Sunday, 28 August 2016

A Party Poem for Betjeman's Birthday

Today is the 110th birthday of John Betjeman, 'poet and hack' (as he described himself). He was perhaps the last truly popular poet laureate we'll ever have, a writer of easy-to-read 'light verse' that is often surprisingly dark-edged and always strangely ambivalent.
 In this poem, False Security, Betjeman abandons his usual jogalong metre to re-enter his Highgate childhood, recreating its fears and anxieties and its redeeming joys...


I remember the dread with which I at a quarter past four
Let go with a bang behind me our house front door
And, clutching a present for my dear little hostess tight,
Sailed out for the children's party into the night
Or rather the gathering night. For still some boys
In the near municipal acres were making a noise
Shuffling in fallen leaves and shouting and whistling
And running past hedges of hawthorn, spiky and bristling.
And black in the oncoming darkness stood out the trees
And pink shone the ponds in the sunset ready to freeze
And all was still and ominous waiting for dark
And the keeper was ringing his closing bell in the park
And the arc lights started to fizzle and burst into mauve
As I climbed West Hill to the great big house in the grove,
Where the children's party was and the dear little hostess.
But halfway up stood the empty house where the ghost is.
I crossed to the other side and under the arc
Made a rush for the next kind lamppost out of the dark
And so to the next and the next till I reached the top
Where the grove branched off to the left. Then ready to drop
I ran to the ironwork gateway of number seven
Secure at last on the lamp lit fringe of heaven.
Oh who can say how subtle and safe one feels
Shod in ones children's sandals from Daniel Neal's,
Clad in one's party clothes made of stuff from Heal's?
And who can still one's thrill at the candle shine
On cakes and ices and jelly and blackcurrant wine,
And the warm little feel of my hostess's hand in mine?
Can I forget my delight at the conjuring show?
And wasn't I proud that I was the last to go?
Too overexcited and pleased with myself to know
That the words I heard my hostess's mother employ
To a guest departing, would ever diminish my joy,
I WONDER WHERE JULIA FOUND THAT STRANGE, RATHER COMMON LITTLE BOY?


Thursday, 25 August 2016

Bird, Beast and Flower

The other day I rediscovered a rather fine poetry anthology on my bookshelves - Bird, Beast and Flower, with watercolours by Marie Angel and poems chosen by Ian Parsons. I remember buying it some time in the Eighties when the children were small, but it isn't quite a children's anthology and I don't think it got much use. I had all but forgotten we still had it, and was delighted to find it again.
 It's a handsome quarto volume of sixty-odd pages, quite beautifully illustrated with watercolour plates and illuminated letters (Marie Angel was a calligrapher and illuminator as well as a watercolorist). These are not only beautiful but accurate, and a key to the illustrations tells us which flowers and animals are shown in each plate. The choice of poems is interesting: there are old favourites you'd expect - Blake's Tyger, Wordsworth's Daffodils, Browning's Home Thoughts, Keats's Autumn, songs by Shakespeare and his contemporaries - but some surprises too. An entire spread, with fittingly illuminated initial letter, is given over to Marianne Moore's Abundance, a celebration of the Jerboa, 'the sand-brown jumping-rat'; there's a page from Leaves of Grass ('There was a child went forth every day...'); Herrick is represented by the less than obvious The Sadness of Things for Sappho's Sickness. R.W. Dixon's Song - about which I've written before - is here, as are Christina Rossetti's lovely A Birthday ('My heart is like a singing bird...'), Emily Dickinson's A Narrow Fellow, Edward Thomas's haunting Out in the Dark, and  Edmund Blunden's The March Bee, which was new to me. But here's the one to end with - a vivid evocation of the kind of weather we've been having here in southeast England by one William Canton, a poet I had never heard of (of course he's in Wikipedia)...

Day-Dreams

Broad August burns in milky skies,
The world is blanched with hazy heat;
The vast green pasture, even, lies
Too hot and bright for eyes and feet.

Amid the grassy levels rears
The sycamore against the sun
The dark boughs of a hundred years,
The emerald foliage of one.

Lulled in a dream of shade and sheen,
Within the clement twilight thrown
By that great cloud of floating green,
A horse is standing, still as stone.

He stirs nor head nor hoof, although
The grass is fresh beneath the branch;
His tail alone swings to and fro
In graceful curves from haunch to haunch.

He stands quite lost, indifferent
To rack or pasture, trace or rein;
He feels the vaguely sweet content
Of perfect sloth in limb and brain.



Bird, Beast and Flower, which seems never to have been reprinted since its publication in 1980, is happily still available on AbeBooks, and on Amazon for as little as 1p.
And here's a fine example of Marie Angel's illumination (quoting Whitman)...

From a Golden Age

I'm passing this on - with grateful tips of the hat to Jonathan Law and Ian Beck - simply because it's a cheering story, with some rather beautiful images. How wonderful - and how characteristic of the period - that Lyons should respond to a postwar shortage of decorating materials by commissioning a series of fine art lithographs to brighten up their Corner Houses. It put me in mind of another artistic initiative from the same period - the School Prints - which I wrote about a while ago. With initiatives like these and the brilliant poster work being done for London Transport and the train companies (and businesses like Shell), this postwar period - and indeed the whole period from the Thirties through to the early Sixties - was surely a golden age of graphic art. The pictorial environment of this country was never richer - was it?
[The image above is Fishing at Marlow by Edwin la Dell.]

