Monday, 30 May 2016

Birthday Boy

The man with the splendid mustachio is Alfred Austin, born on this day in 1835. Poet, author, journalist and well-connected public figure, Austin has the reputation of being the worst Poet Laureate ever appointed (at least until Andrew Motion came along). His elevation to the laurels, following Tennyson's death, was widely believed to be a political appointment - Austin was very close to Lord Salisbury - and a slap in the face of the aesthetic tendency (the appointment came in the midst of the Oscar Wilde trials).
 Austin - like many others of his age - specialised in the hymning the glories of the English countryside, of England itself, and of the happy condition of being an Englishman. His poems are stirring stuff - or would be if they weren't so dull and overlong. However, he could turn his hand to shorter forms and write an elegantly correct sonnet like this one:

Now do I know that Love is blind, for I 
Can see no beauty on this beauteous earth, 
No life, no light, no hopefulness, no mirth, 
Pleasure nor purpose, when thou art not nigh. 
Thy absence exiles sunshine from the sky, 
Seres Spring's maturity, checks Summer's birth, 
Leaves linnet's pipe as sad as plover's cry, 
And makes me in abundance find but dearth. 
But when thy feet flutter the dark, and thou 
With orient eyes dawnest on my distress, 
Suddenly sings a bird on every bough, 
The heavens expand, the earth grows less and less, 
The ground is buoyant as the ether now, 
And all looks lovely in thy loveliness. 

That is not the work of an actually bad poet, is it? But Austin's reputation for sheer badness is all that survives of him, bolstered by two undoubtedly bad quotations. One is the famous couplet from a poem on an illness of the Prince of Wales: 'Flash'd from his bed the electric tidings came, / He is no better, he is much the same.' The other is from Austin's first poem as Laureate, Jameson's Ride: 'They went across the veldt / As hard as they could pelt.'
 All very amusing, but in fact neither of these was written by Austin. The first was an anonymous parody that was popularised by the mischievous E.F. Benson (of Mapp and Lucia fame), who was happy to pass it off as Austin's own work. The second is a distortion of what Austin wrote, which was 'So we forded and galloped forward / As hard as our beasts could pelt, / First eastward, then tending northward, / Right over the rolling veldt.' Which is pretty bad (especially the third line), but no worse than much of what another laureate - William Wordsworth - wrote.

Sunday, 29 May 2016

Gideon Lied

Brit's reference to 'Gideon' in his comment below my last post had me baffled for a second. Then I realised - of course, Gideon is George Osborne's born name. He never liked it and, at the age of 13, changed it to George, choosing that name in honour of his grandfather, a war hero. And so young Gideon became the George we know and love.
 Meanwhile, in Ambridge, Helen Archer - currently in detention after knifing her evil husband, Rob - has given birth to a boy. She has decided on giving him a clutch of suitably Archerish names and decreed that he shall be known as 'Jack' (in honour not of dipso Jack Archer but of lovable Jack Wooley). However, back at Crime Scene Cottage, his satanic majesty Rob has decreed that his spawn shall have an altogether different name, in honour of his, Rob's, grandfather - yes, Gideon. Coincidence... or something more?
 I don't think I'm ever going to have a better excuse for linking to John Cale's Gideon's Bible, so here goes - enjoy...

