August 2009


There’s no justice. I did so little work last week that the meeting I had scheduled with a website client this afternoon was all set to turn into an embarrassing dressing down. What should I find on arriving at work this morning but an e-mail from said client postponing the meeting until a week tomorrow? My sole punishment was to wear a suit to work for no reason, which would have happened anyway. My heart rejoices in the knowledge that sloth has paid off once again. It always does: I was going to wash my car on Saturday, but didn’t because I was too lazy. This morning it rained, so I saved myself hours of fruitless labour there too.

It’s another mixed bag this week, presented as I found them in the books. Hopefully I can maintain a more cheerful tone than in previous selections, thanks to my completely unmerited good fortune. The first poem is by Ruth Mason Price. The simplicity of her verse echoes that of the picture she describes, and her final two lines could be a general instruction to the artist on how to avoid gilding the lily.

A Japanese Print

A curve for the shore,
A line for the lea,
A tint for the sky
Where the sunrise will be.
A stroke for a gull, a sweep for the main;
The skill to do more –
With the will to refrain.

The next poem is merely a link, because it’s far too long for my idle fingers to want to reproduce it here. I find it particularly appealing, from the Latin title to the general tendency to encourage luxury and vice. I give you Coronemus nos Rosis antequam Marcescant (Let us crown ourselves with roses before they fade away) by Thomas Jordan.

For health, wealth and beauty, wit, learning and sense,
Must all come to nothing a hundred years hence.

So much for my intention to be cheerful. This next one echoes a train of thought I had some months ago so closely that it deserves to be included here. It’s by Thomas R. Jones Jr.

Sometimes

Across the fields of yesterday
He sometimes comes to me,
A little lad just back from play –
The lad I used to be.

And yet he smiles so wistfully
Once he has crept within,
I wonder if he hopes to see
The man I might have been.

In a similar vein to Jordan’s verses, Henry Carey sings in praise of the fruit of the vine and his own unlikely capacity for it.

A Drinking Song

BACCHUS must now his power resign—
I am the only God of Wine!
It is not fit the wretch should be
In competition set with me,
Who can drink ten times more than he.

Make a new world, ye powers divine!
Stock’d with nothing else but Wine:
Let Wine its only product be,
Let Wine be earth, and air, and sea—
And let that Wine be all for me!

It wouldn’t be a real verse selection if I didn’t include at least one household name. This poem by Shelley has managed not to bestow a stock household phrase on the language, so it’s worth pointing out.

From the Arabic
AN IMITATION

My faint spirit was sitting in the light
Of thy looks, my love;
It panted for thee like the hind at noon
For the brooks, my love.
Thy barb, whose hoofs outspeed the tempest’s flight,
Bore thee far from me;
My heart, for my weak feet were weary soon,
Did companion thee.

Ah! fleeter far than fleetest storm or steed,
Or the death they bear,
The heart which tender thought clothes like a dove
With the wings of care;
In the battle, in the darkness, in the need,
Shall mine cling to thee,
Nor claim one smile for all the comfort, love,
It may bring to thee.

Rail journeys encourage, indeed enforce, deep thought. This is particularly true after dark, when it’s impossible to gaze vacantly at the scenery. James Thomson has made good use of one journey in producing this.

In the Train

As we rush, as we rush in the Train,
The trees and the houses go wheeling back,
But the starry heavens above the plain
Come flying on our track.

All the beautiful stars of the sky,
The silver doves of the forest of Night,
Over the dull earth swarm and fly,
Companions of our flight.

We will rush ever on without fear;
Let the goal be far, the flight be fleet!
For we carry the Heavens with us, dear,
While the earth slips from our feet!

It’s been a slightly longer selection this week, partly because I found more good poems this time around and partly because I’ve been neglecting these pages in favour of televisual pursuits and it’s about time I took myself in hand. I think I’ve hit on some good ones this week, and I hope you agree.

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It’s often pointed out by journalists who have nothing better to do that far fewer people visit the cinema than was once the case. I’m reliably informed that Exmouth once boasted two picture houses, and irksomely the one which has closed and been demolished was nearer my home than the one we still have. Obviously the advent of the twenty-four-hour film channel, surround sound and wide-aspect plasma screens has raised up competition that the small theatre can ill afford, so clearly my entirely unqualified and uninformed thoughts on possible improvements are required to remedy the situation.

