Sunday, 27 June 2021


This week a strong candidate for Best Album Ever is 50 years old, and everyone, it seems, is a fan. It wasn't always that way. That year of 1971 alone, when I turned 17, was unusually full of contenders for that meaningless title, although few of them have shown the longevity of Blue. Certainly, music writer David Hepworth has set out a music insider's case for that time as "rock's golden year" in his book 1971: Never a Dull Moment. But the views of insiders, whether journalistic or musical, always entirely miss the point. Yes, it's interesting to be reminded by Graham Nash that some of the songs on Joni Mitchell's Blue were written about him, or by David Crosby that "Joni went out with me, Graham Nash, James Taylor, Jackson Browne and Leonard Cohen", but all this is simply wrong-headed narcissism: those songs were written for and about me.

I've already written about my relationship with Blue and have nothing to add, other than to repeat the more general case that all music – indeed all creative work – ultimately belongs to those who use it in their own lives, not to those who create it, or provoked its creation. If some scholar were to finally identify the "dark lady" of Shakespeare's sonnets, or even discover a bundle of tear-stained manuscript copies in Shakespeare's hand, it would add nothing whatsoever to them, beyond fuelling the sort of higher gossip and copy-editing that excites scholars and fills superfluous books. If you love and admire the sonnets – or any of the thousands of such messages in a bottle thrown into the uncertain waters of time and fate every year – and have made them part of your life, then they are your personal property, written for you alone, and you already know precisely who the dark lady is. I certainly do, even allowing for the fact that she was actually flaxen blonde. You may also, like me, have had a drink or two with "Carey", wished yourself elsewhere at Christmas, or retreated to the bar and brooded over a candle, with nothin' to talk to anybody about, especially that damned "Richard"! [1]

So perhaps the most authentic response to Blue I've come across this week is this, not from one of Mitchell's famous exes or a musician, but from a woman who had to walk five miles through the African bush to the game lodge where she hoped to spend the night, and sang songs from Ladies of the Canyon and Blue in order to keep up her courage as she passed through lion country. See, Mr. Nash and Mr. Crosby? You know nothing of the power of those songs.

1. The strength of my connection with the songs on Blue first made me aware, I think, of the power of lyrical cross-dressing; a routine necessity for women, of course, given the preponderance of the masculine viewpoint in literature and song, and which must be particularly the case in languages inflected by grammatical gender. For me, though, it was a big step down the road towards understanding what Keats called "negative capability", or "being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason".

Tuesday, 22 June 2021

Honresfield Library Appeal

This may be an issue that only appeals to a minority of those who visit this blog, but I thought I should raise it. You may have seen in the media mention of the Honresfield Library, which is coming up for sale. It is an incredible collection of literary manuscripts, assembled at the end of the 19th century by William Law, a Rochdale mill-owner living at Honresfield, a few miles from Haworth. The bulk of the Library has remained in family ownership, and it has remained largely intact. Here is just part of the description by the Friends of the National Libraries:

At the Library’s heart lies an astonishing set of manuscripts in the hands of the Brontë siblings, much of which has been unseen for 80 years and never properly examined.  It includes seven of Charlotte Brontë’s famous ‘little books’, each of which is a work of art; a manuscript collection of poems by Anne Brontë; some 25 letters by Charlotte Brontë; and a small but exquisite autograph manuscript diary note shared by Emily and Anne Brontë. The absolute jewel of the Brontë collection is Emily Brontë’s holograph notebook of 31 poems, believed by many scholars to have been lost. This poetry notebook carries annotations in Charlotte’s hand. The printed treasures of the sisters include Emily Brontë’s own annotated copy of their first publication, the exceptionally rare Poems of 1846, and fine presentation copies of first editions of their novels in their original cloth bindings. 

Jane Austen is represented by two hugely significant letters to her sister Cassandra (only three early such autograph letters are held in any UK national collection, the bulk being in the Morgan Library, New York). One is a very early letter, written on the eve of a ball where she anticipated the end of a love affair; the second dates from 1813 and discusses the reception of both Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. The collection also includes first editions of Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Northanger Abbey and Persuasion in their original condition.

And there's more, much more. It is essential that this collection is not dispersed into private hands, and the Friends of the National Libraries have launched an appeal to save it for the nation. Compared to the usual appeals to save some indifferent painting by some Italian renaissance painter due to be auctioned off by some impoverished aristo, this is on a wholly different level of significance to our national heritage, I hope you'd agree.