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Brexit and Retirement

As the dismal referendum campaign rolls tediously on - still a month to go! - it has been impossible to keep it entirely out of my head (or even out of this blog). The other day I was thinking about what Brexit might be like - how it would feel to be out of the EU - and at the same time I was musing idly on the joys of retirement. Suddenly I saw a connection between the two.
 Last autumn I wrote a piece on retirement - and specifically how, in imagining it in prospect, I had 'made the elementary mistake of simply subtracting work from my everyday life', assuming that I'd be left standing there with a great hole where my work had been, wondering what to do next. In fact, I quickly realised, retirement is not 'life minus work, but rather a new kind of life'.
 I suspect those in favour of remaining in the EU might be making the same mistake, imagining the shape of the future as being 'UK minus EU', with a shell-shocked nation standing gaping at the hole where 'Europe' used to be - whereas the post-Brexit future would be, of course, a new form of life, a new stage in our relations with the world. (And it needn't be a new isolationism, as our international ties are, and will remain, highly complex, and by no means all of our relationships even with European countries are related to EU membership. Not to mention that there's a big wide world outside Europe...)
 The future is of course by definition unknowable - which is why a campaign fought largely on predictions has been so fatuous - but I do think this negative and static 'UK minus EU' model is flawed. As for what's going to happen when this referendum at last arrives, my own tentative prediction is that there will be a narrow vote in favour of Brexit, but that - the EU being what it is  - we'll end up staying in the EU after it comes back with a raft of concessions to swing a second referendum in favour of staying in. A dismal prospect after all this...

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

My Butterfly

A red-letter day for me yesterday: I saw the first Glanville Fritillary of my life! That's my (inadequate) photograph above.
 It wasn't a chance encounter. I set out in the morning with the Glanville in my sights - or my dreams - and knew just where I might discover it, in a nature reserve improbably situated at the edge of an unlovely suburb of Croydon. The Glanville, a butterfly (with an interesting history) otherwise confined to the Isle of Wight, had been reintroduced there a few years ago and was apparently doing well. What I hadn't adequately researched was exactly how to find my way from the tram stop to the reserve, so inevitably I set off in the wrong direction and found myself lost in a labyrinth of seemingly endless Crescents (the most vexing kind of street) in search of a way out.
 Eventually, with a little help from passersby who seemed none too sure about it, I found a way into a spinny, from which I emerged into an unpromising sloping field. From this I eventually escaped by following an obscure path through another spinny - which duly delivered me into a second, even more unpromising field. By now the morning sun had disappeared, there was a chilly breeze, and my hopes were fading fast.
 To escape this latest dismal field margin, I bashed my way through a bed of mixed nettles and thistles, found myself on a remnant of a path, with daylight at its end - and was delighted to emerge onto a decidedly promising bank of scrubby downland. And the sun came out. And within minutes I had the heart-lifting pleasure of seeing a Green Hairstreak, my second of the year - surely a good omen for the Year of the Hairstreak. Dingy Skippers followed, and Small Heaths, Brimstones galore, Peacocks, Common and Holly Blues... I might not have reached my exact destination, but I was clearly heading in the right direction. This was looking good.
 It stayed that way too - despite a young man who seemed to be living rough on the downs assuring me that there were 'no butterflies, mate ' - and after a while it got even better. As I walked along the upper slope of the bank, I noticed down below, in a sheltered lane, a group of middle-aged men (mes semblables, mes frรจres) with fancy optical equipment - clearly butterfly men, and they'd clearly found something. I made my way down and joined them, and straight away there it was, posing most obligingly for one of the camera-wielders - my first Glanville Fritillary, wings spread in the distinctive near-delta shape, looking rather smaller than I'd imagined it in my lepidopteral fantasies, but every bit as beautifully marked.
 It was not to be my last. When, a little later, the sun having gone in, I sat down on a bench to eat my 'ploughman's lunch', I looked down and there, little more than a yard from my right foot, was another Glanville, quite still, wings spread, showing no inclination to move. A friendly chap - clearly the tutelary spirit of the place - joined me on the bench with a can of cola, and I pointed out our companion to him. Ah yes, he said, I know that one. And he did, he knew him individually - a particularly lazy specimen with his own particular favourite posing spots and a taste for settling on scraps of dry wood. He'd been following the Glanville year - larvae, pupae and all - with close attention and knew just what was going on, and all about Glanvilles in general. He was particularly pleased that an aberration - ab. Wittei, I think (there are many others) - had appeared in the population. He talked of the Glanville's extraordinary life cycle - ten months of the year as a caterpillar, a couple of weeks' flight - and how the females, larger than the males, skulk in the bushes and seldom fly much, perhaps because they're carrying a load of 200 or so eggs.
 All the while, he was keeping half an eye on the sky, waiting for the sun to emerge again. When it did, the Glanville at my feet stirred at last, flew off to perch on a nearby scrap of wood, then summoned the energy to head for some nearby buttercups for a spot of nectar.
 I saw two or three more Glanvilles - and even managed (just about) to catch those beautiful underwings on camera - before I left, a happy man. And I even found the tram stop without getting lost again.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Frost's Butterfly

