Sunday, 30 April 2017

Spring Gate

One of our regular visits when in the Welsh Marches is Hergest Croft, a rather fine old house and gardens which (I think) is actually in England. It's hard to tell, sometimes, where you are, as the border is no longer marked with heads on poles, or anything so emphatic, and still seems to be shifting about as you drive round and over the hills. The name will be familiar to those of a certain age who recall one of Mike Oldfield's less successful albums, Hergest Ridge, named after a nearby hill. Back in the '70s, a lot of musicians, artists, and alternative-lifestyle types found a congenial home in the area, and it's still a place where it's easier to find wholefoods and handcrafted pots than it is to find a phone signal.

It was fairly wet during this year's visit, but I managed to get a few useful photographs, including the one above of a decorative wrought-iron gate, which I took with the intention of using it as an element in photo-collages. The first of these is below. It's a bit busy, perhaps, but that's how spring is, isn't it?

Spring 's Gate 2017

Thursday, 27 April 2017


In 1967, when I was 13, it was rumoured that a classmate's older brother had published a book. This was remarkable in itself – people like us didn't write books – but this book was not just any book, it was a scandalous novel, packed with bad language, drugs, sex, and, you know, everything. So much so, in fact, that he had it published under a pseudonym, Chrys Paul Fletcher. Now, despite the constant traffic at school in books with "good bits" – well-thumbed paperbacks like The Dirty Dozen or Catch-22 that fell conveniently open at the relevant passages – I don't think I ever actually saw a copy of this legendary text, entitled Cry for a Shadow*, until, browsing in a chaotic second-hand bookshop on Bristol's Christmas Steps in 1978, I chanced upon a pristine hardback copy, which must have been waiting there for most of the intervening decade, priced as it was at its pre-decimal used valuation of 2 shillings and sixpence.

Although not exactly one of the great novels, I have held on to it, as one of those curiosities that has a purely personal, symbolic value: Ken's brother's famously naughty book. As far as I know, he published nothing else; at least, not under that name. However, as the book did go into Panther paperback and saw publication in the USA, others must surely have read it at the time. In fact, it's a classic picaresque "beatnik" narrative, British-style, but really rather behind the fast-moving curve of fashion for '67. From the dust jacket:

Chris Plater on stage with his mouth-organ and guitar ... Chris on Brighton beach with Spud and Lorraine ... Standing in Trafalgar Square in his parka and jeans ... Walking, insane, through the streets of Soho ... Standing against the winds on the rocks of Cramond Island...
   Cry for a Shadow is the story of Chris Plater, a successful folk singer, and the figures around him – Lorraine, his girl friend, and Spud, Pete, and Napoleon, Carol in Edinburgh who is to have his baby, Bardino with his red and blazing eyes. It is the story of the creeping insanity which Chris Plater feels infringing upon his mind as he plunges deeper in his despairing search for the end of the rainbow.
   In this vividly realistic picture of the mod/rocker generation the author gives a frightening insight into their almost total lack of standards, or ambitions, or responsibility and above all into their sense of apartness, futility and despair.

Ah, takes you back, doesn't it? Especially, that almost total lack of standards, or ambitions! I mean, who hasn't walked, insane, through the streets of Soho? Or forgotten yet again where on earth you've dropped your end of that rainbow? I saw the best minds of my generation, etc. Well, you had to make your own bohemia in those days, largely out of junk, cast-offs, and imagination. The "generation gap" was very real, though, and uncrossable: leaving home to live a chancer's life in squalid corners of post-War Britain was a sanity-saving measure for many. I think few 17-year-olds today could imagine yearning for a life in a cold, damp bed-sit with no kitchen or toilet, but such places were where an existentialist hepcat could afford finally to be free of parental oppression. For good or ill, "dirt-cheap" was still a meaningful expression in the 1960s.

