Monday, November 30, 2015


Thomas Sackville (1536-1608)

The Induction (with the Complaint of Henry, Duke of Buckingham) was written around 1563. He was 27. He had married at 19 and been elected to parliament three times in the previous five years. In 1561, then aged 25,  he had co-authored Gorboduc with Thomas Norton.* In the same year his first son was born.

His career under his cousin Elizabeth fluctuated, but mainly it ascended. In 1586 he was selected to convey the news of her death-sentence to Mary Queen of Scots. In 1591 he became chancellor of the University of Oxford. He ended as Lord High Treasurer, succeeding Burleigh in 1599.  This was a post for life. In 1604 he became first Earl of Dorset.

Knole, one of the UK's largest houses, became Sackville's in 1566 (it is still part-owned by the Sackville-Wests).

So the general theme of the uncertain fortunes of the great was a relevant "mirror" for himself, at least in prospect. Did he ever become, I wonder, the figure of Old Age, clinging ever more tenaciously to life "And knows full well life doth but length his pain" ?


The Induction (Complaint of the Duke of Buckingham)

The online text linked above lacks the first few stanzas. On the other hand it continues a little beyond the one in Auden and Pearson.



According to Barbara Wooding, Norton's part of the play is the more interesting dramatically. Sackville's continuation (Acts IV and V) is more like a poetical lament.

The Argument of the Tragedy.
Gorboduc, king of Britain, divided his Realm in his lifetime to his Sons, Ferrex and Porrex. The Sons fell to division and dissention. The younger killed the elder. The Mother that more dearly loved the elder, for revenge killed the younger. The people moved with the Cruelty of the fact, rose in Rebellion and slew both father and mother. The Nobility assembled and most terribly destroyed the Rebels. And afterwards for want of Issue of the Prince whereby the Succession of the Crown became uncertain. They fell to Civil war in which both they and many of their Issues were slain, and the Land for a long time almost desolate and miserably wasted.

The play could be seen as a precursor of e.g. Titus Andronicus. But where Gorboduc is patently political in its fear of dissension, its concern for succession and for maintaining national unity, what such message comes from Titus?

Friday, November 27, 2015


Wednesday, November 25, 2015

family history

Another "post" that is really an ongoing repository. My Mum is Swedish and this is about her family history.

The Gustafssons

Karl Gustafsson m. Amanda

The family were based in Sundsvall.

They had five children:

Ida (died in childhood)
and a boy, who also died in childhood.

Sigrid was my grandmother (Mormor). I remember her and my great-aunts Moster* Anna and Moster Greta very well.

(*These Swedish aunt and uncle names "Moster" "Faster" and "Farbror" all express their relationship from the point of view of my mum, not myself. I don't really know if, as a great-nephew I should really be using a different form such as "mors moster" or "gammalmoster".)

Surviving nugget of family history:  Karl and two of his daughters Greta and Ida all shared the same birthday: August 24.

The Gullikssons

Faster Svea   (prompted by the news that Johan and Petra  at the cottage have just had a baby that they've named Svea. In Sweden as in England, there's currently a revival of names once considered very old-fashioned.)
  Faster Svea was Farbror Henning's first wife. (His second wife was Faster Selma.  I remember her, though not very well. When I was a child we sometimes used to borrow her apartment in Stockholm.)

Svea gave birth to a little girl who died after just three days.

(My mum was born to Klas and Sigrid three years later, and she was treated with perhaps painful protectiveness, because she was the only Gulliksson child; Klas and Sigrid were not young parents, and all Klas' brothers and sisters were either single or childless.)

For Svea the whole thing was so traumatic that she swore never to go into hospital again. She died, a few years later, of a burst appendix.

Moving to Fridhemsgatan

Fridhemsgatan 11 is the place of my earliest memories, when I was visiting my Morfar and Mormor (Klas and Sigrid) at Christmas time. This must have been 1962.

They moved there when my mum was about two.

She stood in the street and told the passers-by: "I used to live at Albertsgatan 4 and now I live at Fridhemsgatan 11."

(They had only moved a few hundred meters.)

The house in fact belonged to Farbror Henning, the most prosperous member of the family. Henning and Svea had lived there until Svea's death. Fru Wahlström, Svea's mother, still lived upstairs. Klas and Sigrid shared the house with her when they moved in.

Henning was a "gudtemplare" i.e. a Good Templar.  And my unmarried aunt Faster Lydia was a strict Baptist. (This is why my Mum and Dad's wedding, in 1957, was toasted in sparkling pear juice.)  


Swindon's lost arboretum

This post is a repository for notes about the mysterious group of exotic and interesting trees that grow in a bit of neglected parkland behind Cheney Manor (the whole area is open to the public and there are some widely-used paths that go through it).

Cappadocian Maple. A decrepit hulk but still with a few leafing branches, high-up.

Silver Maple, next to the Cappadocian Maple. Deservedly popular species and widely grown.

Hornbeam, var. quercifolia.  A bizarre-looking thing. The inner leaves look like normal hornbeam leaves. The distal leaves are much smaller, and are lobed like oak leaves.  (Contrast Cut-leafed Crab-apple, which likewise has distal lobed leaves, but in this case much larger than the inner leaves.)

Weeping Ash. Widely grown.

A spindly Winter Cherry, presumably var 'Autumnalis'. Noticed it in fading blossom yesterday (November 24).

A glossy Tibetan Cherry, growing next to the winter cherry.

I haven't yet identified the handsome tree beside the footpath. It's a small elegant tree with smooth bark and leaves a little like dogwood but smaller. The leaves are still green, and noticeably transparent so showing vein-patterns against the light. Could possibly be Alder Buckthorn, Frangula alnus.

Wild Service-tree. Quite a tall specimen, within the fringe of semi-native woodland (sycamores etc) that borders the road from Cheney Manor Ind. Est. Noticeable from the road when in blossom (in June I think).

Incidentally, Cheney Manor Industrial Estate also has a few interesting things for the tree-enthusiast to look at. E.g. the row of almond-trees, producing quite a lot of fruit,  that grow outside a derelict office with smashed windows.

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Friday, November 20, 2015

Cut-leaved Crab-apple (Malus transitoria)

A line of mystery trees growing beside the Avon, just E. of the bridge in Chippenham town centre. I took a few snaps (this was on 7th October), then tried to match them to something on the internet by using vague search terms like "tree golden fruit red stalks", couldn't find anything and gave up.

But today I was reading the latest post on Non Morris' exceptional blog The Dahlia Papers, and everything fell into place. These photos are of Malus transitoria, a species crab-apple native to NW China, commonly called the Cut-leaved Crab-apple.

Small golden fruit with a brown eye, on long red stalks.  All rather un-apple-like.

Also un-apple-like were the variously lobed leaves, as shown in this out-of-focus shot.  Only the distal (older?) leaves were lobed; they are larger than the inner leaves.

The shoot is burgundy-coloured, as you can just about see in the photo below.