As well as a lifelong love of his poetry, Richard Wilbur had another connection with Robert Frost. His wife's grandfather, William Hayes Ward, had been editor of The New York Independent, in which Frost had his first poem published, in 1895. William's wife, Susan, was a poetry lover and expert on hymnody who was taken with Frost's work from the start. All his life Frost described her as 'the first friend of my poetry'.
 That debut poem of Frost's was My Butterfly, and it says something for Susan Haye Ward's discernment that she could see the promise of greatness glimmering faintly in what is clearly prentice work....

THINE emulous fond flowers are dead, too,
And the daft sun-assaulter, he
That frighted thee so oft, is fled or dead:
Save only me
(Nor is it sad to thee!)        5
Save only me
There is none left to mourn thee in the fields.
The gray grass is not dappled with the snow;
Its two banks have not shut upon the river;
But it is long ago—        10
It seems forever—
Since first I saw thee glance,
With all the dazzling other ones,
In airy dalliance,
Precipitate in love,        15
Tossed, tangled, whirled and whirled above,
Like a limp rose-wreath in a fairy dance.
When that was, the soft mist
Of my regret hung not on all the land,
And I was glad for thee,        20
And glad for me, I wist.
Thou didst not know, who tottered, wandering on high,
That fate had made thee for the pleasure of the wind,
With those great careless wings,
Nor yet did I.        25
And there were other things:
It seemed God let thee flutter from his gentle clasp:
Then fearful he had let thee win
Too far beyond him to be gathered in,
Snatched thee, o’er eager, with ungentle grasp.        30
Ah! I remember me
How once conspiracy was rife
Against my life—
The languor of it and the dreaming fond;
Surging, the grasses dizzied me of thought,        35
The breeze three odors brought,
And a gem-flower waved in a wand!
Then when I was distraught
And could not speak,
Sidelong, full on my cheek,        40
What should that reckless zephyr fling
But the wild touch of thy dye-dusty wing!
I found that wing broken to-day!
For thou are dead, I said,
And the strange birds say.        45
I found it with the withered leaves
Under the eaves.

'Thine emulous fond flowers', forsooth - 'and glad for me, I wist' - 'the languor of it and the dreaming fond' - 'for thou are dead, I said'... But there's something there, under the strained sentimentality and the 'poetical' archaisms. Frost's handling of metre is precociously adept, and the odd arresting phrase shines out - 'the daft sun-assaulter', 'those great careless wings', 'the grasses dizzied me of thought' - and the penultimate stanza, culminating in the touch of that 'dye-dusty wing', is good.
 Frost himself was well pleased to see My Butterfly in print and to pocket the $15 fee. On the strength of it, he proposed to his girlfriend, Elinor Miriam White, but she wanted to finish college first. So Frost took himself off on an excursion to the gloriously-named Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia, proposing again on his return. This time Elinor said yes, and they were married at the end of the year.  A few years later, they were working the farm bought for them by Robert's grandfather, and Frost was beginning to write the poems for which he would become famous. The faint promise of My Butterfly had borne fruit.

Monday, 23 May 2016

1966: Best Year Ever?