The FNL appeal is here, with a link to a "Big Give" donation site. If, like me, you feel this is an essential, once-only opportunity to save some artefacts of real cultural significance, then I'd urge you to make a donation.

Not Haworth Moor, but you get the idea...

Saturday, 19 June 2021

Dunstable Downs

My memory is no longer what it was, and I am increasingly finding that there are gaps in it. People's names have always been a problem for me, but it's annoying to find myself struggling to remember the telling detail of some anecdote I have unwisely launched into. Typical old man stuff, I suppose. "Hang on, was that in Normandy? No, wait... It might have been Brittany or maybe even, um, Norfolk. Anyway..." Stranger than simple gaps in memory, though, are errors of recollection that have consolidated themselves into false memories. For example, for many years – in fact until this week – I believed that the poet who lived in a friend's squat off London's Caledonian Road in 1980 – whose bed I borrowed one night when she was away and who was none too pleased to discover Goldilocks had chosen her mattress as the one that was just right – was Gillian Clarke, sometime National Poet of Wales. In fact, it turns out it was another poet called Gillian, no less distinguished, but nonetheless not the person whose name has been falsely triggering that real memory any time I came across it in the last 40 years.

The only up-side of these memory-holes is that the unexpected sometimes shines through, like ancient sunlight. I suppose I should reach for that overused quote about the crack in everything from Leonard Cohen's song "Anthem", but I won't (even though, in effect, I just have). One such long-dormant glimmering was re-kindled recently, when we met up with our son and his partner at a convenient halfway spot, Donnington Castle on the outskirts of Newbury. There seem to be places like Donnington in or near most major towns: a hill or other elevated spot where families gather for picnics, friends congregate, and solitaries sit gazing out into the landscape. Blaise Castle near Bristol is another similar location we visited recently with some old friends who happened to be in town the day after a family funeral. But what I was reminded of at Donnington was how when I was a child, just once or twice a year, we would get in the car and head out from Stevenage for a picnic on Dunstable Downs

My parents were never great walkers – I think they considered they had already done quite enough of that in the army during the War – but the great advantage of Dunstable Downs is that the road runs along the top of the chalk escarpment, so you can drive there, park the car and walk straight out onto the sort of grassy chalk upland, with a magnificent elevated view over open country, that otherwise requires a lot more puff to achieve. On a sunny summer's day it is a glorious place to be.

For us children in those days, and perhaps even now, one of the main attractions was simply running down the steep hill, losing your footing, falling, and rolling helplessly into a patch of rough grass, or sometimes one of the thorn bushes that stud the slope. Insane, really, but it was the sort of innocent, free, and mildly dangerous fun, like climbing trees and making "camps" in the woods, that we used to enjoy in those final years of an older style of childhood, before entertainment for children became commodified, roped off and safely-cushioned by health and safety concerns, and most "play" started to take place indoors; now, it seems, more often than not sat in front of a screen. To this day I occasionally dream of becoming airborne by running down a grassy slope. Although this may also be connected to the fact that there was (is still) a glider club on the plain below the escarpment, the London Gliding Club, where those gawky-looking craft were hoisted into the air by a cable on a motorised drum. We used to watch them rise steeply and waited for the cable to fall away as the angle approached 90 degrees and the glider was free to rise gracefully on its invisible spiral staircase of air. Which in retrospect I can see as a symbolic longing for the greater freedoms we hoped to enjoy one day, when let off the parental leash.

As things turned out, I achieved a partial sort of freedom rather sooner than many. Our family life changed radically when I was about ten: we moved to a newly-developed part of town, miles from the friends and haunts I had grown up with. Our cat hated it and ran away; I wasn't crazy about it myself. Then I started at the local boys' grammar school, where very few of my primary school friends followed, and my sister – eight years older than me, and both a companion and surrogate parent – left home for teacher-training college and then rather precipitately married and started her own family. Things were never the same again.

