Tuesday, 12 December 2017

A Word for It...

Earlier today I was enjoying a morning of sparkling frost, deep blue sky and dazzling low sun. It was bitter cold, but the sun was warm on my face – a sensation I've always relished on days like these. There should be a word for it...
And there is, as I discovered at lunchtime, when the nature writer Robert Macfarlane had a spot on Radio 4's The World at One to talk about the rich store of winter words. (As author of the recent Lost Words, he's the go-to guy for this sort of thing.) And there it was – the word for the sensation of warm sun on the face on a cold winter day: apricity.
 There's a related verb, to apricate, meaning to bask in the sun (from the Latin apricus, sunny). I must remember that for my next beach holiday: 'I'm going down to the beach to apricate; I may be some time.' Meanwhile I look forward to my next experience of apricity.

Ignorance of History

'Our ignorance of history causes us to slander our own times. The ordinary person today lives better than a king did a century ago, but is ungrateful!'
 So wrote Gustave Flaubert (born on this day in 1821) to George Sand in 1871. The words were true enough then, and very much more so today, when living standards for most are beyond the wildest dreams of their grandparents, and yet are taken for granted as a mere minimum. But the widespread ignorance of history that has taken hold in this generation has other, potentially more dangerous effects.
 Not only do many take today's sky-high living standards for granted; they also take for granted our freedoms and the democracy that sustains them. Lacking historical perspective, they seem to believe – or act as if – these freedoms represent the default condition of human society, not something historically rare, fragile and vulnerable that must be vigilantly protected and, if necessary, fought for.
They understood these matters better in 1946 (see previous post).

Sunday, 10 December 2017

'There, intact, were various objects all familiar...'

'The need of our time is for wisdom rather than cleverness, intelligence rather than intellectualism, understanding as well as knowledge. Where there is no vision the people perish.
 Our aim is to assist in publicising those liberal and humanistic values whose continued existence is seriously threatened at the present time in our own country as well as elsewhere.'

  How's that for a publisher's mission statement? The words are those of Christopher Johnson Publishers Limited of Great Russell Street, London WC1, and I found them on the tattered dust wrapper of a slim volume published in 1946, Keats, Shelley and Rome, An Illustrated Miscellany, compiled by Neville Rogers. It's a collection of essays (and a poem) about the two poets and the house that memorialises them and in which one of them died – the Keats-Shelley Memorial that overlooks the Spanish Steps and the Piazza di Spagna in Rome.
 What gives the book its special flavour is the time in which it was written, in the immediate aftermath of the war in which the Eternal City had suffered under both Mussolini and Hitler (and from the activities of partisans). The house on the Spanish Steps had been lucky to survive largely unscathed – and especially lucky in having a formidable Italian woman, Vera Signorelli Cacciatore, as its fiercely protective Curator. The book includes the Signora's vivid eye-witness account of the long-awaited June day in 1944 when the Allied troops finally arrived, so worn out that they immediately lay down to sleep:
'Within five minutes of the order to halt the Piazza was covered with recumbent figures. There in the moonlight slept the soldiers: on the pavements, in the dried-up fountain, on the Scalinata of Santa Trinita dei Monti, propped against the obelisk; pillowed on a haversack, a kerbstone, a doorstep or a comrade...'
 These memories – and the related sense of the perilous fragility of civilisation – were still fresh when this little book was published. The first essay is a New York Times correspondent's (A.C. Sedgwick) account of his arrival in Rome with the Allied troops on the day of liberation. With an English Major, he made his way straight to the Keats-Shelley House, climbed the stairs, and was welcomed by Signora Cacciatore. He and the Major were her first welcome visitors in four years.
'There, intact,' writes Sedgwick, 'were various objects all familiar.... There was the smell – more of England than of Italy, or so one thinks – of leather bindings that bewitched Henry James. There was quiet, peace, pause in our lives in which to think, reflect and be thankful that such a haven had been spared, it would appear, by a miracle. Outside – it seemed very far away – we heard the clatter of our mechanised cavalry.'
  Keats, Shelley and Rome is dedicated 'To Young Englishmen who Died in Italy'.






Saturday, 9 December 2017

Some Reasons

Some of the reasons why this country was never going to make a fit with political 'Europe' in any of its various forms, from Common Market to EU:
1. English common law (bottom-up as against top-down).
2. A long history of stable democracy and secure borders, free of foreign occupation or conquest.
3. A preference for pragmatic empiricism and inductive reasoning, and a deep distrust of Big Ideas.
4. A unique place in the wider world, the legacy of a long maritime history and a relatively benign, uniquely wide-ranging empire.
5. A national character in which modesty, decency, emotional restraint, fair play and a sense of humour are (or were) prominent features.
6. A natural understanding of, and talent for, popular music. The English equivalent of today's lavish obsequies for Johnny Hallyday would be a state funeral for Shakin' Stevens.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

UK City of Larkin 2

So the next UK City of Culture will be Coventry (and why not?). The accolade has now followed Philip Larkin from his workplace (Hull) to his birthplace. It only remains to fill in the gaps with Leicester (Larkin 1946-50) and Belfast (1950-55) and that will be UK culture firmly nailed to the CV of one of its finest poets. And why not?

Birthdays

Sixty-eight today: me and Tom Waits. Birthdays haven't been the same since Edmundo Ros (7 December 1910 - 21 October 2011) went to join the celestial rumba band. And of course the NigeCorp silver band has long been mothballed.
I guess I'm now a soixante-huitard, but in an entirely English sense...

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

'An exhibition of reckless species-making'

Pictured above is Swainson's Warbler, one of the many species named by William John Swainson, ornithologist, all-round naturalist and pioneer of the use of lithograhy in zoological illustration. Swainson was a survivor of the bitter classification wars that raged through much of the 19th century (and still do today, in the form of the great Splitters v Lumpers debate). Swainson was an enthusiastic proponent of the Quinarian system of classification (don't ask) developed by William Sharp Macleay – a system that soon fell out of favour. Both Macleay and Swainson emigrated to Australasia (no mean endeavour in those days), Macleay to Australia, Swainson to Wellington, New Zealand, where he bought a huge tract of land – which was promptly claimed by a Maori chief, leading to much legal wrangling.
 A visiting American, finding both Macleay and Swainson living in the Antipodes, speculated that they must have been sent into exile 'for the great crime of burdening zoology with a false though much laboured theory which has thrown so much confusion into its classification and philosophical study'.
 In 1851 Swainson sailed to Sydney and took up a post as Botanical Surveyor with the Victoria government. His efforts were not well received. William Jackson Hooker opined that 'In my life I think I never read such a series of trash and nonsense. Here is a man who left this country with the character of a first-rate naturalist and of a very first-rate Natural History artist, and he goes to Australia and takes up Botany, of which he is as ignorant as a goose.' Another critic described Swainson's botanical work as 'an exhibition of reckless species-making that, as far as I know, stands unparalleled in the annals of botanical literature'. Scientists didn't mince their words in those days.
 Swainson returned to Wellington in 1854, and died on this day in the following year.