This book came to mind this week as I'm reading Mike Heron's recently-published account of the founding of The Incredible String Band, You Know What You Could Be, and his tales of the bohemian Edinburgh folk scene in the early-to-mid 60s are, in many ways, remarkably similar. At least, as far as they go. I had thought the double authorship of Mike Heron and poet Andrew Greig was just an honest, upfront acknowledgement of an "as told to" autobiographical arrangement, but it turns out Heron has contributed only the first 100 pages of a 350 page book, and breaks off the story just as the "real" ISB story gets going, which is disappointing. It's as if "The Hedgehog Song" were the summation of their contribution to music. Perhaps he's embarrassed by the, um, subsequent lapse into Scientology. He does write well, though, and gives a vivid telling of the days when Heron, Robin Williamson, Bert Jansch, John Martyn, Davey Graham and many other luminaries of the folk scene were just guys hanging around Edinburgh's folk clubs, learning to live off nothing in order to play guitar and write songs. The rest of the book is Greig's, who is a similar age to me, and thus less of a pioneer than a first-generation fan and a follower. His contribution is excellent, however: perhaps the best evocation of a late-60s adolescence in a small town I've read.

But both books also made me think about the vagaries of "fame". Never their greatest fan, I did nonetheless own and knew every note and fey whimper on those first Incredible String Band albums (although I confess this was largely because I was reduced to helpless hilarity by their very Scottish, Ivor Cutler-ish barbed whimsy), and as influences go the band was pretty seminal. They were famous, notorious, infamous, even. Even Led Zeppelin have acknowledged the impact of The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter on their own first album (it's an obvious but often unremarked fact that Led Zep have a distinctly folkie side to their repertoire). And yet my daughter, who is a music fan of taste and discrimination, with access to all the rich resources of the Web, has never even heard of them. It seems psychedelic folk has been written out of the story of popular music: obscured by prog, and scribbled over by punk.

I suppose it is a little embarrassing, as a chapter in our national musical story, especially seen from the outside, and without herbal or chemical enhancement. Perhaps the name best exemplifying this fame-amnesia is that of another folkie Scot, Donovan Leitch. Despite his chart successes in the '60s, Donovan seems to have become one of the nearly men of popular music. For a time, though, he was everywhere and knew everyone, teaching the Beatles in India how to play guitar crosspick style, a fixture at festivals, and commanding the services of the likes of Jimmy Page and bassist Danny Thompson (please don't say "Who?") as session-men on his records. His name, along with that of Bob Dylan, is threaded through both Cry for a Shadow and You Know What You Could Be, not as the Dylan-lite imitator he was accused of being (I can't be the only one who remembers when a certain style of denim peaked cap was known in Britain as a Donovan hat, and not a Dylan hat), nor as the twee chart-topping songster he became, but as a trailblazer of the beatnik-folkie lifestyle, hitchhiking and sleeping rough around Britain and Europe; a name to be conjured with. In Cry for a Shadow, in a derelict WW2 bunker on Cramond Island in the Firth of Forth, our hero finds "Donovan slept here" chalked on a wall, and this is not meant as a joke.

Mind you, despite the appalling ignorance of the current younger generation, there are now plenty of books for them to read up on the subject, ranging from memoirs (the one by Donovan's chum Gypsy Dave Mills looks interesting) to surveys like Rob Young's Electric Eden. Although it is disconcerting to find the stuff of your youth becoming history, written about by enthusiasts who weren't even born at the time. And embarrassing, too, when laid bare in its utter triviality in comparison to, say, previous generations' struggles with poverty and deprivation, not to mention two world wars. But, hey, that's peace and prosperity for you: deadly dull unless you can spice it up a bit by, well, looking for a bit of poverty and deprivation action to call your own.

* I'm aware this is the title of the obscure, first-ever Beatles recording, a Shadows-esque instrumental, but this would not have been common knowledge in those days. Why "Fletcher" chose it is not clear (maybe there's an older, common source?), but music – especially Dylan's  Mr. Tambourine Man – is a thread through the book.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Birthday Boys

When forty winters shall besiege thy brow
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty's field,
Thy youth's proud livery, so gazed on now,
Will be a tattered weed, of small worth held.
Then being asked where all thy beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days,
To say within thine own deep-sunken eyes
Were an all-eating shame and thriftless praise.
How much more praise deserved thy beauty's use
If thou couldst answer "This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count, and make my old excuse",
Proving his beauty by succession thine.
   This were to be new made when thou art old,
   And see thy blood warm when thou feel'st it cold.
Sonnet 2
It is, of course, Shakespeare's birthday today and, as is customary, we mark the occasion by opening the Sonnets and finding something that seems appropriate. Those first seventeen poems in the sequence (written on commission to urge a young aristocrat to quit messin' around and, like, have some children, forsooth) have never seemed particularly interesting, but when I look upon this particular fair youth whose birthday also falls in April I can't help feeling, yep, you had a point, Will. I'm not saying I was ever beautiful, as such, but: job done. Is it just me, though, or is it cold in here?

By the way, if you've ever found the sonnets hard going, I thoroughly recommend Scottish poet Don Paterson's book, Reading Shakespeare's Sonnets,  as the most accessible way in. His blokeish, but practitioner's view of the sequence genuinely elucidates the connections and the difficulties, and he is happy to score a B++ when Shakespeare fails to clear the bar he has set himself so dizzyingly high, rather than seeking some spurious explanation. The seventh line in no. 11, here below, is an example. As Paterson says, the problem is that this sonnet cannot really stand alone, as "you need to have read Sonnet 1, at least, to make any sense of If all were minded so ... i.e. 'if everyone thought like you, humanity would die out by teatime'".
As fast as thou shalt wane, so fast thou grow'st
In one of thine from that which thou departest,
And that fresh blood which youngly thou bestow'st
Thou mayst call thine when thou from youth convertest.
Herein lives wisdom, beauty, and increase;
Without this, folly, age, and cold decay.
If all were minded so, the times should cease,
And threescore year would make the world away.
Let those whom nature hath not made for store,
Harsh, featureless, and rude, barrenly perish.
Look whom she best endowed she gave the more,
Which bounteous gift thou shouldst in bounty cherish.
   She carved thee for her seal, and meant thereby
   Thou shouldst print more, not let that copy die.
Sonnet 11

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Time Travellers Return

Bryan's Ground, near Presteigne

[Cue Doctor Who TARDIS effect...]
Vworp... Vworp... Neeeooooww... Neeeeooooww...

And here we are, safely back from our excursion into the late 1970s. Good to see you again, here in, let me see, 2007. What? Oops. I told you we should have taken that left at Abergavenny. Everybody back on the bus!

Avon Gorge, Bristol

The picture above, despite a certain timelessness, is indeed from 2017; it is the view over the Avon Gorge from our Bristol flat, the evening before we left for Wales. If I were to spend more time there, I think I'd rig up something so I could take the exact same picture whenever the light, the weather, or the season said, "Oh, all right, go on, then!" Nothing so mechanical as a time-lapse sequence, of course, but it is such a fine, ever-changing vista to look out on from your kitchen at any time of day or year, that it invites documentation. In fact, I've been thinking I might retreat there for some stretches of time in solitary to get some proper writing done, but I'm pretty sure I'd spend far too long just watching the river flow. Although I suppose I could always sit on the other side of the flat, and gaze upon the garages and service-road instead.

Llynheilyn Lake

This is the view from our new Easter retreat, on the evening we arrived. Yes, yes, that is what is known, technically, as a "sunset". So sue me. In 1977 they were still quite fashionable. That lake is alive with breeding wildfowl, including a regal pair of nesting swans, apparently building themselves a motte and bailey castle in the reeds as a bastion against an assorted rabble of little grebes, tufted ducks, moorhens, Canada geese, and those ultimate unruly peasants, continually squabbling seagulls.