I suppose those years marked the end of a carefree childhood. There were no more weekend excursions to Dunstable Downs. Both my mother and father had always been at work all day during the week, but they now seemed too tired to do much other than shop, catch up with the housework, and watch TV at the weekends; unless, of course, we were visiting my sister's new family, where it was all too easy for me to feel self-pityingly surplus to requirements. Few families are good at handling moody pre-adolescent boys, especially when there are adorable toddlers to dote on. I spent school holiday weekdays alone at home, a classic "latch-key kid", free to roam, but with no friends living nearby it was a fairly solitary, introspective sort of freedom. Those were the summers of the Beatles' early hits, and I can never hear, say, the opening chord of "A Hard Day's Night" without being transported back to a street of brand-new council houses on the edge of town with bare-earth gardens, heaps of builder's rubble at the kerbside, and bright white cuttings into the chalk bedrock for as yet unlaid roads and cycleways. Fortunately, friends came back into my life when, three years later, we moved yet again – my parents were nothing if not restless, and the council always seemed happy to accommodate them – and I now found myself living near some of my grammar school classmates. It was summer 1967, and having our fourth-floor flat to myself all day suddenly became a plus as I discovered the furtive pleasures of adolescence, and began to assemble my new "elective family".

But that minor revelation at Donnington Castle helped me remember why I love high places, especially the dry, smooth shoulders of chalk upland, where the breeze ripples the grass and you can bask in the elementary pleasure of revisiting some old, familiar feelings that are too simple and too innocent to have names. But, even so, I'm damned if I'm ever going to run and roll down to the bottom again. It was such a long walk getting up here.

Dyrham Camp hillfort

Tuesday, 8 June 2021

After Life

We were in Bristol last week for a very sad occasion: the funeral of my partner's older sister, Maggie, who died in May, aged just 69. Younger sister Jill wrote and read out a eulogy, which was published in the Guardian's "Other Lives" obituaries (in an edit which, if the "live" version was the same as that submitted, left out the best bits); if you're curious, it can be read here. Oddly, all three sisters managed to end up with partners / husbands called Mike. To add to the confusion, we discovered at the memorial held later that same day that the father of Maggie's son's wife-to-be is also named Mike. I suppose it does keep things simple, although you can't help but feel some incomprehensible cosmic joke is being played out here [1].

Anyway, as these things do, it prompted a series of thoughts which I trust you won't find too morbid. Think of me as the chariot-slave at your shoulder, whispering memento mori... You may hope to be an exception to this universal mortality clause, but it's non-negotiable. Seriously, I've seen the paperwork in an astounding and privileged preview of angelic bureaucracy. You wouldn't believe the record-keeping effort that goes on up there: keeping track of the beetles alone requires an entire dedicated bureaucratic legion.

Sombrely, though, folks... Covid restrictions in England have meant that funerals can only be attended by 15 people and memorials by 30, which rather restricted the numbers at Maggie's two events, which would clearly otherwise have been very populous occasions indeed. I was put in mind of  the memorial for my old friend John Wilson in June 2010, in which 200 or so people filled Balliol College chapel to capacity. It occurred to me at the time that although there is very little to be said for dying young, at least it does probably maximise the number of people who still know who you were and what you did, who will mourn your absence and, most important, make the effort to turn up for a memorial. It did also occur to me that, even a decade ago, I'd have been lucky to have secured a respectable fraction of that level of attendance, and resolved then to do something about it, by living a better, fuller, more people-oriented life. Which, of course, I haven't.

In that same year I had also mooted the idea of the Lost List, the people who vanished from your life at an unexpectedly early stage, the friends and acquaintances who died, who moved away and lost touch – something that was so often the case for those of us who grew up in pre-social media days – or who may simply have fallen out with you, or become mad, bad and dangerous to know. It now seems to me likely that, of these, the list of those who have died is the one that is inexorably lengthening, and I thought I should give this some consideration, and actually write down some names and dates: if not walking the dead, then at least counting them.

It was salutary to remember some names I was on the verge of forgetting. Work colleagues, in particular, seem to vanish from memory with alarming thoroughness, despite the closeness that can develop over decades of workaday contact. It took an entire morning to recall the surname of a German woman in an adjacent department whose dry humour I'd enjoyed and with whom I must have spoken on most workdays for more than twenty years before she died unexpectedly one summer. On the other hand, there was the annoying bloke I worked alongside for just three years in Bristol, a larger than life character – a folk enthusiast, morris dancer, and "real ale" proselytiser – whose bullying misogyny and practical joking were tolerated by the secretarial staff because, in those days, they had little choice in the matter. His name liveth, because he was such an infuriating ████.