Non Morris, a garden designer,  said this was her favourite variety of crab-apple. Anyway it's fired me up to learn more about Malus, a genus that, according to some recent DNA analyses, ought possibly to be considered a mere branch of Sorbus.

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Wednesday, November 11, 2015

William Shakespeare and George Peele: Titus Andronicus (1592-93)

Marcus discovers Lavinia
[Image source: From the 2003 production by the Hudson Shakespeare Company (New Jersey), directed by John Trigonis; Marcus was played by Clark Williams and Lavinia by April Dawn Brown.]

My post-title conceals, of course, centuries of scholarly uncertainty and disagreement. But the detailed arguments for this co-authorship, first advanced in 1919 and fully laid out in Brian Vickers' Shakespeare: Co-Author (2004) are now well-established. It's time to move forward from that.

Peele wrote the early part of the play: the whole of Act I, and the first two scenes of Act II. He also wrote Act IV, Scene I.  The story is perhaps something they cooked up together; it has no basis in Roman history and I don't think it existed before the play (The nearly-contemporaneous prose version and ballad, I believe, are tributes to the play's success.)

The process might have gone something like this. First of all the two authors collaborated on putting together an "author plot": a detailed scene-by-scene description of the action. They could have presented this to their company in advance and got approval to write it up; perhaps to a rather tight deadline. The play was written in sequence, the authors passing the manuscript between each other like a baton, depending on which of them had time to spend on it. Peele got started first. He wrote an inspiriting Act and a half, then passed the manuscript over to Shakespeare, who proceeded up to the end of III.1 or III.2 *. Then Shakespeare passed the manuscript back to Peele, who was only able to add one more scene (IV. 1), then Shakespeare finished it off.

The above is just an idle fancy, but it does explain a few things. First, it explains why in this case the scenes by each author clump together in long sequences. Secondly, it explains the remarkably consistent development of the action and characters. (Not of course that the characterization is particularly subtle.)

* Surely III.2 was a performance cut, restored in the folio. (And not, as most seem to think, Shakespeare's afterthought.)


Once the Peele scenes have been separated off, it's easy to see that the Shakespeare scenes are not of his very earliest vintage.  (Earlier commentators, appalled by the content, were inclined to bury Titus in the 1580s as a youthful indiscretion.) The patent connections are with Ovid (rather than Seneca) and with the narrative poems of 1592, especially The Rape of Lucrece. [I once had the bad idea of titling a blog-post "Shakespeare: the Rape period", intending to link Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Rape of Lucrece and Titus, the only works of his, if I'm not mistaken, in which rape (threatened or actual) plays a really significant part.]

The play was a huge success. According to Q1 (1594, the first Shakespeare play to be printed), it had already been performed by three different theatre companies. Jonson named it (in the 1614 preface to Bartholomew Fair) as exemplifying the smash hits of the early London stage, along with Kyd's Spanish Tragedy.

Peele has been co-opted too many times as a putative co-author, but there are impressive connections between "his" scenes in Titus and his other plays a  nd poems. He was a hard-living member of the "university wits" generation of the 1580s, along with Greene, Marlowe and Nashe. These were students who threw up more respectable employment for the excitements of writing in English for the embryonic commercial theatre (as well as pageants, poems, emblems, and anything else that came to hand). Peele dissipated his wife's fortune, lived from hand to mouth, and died "of the pox" in 1596.


If we no longer feel a Victorian revulsion at the very existence of this shocker, it's still apt to strike us (as someone happily remarked) as Shakespeare's "WTF!?" play.

Perhaps it shouldn't: a list of the six most distressing scenes in Eliz/Jacobean drama would certainly include Shakespeare's blinding of Gloucester as well as Marlowe's spitting of Edward II. Mere blood, stabbings and severed heads isn't enough to qualify for this list: it's when we have feelings around what's happening that the drama really upsets us  (arguably, Othello is the most distressing play of all).  That's one aspect. The other is cruel stagecraft. It's not because we're fond of Edward II that his murder is so horrible.  And that's where the mutilated Lavinia easily tops the list: because we know what's been coming to her, and now we have to see it.

As Shakespeare readers, what we miss in Titus is the sound of a warmly feeling voice like this:

If you will take a homely man's advice,
Be not found here; hence, with your little ones.
To fright you thus, methinks, I am too savage;
To do worse to you were fell cruelty,
Which is too nigh your person. Heaven preserve you!

That's a messenger in Macbeth IV.2, just before the killing of MacDuff's son (another scene that might otherwise have made my list). Titus Andronicus  mainly, though not entirely, lacks that kind of normative commentary, that Shakespearean wisdom and humanity. (The important non-executive character of Marcus supplies it to some extent.) Titus himself resembles a Tamburlaine more than an Antony: he's only not horrifying because his enemies are even worse. As for his heir Lucius, we have to overlook not only his demand for hewn limbs in I.1 (as, perhaps, sanctioned by tradition), but his plan to hang the baby before the father's eyes "that he may see it sprawl" in V.1 (as, at any rate, not actually carried out). Even Lavinia, while she still has her tongue, is no angel. Just before the tables turn on her, what's on her lips is enthusiastically vicious condemnation, not the pathos of something pretty and innocent.



Titus is likely to affect us in very different ways as it goes along. For me the most valuable part of the play is the great arc of suffering, centred on the Andronici family circle, that begins in II.5 with Marcus's discovery of Lavinia ("trimmed", in Aaron's horrific understatement); continues with the charnel-house of III.1; then subsides to an almost Lear-like stasis in III.2.  There's something incredibly moving about the domestic scope of these scenes: it's moving that somehow a domestic existence continues despite these grotesque mutilations and loppings of the tree of the Andronici, despite a metaphysical extremity of suffering.

If III.2 seems not to advance the story in an obvious way, it nevertheless involves some quite subtle developments. There's a meal laid out, and Titus makes clear that, as far as he's concerned, the Andronici need to eat solely in order to live long enough to carry out their revenge. I think he particularly applies this logic to Lavinia. He sees her strangely, perhaps as an uncanny half-dead creature already; as if her bloody outward metamorphosis went with an inner vampirization.  He has, apparently, no issues with her remaining on-stage to see his own hand being amputated. And later in the play, he deliberately fetches her to assist with cutting the throats of Chiron and Demetrius (and to catch blood in a bowl).

Revenge once achieved, he kills her. That honour-killing is foreshadowed here, in III.2. At one point Titus' rhetoric of despair leads him to suggest (somewhat impractically) that Lavinia pierce her own heart by directing a knife with her teeth. The affectionate Marcus is dismayed by the suggestion, however rhetorical, that his niece should do any violence to herself. But that's exactly what Lucrece, exemplar of correct behaviour for noblewomen when raped, had done. And Titus, upholder of the most atavistic of Roman codes of honour (and already a proven slayer of offspring, when necessary), doubtless already has death in mind as the only fitting destiny for Lavinia. To be fair, he probably has no plans to outlive her.