In this month 50 years ago, two of the greatest albums ever made were released: the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds (did ever a classic album have a more ludicrously inappropriate cover?) and Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde. Each, in its own way, was a response to the release, in the last weeks of the previous year, of The Beatles' game-changing Rubber Soul - those were golden days for record-buying teenagers like my young self. Just how golden they were came home to me recently as I scanned a list of the year's major LP releases.
 In May alone - the month of Pet Sounds and Blonde on Blonde - Stevie Wonder released Up-Tight, the Small Faces their eponymous debut album, and Marvin Gaye Moods of Marvin Gaye. Earlier in the year, highlights included James Brown's I Got You LP, Simon & Garfunkel's Sounds of Silence, Them Again (by, er, Them), John Coltrane's Ascension (to take a detour into jazz), The Young Rascals, the Lovin' Spoonful's Daydream album, The Fugs (if you like that kind of thing; I did), the Mamas & the Papas' If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, Sam & Dave's Hold On, I'm Coming and Otis Redding's The Soul Album.
 And the gems just kept on coming through the rest of the year: the Byrds' Fifth Dimension, the Beatles' Revolver, Aretha Franklin's Soul Sister, the Mothers of Inventions' Freak Out! (if you like, etc.), the Incredible String Band's debut album (ditto), Sunshine Superman by the mighty Donovan, Jefferson Airplane's first album (and Buffalo Springfield's), The Exciting Wilson Pickett, very different first albums by the Monkees and Tim Buckley, Love's Da Capo, Junior Walker's Road Runner LP and the Rolling Stones' youthful live album Got Live if You Want It - not to mention The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators. And this is to say nothing of a vintage crop of singles...
 Surely this was a truly great year, an annus mirabilis - it certainly felt like it at the time, and it still looks that way now. Was there ever a better year? Probably not, at least for the music-crazed 16-going-on-17-year-old that I was half a century ago.

Friday, 20 May 2016

Wherever This Is

Yesterday's news story about Pat Glass, shadow Europe minster, came as no surprise. While drumming up support for the EU in Derbyshire, she was heard to say 'The very first person I came to was a horrible racist.' Well, we should know by now that many senior Labour politicians - those supposed friends of the Working Class - tend to be thoroughly appalled when they actually meet a specimen thereof, unless said specimen belongs to an approved ethnic minority or client group. Ms Glass's remark was almost an exact replay of Gordon Brown's 'bigoted woman', and in the same fine tradition as Emily Thornberry's snide tweet of an 'Image from Rochester' (a blameless white van and England's national flag).
 Over recent decades, white working-class people have been done over by governments of every stripe (see Michael Collins' The Likes of Us for a brilliant account of this). They've been done over by de-industrialisation and globalisation, done over by mass immigration, and done over by membership of the EU (which, for them, means mass immigration and low wages). Over the first two of these they have had no say, but, by a bizarre twist of fate, they will have a say in our continuing membership of the EU - and I suspect they're going to speak loud and clear and quite possibly swing it for Brexit. We'll see...
 Meanwhile, back to the ghastly Ms Glass. What she also said, having denounced the 'horrible racist', was 'I'm never coming back to wherever this is.' Wherever this is. Some hideous place where white working-class racists live, get me out of here... 'This', in fact, was the southeast Derbyshire village of Sawley - not exactly a picture-postcard village, but, like so many in Derbyshire, it has a fine church. All Saints has a grand five-light East window, a chantry chapel, several 15th and 16th-century monuments, and some fascinating fragments of a demolished monument, including an angel swinging a censer.
 Wherever this is, it is continuous with a deep past, a history of life and death and faith. It is platonic England, a country unknown to the likes of Ms Glass.