After the first morning it did rain quite a lot, off and on, which – although it didn't bother us much – may explain our Prime Minister's unexpected change of mind over holding a snap general election, following her own Easter hillwalking break further north and west in Snowdonia. Now, it seems, it's going to be our turn to suffer. She clearly needs better boots: mine were fine, rain or shine.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Elective Affinities 3

Here are a few more pages from that imaginary elective family album. It's a curious thing, the way the networks of friendship overlap. Take these four guys. They have one solid thing in common: the Oxford college they attended 1973-76. And yet it's hard to think of another thing all four of them have in common, other than the generic stuff that would link any group of men of the same age cohort. All are in stable relationships, true, although one is unmarried and, remarkably, three of them are still living with partners they met while at university. All have children, certainly, although two of them have had daughters only, while two have had both sons and daughters and, although all have endured the standard-issue trials of parenthood, only one has had to suffer the tragedy of the loss of a child. All, self-evidently, in their day, were charismatically handsome specimens, but only one still turns heads at age 63.

In fact, many, if not most of the overlaps are just two-fold: home town, class of origin, state or private secondary education, musical preferences, favoured sport, and so on. For example, two worked in the public sector, two went into "private" employment. Two studied English, two studied the sort of triple-initialled hybrid science-and/or-social-science pick'n'mix mashup you can do at Oxford. Two have family connections to the Scottish Borders, and two have family connections to the Middle East. Two have a better than average command of foreign languages; two have more than a passing acquaintance with grepsed and awk.

But the more interesting intersections are three-fold. For example, three of them came from families that made several significant changes of location during childhood and adolescence. Although all hold left-of-centre views, only one has ever been an active member of a political party, but three have been active trade-unionists. One of these idiots has never "experimented" with, um, non-prescription psychotropic substances, though you'd probably guess the wrong one. Three are in relationships where the female partner's earnings are significantly larger. Three had the good fortune (or good sense) to pursue lines of employment that gave a steady income and culminated in a decent pension, whereas one has lived off his wits most of his life.

So it goes. It seems friendship is not so much a network as an interlocking pattern, rather like the intricate symmetries of a spirograph, or the 3-D visualisation of some complex mathematical equation. In the end, I suppose, the obvious point is that you don't have be like someone to like them, but having enough points of similarity may be what sustains a friendship over 40-plus years and transforms it into an elective kinship.

N.B. it's Easter so we're in Wales and have travelled back in time to somewhere around 1977, well before the advent of the internet and mobile phone. Any comments will get posted and possibly replied to when we return to 2017, towards the end of next week, if the time-tides permit.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

The Long View

Here are a couple more of these kakejiku-style composites. One of the things I like playing around with is the mix of materials, including re-rendering, say, slate or marble surfaces as if they were fabrics. Or, as in the one at the top, taking a delicate image, apparently on tissue-thin paper, mounting it on a more robust but wrinkled substrate, which is in turn rather unsympathetically fixed to a far from flexible slab of plywood. Now I think of it, I may later add the tell-tale lumps and stains of ancient Blu Tack at the corners.

A more detailed view may give a better idea of what I'm up to. Nothing, needless to say, is quite what it seems. But that's the point: things as they are, are changed upon the blue guitar.

N.B. it's Easter so we're in Wales and have travelled back in time to somewhere around 1977, well before the advent of the internet and mobile phone. Any comments will get posted and possibly replied to when we return to 2017, towards the end of next week, if the time-tides permit.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Roll Up!

Regular visitors here can't have helped noticing I have a liking for the so-called "portrait" orientation, even when – gasp! – photographing the landscape (is that even allowed?). I think it's a taste I acquired back in my medium-format film days using a Fuji GS645S, for which the default orientation is "portrait", because that's the only way to get 15 rectangular frames out of a roll intended for 12 square frames, and still be able to advance the film horizontally. I imagine the same applied to the original Olympus Pen "half-frame" cameras. Whatever, I came to like it, and still do.

So much so, that I've been playing around with the aesthetic of the Japanese hanging scroll, or kakejiku. Basically, these long, narrow scrolls are a way of mounting an image – often, but not necessarily, a Zen painting or calligraphy on paper – so that it can easily be hung, replaced, and rolled up and stored in its own airtight wooden box when not on display. Which, when you think about it, is a very neat idea, compared to our western tendency to encapsulate a picture within an inconvenient, hard to store, rigidly flat sandwich of glass, cardboard and wood.

