Wednesday, June 02, 2021



That time of year when there's always a vase on the desk

I've felt completely wiped out for the last few weeks, since I caught a simple cold off the boy (Laura's four-year-old grandson). After three coldified days when everything seemed to be progressing satisfactorily, my body then went into a peculiar, feverish, achy, short-breathed and exhausted tailspin. (I have grave suspicions of the Astra-Zeneca jab messing with my immune response, but let's not get into that.)

During this recess I felt an even stronger desire than usual to do nothing. In particular I could hardly bear to switch on the computer, so a lot of things went on hold. 

But this did lead to one liberation. Since there was no possibility of doing any blogging, and since I wasn't reading anything online, I could gladly give myself up to a splurge of old-fashioned reading, with no need to linger or frame my thoughts about what I was reading. 

So no long musings here, just some sample quotes. 


1. Eric Ambler, Epitaph for a Spy (1938). An entertainment that's also a book of great beauty and power. It's set almost entirely in a small resort hotel near Toulon (variant on the "grand hotel" genre invented by Vicki Baum), but it snapshots the whole western world on the brink of war. 

He had been looking out of the window.  Now he turned to me.

'It's a funny thing,' he said, 'how a man can go on for years living with something he feels to be the truth without even suspecting that he hasn't examined all the relevant facts. That was roughly what had happened to me. It was as though I had been living in a darkened room confident that I knew the colour of the walls and of the carpet. Then someone turned up the lamp and I saw that the colours were really quite different and that I had even been wrong about the shape of the room. I had always despised communism. I had written articles denouncing it, calling Marx and Engels windy theorists and Lenin a gangster with a streak of genius. Dialectical materialism, I used to say, was so much cheap rubbishy thinking fit only for pimply youths and half-baked intellectuals. I could be very scathing and amusing on the subject. I thought that I was very wise and level-headed. But the odd thing was that I had never read Marx or Engels. I had the so-called "cultural background of the intelligent European", I was soaked in the neo-Platonism of Bonn. I had not perceived that nothing stinks quite so much as dead philosophies. I was a nineteenth-century man. 

'At first I was very cautious. I was afraid that my mind had been upset by what I had been through and that prejudice was clouding my critical faculties. But I persevered. There was a man there, a German social-democrat like myself. We read "Anti-Dühring" together and became so excited about it that we used to talk all through the night. But what I found so extraordinary was the way it killed the bitterness in me. I was beginning to understand my fellow men, to see the shape of history as I had never seen it before. I read passionately, and as I read I knew that I was seeing for the first time the tragedy of man, his folly and his genius, his destiny and the line of march to it. 

'After a while I started working for the party. The principal activity was getting news into Germany, real news. ...'

(from Epitaph for a Spy, Chapter 13)

[Friedrich Engels' Anti-Dühring (1878): . Influential in Europe as a relatively concise and popular treatment of Marxism by one of its founders.] 


2. Beaumarchais' The Barber of Seville (1775) and The Marriage of Figaro (1784). Brilliant and historically important plays that are inevitably overshadowed by the operas they gave rise to so quickly. From The Marriage, in which the Count's libertine habits have re-awoken . . .

THE COUNT: You are excited, Suzie! Talking to yourself and your little heart going pit-a-pat . . . very understandable of course on such a day . . .

SUZANNE [in concern]: What do you want of me, My Lord? Suppose anyone found you here with me . . .

THE COUNT: I should be very sorry indeed if they did. But you know what an interest I take in you. Bazile must have let you know of my love for you. I have only a minute to explain what I have in mind. Listen. [Sits on chair.]

SUZANNE: I won't listen!

THE COUNT [takes her hand]: You know that the King has appointed me his ambassador in London. I'm taking Figaro with me. I'm giving him an excellent job, and as a wife's duty is to follow her husband . . .

SUZANNE: Ah! If only I dare speak!