It's easy to forget, but there's a clown in Titus Andronicus. He doesn't survive very long: the world of Titus isn't good for clowns (or nurses either).  But comedy of various sorts is a continuing undercurrent in the play and something that all producers have to make up their minds about.

E.g., in II.4, the dull Martius and Quintus. (Are we supposed to think that Aaron drugged them?). Martius tumbles down into the cellarage. Then, while trying to rescue him, Quintus gets pulled in too. Hard for a modern audience not to think of Laurel and Hardy here.

Or III.1, the family competition to volunteer to have their hands cut off. That definitely raised some laughs at Lucy Bailey's Globe production.

What about when Titus the tableau-arranger, having given Lucius and Marcus each a head to carry, has the happy idea of Lavinia carrying his amputated hand between her teeth?  (I'm making it sound funny, but I think it should be possible to make it intensely tragic at the same time.)

Here, the head-on collision between tragedy and comedy has the potential to work really well. And in a different way that's also true of Peele's II.1,  in which Demetrius and Chiron are so easily diverted from high-flown professions of love towards Lavinia, into embracing the idea of gang-raping and "trimming" her.  

It's a well-established fact that while a single villain is disturbing and a mob of villains is frightening, yet a pair of villains tends to be funny. Hence the paired rogues who are still a staple of adventure films for children.

I don't find Demetrius and Chiron at all funny, especially not when they're making the roughest of hur-hur jokes to the mutilated Lavinia at the start of II.5, but there's no doubt that in a horrific way they recognizably shadow (or foreshadow)  the stereotypical shape of a pair of comedy-villains. This is actually less true in the earlier part of the play. Here, though they're like as two peas, though they're adolescent, bloody, lustful and cruel, yet they're not obviously dim-witted. But from IV.2 onwards, that's increasingly all they are. They're reduced to functional dialogue, trailing along behind Aaron and Tamora. Chiron's final words, the confused (and suicidal) admission that "we are the empress' sons!" sums up this later aspect of them perfectly.


Stupidity and conundrums

Detractors of Titus have sometimes excused their real loathing of the bloody content by pointing out how stupid the play is, after all. Under this head I cover a miscellaneous grab-bag of things in Titus that might strike one as stupid. Whether you'd want to argue that stupidity is actually a principal theme of Titus, I'm not sure. But I definitely think that would be arguable. What I totally don't believe is that Shakespeare intended to "send up"the revenge genre, or blow it sky-high. At least not in a sense that would prevent him from also taking his play and its possibilities very seriously, most of the time anyway. [An interesting parallel might be The Comedy of Errors; there Shakespeare produces a super-Plautine play; funnier, better-plotted, more complex, everything. And with Richard III (if not indeed its predecessors), Shakespeare had already taken the chronicle history to a whole new level. You could argue that Titus is not so much the send-up of a genre as its apotheosis; more violent, more inventive, more shocking, the Ovidian-Gothic play to end all Ovidian-Gothic plays.  The young Shakespeare was conscious of incredible powers.]


My lord, to step out of these dreary dumps .... (I.1)

On a lighter note.... Thus Marcus changes the subject, following the burial of the son that Titus has just killed. Blame it on Peele's mid-century oafishness?


Is she not then beholden to the man
That brought her for this high good turn so far? (I.1)

Obviously this prepares us for Titus being taken in, at least twice, by Tamora's skilful posing as a mediator. But is Titus really capable of believing that Tamora, whose eldest son he has had slaughtered, ought to be jolly grateful to him for leading her captive to Rome, since she's ended up as Empress? Blame it on Peele's opportunistic willingness to sacrifice credibility in order to squeeze out a few drops of short-term dramatic irony?

3.  In III.1, Lavinia is on-stage when Aaron arrives with his offer about the hand, and is still on-stage after he departs. Aaron apparently takes no notice of her, though her shockingly handless state cannot have been made public yet, so for him to desist from any comment is extremely suspicious.


Mark, Marcus, mark! I understand her signs... (III.1)

This leads on to a further puzzle. The way that Marcus, Lucius and Titus act, it seems that it occurs to none of them that if they ask Lavinia a yes-or-no question, she could quite easily reply to it by nodding or shaking her head. It would have taken them about a minute to work out what's happened to her and who did it.  Instead, they tend to apostrophise her rather than speak to her.

(Indeed, in the very speech where Titus apostrophises her thus:

Thou shalt not sigh, nor hold thy stumps to heaven,
Nor wink, nor nod, nor kneel, nor make a sign,
But I of these will wrest an alphabet
And still by practice learn to know thy meaning...(III.2)

he never puts any question to her, and therefore gives her nothing to nod about.)

Instead, they interpret her by her physical reactions (tears, or running after someone, or leafing through a book). It's as if they don't quite grasp that she can understand their language Even when (in Peele's IV.1), Marcus at length figures out a communication method, he demonstrates it to her in dumb-show. Why not just suggest it?


Titus (aside). I know them all, though they suppose me mad,
                      And will o'er-reach them in their own devices;  (V.2)

Surely one of the most unnecessary asides ever. Only Tamora and her dimwits believe that Titus is harmlessly mad; Titus, like Hamlet, can hardly be bothered to conceal his vindictive meaning. Tamora has been cunning in the earlier part of the play, but, like her sons, she now seems to be sleepwalking to her fate.

She also ignores a basic rule of Kyd's revenge convention (The Spanish Tragedy and his lost Hamlet): revengers are always more or less mad. The revenger goes mad with grief and suffering from the appalling wrongs they've sustained. The revenger can pretend to be more mad than they really are in order to throw others off the scent. But an element of genuine madness is essential, because this supplies the audience with a ready pardon for revenges that usually go beyond normal punitiveness. Titus baking up Tamora's sons in a pie, for instance.    


Currently, Titus Andronicus  has the best Wikipedia entry of any Shakespeare play. Thanks to whoever you are!


Monday, November 02, 2015

my questions answered

Last Saturday I went with Laura on a day visit to N Kent, so for the second time recently I got to experience the M25. Usually that would be a prelude to talking about congestion but not this time. So I had the head-space to concern myself with a lesser evil. There's a long light-coloured section in the SW quadrant of the M25 where the road surface is particularly unpleasant to drive on. The tyre noise is much louder than normal and the van shakes as it passes over regular joints. I'd always vaguely wondered why this was.

Turns out that this section of the M25 has a concrete surface (as opposed to a tarmac surface).  The definitive discussion on the topic is here:

Very informative it is too. Here's a post that mentions my stretch of the M25 specifically, though it begins by talking about a notorious stretch on the A27 that I also remember very well.

Duncan wrote:
Johnathan will correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't the A27 between Chichester and Havant concrete originally? I seem to remember the residents of the bypassed towns and villages (Bosham, Emsworth, Fishbourne, Southbourne, etc) moaning like fun over the road noise. Also, I think the Ilminster bypass was concrete, though not the NDLR, even though they were both built at more or less the same time.