However, being Japanese, the process has acquired a fairly inflexible set of rules and procedures which, taken together, give a particular look and feel to the end product. If you want an insight into this, this YouTube video shows how to handle them, and this one is about a guy who runs a family business making them. I'm not terribly interested in the protocol or the process, as such, but I do like the way the best of them hang together, so to speak, and have been appropriating the elements of this "look" for my own purposes.

However, having produced a composite picture like this, actually to frame it might seem rather to go against the spirit of the thing. Expensive, too. Then it struck me that, rather than printing them in the usual way, it might be fun to have them made by good old Vistaprint as vinyl banners – they had just emailed the latest of their special offers – the sort of thing you see at trade shows, or lashed to a wall. It could be a very cheap way of making something large (the "small" size is 90cm x 50cm) that wouldn't need framing (washable!), and which could indeed be rolled up in a tube. So I've ordered one as a trial. It may be awful, it may be brilliant, but there's only one way to find out, and it will be a tenner well spent.

Obviously, any wannabe artist of the floating world needs a signature stamp, or hanko, and this is mine:

I rather like it – a sort of hybrid between the Japanese stamp and the traditional western signet ring, and it's certainly more elegant than my actual scrawled signature. Who knows, I might even get a real one made as a rubber stamp, and use it to authenticate my paper prints.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Moscow Rules

Yevgeny Yevtushenko, whose recent death went surprisingly unremarked, may not be much remembered these days, but back in the 1960s he was a prominent public figure, along with those other sometime must-read giants of dissident Soviet-era literature, like Solzhenitsyn, Pasternak, Bulgakov, and the rest. Somehow, the abrupt disintegration of the USSR and the Eastern Bloc from 1989 also disrupted our western view of the significance of those writers. Some of them, like Yevtushenko, had been tolerated at home as, in that quintessential Leninist expression, "useful idiots", a necessary and essentially harmless evil, published and allowed to travel abroad; others – less useful – were executed, forced into labour camps or exile, or merely silenced, only able to circulate their manuscripts furtively as samizdat, sometimes smuggled out to be published in Europe or America. Much the same thing happened to the literature of East Germany: the whole point of being Christa Wolf or Wolf Biermann seemed to fall along with the Berlin Wall. I recall all this vividly as I handled much of the pre-collapse published output, working as the Russian and German cataloguer at Bristol University Library between 1978 and 1983.

I did actually see Yevtushenko perform in his prime. It must have been around 1971, in the packed concert hall of our local college. In those days, any youngster with an interest in poetry (more numerous then, perhaps, than now) would own, along with the ubiquitous Mersey Sound and Children of Albion collections, some volumes of the Penguin Modern European Poets series, almost certainly including the volume of Yevtushenko's Selected Poems, with its distinctive spiky cover-image of a sprig of gorse, red against a white background. He could pack them in like a rock star, back then, and did that night. I still recall a vivid, shouty evening of arm-waving and face-pulling in which the passion overwhelmed the poetry by some margin. I remember noting in my diary, what a poseur! (or maybe the word was "wanker"; my vocabulary was more limited in those days). To use yet another of those multi-attributed quotations, "the key to success is sincerity; if you can fake that, you've got it made". Whatever his sincerity, though, there's no doubt he was a star performer.

Actually, the main thing I recall about him now is the problem with transliterating his name from the cyrillic into the roman alphabet. The sound represented by the single cyrillic character E is "ye", hence Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Boris Yeltsin, Nikolai Yezhov, etc. However, most strict transliteration schemes require this character to be represented by a single "e", so yer man Евгений Александрович Евтушенко ends up as Evtushenko, filed under E, not Y. It's a constant problem with Russian names, this: a lot depends on who in the west got to establish a particular name first, and when. Thus, the composer known to all as Tchaikovsky (filed under T?) has conventionally been transliterated that way (from Чайкoвский) simply because of the absence in the self-styled 19th-century language of culture, French, of the "ch" sound (which is what the single cyrillic character Ч represents) and the consequent use of the lashup "tch" to render it, as the French also do with the author of the plays Les Trois Sœurs and La Cerisaie, Anton Tchekhov. Nonetheless, in any well-conducted anglophone academic library at least, these are both names beginning with C. * This is a two way street, of course: the Russians lack certain phonemes, too (don't we all?), and the unwary can be tripped up by Russian books by or about Ualt Uitman, say, or Genri Dzheims. I was generally pretty good at catching these, in my day, but even Gomer nods.