Clearly, I can have no idea what imaginings or vestigial beliefs you may or may not have about the dead. But some idea of an afterlife has dominated human thought for so long that it must be hard for even the most rational person to reconcile the assumption that someone has simply ceased to exist with a more imaginative and emotional investment in their continued existence in some form or another. Ghost stories and zombie movies do not spring out of nowhere, after all. Personally, in my less rational moments, I like to imagine that there is a cohort among the dead who take a particular interest in the progress of my life, no matter whether benevolently, malevolently, or most likely disinterestedly. Huh, what's he up to now? Whether they can intervene or not in one's life is not apparent – I'm sure there are strict rules of segregation between the quick and the dead they have to obey – but it would go some way towards explaining some of those bizarre coincidences, close shaves, odd impulses, sudden insights, and mysterious barricades that punctuate and guide our lives.

But I think the most important lesson has been the simple recognition that life is finite, and that it is a good idea to get one's affairs in good order well in advance. Knowing that her end was rapidly approaching, Maggie was able to be quite specific about her own funerary arrangements, from the music she wanted played [2] right down to the picture she wanted to go on the front of the order of service. I get the impression that, more often than not, what most people leave behind them is simply a mess, an intestate chaos to be sorted out by whichever poor devil gets the job, probably accompanied by much family squabbling and ill-feeling that will last for years.

I was fortunate, I suppose, that my parents were poor and led a simple life, spending their final years in a mobile home in my sister's back garden. Apart from a couple of grand in a single joint bank account which needed to be closed, I was able to take my legacy home in a single carrier bag. Looking around just this one room, I get a sinking feeling that more than a few carrier bags, plus a couple of skips and a visit by a specialist bookseller will be needed when my time comes, unless I get on the case right now. Choosing the music will be the least of the worries, although it's a lot more fun to think about. In fact, I now recall, I had already begun to think about this a decade ago, in the post Funeral Music, and still haven't done anything about it. But perhaps I should work on that "better, fuller, more people-oriented life" first, while there's still time, if only to make sure there's a bit of a crowd to listen to it.

1. Many years ago – probably in the 1980s – I heard a wonderful reminiscence on the radio by a Scottish humourist, a man who, in his National Service, had ended up in the clerical office that assigned new recruits to their units. Realising that physical characteristics like hair colour were recorded, they succeeded in compiling entire units of, say, red-haired men, and – their triumphant moment, knowing that troops would at some point be lined up by height  a carefully graded selection of men, each of a different height ranging from well over 6 feet down to shorter than 5 feet. If anyone can remember who this was, I'd be very grateful (no, it wasn't Ivor Cutler or Arnold Brown, although his wry humour, delivery, and accent were very similar).

2. There was a particularly lovely piece by Malian performer, Fatoumata Diawara, "Kanou".

Wednesday, 2 June 2021

Twyford Down

There is something interesting about the field in the photograph above, which is on Twyford Down near Winchester and, as I saw it there a few days ago, currently covered with an oil-seed rape crop. If you go to Google Maps at location 51.040453, -1.289038 and use the satellite view you'll see what I mean. There is a lot of archaeology in Hampshire, and the fields near Winchester are particularly rotten with it: from the air this looks like it must be an abandoned settlement. However it is on a steep south-east facing slope, one side of a narrow valley immediately opposite an equally steep north-west facing slope: not really the sort of place you'd choose to put a villa or farm.

The opposite slope, same day, same time

In fact, although Romano-British stuff is found by detectorists in the fields a little to the north, those diamond-shaped field-marks are most probably "lynchets", an ancient way of terracing slopes for agricultural use, a bit like the rice paddies of South-East Asia. There's very little evidence of them visible on the ground now, though, even when the field is bare earth in winter. Hundreds of years of ploughing are remarkably effective in removing all surface traces of earthworks, unless they're so big that you have to plough round them. In which case they become even more obvious. It's a testament to our ancestors' respect for the past (or more likely, superstitious fear of it) that so much has survived above ground into the present day undisturbed or just lightly-looted. Before the massive cutting was driven through Twyford Down to channel the M3 motorway past Winchester an archaeological survey was made of the land due to be lost, and the various reports are online, if archaeology is your thing: some interesting finds were made. A brief blog-style summary is available here.

There is always something a little uncanny about walking in an area so rich with the leftovers of so much human activity: you never know what may lie beneath your feet, and it's always worth looking to see what the rabbits and moles might have turned up in their subterranean housekeeping. For centuries, field labourers will have quietly pocketed little treasures and curiosities left for them by the Old Folk. But life goes on, and those crops won't plant themselves. As Blake puts it in the Proverbs of Hell: "Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead".