Sam Pepys’s diary today

I was just going to post the food reference from today’s entry at Pepys’ Diary, which tickled my fancy, but actually the whole thing is great. It completely sums up why Pepys is such a joy – the combination of frankness, interesting historical detail, and lively prose style.

“Up early. This being, by God

  • Post category:Other

Cloud Atlas

I recently read Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. It’s structurally odd – six stories which are all set in different historical periods and linked – but not causally.

i.e. the first strand is written as a journal, and the second has a character who finds the journal in a library and reads it, but is otherwise unconnected. It has the first half of all six narratives chronologically and then finishes them off in reverse order – i.e. 1 2 3 4 5 6 5 4 3 2 1 – so it ends with the one it started on. There are themes that run through, but still, it’s basically a book of shortish stories arranged in a gimmicky way.

Even so, I think it does, on balance, feel more like one work than six. And a lot of the writing is very good, though some strands are more successful than others. I still can’t decide whether the whole manages to be more than the sum of the parts. Does the result justify the gimmick? The historical sweep of the book, taken seriously, implies a kind of importance – it is a narrative on the Grand Scale. But actually it’s several narratives on the small scale.

I’m going round in circles (rather like Cloud Atlas). I am glad I read it, but not as impressed by it as I was hoping, given the reviews.

I’ve also just read Opening Skinner’s Box: Great Psychological Experiments of the Twentieth Century, by Lauren Slater. I read it in a couple of sittings, because it was readable and interesting, and I’d certainly recommend it, without feeling it changed my view of the world. That might seem like a high bar to set, but considering that I know relatively little about experimental psychology, there was room for it to teach me stuff. In the event, most of the experiments were more-or-less familiar from other reading. I suppose psychology has quite a high public profile.

Next up – the new translation of Don Quixote. January 16th was the 400th anniversary of the novel’s publication, and as I didn’t finish it when I tried reading it as a teenager, I thought this was a good time to have another go.

  • Post category:Culture

pheasant in the garden

There was a nice healthy-looking, shiny, brightly coloured male pheasant in the garden yesterday – which is pretty unusual in south London. What with the Ring-necked Parakeets and the Beast of Sydenham, it’s starting to seem pretty exotic around here.

  • Post category:Nature

poem no. 10 – Ralegh

As you came from the holy land – Sir Walter Ralegh

As you came from the holy land

  • Post category:Culture

Turner Whistler Monet

I went to Turner Whistler Monet at the Tate today.

The three artists are brought together because of shared interest in light, water, and shared subject matter – the Thames and Venice. Turner was an influence on the later two, as well.

It’s hard not to think of it as Turner vs Whistler vs Monet. In which case I think Whistler would win, on the basis of the paintings on display – though I have seen more impressive Turners and Monets in other exhibitions. Whistler’s ‘nocturnes’ were fab – very controlled, very simple, but absorbing. Monet came out worst; compared to the Whistlers and Turners, the fussiness of his brushwork seemed distracting, the colours bordered on the vulgar and the composition seemed a bit haphazard. Having said that, when the Monets were just right – or when I was in a more receptive frame of mind – they were lovely.

I went to have a look at the other Tate Turners later, and it’s really only the late paintings that invite comparison with Impressionists. The interest in light and atmosphere is clearly there in the early stuff, but he hasn’t developed the extraordinary colour-handling yet, and isn’t willing to let the light effects take over the painting to the point that they become the subject. It’s quite interesting that some of the late paintings that most interested the Impressionists are actually unfinished; he worked by laying down all the expanse of colours, then adding some details at the end to turn the painting into a lake scene, or Venice or whatever – but quite a lot survive which are just arrangements of colour. Even when he’d finished them, he didn’t always add very much, so it would be interesting to know what he’d think of people admiring them as paintings in their own right.

The TWM exhibition had some information about Mallarm

  • Post category:Culture


while in the tree, the dunnock flicks its wings

idea for poem: 30 final lines

under sodium streetlights, daffodils are the same colour as concrete

the smell of smoke turns a spring night into autumn

I don’t know why I’m producing all this nature-stuff particularly. ho-hum

  • Post category:Me

poem no. 9 – Yeats

High Talk by W B Yeats

Processions that lack high stilts have nothing that catches the eye.
What if my great-granddad had a pair that were twenty foot high,
And mine were but fifteen foot, no modern stalks upon higher,
Some rogue of the world stole them to patch up a fence or a fire.

Because piebald ponies, led bears, caged lions, make but poor shows,
Because children demand Daddy-long-legs upon his timber toes,
Because women in the upper storeys demand a face at the pane,
That patching old heels they may shriek, I take to chisel and plane.

Malachi Stilt-Jack am I, whatever I learned has run wild,
From collar to collar, from stilt to stilt, from father to child.

All metaphor, Malachi, stilts and all. A barnacle goose
Far up in the stretches of night; night splits and the dawn breaks loose;
I, through the terrible novelty of light, stalk on, stalk on;
Those great sea-horses bare their teeth and laugh at the dawn.

I only recently realised there were people who didn’t like Yeats. Hearing their objections did at least encourage me to look at his work more critically. The complaint is that he is grandiose, a posturer, a blusterer. I can recognise that about him; he plays the part of the Big Poet, and the attitude can grate. I also think that, at a time when we tend to value gritty authenticity in art, we’re suspicious of someone who is such a glamoriser.

With the McCartney sisters just back from the USA, it’s tempting to focus on the dangerous glamour of Yeats’s nationalism. But actually, he brings glamour to every subject he touches. Partially it’s the lusciousness of the language, but it’s the treatment as well. Take Among School Children. Imagine if Larkin had written a poem about visiting a schoolroom as an aging local worthy, and reflecting on lost youth and mortality; perhaps it would have been bleak, perhaps it would have been wryly humorous. But it certainly wouldn’t have managed to reference Plato, Leda, Quattrocento art, Alexander the Great and Pythagoras.

Anyway, I recognise the fairness of the accusation. I generally prefer the sparer late poems to the floweriness of things like The Lake Isle of Innisfree, and I’m sceptical in the face of some of the more outlandish poems, like Sailing to Byzantium. But I think you can be pretty ruthless in stripping out the overly twee and the overly showy, and still be left with more great poems than any other C20th poet.

One of them, I think, is this one. In some ways it is guilty of exactly the showy gesture-making that makes me wary elsewhere – he’s boasting about and justifying his showmanship with striking and dramatic images; images which, perhaps, don’t mean much. But I love it anyway, for the long lines, the spareness of the language, and the striking imagery. Perhaps it’s because the poem’s central metaphor is rooted in reality, rather than some mystical vision of Byzantium, or faerie Ireland. I like the Crazy Jane poems for the same reason – they feel rooted, physical and placed.

  • Post category:Culture

poem no. 8 – Clare

The Crow by John Clare

How peaceable it seems for lonely men
To see a crow fly in the thin blue sky
Over the woods and fealds, o’er level fen
It speaks of villages, or cottage nigh
Behind the neighbouring woods — when March winds high
Tear off the branches of the huge old oak
I love to see these chimney sweeps sail by
And hear them o’er gnarled forest croak
Then sosh askew from the hid woodman’s stroke
That in the woods their daily labours ply
I love the sooty crow nor would provoke
Its march day exercises of croaking joy
I love to see it sailing to and fro
While feelds, and woods, and waters spread below.

Because sometimes it’s enough for a poem to be joyful. It happened to be The Crow, but it could have been one of dozens of Clare poems.

  • Post category:Culture

grand slam for Wales?

I’m looking forward to the Wales/Ireland game today. I’ll be supporting Wales, and hadn’t even considered supporting Ireland, so I was quite intrigued to read Simon Barnes‘s assumption that the English would support Ireland.

He says “Partly, this is because the English have always loved the Irish when they are not actually shooting them. And partly it�s because it would be so good to see the Welsh fail.” It’s not that either of those things are untrue – we do tend to have a soft spot for the Irish and we are often rude about the Welsh – but I wouldn’t have thought people’s loyalties were as clear-cut as all that. For a start, there’s a sentimental English affection for the great Welsh rugby teams of JPR and JJ. Those were before my time, but I still think ‘Welsh rugby’ has a slightly different public image to ‘Wales’. Especially as they’ve been playing such attractive rugby during this championship.