Thursday, 19 May 2016


Talking of Victorian Olympians, I was at Leighton House today. This sumptuous palazzo in Holland Park was the home, studio and personal art gallery of that giant of the high Victorian art world, Frederic Leighton, 1st Baron Leighton, President of the Royal Academy, etc. I was there partly to refresh my memory for a piece I'm writing elsewhere, and partly to take a look at an exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite drawings (collected by Dennis Lanigan, a Canadian surgeon and collector, and bound for the National Gallery of Canada) that is soon coming to an end.
 To be frank, if it wasn't in such a glorious setting, this exhibition of 100 or so drawings, spread over several rooms of the house, wouldn't be much fun. Mostly studies, sketches, designs and preparatory drawings, the pictures on display cover the familiar range of Pre-Raphaelite fixations - to quote the headings from the handlist, Romantic Middle Ages, Biblical Times and Morality, Antiquity: A Dream of the Past, and Renaissance Men (themes from Italian art and literature). There's plenty of good draughtsmanship on display, as you'd expect - in those days artists could really draw - but the high-mindedness, archaism and artificiality get pretty wearing after a while.
Happily there are also a fair number of landscapes and portraits, and these are easier to enjoy. My eye was caught by an exquisite pencil drawing by Henry Wallis of Mary Ellen Meredith, wife (at the time) of the flame-haired poet and novelist George, who modelled for Wallis's most famous painting, The Death of Chatterton. Within months of that picture's sensational success, Mary Ellen - daughter of Thomas Love Peacock, who took a dim view of his son-in-law - had left George for Henry Wallis. They travelled together for a while, Mary Ellen bore him a son, and then, on their return to London, Wallis abandoned her and the child. Meredith promptly seized his son by Mary Ellen and refused to make any attempt at reconciliation, even as she became more and more ill. The poor woman died alone and wretched, just a few years after Wallis drew her so tenderly, and neither he nor Meredith nor even Peacock attended her funeral. A terrible - and terribly Victorian - story.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Climbing the Golden Staircase

This - The Golden Staircase: Poems and Verses for Children, chosen by Louey Chisholm - was the poetry anthology of my earliest childhood (to be supplemented later by the Golden Treasury, A Book of Narrative Verse, Lyra Heroica and the near-anthology Tennyson & Browning). I still have my Golden Staircase, in a condition best described as falling apart, but still just about intact, complete with childish drawings on what endpapers survive. Published in Edinburgh (around 1900?), it is a very Scottish-flavoured anthology, full of border ballads and the likes of Young Lochinvar and Edinburgh After Flodden (both of which, I believe, I had by heart, little though I understood them, especially the latter). It is arranged as a journey through poetry, from verses suitable for a four-year-old to more demanding stuff that might suit a 14-year-old; the last poems are Arnold's The Forsaken Merman and two long ballads (The Gay Goshawk and Hynde Etin). As if the 200 selected poems weren't enough, there follow a selection of Cradle Songs and another of Carols, Hymns and Sacred Verse.
 The illustrations (by M. Dibdin Spooner) look insipid to my adult eye, but I found many of them haunting in my boyhood - not least The Forsaken Merman ('Come dear children, let us away; Down and away below'), The Pied Piper [above] and Kipling's The Hump ('Lifted the hump - the horrible hump - the hump that is black and blue').
 Looking at the volume again just now, I noticed that the first poem, The Robin ('When father takes his spade to dig, Then Robin comes along...') and several others are ascribed to Laurence Alma Tadema. Alma Tadema, the Victorian Olympian? Did he write as well as paint? Well, no - this Laurence Alma Tadema, I discover, was the oddly-named daughter of the great Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (and it's not easy to imagine him taking his spade to dig in the garden...). She seems to have led a blameless life of good works, good causes and literary endeavours, mostly for the benefit of children. She never married or had any children of her own - a fact that lends poignancy to her little poem If No One Ever Marries Me, which was set to music very effectively by Natalie Merchant (late of 10,000 Maniacs): here's the link.
 Another poem from The Golden Staircase that was set to music much later was Wynken, Blynken and Nod (the illustration for which was one of my favourites). This lullaby (by Eugene Field) had the honour of being set and performed by no less a figure than Donovan Leitch, and can be heard on his children's album, HMS Donovan (arguably his best work). Enjoy...