The A27 Chichester to Havant was the worst for sideline noise ever in the country. It must be due to the small detail of the fines in the concrete, in that you get different noise performance from different sections. I remember being in the villages half a mile to the south and it sounded like a continuous jetplane noise. However, it wasn't so bad when in cars driving along it.

In contrast the M25 in Surrey from Reigate round to Cobham, which was originally concrete D3M, and widened out to concrete D4M, is a real thumper and whiner to drive along nowadays (if you don't know the stretch you can think you have a puncture), but not so bad in the country alongside.

For a long time the MoT/DfT always went out for two quotes from main contractors for new motorway construction, for asphalt or for concrete top surface, and invariably chose the cheapest on each section. Because the price of the bulk materials is quite dependent on haulage costs from where the relevant local depots for each type of material might originate from, this can give the differential pricing which favours one or the other in different places.

What surprises me is that much of the US Interstate network is concrete surface, yet they seem to have cracked this form of construction and do not get anything like the noise nuisance we do in the UK, either in-vehicle or sideline. I don't know how they do it (although I have asked them more than once).

The other motoring-related question that preoccupied me was: Why do you need to ask for a VAT receipt?  (You would be right if you imagined the slightly exasperated tone of someone who had recently forgotten to ask for a VAT receipt while on a business trip.) 

Informatively discussed below. No exciting revelation of dark conspiracies, though. Dishing out separate VAT receipts would cause litter, because most people don't need them. But few businesses (supermarkets aside) have tills that are able to combine the card receipt and VAT receipt onto a single bit of paper. 

Some contributors pointed out that there were rather more pressing things to moan about than having to ask for a VAT receipt. I promptly disowned my former moaning on this subject. I felt it had been sublimated into a laudable thirst for knowledge. 

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Charles Dickens: A Child’s History of England (1851-53)

It would be sensible to read nothing of Dickens but his novels, which are all-sufficient. But since much of the material of A Child’s History is now outside the common knowledge of adult readers, it has become a more interesting book. The most satisfactory part, probably, is the earlier phase up to the sixteenth century, when Dickens is competently summarising the national epic, mixing lively narration with a very faint colouring of Dickensian satire, rhetoric, and romance. Mainly satire, since the epic is concerned with the actions of kings and queens, and Dickens is temperamentally hostile to this sort of company.

Within a week or two after Harold’s return to England, the dreary old Confessor was found to be dying. After wandering in his mind like a very weak old man, he died. As he had put himself entirely in the hands of the monks when he was alive, they praised him lustily when he was dead. They had gone so far, already, as to persuade him that he could work miracles; and had brought people affected with a bad disorder of the skin, to him, to be touched and cured. This was called “touching for the King’s Evil,” which afterwards became a royal custom. You know, however, Who really touched the sick, and healed them; and you know His sacred name is not among the dusty line of human kings.

This is a quotation, not to sell the Child’s History to you, but to give you a fair idea of what it is like. Most of the things that can be criticized are exemplified here: tendentiousness, condescension, opinionatedness, a basic lack of sympathy with his materials, and even with the business of history itself. At the same time we are undoubtedly learning something about Edward the Confessor – and so, though I really don’t want to sell the book, it strikes me as perfect for someone who wants to read some history but whose tastes don’t lead them towards ordinary historians.

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Thursday, October 22, 2015

oil sands

He was hungry; he was ready with strike-through.
exposed to the wind; an apple-tree barking.
A destiny propels the ark, its console finisher isn't free.
Rich; with a horror of poverty, or a single assassin, locked to small arms and airports.
He watched his father intelligently, while he spat Patsey's flesh.
Outside the house, the topiary of willow-leaved pear, his wife shaped with clippers.
You cannot come in here like that, he tried to say firmly,
with the elements of fortune and ours.

I shall keep this separate from my other wealth.

[Sort sort of flat-topped Japanese cherry (I'm guessing 'Shirotae', but I won't know till next year), with numerous holes in the leaves, illuminated by a pub spotlight.  N. Swindon 19:37 on 9th October 2015.]

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Thursday, October 15, 2015

Charles Dickens: The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-41)

The Old Curiosity Shop and King Lear

“The old gentleman again!” he would exclaim, “a very prepossessing old gentleman, Mr. Richard – charming countenance, sir – extremely calm – benevolence in every feature, sir. He quite realises my idea of King Lear, as he appeared when in possession of his kingdom, Mr. Richard – the same good humour, the same white hair and partial baldness, the same liability to be imposed upon. Ah! A sweet subject for contemplation, sir, very sweet!” (Ch. LVII)

This is Sampson Brass speaking to Dick Swiveller. Sampson is at a very early and tentative – indeed nervous – stage in complying with Quilp’s instructions to dispose of Kit. Old Mr Garland as Lear is the same kind of gloriously not-quite-right rhapsody that, soon afterwards, has him saying of the pony “He literally looks as if he had been varnished all over”. Sampson's speech also exemplifies something rather frequent in The Old Curiosity Shop; words that seem to have one intention about one thing but really and semi-ambiguously are concerned with a different matter altogether. For obvious examples one might note nearly everything that the parties say to each other during, and on the day after, the trip to Astley’s: especially Barbara. Or the narrator’s refusal to tell us in plain words that Nell’s health is failing when that's just what he is insistently suggesting. We describe the nature of this duplicitous talk in various ways according to the circumstances: delicacy, embarrassment, coyness, euphemism, playing with our emotions, cruelty, evasiveness, fraud, etc.  But it’s when we don’t have a label ready to hand that things are most interesting.

Memories of Lear do huddle in the shadows of The Old Curiosity Shop. When the Victorian public sent agonized letters to the author imploring him to spare Little Nell, they were registering something like Samuel Johnson’s shocked reaction to the death of Cordelia, the scene he could not endure to re-read until he edited the play. The long pages in which the author whispers to us of Nell’s decline (LII-LV) have seemed to most later readers as dull a succession of chapters as you can easily find in Dickens; these were the pages, however, that troubled generous hearts and drove up the circulation figures. (Edgar Allen Poe’s review [] gives a good idea of their impact on contemporary readers. For him the outstanding figures in the book were Nell, her grandfather, the man by the furnace, and the sexton.)

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Monday, October 12, 2015

Charles Dickens: The Pickwick Papers (1836-37)

Pickwick in the barrow, by Phiz

Charles Dickens (Una Pope-Hennessy, 1945)

Forster, Johnson, Kaplan... the Lives of Dickens aren’t inspiring, and this is surely something to do with the man himself. No-one who read a biography of Dickens without knowing his books (impossible supposition) would suspect him of having written anything worthwhile. He emerges as frivolous, dandyish, conventional, an energetic businessman; on the whole, unamiable. His friends are not astounding (just think of Scott’s...) - he scarcely reads, is a philistine in art, drifts rather helplessly through married life and divorce, takes his notions from Carlyle of all people, is driven by motives it is hard to understand, constantly takes on too much, muddles through, lets people down. His unastounding friends patronize him even when they are overwhelmed by him, and we see their point of view. If Scott tends to underrate his own significance, he at least sees his art in recognizable terms. Dickens airily alludes to himself as “the Inimitable”, and that seems to be that. The features of his work that he openly discusses are trivia - he hopes to have “a great effect” with little Paul, or The Chimes... That’s something like the way you suppose Desmond Wheatley or Frederick Forsyth would put it.