Naturally, part of the art and craft of cataloguing is the judicious use of cross-references: helpful place-holders which say, in effect, "don't look here for that, my friend, look over there". Of course, these never explain why we've put it over there, perversely, and not here where you were hoping to find it, but people expect nothing less from librarians. We are there to help, but not too much. Half the fun lies in compiling rules and procedures that organise and clarify, but nonetheless often require further explanation. You're welcome!

I had quite a trip down Russian Memory Lane (Улица воспоминаний?) this week, as I visited the exhibition Revolution : Russian Art 1917-1932 at the Royal Academy, in the company of my daughter and two old friends. What a show! You forget how many rooms there are in the RA, and how big they are... So many treasures, from a Trotsky commemorative mug (not many of those can have survived) to an extraordinary but unflightworthy glider designed by Tatlin, suspended in the domed Central Hall like a pteranodon skeleton. Plus, it has to be said, an awful lot of proletkult-kitsch of purely historical interest – who knew the Bolsheviks had a thing for souvenir headscarves and plates? I think my own favourite single item was a beautiful set of supremacist-style food-tokens, made, ironically, for the reduced rations allocated to bourgeois professions like artists and writers. But the thing that entranced us all was the giant painting The Defence of Petrograd by Aleksandr Deyneka, who – unlike so many of the artists on show – was an adaptable survivor who went on to prominence in the post-1932 Stalinist era of Socialist Realism.

From an art-historical point-of-view, the main impression you take away is of a brief period of excitement and ferment, when modernism and revolution came into temporary alignment, throwing off sparks in all directions, a crazy time when figures as different as Pasternak and Mayakovsky, or Kandinsky and Malevich could all thrive, so long as they could seen to be putting their bourgeois shoulders to the revolutionary wheel. It was never going to last, and the wonderful, multifaceted poem of that other dogged survivor Anna Akhmatova, Requiem, is one of the most telling monuments to the so-called Yezhovshchina ("That Yezhov Business"), the most intense period of the Stalinist purges in 1937-38, when she spent long, cold, hungry hours queueing outside the prison in Leningrad where her son was imprisoned.

Aleksandr Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova:
poster for LENGIZ (Leningrad State Publishing House)
"BOOKS in all branches of knowledge!"

Perhaps the strangest thing, though, was realising how very distant that defining revolution of modern times now seems. One of my companions reminded me that her father, a historian, had been a Communist Party member until the 1960s, as had the parents of a number of my friends. For a long time, Soviet Russia was, for many of the most progressive elements from all classes in British society, a beacon of hope. Anti-communism, although real, was never as virulent, systematic, or as quasi-religious here as it became in America. The extinguishing of that beacon, however illusory it had been, inflicted a very real wound on something precious and important in our national psyche, from which, I suspect, we have never quite recovered. Of course, in my student days, when the New Left was still on the rise, CP members were much despised as "the Stalinists", never radical enough, too dependent on the line from the USSR, a spent and reactionary historical force. But the 1917 Revolution itself, as lived, exemplary history, was still a live and hotly-debated subject. As I think I have said before, all it could take was a word like Kronstadt to provoke a brawl in certain quarters. But then, that was nearly fifty years ago, and we were so much older then...

Being so much younger than that now, and easily tempted by books (especially books about photobooks), I was drawn, like an anarchist sailor to a lost cause (as we exited, inevitably, through the gift-shop) to a stack of books entitled The Soviet Photobook 1920-1941. But, as I attempted to pick one off the top, I discovered it was not actually a pile of books, merely two copies of an immensely thick and weighty tome, moreover one priced at £98. Phew. I mean, really... Say what you like about the quality of Soviet-era books – I handled thousands, and many were bound in a repellent, knobbly substance resembling hot-water-bottle rubber, often with multiple changes of paper stock within a single volume – white, green, pink, and buff, giving the edges an appearance similar to a block of Neapolitan ice-cream – but they were cheap, and produced in vast numbers, with the intention of making, say, a complete edition of Dostoevsky in thirty volumes an affordable luxury. Whether the typical Soviet-era apartment would ever have had enough room for a thirty-volume Dostoevsky was a rather different matter, obviously, and dealt with by a completely different bureaucracy, comrade; you'll need to join the queue over the other side of the square. Yes, that very, very long one. Lots of luck. Here, don't forget your books!