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Box Hill Blues

I took this so-so picture of part of the famous view from Box Hill this afternoon. Of course it does little justice to a view too wide and far and subtly toned to be captured in a photograph. Actually I'm not a great one for views as such (though I wouldn't go so far as John Byng, who, in the Torrington Diaries, declares flatly 'I abhor distant prospects'). This one, though, seen under a clear blue summer sky, is quite something.
 However, I was not at Box Hill to admire the view, and I'm happy to report that, in fields sloping down to the left of the picture, I found, after a good deal of fruitless searching, what I was looking for - the glorious Adonis Blue. As I wandered down the slope, I had a couple of possible sightings, but it wasn't until I had all but given up hope that I spotted a likely Adonis nectaring on a head of Scabious, wings folded. I crept up close enough to be pretty sure - and then this beauty opened its wings in a blaze of heavenly blue and flew off, to be joined almost immediately by another male, and then another... This wonderful butterfly summer just keeps on giving.

Monday, 22 August 2016

Ron Dante: From "Sugar, Sugar" to the Paris Review

Among today's notable birthdays is the 71st of Ron Dante (not to be confused with Troy Dante, of Troy Dante & the Infernos). Ron Dante is a music business all-rounder - singer, record producer, songwriter,  session singer and creator of virtual bands, most notably The Archies, a cartoon band who had a massive hit with the infernally catchy Sugar, Sugar (the top-selling record in the US in the year of Woodstock). Dante effectively was The Archies, producing their recordings and doing most of the vocals, male and female, himself (anonymously). His other 'bands' included The Cuff Links (Tracy), The Detergents, Two Dollar Question and another cartoon group, The Chan Clan. Under his own name he released a handful of albums, including a disco LP called, inevitably, Dante's Inferno (complete with a 12-inch red vinyl single, Fire Island).
 Rather more respectably, Dante was Barry Manilow's record producer from 1973 to 1981. Manilow returned the favour by producing a dance version of Sugar, Sugar sung by Dante under his own name. Dante also produced the successful musical Ain't Misbehavin' on Broadway - and it was around this time that his Manhattan neighbour George Plimpton invited him to be publisher of the esteemed literary quarterly The Paris Review (which Plimpton had co-founded), taking over the position from the Aga Khan, no less. Ron Dante served in this capacity from 1978 to 1985. So, next time you hear Sugar, Sugar, remember - this was made by the publisher of The Paris Review.

Friday, 19 August 2016

Is Radio 4 Risking a Diplomatic Incident?

Radio 4's Book at Bedtime this week and next is Eight Months on Ghazzah Street. This is doubly gratifying: not only is Hilary Mantel's third novel an excellent piece of work, it is also - in its unflinching portrayal of the Hell on Earth that is Saudi Arabia - just the kind of thing you might have expected the PC multiculturalists of Radio 4 to avoid. I'm sure the Saudi embassy will be sorely displeased. So hats off to Radio 4 for making this bold choice of Book at Bedtime.
 They're making a good job of it too, with Anna Maxwell Martin a perfect choice of reader.  The collaborative abridgement by Hilary Mantel and Sara Davies seems to have lost nothing of the novel's disturbingly sinister atmosphere, nor the loathing and disgust that infuses it. It's a great listen (you can hear it all on the Radio 4 iPlayer) - just as the novel (which I reread a few years ago) was a great read.
 I first read Eight Months on Ghazzah Street - and the two earlier novels - after having been hugely impressed by Fludd, and I subsequently read each new Hilary Mantel as it came out (with one exception, which I'll return to): A Change of Climate (another, very different dystopian take on expat life), An Experiment in Love, the extraordinary Beyond Black...  The one I never got round to reading, despite my best intentions, was Mantel's big historical novel of the French Revolution, A Place of Greater Safety. And sure enough, when Wolf Hall came out - another big historical novel - and then Bring Up the Bodies, another one, I balked again. Reader, I have not read Hilary Mantel's best-known, best-selling, prize-winning and most praised novels, the ones with which she found literary fame - and this despite having been a Mantel fan almost from the start of her career.
 Is it just me being perverse? I don't think so (and my earlier non-reading of A Place of Greater Safety would suggest a pattern). I know of at least a few other Mantel readers who have found themselves strangely unable to read Wolf Hall and its successor. This seems to suggest that Wolf Hall created a whole new Mantel readership, bringing in huge numbers of new readers who only felt the urge to read her when she turned her attention to Thomas Cromwell. Which is odd - but good news for the author, who had certainly earned her eventual fame.

Monday, 15 August 2016

Snapshot and Essence

An interesting discussion on the radio this morning about a new bird book - Britain's Birds: An Identification Guide to the Birds of Britain and Ireland - which is illustrated entirely with digital photographs (and on a grand scale, with more than 2,700 images). The author, Rob Hume, made the case for this omniphotographic approach, while artist and illustrator Ian Griffiths argued for painted illustration.
 Some of Griffiths' points - about, for example, the illustrator's total control of viewpoint, lighting and background - were partially rebutted by the sheer versatility and flexibility of digital photography. However, in the end pictorial illustration will always have the edge over photography for this kind of book - especially if picture space is limited - as the knowledgable illustrator can design his single image to emphasise exactly what needs to be shown for identification purposes, and to convey the overall 'feel' of its subject. Even the cleverest photography captures, by definition, a snapshot; a good painted illustration captures an essence. The very stylisation of the hand-made image allows it to be, in a sense, more real than the 'real thing' caught by the camera lens.
 This morning's discussion ended in acknowledging the virtues of both approaches - and their complementarity. The best field guides are those that contain both photographs and painted illustrations - as does the brilliant Philip's Guide to Butterflies of Britain and Ireland by Jeremy Thomas, the best pocket guide to British butterflies. But then butterflies are much smaller than birds, and it seems to be a rule that the smaller the subject the less useful photographic illustration is, and the more the discriminating eye of the illustrator is called for. Well, up to a point.