Presumably all this is an essential aspect of (one can hardly call it an insight into) the unusual kind of greatness we encounter in Bleak House, Little Dorrit... in all his novels to some extent, for even the worst of them (let’s say, Tale of Two Cities) has a uniqueness, a fire about it that becomes apparent when we try to place it in the same universe as other books. Dickens, more than any other writer, permitted his imagination to cut loose from his own conscious life and opinions. Who else could do so? No-one who was not so naïve, so unintrospective, so ill-educated, so insensitive, so buoyed up by early success that he never had time to anxiously plan for.

And perhaps this peculiar situation does give some clue to why, though his greatness exceeds any other English novelist, it is not entirely happy. What I mean is that, although Little Dorrit is our greatest novel and Bleak House the most stupendous imaginative creation that is a novel, we always assert Dickens’ claim with a dissatisfied sense of paradox - his failures and limitations are peculiarly gross, he doesn’t happily supersede his competitors in every way (thus we have come to think of Shakespeare), or even in most ways. Just in a few ways, but in those, beyond argument.

And still, in those few are infinities. In all that line of big books our chief sense is of prodigal wealth - of how little we are wearied by repetition or perfunctory narrative. When, as occasionally in Hardy or Kipling or Conrad, we catch someone trying out a Dickensian sentence, we are embarrassed by their lack of confidence - into this sea of creation they will never plunge. I thought how unlike Mr Pickwick is to his author - and then I realized that all Dickens’ characters are quite unlike the Dickens of the biography - he seems never to have met himself. I suppose he never kept a journal - I can’t imagine its voice.
[*I since learnt that he tried keeping one for about a week, but couldn't get excited about it. On the other hand he was a very enthusiastic letter-writer.]

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Sir Walter Scott: The Talisman (1825)

[I don't know anything about the provenance of this illustration. The artist has transformed the shallow and histrionic Queen Berengaria into the undisputed heroine of the picture, which I suppose goes far to explain her confidence in all dealings with her husband. King Richard looks stupefied. And the book's intended heroine Edith is presented in the chilliest manner, lurking in the background.]

Image source:]

Kudos to Lizzie Driver for her excellent solo reading of The Talisman on Librivox.


The Talisman was published in June 1825 along with The Betrothed,  as "Tales of the Crusades". But its more interesting connection is with Ivanhoe (1820).  

Defining that connection in a word is not easy. Whatever the imagined chronology, it doesn't feel quite right to call The Talisman either a prequel to Ivanhoe or a sequel to it (the former would seem the historical sequence, but the latter seems a better fit to changes in Richard's nature).

Yet Richard Coeur-de-Lion is a major character in both novels. Thomas of Gilsland, little more than a name in Ivanhoe, now steps forth in a significant role. The Knights Templar, unsympathetic in Ivanhoe, are positively villainous here. Most significantly, the interest in an exotic multiculturalism, first developed in the Jewish characters of Ivanhoe, is now pursued in the Muslim characters of The Talisman. That makes a difference, but not because Scott knew either culture very well.  In Ivanhoe Scott had to grapple with deeply-rooted anti-Semitism, especially about Jews in Britain. In The Talisman, the first of his novels to be located (as he was acutely aware) in a place he had never visited, he was freer to be much more simply enthusiastic about his Muslim characters. Ethically they have the best of it all through the book, and make a powerful commentary on the extremely imperfect behaviour that characterizes the Christians.

At least, nearly. There's also Saladin's sudden decapitation of the Grand Master, which casts such a deep chill over the subsequent dinner. Saladin explains that this instant punishment was required because if Giles had tasted the sherbet then Saladin would be bound by laws of hospitality. The implication of the chill is that Scott allows his Christian readers to admire and be fascinated by Muslim culture, but only in a picture-book, only from a distance.  When Edith reacts with horror to the idea of being married to a Muslim prince, Scott probably intends us to feel that her horror is a right and proper emotion. (Even if it conceals her own prior interest in Sir Kenneth.) Richard's own bluff indifference to whether she marries a Christian or a Muslim is supposed to indicate a soldier's insensibility.

The Talisman is the last of Scott's novels to be completed before his own world was re-shaped by multiple griefs. It isn't a masterpiece but it does have sustained interest.


Giles Amaury (The Grand Master of the Templars) is a made-up name. Scott may have based him vaguely on Roger de Sablé.  though it was his predecessor Gerard de Ridefort who was, in fact, beheaded by Saladin. Richard had good relations with both.

"Conrade of Montserrat" is given a villainous role. As Scott admits, this is entirely made up. The historical Conrad of Montferrat was indeed a rival of Richard; in fact Richard was accused of having him murdered. [It seems that Scott was already thinking about The Talisman at the same time he was writing St Ronan's Well (1824). The earlier novel refers more than once to twelfth-century Palestine, and even to  a confrontation between Conrade of Montserrat and Richard.]

Saladin negotiated for a marriage between Richard's widowed sister Joan and Saladin's brother Al-Adil. She refused. Richard's views are unknown. When Conrad turned over his Muslim hostages to Richard, he had them all killed.   (Richard may bear responsibility for the anti-Jewish violence at the time of his coronation, also.)

So the chivalrous conception of Richard, and his broad-minded attitude to Islamic and other cultures, is very much Scott's own vision.

Masses of the slimy and sulphurous substance called naphtha, which floated idly on the sluggish and sullen waves, supplied those rolling clouds with new vapours... (Chapter I, description of the Dead Sea)

More strictly, Asphaltum. In Edward Turner's Elements of Chemistry (1833) he says:

Naphtha occurs in some parts of Italy, and on the banks of the Caspian Sea. ...  Asphaltum is found on the surface and on the banks of the Dead Sea ....
(p. 808)

But, as Turner realized, the two inflammable substances were closely related.

I notice that on my bottle of Redex for diesel engines, one of the ingredients is "Naphtha (petroleum)".


Since my main aim is to commend, rather than rebuke,  The Talisman, I've left it until last to mention the one thing about the book that almost ruins it. This is the revelation, in the final chapter, that our hero Sir Kenneth is, in fact, Prince David of Scotland.

On the whole, there were already too many monarchs in disguise. (The two principal Muslim characters, it turns out, are both Saladin.) Shakespeare's Henry V may lie behind it (or ancient folk motifs, maybe). In Scott, the motif began with Ivanhoe (1820), where it was done really well (relevant to theme and well motivated), and it became seriously annoying in Quentin Durward (1823) which shares a lot of The Talisman's less admirable features.

Anyway, now it turns out that even our hero is a monarch.