Yevgeny Zamyatin's influential dystopian novel "We" ,
published in New York in 1924 having been banned
by the USSR censor in 1921.

* Using ISO 9:1995, the current best, most rational, and utterly ignored transliteration system, these would be Čajkovskij and Čehov. Still filed under C, though!

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Bee Boy

In my recent encounter with Gilbert White's Natural History of Selborne, I was reminded of a favourite letter to Daines Barrington from that book:
SELBORNE, Dec. 12, 1775.


WE had in this village more than twenty years ago an idiot-boy, whom I well remember, who, from a child, shewed a strong propensity to bees; they were his food, his amusement, his sole object. And as people of this cast have seldom more than one point in view, so this lad exerted all his few faculties on this one pursuit. In the winter he dosed away his time, within his father's house, by the fireside, in a kind of torpid state, seldom departing from the chimney-corner; but in the summer he was all alert, and in quest of his game in the fields, and on sunny banks. Honey-bees, humble-bees, and wasps, were his prey wherever he found them: he had no apprehensions from their stings, but would seize them nudis manibus, and at once disarm them of their weapons, and suck their bodies for the sake of their honey-bags. Sometimes he would fill his bosom between his shirt and his skin with a number of these captives; and sometimes would confine them in bottles. He was a very merops apiaster, or bee-bird; and very injurious to men that kept bees; for he would slide into their bee-gardens, and, sitting down before the stools, would rap with his finger on the hives, and so take the bees as they came out. He has been known to overturn hives for the sake of honey, of which he was passionately fond. Where metheglin was making he would linger round the tubs and vessels, begging a draught of what he called bee-wine. As he ran about he used to make a humming noise with his lips, resembling the buzzing of bees. This lad was lean and sallow, and of a cadaverous complexion; and, except in his favourite pursuit, in which he was wonderfully adroit, discovered no manner of understanding. Had his capacity been better, and directed to the same object, he had perhaps abated much of our wonder at the feats of a more modern exhibiter of bees: and we may justly say of him now,

" — Thou,
"Had thy presiding star propitious shone,
"Should'st Wildman be —."

When a tall youth he was removed from hence to a distant village, where he died, as I understand, before he arrived at manhood.

I am, &c.
To any photography enthusiast, this letter will inevitably conjure the mental image of Richard Avedon's "Beekeeper" portrait from In the American West. The more literary may also be put in mind of Iain Banks' novel The Wasp Factory. Needless to say, my own enthusiasm and advocacy for wasps does not extend to stuffing them up my shirt.

But the letter has a number of puzzling references, which I must either not have noticed or simply passed over in previous readings. My edition of the Natural History lacks any annotations, so I thought I'd be my own editor, and indulge in a little looking things up, one of my favourite pastimes. Here, in order of occurrence, are my notes:

1. Nudis manibus : The Latin phrase means "with bare hands". But why does White feel the need to Latinise such an innocuous expression? There are generally two reasons for this in the discursive prose of that time. First, a coyness about physicality and in particular sexual matters. Latin formed a suitable barrier against servants, children, and women, whom a clergyman like White might feel needed to be protected either from such knowledge, or from the fact that their pious master had or was interested in such knowledge. Second, and more likely in this instance, a quotation from or reference to some classical or Biblical source, often unattributed, sometimes ironic, which the reader could be presumed to recognise. My knowledge of either in Latin is minimal, and a Google search throws up no obvious candidates. There must be something going on here, but I confess I don't know what it is.

