens died, at the age of 58, having effectively worked himself to death with a punishing schedule of tours and public performances. He had been working on Edwin Drood when he had his final and fatal stroke, in his house at Gad's Hill.
 Dickens's last words were 'On the ground' (when his sister-in-law and 'best and truest friend' Georgina Hogarth suggested that he lie down. In the event, he breathed his last on a sofa in the dining room). The torrents of verbiage that followed Dickens's death more than made up for that meagre final utterance. In a similar spirit, his stated wish to be buried at Rochester Cathedral in 'an inexpensive, unostentatious and strictly private manner' was overriden in favour of the pomp and ceremony of a Poets' Corner interment. He - or the idea of him - was, it seems, too important to the nation for him to be allowed to have his own way.
 The sense of loss and mood of national mourning - surely unparalleled for any author before or since - also found expression in what became a hugely popular print: The Empty Chair by Samuel Luke Fildes, the illustrator of Edwin Drood. That's it above.Vincent Van Gogh is known to have admired this print, and it surely fed into his own eloquent paintings of empty chairs.

Friday, 6 June 2014


A fine, sunny morning, and the train drew to a halt by a patch of waste ground outside Selhurst. I've watched this patch with more or less attention through many years of travelling to and from London, and seen its vegetation grow up and be cut down (or burn). At present it is carpeted with brambles, dotted with patches of cow parsley, hogweed, willow herb, hawkweed and ox-eye daisies, and above them elders, buddleia bushes and saplings of ash, birch and sycamore. And this morning, right by my window, a bright and beautiful Small Tortoiseshell was taking nectar from the bramble flowers, batting off the competing bumble bees (which seem to be more abundant than ever this year, in contrast to the honey bees).
  The Small Tortoiseshell (so called to distinguish it from its larger Continental cousin, a rare visitor to our shores) used to be so common that we took it for granted. In  my boyhood, if you saw a butterfly and it wasn't white, it was most likely a Tortoiseshell; even the larvae and pupae were common sights in the nettlebeds. Since then, the species has declined dramatically in the South, apparently as a result of parasitic attack - but in recent years it has been fighting back and numbers are definitely building. Perhaps, now that it is less common, we appreciate the Tortoiseshell's beauty more...
 In Nabokov's Ada there is a discussion of the butterflies depicted in Bosch's triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights. One is a correctly painted female Meadow Brown; the other a far from correct Small Tortoiseshell: Bosch 'evidently found a wing or two in the corner cobweb of his casement and showed the prettier upper surface in depicting his incorrectly folded insect'. That would also explain the faded colours of those stray wings. In his Butterflies in Art, Nabokov declares that 'Only myopia condones the blurry generalisations of ignorance. In high art and pure science detail is everything.' He is surely right.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

The Assassination

The assassination of Robert Kennedy, 46 years ago today, in a pantry off the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, is still horribly vivid in the memory - perhaps because (unlike the killing of JFK) the hideous business was caught close-up, on film and in shocking photographic images. It occasioned a truly great piece of eyewitness reportage by Alistair Cooke, one of his finest Letters from America (you can read it here)...
 What I hadn't realised, until I came across it recently, was that this terrible event also occasioned a strange, haunting poem by Donald Justice. Did ever the humble pronoun 'it' carry such weight and moment?

The Assassination

It begins again, the nocturnal pulse.
It courses through the cables laid for it.
It mounts to the chandeliers and beats there, hotly.
We are too close.  Too late, we would move back.
We are involved with the surge.

Now it bursts.  Now it has been announced.
Now it is being soaked up by newspapers.
Now it is running through the streets.
The crowd has it.  The woman selling carnations
And the man in the straw hat stand with it in their shoes.

Here is the red marquee it sheltered under.
Here is the ballroom, here
The sadly various orchestra led
By a single gesture.  My arms open.
It enters.  Look, we are dancing.
   (June 5, 1968)