Of course that resolves the issue of Sir Kenneth's social inferiority to Lady Edith very conveniently. But the "lost heir" plot of Tom Jones etc only works if the heir is genuinely lost. Kenneth wasn't a lost heir but a disguised heir: he knew all the time that he had royal blood. And this means that the most affecting scenes in the earlier part of the book, surrounding Kenneth's sense of unworthiness before his lady and his shame at being lured from his post for a once-in-a-lifetime chance to do her some service, are in retrospect almost nonsense. (Indeed so attached are we to our former reading that we're inclined to treat this late revelation as not to be taken seriously.)

Too many monarchs altogether. The crusade brings together a rabble of them, all with different aims. Meanwhile the royal enemies Saladin and Richard cultivate a chivalrous regard that is almost lover-like.

There is a kind of point to this. At the multicultural borderline, there is a collapse of the hierarchic social structures of monoculture.  The foreigner affects us much the same whether they're an untouchable or a king. The romancer is apt to elevate the picturesque other to a kind of sovereignty, a sovereignty of his own mysterious sphere in whose ways the outsider is so inept. Perhaps even those few who are not kings (the hermit of Engadi, or Thomas of Gilsland) have something king-like about their distinctness. Nectabanus certainly thinks that he does.

Nevertheless, The Talisman almost expires because of its lack of common people.   


Tuesday, October 06, 2015

three songs


I drove the Stagecoach, the 55 to Calne
But I lost my way one evening and bounced it off a barn
A lady in the back she said I was asleep
And the Stagecoach inspectors agreed.
Well nobody died
They mostly just cried
But baby I’m feeling it now.

If I could meet my sister then I would say to her
“I wanted to come with you out to Australia
Where I could ride horses, take the boys to the sea,
Get to know my own family.”
I can’t really say
It would’ve turned out that way
But baby I’m feeling it now.

If I could make a pile, like those I lost before
Then I would buy a bottle and drink it by the shore
In the Palace of Fortune I’d stand there all day
And I’d watch my money dribble away
And I sit in a taxi to the far side of town
And I’d burn that barn to the ground.
What other people feel
Never seems real
But baby I’m feeling it now.

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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Wilkie Collins (1824-1889)

Photo of Wilkie Collins, probably from 1866, the year of Armadale's publication

[Image source: . Information about the probable date comes from Paul Lewis' excellent site, which includes a chronological list of Collins' many portraits:]

Armadale (1864-1866)

The first thing it came into my head to say about Armadale, I suddenly realized, would utterly deflate the book for someone who hadn’t read it; and this is certainly a book that ought to be read once – which can’t be said of all Collins’ books (see below). And it ought to be read without knowing too much in advance, because (as John Sutherland says in his introduction) manipulation of the reader’s tensions is a principal factor in what the book means.

 [I’m inclined to invite those who have read Armadale to guess what my first thought was.]

In fact I’d now venture it the most interesting of Collins’ books, placing it in front of The Woman in White and The Moonstone. By “now” I’m alluding to the continuously changing way in which nineteenth-century fiction refracts upon us. But one day I might delete these sentences.

This is getting intertextual, but then Armadale is a very intertextual book. Its most central character, Lydia Gwilt, is presented with extraordinary indirectness. She makes no (recognized) appearance at all until the third book, and then we come into contact with her at first through letters. Collins is most reluctant to show her to us in his third person narrative, which is nevertheless increasingly about her. Her very first appearance in the third person (which somewhat paradoxically appears to the reader as the “unmarked case” of presentation), is the climax of Book III Chapter IX:

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Saturday, September 26, 2015

Alfred Duggan: Family Favourites (1960)

I found this book, with several others by the same author, on a friend's bookshelves. Intrigued by the unlikely choice of title (from a popular radio show) for a historical novel set during the later Roman Empire, and more so by the drily brilliant opening, I couldn't resist asking to borrow it.

The story is related by an old soldier in retirement (he had been first a legionary and then a Praetorian), called Duratius. He eventually becomes a friend and member of the inner circle of the young and flighty Emperor Elagabalus (c. 203-222 - Emperor from 218-222). When the court implodes he is unceremoniously knocked on the head and given an honourable exit. The beautiful Emperor is killed offstage.

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Friday, September 25, 2015

Surrealism and the English Channel

Paul Nash, painting of Dymchurch sea-wall

[Image source: from Cathy Lomax's pretty wonderful blog:]

Lee’s poems had about them a remarkable tone. They were ‘quiet’ compared to the work of the Americans I was reading, but they were also surreal. It was a surrealism of everyday things. I often felt that surrealism arrived in Britain as flotsam; objects that floated across the Channel and sat displaced on a beach in southern England. It’s something you can see in the paintings of Paul Nash.

From Laurie Duggan's post about the late Lee Harwood.

I wonder if Tim Allen (who grew up on Portland) would recognize that psychogeographical configuration?

Thinking back to my Hastings days, maybe even (in early childhood)  my Eastbourne days, I'd say it I always had a vague sense of it.

That vague sense was confirmed when, much later, I discovered Montale's poem "Eastbourne" (not that Montale was a Surrealist, but...) , and by the Channel-Islander Jeremy Reed's translations of Montale in The Coastguard's House, generously and right praised by Michael Hoffman in the LRB - still surely one of Reed's most stunning achievements.

Maybe it's something about any town that sharply abuts the sea. That enormous sea-blankness always intrudes a kind of questioning commentary, a kind of provisionality, into the life of the land.

But maybe, too,  it's particularly something unique about the English Channel.  From a fairly early age the experience here was not just of the enormous sea-blankness presented to the senses but, at the same time, a pressing awareness that not very far beyond that blankness, though invisible to us, lay a populous, clamorous and totally different world; different languages, different history, different art, different thinking.

Plus it was a fact that continental visitors, like Montale, were a lot more likely to show up in South Coast towns than in, say, Derbyshire.

It always seemed to me quite natural that my own grandmother, an Eastbourne resident long estranged from her husband, should have fed her imaginative and emotional life with visits to Paris and Austria. She even made me call her by a German name (Mutti). I never really thought of her as English.

Though I couldn't see across the English Channel myself, it was obvious that Mutti could.

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Monday, September 14, 2015

Notes on Andrea Brady's "Export Zone"

"Export Zone" is a poem by Andrea Brady in Presenting, the second collection within Cut from the Rushes (Reality Street 2013)

An earlier version of the poem appeared here:

Invisibly Tight Institutional Outer Flanks Dub (verb) Glorious National Hi-Violence Response Dream (lifegangdocuments, March 2008) (hereafter Invisibly Tight)

The earlier version capitalizes Burundi, UN HCR, Venus, ABCDE, London Lite, Salt, Basra, and Eastern. (Some of those are helpful clues.)

There are some more substantial differences, too.

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Thursday, August 06, 2015

Lysimachia, etc, in Mälarland July 2015

A stand of Lysimachia vulgaris

Above, Yellow Loosestrife (Lysimachia vulgaris).

At the end of July I spent a few days in Kallhäll, a Stockholm suburb on the eastern shore of Lake Mälaren.  These lake environs were, it turned out, the perfect home for Lysimachia, a genus that likes water in the vicinity.