Anyway, I was thinking how odd the English hostility to Wales is. The fact that the three Celtic nations are always so keen to get one over on the English is unsurprising; even if it wasn’t for all historical baggage, the simple power relationship (England being much bigger and richer, with London as the capital) would tend to encourage that. Rather like everyone disliking the Americans. And it wouldn’t be surprising if the English returned the hostility all round. But actually the English tend to quite like the Scots and Irish and are always slightly hurt when they are nasty about us. But we regularly make rude or disparaging comments about the Welsh. I don’t think they’re generally very seriously meant, but still. It puts them in an odd little club with the Americans, Australians, and French – all of whom the English are liable to make disparaging comments about for no particular reason. Not that the English aren’t rude about Italians, Belgians, Germans, Greeks, New Zealanders, Dutch, Japanese, Swiss or Swedish, but that’s different, I think.

And I don’t think all this general-purpose xenophobia is anything like racism, really. The French may be annoying, but that doesn’t mean we hate them or anything.

Anyway, time for the rugby. Go on, Wales.

  • Post category:Other

poem no. 7 – Coleridge

This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison by Samuel Coleridge

Well, they are gone, and here must I remain,
This lime-tree bower my prison! I have lost
Beauties and feelings, such as would have been
Most sweet to my remembrance even when age
Had dimm’d mine eyes to blindness! They, meanwhile,
Friends, whom I never more may meet again,
On springy heath, along the hill-top edge,
Wander in gladness, and wind down, perchance,
To that still roaring dell, of which I told;
The roaring dell, o’erwooded, narrow, deep,
And only speckled by the mid-day sun;
Where its slim trunk the ash from rock to rock
Flings arching like a bridge;–that branchless ash,
Unsunn’d and damp, whose few poor yellow leaves
Ne’er tremble in the gale, yet tremble still,
Fann’d by the water-fall! and there my friends
Behold the dark green file of long lank weeds,
That all at once (a most fantastic sight!)
Still nod and drip beneath the dripping edge
Of the blue clay-stone.

Now, my friends emerge
Beneath the wide wide Heaven–and view again
The many-steepled tract magnificent
Of hilly fields and meadows, and the sea,
With some fair bark, perhaps, whose sails light up
The slip of smooth clear blue betwixt two Isles
Of purple shadow! Yes! they wander on
In gladness all; but thou, methinks, most glad,
My gentle-hearted Charles! for thou hast pined
And hunger’d after Nature, many a year,
In the great City pent, winning thy way
With sad yet patient soul, through evil and pain
And strange calamity! Ah! slowly sink
Behind the western ridge, thou glorious Sun!
Shine in the slant beams of the sinking orb,
Ye purple heath-flowers! richlier burn, ye clouds!
Live in the yellow light, ye distant groves!
And kindle, thou blue Ocean! So my friend
Struck with deep joy may stand, as I have stood,
Silent with swimming sense; yea, gazing round
On the wide landscape, gaze till all doth seem
Less gross than bodily; and of such hues
As veil the Almighty Spirit, when yet he makes
Spirits perceive his presence.
A delight
Comes sudden on my heart, and I am glad
As I myself were there! Nor in this bower,
This little lime-tree bower, have I not mark’d
Much that has sooth’d me. Pale beneath the blaze
Hung the transparent foliage; and I watch’d
Some broad and sunny leaf, and lov’d to see
The shadow of the leaf and stem above
Dappling its sunshine! And that walnut-tree
Was richly ting’d, and a deep radiance lay
Full on the ancient ivy, which usurps
Those fronting elms, and now, with blackest mass
Makes their dark branches gleam a lighter hue
Through the late twilight : and though now the bat
Wheels silent by, and not a swallow twitters,
Yet still the solitary humble-bee
Sings in the bean-flower! Henceforth I shall know
That Nature ne’er deserts the wise and pure;
No plot so narrow, be but Nature there,
No waste so vacant, but may well employ
Each faculty of sense, and keep the heart
Awake to Love and Beauty! and sometimes
‘Tis well to be bereft of promis’d good,
That we may lift the soul, and contemplate
With lively joy the joys we cannot share.
My gentle-hearted Charles! when the last rook
Beat its straight path across the dusky air
Homewards, I blest it! deeming its black wing
(Now a dim speck, now vanishing in light)
Had cross’d the mighty Orb’s dilated glory,
While thou stood’st gazing; or, when all was still,
Flew creeking o’er thy head, and had a charm
For thee, my gentle-hearted Charles, to whom
No sound is dissonant which tells of Life.

There are days when I think that Kubla Khan and Rime of the Ancient Mariner are Coleridge’s most important poems, for their uniqueness and strangeness. And other days when I think that Gothic pantheism, for all its crowd-pleasing melodrama, was really a dead-end, and it’s the conversation poems like this one which really matter.

There is of course no need to make a choice.

As a birdwatcher, I’m always intrigued by the different ways that ‘nature poets’ (Clare, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Hopkins, Lawrence, Hughes) look at nature. I do mean ‘look’; it’s not just the different spin people choose to put on their experiences, it’s what kinds of thing they see. Shelley doesn’t see the skylark at all, but a blithe spirit – a metaphor, in fact. Wordsworth seems to see landscapes; he’s the classic fell-walker type, who sees the great sweep of the hills but doesn’t see the flowers under his feet (unless there’s a host of them). Coleridge has much more of an eye for detail. The Nightingale is a really accurate poem about a birdwatching experience.

This poem also represents much that’s been a malign influence on poetry in the past 200 years, though. The effusiveness (19 exclamation marks in this poem), the emphasis on personal emotion, the sentimentality – even in this poem I think they could be toned down. Still, I find Coleridge a very likeable figure and I think writing like this needs to be recognised:

Wander in gladness, and wind down, perchance,
To that still roaring dell, of which I told;
The roaring dell, o’erwooded, narrow, deep,
And only speckled by the mid-day sun;
Where its slim trunk the ash from rock to rock
Flings arching like a bridge;–that branchless ash,
Unsunn’d and damp, whose few poor yellow leaves
Ne’er tremble in the gale, yet tremble still,
Fann’d by the water-fall! and there my friends
Behold the dark green file of long lank weeds,
That all at once (a most fantastic sight!)
Still nod and drip beneath the dripping edge
Of the blue clay-stone.

  • Post category:Culture


An improvised meatloaf that was good enough to try and record the recipe.

400g minced beef
50g breadcrumbs soaked in 4tbs milk for about 30 mins
1 egg
2 cloves of garlic
1 finely chopped onion
1 baby orange pepper (perh 1/2 of a normal pepper)
about 2/3 of a sainsbury’s box of chestnut mushroms (150g?)
1 chopped tomato
a squidge of tomato puree (1 tsp?)
1 chopped anchovy
a sprinkle of Cool Chile Co. dried chillis
a v. small amount of fresh sage – about 1 leaf
a generous amount of fresh rosemary and basil
a splash of balsamic vinegar
a handful of freshly grated parmesan
salt and pepper

(I think that’s everything)

mix and put in an oiled loaf tin, spread a bit of oil on top

cook for 35 mins at 200C

pour off the juice and reserve

It was a bit wetter than I intended, so it didn’t slice very well. Tasted good, though. I poured a bit of the reserved juice over each serving to keep the flavour.

  • Post category:Other

poem no. 6 – Larkin

Cut Grass by Philip Larkin

Cut grass lies frail:
Brief is the breath
Mown stalks exhale.
Long, long the death

It dies in the white hours
Of young-leafed June
With chestnut flowers,
With hedges snowlike strewn,

White lilac bowed,
Lost lanes of Queen Anne’s lace,
And that high-builded cloud
Moving at summer’s pace.

I know that for some people – Matthew Caley, for example – Larkin represents everything that’s wrong with British poetry and Britishness: parochial, reactionary, old-fashioned, pessimistic, unambitious, and nostalgic. And there’s truth in the caricature – his poems have a fairly narrow frame of reference, he’s politically and technically conservative, and gloomily misanthropic.

But he only reads as old-fashioned if you equate ‘modern’ with ‘modernist’. He may be writing in metre and rhyme, but his language doesn’t stray into the archaic or strain for the poetic. The poems read as of their time – the mid/late C20th. I also think his poems are tougher and more clear-eyed than the nostalgic, parochial image might suggest. His own prejudices are never far away, but they don’t seem to swamp the poems. When you read a lot of Larkin poems together, the cumulative effect is misanthropic and reactionary; but the poems taken individually are more thoughtful and more detached than that.