THE COUNT [drawing her to him]: Speak. Speak, my dear! Take advantage here and now of your influence over me, an influence that will endure . . .

SUZANNE [alarmed]: I wish for none, Sir! I wish for none! Leave me, I beseech you!

(from The Marriage of Figaro, Act I)


3. Anthony Powell, Casanova's Chinese Restaurant (1960). Set in about 1936. The fifth volume in A Dance to the Music of Time, focussed on Nick's contacts in the musical world, on adultery and despair. One of the best, in my opinion (all the better because Widmerpool appears only fleetingly). This extract is from an uncomfortable evening in Pimlico:

'Carolo is always losing keys,' said Maclintick. 'He'll have to pay for a new one himself this time.  It costs a fortune keeping him in keys. I can't remember whether I told you Carolo has come to us as a lodger, Moreland.'

'No,' said Moreland, 'you didn't. How did that happen?'

Moreland seemed surprised, for some reason not best pleased at this piece of information.

'He was in low water,' Maclintick said, speaking if he were himself not specially anxious to go into explanations. 'So were we. It seemed a good idea at the time. I'm not so sure now. In fact I've been thinking of getting rid of him.'

'How is he doing?' asked Moreland. 'Carolo is always very particular about what jobs he will take on. All that business about teaching being beneath his dignity.'

'He says he likes time for that work of his he is always tinkering about with,' said Maclintick. 'I shall be very surprised if anything ever comes of it.'

'I like Carolo here,' said Mrs Maclintick. 'He gives very little trouble. I don't want to die of melancholia, never seeing a soul.'

'What do you mean?' said Maclintick. 'Look at the company we have got tonight. What I can't stick is having Carolo scratching away at the other end of the room when I am eating. Why can't he keep the same hours as other people?'

'You are always saying artists ought to be judged by different standards from other people,' said Mrs Maclintick fiercely. 'Why shouldn't Carolo keep the hours he likes? He is an artist, isn't he?'

'Carolo may be an artist,' said Maclintick, puffing out a long jet of smoke from his mouth, 'but he is a bloody unsuccessful one nowadays. One of those talents that have dried up, in my opinion. I certainly don't see him blossoming out as a composer. Look here, you two had better stay to supper. As Audrey says, we don't often have company . . .'

(from Casanova's Chinese Restaurant, Chapter 2)


4. Peter Mortimer, Broke Through Britain: One Man's Penniless Odyssey (1999). Peter (a freelance writer), decided to spend a month walking from Plymouth to Edinburgh without carrying any money.  All his food and overnight shelter had to be begged; creating a daily situation in which people had to make decisions about trusting a stranger (or not). The result is a fascinating but often sobering national portrait. I'm very glad he wrote this book,  -- at the last possible moment before the spread of mobile phones and internet banking would have radically impacted its premiss. (At one point someone invites Peter to use the Internet to prove that he is indeed a bona fide published author, but the service is so unreliable they soon give up.)

 At the hunt kennels in Herefordshire, they get a phone call:

... We'd all seen dead cow meat hanging from butcher's hooks. Most of us had eaten beef at some time. Seeing a dead cow in a field was different. Other herd members stood around, chewed the cud and stared. I noted the cow's swollen udder, milk that would never be drunk.

Peter backed the wagon up close to the corpse and slung the steel hawser around the cow's neck ready for winching. There was a slow whirring sound, and the neck stretched grotesquely from the pull of the hawser. I found myself stupidly wondering if it was painful. Finally the beast was dragged forwards, up the ramp and into the open back of the wagon. The cow was too long. Peter needed to yank it so the head was pushed up against the back of the cab. For a moment it seemed this rearing head was alive, seemed its brown eye, like an open tin of golden syrup, was staring directly at me. Then the head slumped, the illusion was gone. Peter wedged in the feet and bolted up the end of the wagon. We drove off. 'What did the cow die of?' I asked. He shrugged his shoulders. By the time we arrived back, there was already an answerphone query from the vet. Dead cows were a sensitive issue. 