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Thursday, July 09, 2015

librivox splurge

I moved house. As the drive to the office is now ten minutes not five, and as I've been making a few round trips to Frome and elsewhere, I thought it was worth downloading a bunch of Librivox audiobooks. (The splurge is, of course, free.)

Here's what I've listened to so far:

Marlowe, both parts of Tamburlaine the Great. A bit of a trudge through Marlowe's incessantly mighty line. It's not the fault of the readers - David Goldfarb and a good supporting cast. It's just that the uncut text needs something more than reading aloud to spark it into dramatic life. Listening to this, you are made aware that none of the participants are in the same location, and that each has recorded their speeches separately.  (As often in my own silent readings of Tamburlaine, I found the most lively part is the digressive episode at the beginning of Part 2 when the Christians under Sigismond betray their alliance with Orcanes.)

Benito Perez Galdos, Electra.  (see other post)  Here's proof that Librivox readings of plays can be very involving indeed. This is a proper performance. Brilliant production, recommended.

Balzac, Eugenie Grandet.  Absolutely wonderful. (I'd read it before, but a very long time ago). I am now at the age when everything in Balzac at last makes sense. Well, perhaps not all the financial details: I still don't entirely grasp how Grandet makes such a good thing of his brother's bankruptcy. The story (with its infinitely slow opening chapter) has me wide-eyed and gripped: it all seems real and unexpected, as if described events unfolding within my own family circle. Terrific reading by the great Bruce Pirie. (The only thing I'd comment on is that he somehow makes me really take to old Grandet, even in the face of all his selfishness, self-interest and tyranny.)  

Dostoyevsky, The Gambler - Good reading (mostly by Bill Boerst) - the book is entertaining and empty-headed. Doesn't really make me want to go back to this author whose books I so devoured as a teenager, though I realize The Gambler is not by any means a fair sample.

Chekhov The Lady with the Dog and other stories. A surprisingly disappointing experience. I'm a massive fan of Chekhov's short stories, but listening to these one after another doesn't show them off to best advantage. The downbeat endings tend to come as shocks or mere stops; unable to see the page, I had little sense of them arriving. And then there was no opportunity to reflect, to look back over the text and to admire the artistry: instead, I was straight off on another jaunt to some usually inconclusive destination. The details blur. The doctor who doesn't marry the pianist. The kiss on the theatre stairs. The pistol-shot. The jealous husband at the army dance.

Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho. Here's an author who is really new to me - at least, I've never read any of her books, though I imagined I knew something about them, I supposed I could "place" her. Now, all my thoughts are being revised. "Love the scenery of S. France  - the author must have remembered her travels well"; so I comment at this early stage.   (I was still near the beginning of vol 2). I've since discovered that she had never been on any travels. Her only trip abroad, later in life, was to Belgium.

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Sunday, June 28, 2015

Pale Flax (Linum bienne)

Pale Flax (Linum bienne) - photos from June 21st 2015, on a roundabout just outside Frome, 

A plant that epitomizes the many transient beauties of midsummer. Driving through the long twilights of that blessed season, one is constantly accompanied by the starry whites of the roadside: Hogweed, Hemlock, Oxeye Daisy, Rough Chervil, Bramble...  But a rarer plant like this is seen only by chance. Once I'd taken the photographs, I never saw it again. It retires into fruit. 

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Tuesday, June 23, 2015

by the roadside

Nectaroscordum siculum

A large colony of Honey Garlic (Nectaroscordum siculum), in a shady spot beside the M4 westbound, near Chippenham, Wilts.

Identifying plants at 70 mph tends to be a bit approximate.  Every so often, over the past fifteen years of commuting,  I'd get a flash of a strange group of what looked like a cross between bulrush and a giant cocksfoot. I never pinned down exactly where this was, and sometimes I even wondered if I'd dreamt the whole thing up. (Evidently, the plants are not noticeable for most of the year.)

When I spied the colony again last week, my curiosity finally got the better of me, and I determined to find a way to get closer. That turned out to be easy. Exit at Jct 17 (2 miles up the road), take the road to Sutton Benger, then from there the road to Seagry. Handy lay-by just before you cross the motorway. The plants are just beneath you.

On June 21st 2015, the flower-heads looked extraordinary, as weird as a Cappadocian landscape.

(When I was on the spot I assumed that the upright pinnacles were "buds", i.e. yet to flower, but I've since been told that these were post-flowering. In Nectaroscordum the flowers are upright in bud, drooping when open, then upright again in fruit.)  

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Wednesday, June 17, 2015

a double circuit of barbury castle

Visit to Barbury Castle last Monday evening, June 15th 2015. The Iron Age hillfort has two concentric ramparts. The steep banks support what appears to be a fairly unspectacular chalk-land flora (e.g. Common Spotted Orchid was the only orchid that I noticed), but I found a few things interesting enough to photograph. As I sank into the details of this landscape, I knew I'd want to come back soon. 

A patch of Crested Hair-grass (Koeleria macrantha) growing on an old ant-hill. (Try to ignore the intrusive fescue...)

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Monday, June 15, 2015

botanist in bath

A couple of interesting plants seen during yesterday's visit to Bath. 

A weird-looking bramble, growing among "normal" brambles, on the edge of the park at Bear Flat. With the help of the internet I've pinned this down to Rubus laciniatus, a species that's been given various English names, including Parsley-leaved Bramble, Fern-leaved Bramble, Evergreen Blackberry, and Cutleaf Evergreen Blackberry. (French: Ronce laciniée. Dutch: Peterseliebraam.)

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Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Robert Browning (1812-1889)

Portrait of Robert Browning by Dante Gabriel Rosetti (1855)

[Image source: The Fitzwilliam Museum]

This post compiles all the pieces that I've written about Browning. The two most substantial pieces appeared in Intercapillary Space, so I've just given links to them.


Pauline: A Fragment of a Confession (1833)

The name in the title should perhaps be pronounced in the French manner, as Pauline apparently hails from the Alps and her sole intervention (a footnote) is in French. But I don't think I'll be trying this in public.


Strafford (1837)


"Bishop Blougram’s Apology" (published in Men and Women, 1855)

Of course you are remarking all this time
How narrowly and grossly I view life,
Respect the creature-comforts, care to rule
The masses, and regard complacently
‘The cabin’, in our old phrase. Well, I do.

The bishop is fascinated (in what is finally a generous way) by his effect on the young man. Whom he doesn’t wholly understand, but he knows that “life” is a revered word. He enjoys the words “narrowly” and “grossly”; intended as criticisms of him, he smacks his lips over them. This is talk not lecturing, so his sentence leaves its moorings - he obviously does not mean, what he logically implies, “how narrowly and grossly I regard complacently...”

“in our old phrase” politely includes Gigadibs (he would feel, “implicates”).

“Care to rule” is an odd phrase, perhaps a false note, but it passes the crozier/crook under our nose.