He’s also just very very good at writing poetry. His poems are not generally flashy, and it’s possible to underrate how well he maintains a natural, almost colloquial voice within quite demanding stanza forms. His vivid, immediate description is also more sophisticated than it appears.

When I made a comment earlier that I seemed to have chosen a lot of minor poems by major writers, this was one I had in mind. But I’ve changed my mind. It may be shorter than Whitsun Weddings or Church-going or Aubade, but it’s still a major poem. The colour-theming of white and green, the use of dimeter, the play of vowel-sounds, the eerie way it makes the stillness of summer into something deathly – great stuff. It actually makes quite an interesting companion piece to the Marvell, though I wasn’t thinking of that when I chose it.

Next up – This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison.

  • Post category:Culture

poem no. 5 – Browning

Memorabilia by Robert Browning

Ah, did you once see Shelley plain,
And did he stop and speak to you?
And did you speak to him again?
How strange it seems, and new!

But you were living before that,
And you are living after,
And the memory I started at–
My starting moves your laughter!

I crossed a moor, with a name of its own
And a certain use in the world no doubt,
Yet a hand’s-breadth of it shines alone
‘Mid the blank miles round about:

For there I picked up on the heather
And there I put inside my breast
A moulted feather, an eagle-feather–
Well, I forget the rest.

This poem manages to be about fame, and memory, and reactions to nature, and the way our preoccupations affect the way we receive the world; all in 16 lines and without feeling overstuffed.

I like its light touch – the way Browning pokes fun at himself, and the rather bathetic ending. But that lightness doesn’t come attached to any irony or insincerity. Browning recognises the hunour in his own reaction, but doesn’t try to disown it.

The poem is just a couple of insubstantial anecdotes – moments, really – yoked together to make a point. But it’s done brilliantly. I particularly like the way that the two halves of the poem are separate. The first two stanzas could stand alone, and so could the last two. The connection between the two halves is never made explicit, but it doesn’t need to be, because the parallel is so apt.

  • Post category:Culture

ratafia ice-cream

Last night I served up sweetmeat cake, which is an egg-based tart with candied peel and chopped roasted hazelnuts in it. The recipe isfrom Jane Grigson’s English Food. To go with it I made ratafia ice cream – whipped cream mixed with crushed ratafia biscuits and some cointreau, and frozen. I meant to use Archers rather than cointreau, but didn’t have enough. The ice cream was nice, but rather too strongly flavoured for the tart. I might make it again and serve it with something else, though.

  • Post category:Other

those ten poems

Two things those poems aren’t, in any simple way: (1) The ten poems I’d take to a desert island. Or the ten poems I’d save if there was a fire at the British Library and they were the only works that would survive to represent English poetry for all time. (2) picked to indicate the kind of work I’d like to produce myself.

  • Post category:Culture

poem no. 3 – Auden

The Fall of Rome by W. H. Auden

The piers are pummelled by the waves;
In a lonely field the rain
Lashes an abandoned train;
Outlaws fill the mountain caves.

Fantastic grow the evening gowns;
Agents of the Fisc pursue
Absconding tax-defaulters through
The sewers of provincial towns.

Private rites of magic send
The temple prostitutes to sleep;
All the literati keep
An imaginary friend.

Cerebrotonic Cato may
Extol the Ancient Disciplines,
But the muscle-bound Marines
Mutiny for food and pay.

Caesar’s double-bed is warm
As an unimportant clerk
On a pink official form.

Unendowed with wealth or pity,
Little birds with scarlet legs,
Sitting on their speckled eggs,
Eye each flu-infected city.

Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast.

This poem doesn’t have the slippery, oblique intellectuality of Auden at his most Audenesque. September 1, 1939 seems like a typically Auden poem; faced with the second great war of his lifetime, he produced a poem that flickers between the grand sweep of history and the mundanities of everyday life, via psychology and ethics and politics – but without using ideas to hide from the ominous reality.