Monday, 16 May 2016

In Excelsis

Lilac time is brief, and can end suddenly - think of Geoffrey Hill's description of a churchyard after rain,  'blossom comes off in handfuls; the lilac Turned overnight a rough tobacco brown'. Around here the lilacs are already past their best and will soon be over, the bushes reverting to shapeless anonymity after their moment of fragrant glory.
 Many have painted lilac blossom, in situ and as a cut flower, but surely no one has ever caught its beauty as perfectly as Manet. In his long last illness, Manet painted a brilliant series of flower paintings, taking as his subjects the posies brought to him by visiting friends. The best of these are surely his paintings of sprays of lilac in light-catching, light-concentrating crystal vases against an intensely dark background. It's hard not to read these as an assertion of beauty - fragile but for now supreme - in the face of imminent death. Manet's treatment of the white-green colour and lacy texture of the lilac is masterly, and his intense focus on the reflections and refractions of light in the water creates an entire visual world, at once a naturalistic account of what is there and something more, something beyond. This is flower painting in excelsis.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Talking of Russia...

I note that this blog is suspiciously big in Russia just now. Norway remains way out ahead, followed by the United States, but Russia is breathing down American's neck, while the UK languishes way behind in fourth (and Ukraine showing well a few places lower). All very odd.

Eurovision: Join the Dots...

My very first post on this blog, back in May 2008, was about the Eurovision 'Song Contest' - won in that year by Russia. Eight years later, the contest in Stockholm last night was lost by Russia, who had put a massive effort into their entry (a blast of surefire thermonuclear Europop with all the trimmings) and were confident of gaining 'soft power' (something that doesn't come altogether naturally to them) by winning. Instead, Ukraine - yes, Ukraine, why did it have to be Ukraine? - wiped the floor with them, seizing the Eurovision crown with an angry downbeat song harking back to 1944 (its title) and the forcible repatriation of Tatars by, er, the Soviet Union.
 This is surely one of the maddest results ever, and the most overtly political. It looks as though, as far as 'Europe' is concerned, Russia has become the new America - or, by extension, the new UK, destined to annual humiliation. But at least we have the sense not to care - this is not our contest (though they increasingly use our language), this is not our music, this is not our world, this notional 'Europe'. I wonder if, this being the year of the Great Referendum, more people will join the dots and draw the obvious conclusion about our place in that other 'Europe'...

Thursday, 12 May 2016


Born on this day in 1828 was the poet, painter, translator and PRB bad boy Dante Gabriel Rossetti. He wasn't much of a painter, but he had his moments, and here's one - Proserpine, modelled by the unhappy Jane Morris and seething with dark subtext. You can admire it in Tate Britain, if you're so inclined...

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Fred and Ginger

We can't let the birthday of Fred Astaire - born Frederick Austerlitz on this day in 1899 - go unmarked. Astaire's dancing genius alone would have been enough to secure his lasting fame, but he was also one of the great singers of the 20th century, perhaps unsurpassed in his phrasing and diction, in his ability to capture the soul of a song and convey it with absolute precision and artistry. No wonder he was the favourite of so many great songwriters. Here he is showing how it's done, singing Jerome Kern's most beautiful song, with lyrics to fit by Dorothy Fields - and doesn't Ginger Rogers look gorgeous with her hair covered in shampoo?

Jeeves and Wooster

Last night I happened upon an episode of Jeeves and Wooster on the TV channel called Yesterday. In fact it was the first episode of the first series, originally shown on ITV in 1990 - and heavens, Stephen Fry (Jeeves) and Hugh Laurie (Wooster) look young! These TV films didn't go down too well with Wodehouse purists, but they look the business - high production values, great design - and the scripts really capture the spirit of Wodehouse, not least by retaining many of the author's choicest turns of phrase. What's more, Fry and Laurie - consummate comic performers (in those days) - are both perfectly cast, a better Jeeves-Wooster pairing even than Dennis Price and Ian Carmichael (both too old, though otherwise brilliant). And what's even more, Hugh Laurie gives some great musical performances - in the episode I caught last night, he (and a reluctant Fry) treat us to Cab Calloway's Minnie the Moocher. Elsewhere in the series, Laurie also sings Leslie Sarony's splendid Forty-Seven Ginger-Headed Sailors - your earworm for the day?
 Incidentally, isn't it wonderful that such great (and lavishly budgeted) drama should have emerged from somewhere other than the BBC? Peter Kosminsky, in his stirring speech at the Baftas the other night, would have us believe that without the BBC the broadcasting landscape would be a creative desert, with no programmes made that weren't intended purely to 'line the pockets of shareholders'. Just imagine - no Mad Men, no Sopranos, no The Wire, no Brideshead Revisited, no Jewel in the Crown, no Twin Peaks, no Breaking Bad, no Simpsons, no Father Ted... Oh, just a minute - none of those was made by the BBC.