2. Metheglin : Despite sounding like something brewed up in Breaking Bad, metheglin is simply mead (alcohol fermented from honey) flavoured with herbs and spices. We once bought a bottle of mead on Lindisfarne, and it quickly became clear why its popularity has declined since mediaeval times. Maybe the added flavouring helps. As White might have put it: having sampled the aforementioned bee-wine, one wonders whether the lad had been better employing, as an initial consonant, the unvoiced, and not the voiced, bi-labial plosive. But I suppose if you like the taste of bees, you might go for mead, too.

3. "Had his capacity been better..." : This is one of those sentences that makes no sense whatsoever until you are supplied with one vital piece of information. That is, that Thomas and Daniel Wildman were 19th century apiarists, the former well-known in naturalist circles for his Treatise on the Management of Bees (1768), and both more widely famous for their displays of, ah, bee-taming. Here is an advertisement from 1772 (pinched from here):
June 20 1772
Exhibition of bees on horseback! At the Jubilee Gardens, Islington, this and every evening until further notice (wet evenings excepted).

The celebrated Daniel Wildman will exhibit several new and amazing experiments, never attempted  by any man in this or any other kingdom before.  The riders standing upright, one foot on the saddle and one on the neck, with a mask of bees on his head and face. He also rides standing upright on the saddle with the bridle in his mouth, and, by firing a pistol makes one part of the bees march over the table, and the other swarm in the air and return to their hive again, with other performances too tedious to insert.
I'd pay to see that. Which brings us to:

4. The quotation : this is from Blenheim : a poem (1705) by John Philips, a ridiculously overblown, quasi-Miltonic account of Marlborough's triumph, dedicated to Robert Harley, a major statesman of the time, but best remembered now as a patron of the arts and the collector of Anglo-Saxon and Middle English manuscripts now in the British Library and known as the Harley Collection. White has substituted "Wildman" for "Churchill" (i.e. Marlborough). These lines, I eventually worked out, lament the "egregious prince" (Prince William, Duke of Gloucester) who died aged 11, but who, had he lived, might himself have been a contender for Churchillian glory, a veritable Marlborough Man. Thus, our idiot-boy, had he not been several worker-bees short of a hive, might have been able to explain the bizarre feats of beemanship as displayed by Wildman, and indeed might have aspired to be his equal. White, presumably, must have assumed both source and substitution to be common knowledge, at least to his correspondent Daines Barrington, in order to make ironic play with them in this way. Or maybe he was just showing off, over-excitedly, causing the mystified Barrington to scratch his head and wonder about White's own idiocy. Indicatively, perhaps, Barrington's half of the correspondence seems not to have survived.

So, there we have it. All is now clear. It's just like being back at college, isn't it? Except about 10,000 times easier, with the resources of the entire internet at your disposal. It's also a salutary reminder of both the usefulness of a well-annotated edition, and how today's witty allusion is tomorrow's egregious footnote, too tedious to insert.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Moon! Moon!

Sometimes, in the process of coming up with collages, I make a background that is, in my immediate judgement at least, sufficient in itself. It seems a shame to plonk a crow or a wasp or anything else onto it. Not that I won't, but, so far, with this one, I haven't.

It puts me in mind of one of my favourite poems by Ted Hughes, "about" his daughter Frieda, which in turn has come to put me in mind of my own daughter when she was small. There's something special about the "early" Hughes (this poem is from Wodwo, published in 1967) in which he seems to be writing for the saucer-eyed child in all of us. There's a nice e-book available from Faber, in the Faber Voices series, which includes recordings of Hughes reading this and a number of his other better-known poems. I love the reflexive loops and inversions that bind this poem together so tightly, like the hoops of a barrel.
Full Moon and Little Frieda

A cool small evening shrunk to a dog bark and the clank of a

And you listening.
A spider's web, tense for the dew's touch.
A pail lifted, still and brimming—mirror
To tempt a first star to a tremor.

Cows are going home in the lane there, looping the hedges
  with their warm wreaths of breath—
A dark river of blood, many boulders,
Balancing unspilled milk.

'Moon!' you cry suddenly, 'Moon!  Moon!'

The moon has stepped back like an artist gazing amazed at a work

That points at him amazed.