The Fall of Rome is much more direct, although the handling of form, the subject matter and the use of the anachronisms all feel typically Auden. I think what makes this poem stick in my mind is simply the image-making – the aptness and precision. I like the poem even though I have an uneasy feeling that it’s trying to persuade me of something I don’t believe; but I’m not quite sure what that is. The vigour of the simple-minded, perhaps.

Next up – The Seafarer. Hopefully I can find something a bit more insightful to say about that one.

  • Post category:Culture

poem no. 2 – Marvell

The Mower to the Glo-Worms by Andrew Marvell.

Ye living Lamps, by whose dear light
The Nightingale does sit so late,
And studying all the Summer-night,
Her matchless Songs does meditate;

Ye Country Comets, that portend
No War, nor Princes funeral,
Shining unto no higher end
Then to presage the Grasses fall;

Ye Glo-worms, whose officious Flame
To wandring Mowers shows the way,
That in the Night have lost their aim,
And after foolish Fires do stray;

Your courteous Lights in vain you wast,
Since Juliana here is come,
For She my Mind hath so displac’d
That I shall never find my home.

Again, I guess the question is – why this one rather than any other Marvell poem? Especially since this is the only poem from a Metaphysical poet, so it was also chosen in preference to all of Donne and Herbert. Well, on another day, I might have picked a different poem. Like The Sun Rising, or Good Friday, Riding Westward. Or The Collar. Or, getting back to Marvell, The Unfortunate Lover.

I do like this one though. Part of the appeal of the Metaphysicals is the ingenuity of their poems, but when the poems are at their most spectacularly ingenious, it sometimes unbalances the poem. When I first read Donne, at school, I thought the compasses conceit in A Valediction Forbidding Mourning was just fabulous, but now I’m less sure. I think the reader’s attention is pulled too far away from the putative subject of the poem. What I like about The Mower to the Glo-Worms is that it has some of that ingenuity – in comparing the glowworms to comets, for example – but the conceits are always tied into the world of mowers, glowworms and nightingales, so I don’t have the feeling that the poet’s ingenuity is in competition with the poem.

The other thing that really appeals to me about the poem is its shape. We get three parallel stanzas offering ways of looking at the glowworms, and although they establish atmosphere and themes, we don’t actually get any of the core subject – the mower’s love for Juliana – until the last stanza. And when it does come, it’s understated; it’s hard to imagine a simpler line than ‘that I shall never find my home’ to end a poem. I once heard/read an explanation of one way music works. I don’t understand music, so this will be a bit garbled, but: because people have certain (unconscious) expectations about how a musical pattern will resolve itself, a composer can open the pattern and the audience will be held in a slight sense of tension waiting for the pattern to resolve. Then when the resolution, the ending, appears, the audience has a pleasurable sense of release, of things falling into place. In this poem, I feel we’re left with a slight rhetorical tension at the end of each of the first three stanzas. We’re left hanging by the semicolon; and only after repeating this pattern three times does the poem resolve itself.

  • Post category:Culture

poem no. 1 – Hopkins

As promised, some thoughts on each of those ten poems, starting with As Kingfishers Catch Fire by Gerard Manley Hopkins.

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dr

  • Post category:Culture

Orchestra Super Mazembe

Currently playing – Orchestra Super Mazembe. Who I wholeheartedly recommend. ‘Mazembe’ means bulldozer, apparently, thus putting them in the narrow category of ‘bands named after industrial equipment’ along with Kraftwerk.

  • Post category:Culture

Maradona has a gastric bypass

One of the greatest sportsmen of all time, and look at him now. It’s hard not to think of Michael Jackson, the other superstar currently in the news. And to a slightly less spectacular degree, Gazza and George Best. Will we be watching Rooney self-destruct in a few years time? Or one of the Ronaldos? Or Beckham? I guess there are plenty who don’t – for every Maradona, Best or Gazza there’s a Pele, Charlton or Lineker – but it’s a grim precedent even so.

  • Post category:Other

ten poems to introduce oneself with

The idea’s being doing the rounds of poblogs – ten poems you might use to introduce yourself. I guess the ten you pick depends on whether you’re introducing yourself to a possible employer or a possible shag. I’ll leave it to the reader to deicde whether my selection is the equivalent of a resum

  • Post category:Culture