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Green Day

The sun drew me back to the Surrey Hills today, and this time I had a plan: I'd take the long path through the woods to my destination, rather than the more exposed and frequented North Downs Way. I duly set off into the woods... and duly emerged, following a rudimentary map-reading error, about ten minutes later - onto, of course, the North Downs Way, just round the corner from where I'd started.
 Ah well. I resigned myself to this turn of events and stayed on the contour-hugging path above Denbies vineyard, with its wonderful wide views - and there, on the grassy bank to my right, was... a Green Hairstreak - the very butterfly I had set out to find. A beautiful specimen it was too, fluttering along, showing green and brown, green and brown - that green always startling, unique among British butterflies, an almost emerald, almost iridescent green, with a thin vein of silvery white (the 'hairstreak') running through it. It posed briefly, wings folded, on a leaf, green on green, and I stood - or rather crouched - in lepidopteral ecstasy. My first Green Hairstreak of the year - my first in, I think, four years - and I wasn't to see another for the rest of the day, though I did see my first Red Admiral (ridiculously late), Small Heaths (in cheery profusion) and a couple of bright and early Common Blues.
 The happy twist of fate that blessed me with a Green Hairstreak today convinced me that this is going to be my Year of the Hairstreak, the year in which I see them all, from Green to Brown by way of White-Letter, Black and Purple. Well, that's my plan.

Friday, 6 May 2016

Go Manual!

I mentioned recently that I was thinking of ditching my increasingly useless electric hover mower and taking the logical retroprogressive step of returning to hand mowing. Reader, I have done it - and, reader, I am well pleased, indeed I wish I'd done it years ago (after all, I don't have that much lawn to mow). I took a look online at what was available, bought myself a cheap, lightweight hand mower [further details on application] and left the old Mow 'n' Vac by the front gate, inviting anyone who wanted it to help themselves. Amazingly, someone did, within hours.
 My hand mower is easy to use - no electric lead to unroll, plug in and keep out of the way of the blades, no laborious manoeuvring around the lawn, just a gentle up-and-down stroll, with minimal pushing effort. It sounds better - a nice mechanical clatter and a satisfying rasp as blade meets grass - and it cuts better, trimming the grass rather than wrenching and tearing it. What's not to like?
 Philip Larkin (whom I might have mentioned once or twice before on this blog) was a motor mower man - forgivably, as he had much grass to cut. One of his last finished poems was inspired by an unfortunate mowing incident...

The Mower
The mower stalled, twice; kneeling, I found
A hedgehog jammed up against the blades,
Killed. It had been in the long grass.

I had seen it before, and even fed it, once.
Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world
Unmendably. Burial was no help:

Next morning I got up and it did not.
The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.


Wednesday, 4 May 2016

A Happy Return

Warm and sunny again - now the weather's turned, it seems determined to make a proper job of it - and today, borne in on the southerly breeze, came the first swifts! Four of them, this afternoon, passing over a park in Cheam, circling as they went. The world's still turning, summer is on its way. It was a well timed return too, this being Mrs N's birthday - though she was too occupied at the time with Summer, the adorable granddaughter, to notice the swifts passing over. There will be more, happily. Many more.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Ball Ball Ball, Footie Footie Footie...