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Dan and Nick: Unsung

Talking of comedy, I was dozing off in bed last night (no, that's not the comedy) and found myself chuckling away at something that was going out on Radio 4 Extra. It was a kind of steampunk-flavoured, pun-packed period occult detective comedy, full of nifty wordplay, ingenious insults and really rather clever gags. I discovered when it ended that this was Ectoplasm, a series created and performed by those unsung greats of radio comedy, Dan Freedman and Nick Romero, whose Dan and Nick: The Wildebeest Years also turns up from time to time on Radio 4 Extra. The Wildebeest years is the one that features Incy Wincy Quincy, the spider pathologist, and Robin Would, the madly camp version of Robin Hood  ('What would you have me do - live a lie?') performed by none other than the Rev Richard Coles, late of The Communards. 
  Ectoplasm is a different kettle of fish, each episode being a self-contained story in which occult investigator and 'walker in the ether' Lord Zimbabwe and his friend Doctor Lilac, a German scientist with megalomaniac tendencies, come to the aid of a young lady. ('Are you Cursed? Haunted?  Are you an unrealistically attractive young lady who only seeks the help of fictional detectives? Then pray allow us to recommend the services of the Empire’s greatest OCCULTIST and INVESTIGATOR of STRANGE GOINGS-ON and ETHEREAL SHENANIGANS: the estimable LORD ZIMBABWE. Please make suitable representations to his Major Domo, Mr Theremin, at Bluebell End, England.’) 
 Zimbabwe's malign, acid-tongued butler is played by the legendary newsreader Peter Donaldson, and lurking in the background is Schrodinger, a lecherous semi-corporeal cat. Each episode ends with Lord Zimbabwe saying ' I think we handled that rather well' and Theremin replying 'I couldn't agree less, sir.' I say 'each episode', but last night's was the third of only four that were made. You can catch the last on Radio 4 Extra next Tuesday night at 11. If you like the sound of it. 

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Publishing News

So the latest Big Thing - or Grande Chose - in book publishing is colouring books for adults, which are suddenly selling like hot cakes in France. They're even buying good honest British colouring books and repcackaging them with the magic words 'Art Therapy' and 'Anti-Stress' - et voila, encore un bestseller! French women, who seem to be among the most stressed and depression-prone on Earth (perhaps as result of having to deal with French men), are finding great solace in colouring in the outline pictures and creating their own little works of art, or at least craft. I'm tempted to identify this trend - which could well be heading our way, I wouldn't be surprised - as yet more evidence of the infantilisation of our culture. But on the other hand, I really rather fancy the idea. Purely as therapy, you understand...

Monday, 2 June 2014


I've been thinking rather a lot about comedy lately -which can't be good news, can it? Was anything useful or true ever said about a subject so notoriously subjective and elusive? Certainly not by those who Take It Seriously and thereby kill the very thing they're studying. In the end, it's all down to what makes you laugh and what doesn't - or is it? A surprising amount of great comedy barely makes you laugh at all (take Buster Keaton - or Jonathan Swift, or indeed much Shakespearean 'comedy')...
Anyway, what initially got me going was Brit's comment under my recent Dabbler post on Bea Lillie, about how so much comedy dates irreparably, often in very little time. Why is this? And what kind of comedy is most likely to stand a chance of survival? As it happened, over the past weekend I encountered rather a lot of comedy, one way and another, including even an episode of Much Binding in the Marsh on Radio 4 Extra in the small hours. Unsurprisingly, this RAF comedy has not passed the test of time, though I was struck by how fabulously camp Richard Murdoch's delivery was - and, if Wikipedia is to be believed, this was the show that gifted us the conversational gambit 'Have you read any good books lately?' Can this be true?
 Much Binding was preceded by an episode of one of Kenneth Horne's other ventures - either Round the Horne of Beyond Our Ken - which still had a surprising amount of comic life in it, probably because of its fast pace, its range of comic grotesques and its sense of gleeful mischief (much saucy innuendo smuggled in under the BBC radar). But of course it had dated, in part because of topical references that would be quite meaningless to a younger generation. Indeed one thing we can say with something like certainty is that topical comedy is doomed to die soon. Only topical satire at the level of Swift on peak form can long outlive its occasion.
 I think I sense a glimmer of truth in another generalisation, which is that 'nothing dates faster than the dernier cri' - the most wildly fashionable and popular comedy is likely to fade fast. Monty Python is, I fear, a classic case: the last time I came across an original episode I found it not only unfunny but pretty much unendurable - and this was the show that, when it came out, had me falling about, hailing each new episode as a comedy masterpiece. Looking back, it seems to me that the most striking thing about it was its then breath-taking formal originality - an originality that in the course of things was soon absorbed into the comedy mainstream and became commonplace. On the other hand, the determinedly old-fashioned Fawlty Towers is still irresistibly funny. I caught an episode of that too at the weekend - The Psychiatrist - and, although I've seen it so many times I know exactly what is coming at every turn, I still found it impossible not to laugh. This was the show that was greeted with near universal dismay by a public expecting John Cleese to deliver something Pythonesque, not a knockabout farce set in a seaside hotel. Well, it's Fawlty Towers that's getting the last laugh.
 And there's proabably a lesson there too, for FT is perhaps the most meticulously scripted and crafted British sitcom ever made, an intricate machine engineered to raise laugh after laugh, time after time. For comedy to last, it surely has to be, at the very least, well written and carefully and tightly constructed... But I'll leave it there, and throw the floor open (in the confident expection of '0 comments').