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Monday, June 08, 2015

Benito Pérez Galdós: Electra (1901)

Sara Casanovas as Electra in a 2010 production at the Teatro Español

I listened to Electra in the impressive Librivox presentation - the most professional-quality Librivox play-reading that I've heard, and highly recommended! (The excellent translation was by Charles Alfred Turrell.)

Possibly because I'd found Balzac's plays such a let-down in comparison to his novels, I didn't have very high expectations of a play by Galdós. But I was wrong: Electra is terrific. And it has an importance in Galdós' career that Balzac's plays never did. Its premiere, on January 30, 1901, was scandalous. It was a great success, but its powerfully anti-clerical message led to public demonstrations. 

The traditional comparison of Galdós in Madrid with Balzac in Paris or Dickens in London is misleading in several respects. Both the earlier authors can be reasonably claimed to have had truly national audiences. Balzac was an idiosyncratic kind-of-conservative; but so large a presence rose above political divisions. And the great radical Dickens was read by all of English society. There might be mutterings from some quarters about the "sullen socialism" of The Chimes and Hard Times, but even conservative readers had been unable to resist Pickwick and Little Nell. By the time of Dicken's greatest novels, he was as much of an established institution as Christmas. 

Galdós wrote in a more fiercely polarized society. His audience in his own lifetime was far more restricted. For the conservative and pious majority, his work was considered off limits. And Electra set the seal on that.

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in the business park 2

Three plants that crop up on the extended paved areas that are used for parking. Photos from the beginning of June, 2015.

Above and below, Thyme-leaved Sandwort (Arenaria serpyllifolia) - probably ssp. leptocladus, though I need fruits to confirm.

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Thursday, June 04, 2015

another fine Yponomeuta mess....

I guess I'm getting my eye in for Yponomeuta outbreaks now. 

This is part of a length of hedge in the Swindon business park where I work.  I noticed it while driving past yesterday and thought: Hmm, I know what that's about. Sure enough, closer inspection revealed that the hedge was being absolutely blitzed by an Yponomeuta explosion. 

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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

a sense of complicity - scratchpad

This is a theme that crops up a lot in the vicinity of Andrea Brady's poetry. Commentators mention it. The poetry mentions it. ("Winter Quarters", "Friendship 2") - the poetry, everywhere, is alert to it. You might almost say, lives and dies by it.

In our world it's hard to escape.

So thanks, Obama administration.

I am not very happy, right now, with the activities of Royal Dutch Shell, as they crow over their arctic adventure go-ahead.

Yet I drive, eat, heat and earn. (It's been estimated that 20% of pension funds are invested in fossil fuel companies.)

(I think we should now routinely call them fossil fuel companies. "Energy companies" is an attempt to occupy the centre ground that is now totally inappropriate.)

In fact you could say that a general unease and disapproval of fossil fuel industries goes back with me to teenage years. That was 40 years ago, and I don't think I'd heard of global warming, but it seemed vaguely wrong to me (and of course many others) that we were "using up the planet's resources". We were very protective of the planet, this big bouncing baby that was suddenly wriggling in the arms of my generation after all those millennia of being far too big for human beings to conceive let alone affect.

This was how I felt when university pals went off to earn big bucks with Schlumberger.

It was in the late 80s when we began to think that "the greenhouse effect" presented a more immediate danger than exhausting the planet. Svante Arrhenius had floated the concept in 1896, but no-one had thought it was really happening. Then the papers told us that the poles were melting. Cows and termites might have something to do with it, but it was mainly all about fossil fuels. 1998 was the hottest year on record.

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Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Books to go

Another home move, and a clearout. The books are going to Julian House in Bath.

A consequence of relativism is that I could almost as happily keep these books and get rid of others. Most of these books I part with only because I have too many to read; some are favourites that I look forward to finding again one day.


For example, John Lothrop Motley, the first volume of The Rise of the Dutch Republic (1855). An Everyman hardback; a format for reading that, in my opinion, has never been bettered. How happy I am that formerly, at least, I had time for these deep dives. Now I can only wonder at the marvellous first chapter. Motley's classical idea of the ancient Netherlands being populated partly by yellow-haired Gauls and partly by red-haired Germans is a structuring myth that the few facts in Caesar and Tacitus can be strung around.

The truculent German, Ger-mann, Heer-mann, War-man, considered carnage the only useful occupation, and despised agriculture as enervating and ignoble. It was base, in his opinion, to gain by sweat what was more easily acquired by blood. ...

The contrast between priest-ridden Gauls and austerely monotheistic Germans is Motley preparing the ground for his later account of the Catholic-leaning Belgians and the Protestant Dutch. (As also, his claim that the ancient German government was fundamentally democratic, the Celts aristocratic.)


There's just time to mention, before night falls on it, one of the more obscure volumes in this big box.

Through the Land of Babylonia: A Fascinating Tour in Bible Lands by Leonard T. Pearson (1939, revised 1951). The Rev. L.T. Pearson travelled initially in a Nairn bus across the Syrian desert (with a party of 9, including three ladies); once in Iraq the party travelled by sleeper-train and Rolls Royce motor-car.

Pearson proves from the Bible that 1938 is the year when the time of the Gentiles comes to an end and the Holy Land becomes once more the gathering of the Hebrew people; as foretold, exactly 2520 years after Nebuchadnezzar. He takes his Bible very literally. The vitrified brick of Birs Nimrud is, in his view, the remnant of God's high-heat desolation of the Tower of Babel.  The silt found at Kish and Ur is a remnant of the Great Flood (3200 BC in Pearson's reckoning).

The long day spent in the ruins of Ur inspecting the walls and buildings of various ages, examining the pottery and piecing together the stories of the past, cause one to return to the Hotel on wheels, filled with wonder. On turning in for the night and with one's thoughts still back in the very early ages, the writer was brought abruptly into the present by a tap on the window and the stationmaster said:-- "Mr. Pearson, I thought you would like to know that Cambridge has won the boat race -- I've got it over the wire!"
Pearson's style veers between this pleasant homeliness and exalted preaching. Thus, passing the natural Oil Wells between Kirkuk and Mosul, and seeing patches of fire ("It is Hydrogen, which, when coming in contact with the air, bursts into flame"), he thinks this may be the Burning Fiery Furnace in the book of Daniel, and he homilizes:

The Law of the Sabbath is broken, even in church circles, the Word of God is popularised by taking out the very portions that would "hurt" the reader to his heart's good. The world today is worshipping "flesh" as in no previous generation under the guise of health, and exalted to the rank of deity until modesty, prudence and purity are ordered to the flames of extinction. It is in the suffering that the Christ is made manifest, it was so in Nebuchadnezzar's day, in Smithfield's bonfires, and it will be until Christ is revealed in the fullness of His Glory.

Meanwhile we arrive at Nineveh where the author takes the opportunity to demonstrate the literal truth of the story of Jonah, and to explain that Christ's three days and three nights in the tomb (paralleling the whale) actually ran from Wednesday sunset to Saturday sunset.

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