I'm no football fan (though I have a soft spot for former Carshalton Athletic full-back Roy Hodgson) but Leicester City's Premiership triumph is in every way a great story, of a kind we could do with more of, especially in the bloated big-money world of professional football. The brouhaha on Radio 4 this morning included an interview with Julian Barnes, lifelong Leicester fan, who sounded mildly gratified. He, we were reminded, had foretold just such a turn of events in his account of the 'New Heaven' at the end of his History of the World in Ten and a Half Chapters, with Leicester not only winning the championship but being chosen, en bloc, as the new England team. Barnes said a few words about fiction's habit of anticipating fact, and seized the chance to align himself yet again with his 'great master' Flaubert. Ah well, fair enough - it's a great day for any lifelong Leicester fan...
 For myself, Leicester's triumph put me in mind of another great footballing underdog story - J.L. Carr's 1974 novel How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup. There's a review of it, written from a footballing angle, here.

Monday, 2 May 2016

While it lasts

At this time of year, the green alkanet - with its intense blue flowers, each dotted white at the centre, showing against fresh green foliage - is one of our most beautiful plants. (I say 'our', but it's an introduction, probably of long standing, probably grown for the red dye that can be extracted from its roots - its name is a derivative of the Arabic word for henna.) The alkanet has all too short a prime, so enjoy it while it lasts. Once the leaves start growing and the flowers fading, it becomes less attractive and gradually degenerates into a leathery, grey-leaved, gristle-rooted invader that crops up everywhere you don't want it, and stings like a nettle if you try to pull it out with bare hands.
 The short-lived beauty of the alkanet is easily overlooked in the midst of the great spring flowering - the flowering I enjoyed yesterday when the sudden arrival of sunny warm weather had me heading for the Surrey hills. Cowslips and violets everywhere, bluebells and windflowers in the old coppices, lovely pink-white cuckoo flowers showing above the grasses, blackthorn and wild cherry in full bloom...
 And what of the butterflies, I hear you ask? Orange tips, brimstones, a few tortoiseshells and peacocks (still no red admiral), speckled woods, holly blues... I was hoping for a green hairstreak (especially after my hairstreak duck last year), but no such luck (perhaps that long cold spell has held them back). However, my old friend the dingy skipper was flying - I saw three or four - and, a delightful surprise, a grizzled skipper, that little beauty that deserves a better name. As does its dingy cousin. In my book, there are no dingy butterflies.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Look Back in Anger - Why?

John Osborne's Look Back in Anger was on Radio 4 yet again yesterday, supplemented by an Archive on 4 in which David Tennant, star of this latest version, explored the play's origins, its impact, its place in Osborne's life, etc, etc. Why? Isn't it about time someone pointed out that Look Back in Anger is and always has been a pile of tosh - toxic tosh at that - of interest only as a period piece and a case study in morbid psychology? Call me a rabid feminist, but I really can't see the fun in listening to a whingeing little sociopath (yes, that 'iconic' figure Jimmy Porter) sadistically bullying, hectoring, insulting and degrading his long-suffering wife at unendurable length (with a little sentimental drivel about bears and squirrels thrown in). Is it because she's upper-middle-class that she somehow deserves this - or is it simply because she's a woman? Very much more the latter, I'd say, especially as Porter treats the other woman in the play every bit as badly. Jimmy Porter is essentially a projection of his woman-hating, mother-hating, narcissistic creator.
 Why has this ghastly play not slipped into oblivion, like most stage plays that seemed 'important' at the time? Why hasn't it been booed from the public arena by feminists - or just self-respecting women? Why does it keep coming back, and why on Radio 4 of all places? Theatrical revivals are one thing (theatregoers being easily pleased), but you'd expect better of Radio 4. It's notable that there hasn't been a TV version in a long while - no TV audience would stand for it. It's also notable that the first reviews of Look Back in Anger were entirely hostile, one critic lamenting that the actress Mary Ure (the lucky woman who was soon to become the second of Osborne's five wives) should have wasted her talent on a role that consisted largely of ironing and making lunch. Indeed. But then along came Kenneth Tynan ('I could not love anyone who did not wish to see Look Back in Anger') and Harold Hobson ('a landmark of British theatre'), and the rest is history - the dismal history of a dismal play that just keeps coming back to torment us. Enough already.