(from Broke Through Britain, Day Eleven -- Wednesday, 5 August)


5. Brigid Brophy, The Snow Ball (1964). A novel (her fourth, approximately), but closely related to her non-fiction writing, especially Mozart the Dramatist. The novel takes place in a night. It concerns a masked ball in contemporary London, in which the central characters are dressed as Donna Anna and Don Giovanni. Here are two cabaret performers: 

A man without characteristics hurried on to the platform, shifted the double bass and sat rapidly down at the piano. 

He was followed by a thin girl with thin straight colourless hair to her shoulders. She wore a short evening dress consisting of horizontal black frills which swaddled her tightly to just above the knees. Her legs, in very pale, peanut-coloured nylons, were thin, straight, and apparently unbending -- the legs of whitewood furniture: only the narrow knee cap made a small obtruction in the straightness, like an adam's apple; and when the girl took a step it looked as though her legs had swallowed. Her high-heeled shoes had a narrow, twenties-ish strap across the instep.

She paid no attention to her audience but stood with her back to them while she turned a nozzle of instructions on to her pianist, who sat with his head bent over the keyboard paying, in his turn, no attention to her. 

(from The Snow Ball, Chapter 8)


And finally 6., which I'm currently half-way through, Wole Soyinka's The Interpreters (1965), a big and complex novel about a group of bright young Nigerians in Ibadan. I don't feel able to pick an extract while I'm still in the middle of being bewildered by it, so instead here's one of his poems I found online. 

Massacre, October '66

Written in Tegel

Shards of sunlight touch me here
shredded in willows. Through stained-glass
Fragments on the lake I sought to reach
A mind at silt-bed

The lake stayed cold
I swam in an October flush of dying leaves
The gardener’s labour flew in seasoned scrolls
Lettering the wind

Swept from painted craft
A mockery of waves remarked this idyll sham
I trod on acorns; each shell’s detonation
Aped the skull’s uniqueness.

Came sharper reckoning –
This favoured food of hogs cannot number high
As heads still harshly crop to whirlwinds
I have briefly fled

The oak rains a hundred more
A kind confusion to arithmetics of death:
Time to watch autumn the removal man
Dust down rare canvases

To let a loud resolve of passion
Fly to a squirrel, burnished light and copper fur
A distant stance without the lake’s churchwindows
And for a stranger, love.

A host of acorns fell, silent
As they are silenced all, whose laughter
Rose from such indifferent paths, oh God
They are not strangers all

Whose desecration mocks the word
Of peace – salaam aleikun – not strangers any
Brain of thousands pressed asleep to pig fodder –
Shun pork the unholy – cries the priest.

I borrow seasons of an alien land
In brotherhood of ill, pride of race around me
Strewn in sunlit shards. I borrow alien lands
To stay the season of a mind.


(Source .)

(The title refers to the anti-Igbo pogroms across northern Nigeria in 1966, precursors to the Biafran war of 1967-70. The poem is located beside Lake Tegel (Tegeler See) in Reinickendorf, NW Berlin. The large lake is set in woodland known for its oak trees.)

Spotted Hawkweed (Hieracium maculatum). Frome, 2 June 2021.

How to opt out of having your GP medical history shared with NHS Digital for future corporate and commercial use (you have until 23rd June 2021):*

*True when I wrote it. The date was then put back a couple of months, so the deadline then presumably became 23rd August 2021, though that was never officially stated. Since then, government guidance has become even vaguer, with some suggestion that it's all been put back to 2022. The above link should have the latest information.

Article by Ameen Kamlana:

Remote Sedge (Carex remota). Frome, 2 June 2021.

Remote Sedge (Carex remota). Frome, 2 June 2021.

Grey Sedge (Carex divulsa). Frome, 8 June 2021.

Grey Sedge (Carex divulsa). Frome, 8 June 2021.

Hawkweed leaves, spotted and not. Frome, 2 June 2021.

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