The most obvious problem with cinemas is the absence of comfortable seating. Films are best watched stretched full-length on a chaise longue or Ottoman, and the predilection of picture-house proprietors for hard collapsible seating is clearly not to be borne. I know that at least one person agrees with me, because it was a conversation over cigarettes with my neighbour that inspired this train of thought. The latest Harry Potter film, which is approximately the same length as the Ring Cycle, had, I discovered, revealed the deficiencies of the cinema’s seating arrangements with numbing starkness. Ticket sales might improve with the addition of arm chairs and possibly some footstools.

Another thing that always makes a welcome addition to the cinematic experience is alcohol. A large gin and tonic, glass of Chablis or cask ale, particularly when followed by another, softens hard edges, smooths over deficiencies in the directing or script and encourages a general sense of well-being and benevolence. It also helps to erase the memory of the entrance fee, which is more than the cost of a second-hand frigate in some markets. There was a cinema in Whitstable that boasted a licensed bar, and I remember it being very popular with the undergraduate community. Ideally, said alcohol would be brought to one’s chair by a white-aproned steward, but at a pinch I’d settle for well-stocked bar. Always provided, of course, that it was suitably rich in very old single malts.

Then there’s the issue of film length. Back in 1959 they had the right idea when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer made Ben Hur three and a half hours long. This supplies value for money even at today’s inflated prices, so more films should be ridiculously long. Of course this might mean cutting down on those endearing advertisements for the local Indian restaurant that seem always to have been made in 1973; but that is a sacrifice I’m willing to make. Armed with a comfortable chair and a glass of something fortifying, the civilised cinema-goer can face even the most ludicrously protracted celluloid dream with equanimity, if not pleasant anticipation.

Of course the simplest change that can be made concerns air conditioning. I’ve noticed on successive visits to the multiplex in Exeter that it’s necessary to take an overcoat even in the middle of July. This is extremely silly, and I feel compelled to point out that sitting on a block of ice was good enough for our colonial forebears when facing the daunting rail journey from Calcutta to Benares. Naturally I hesitate to recommend that particular measure, but I know from experience that air conditioning units are fitted with temperature controls. Perhaps something a little nearer comfortable room temperature would be a good idea. Nice though it was to watch The Fellowship of the Ring outdoors at Glastonbury festival, I prefer to experience alfresco temperatures when actually outside.

This has gone on far longer than it deserves, so I shall end there. In fine, if my proposals are adopted I predict a 700% increase in box-office takings within the first year, with the possible total demise of the Shopping Channel within five. Some might take issue with the optimistic nature of this prediction, but it’s no less realistic than those of a government contractor.

As I was conducting my usual half-hour debate with myself about whether or not to get out of bed this morning, the radio informed me of a government report about NHS sick leave. The way in which it was presented was strange, though. It appears to have been deemed significant and worrying both that there are higher absentee rates in the health service due to ill-health and that staff sometimes turn up for work despite the fact that they feel a bit poorly.

I know as well as anyone else that Parliament is in recess, which leaves everyone short of something to report; but this sort of self-contradictory nonsense is simply not to be borne. Firstly, people who work long hours in the presence of people who are ill are bound to contract more illnesses than people like me, who work in a small team with relatively little public contact. Secondly, the reason that the private sector loses fewer working hours to sick leave is precisely that people come to work even though they’re feeling ill. Even adverts for flu remedies encourage this ‘sickness is for wimps’ work ethic, but there are obvious problems with applying it to health care. Either you want doctors and nurses to soldier on through their own problems regardless or you want them to stay at home and avoid compromising patient care. You can’t have it both ways.

Perhaps the most significant waste that was pointed out by the BBC report to which I linked is, however, the fact that the NHS has more administrative staff than doctors and more managers than paramedics. It’s nice to see that the Health Service has discovered the benefits of actually caring about the health of its staff, but I’m certain that more money could be saved (and if the government isn’t trying to save money it jolly well should be) by cutting administrative positions across the public sector, rather than singling out one group of public-sector workers and suggesting that they take too much sick leave. Karen Jennings of Unison made the most sensible statement in that entire article, and she has nothing to do with the government. Could these two facts possibly be related?

Some might think that a week off from work presents great opportunities to make enormous numbers of journal entries on all manner of subjects and perhaps get on with some other writing, like the old poems I’m supposed to be revising. As the long silence on these pages demonstrates, this would be a profoundly erroneous assumption. I picked up Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which was supposed to be started after War and Peace was finished, and here I am with nothing done.

Susanna Clarke isn’t entirely to blame, though. Stuart and Ellie stayed the night on Tuesday, and I spent quite a lot of Wednesday with them, watching Green Wing and going to Orcombe Point for a swim. Then there was the long-planned trip over to Cambridgeshire with Dad to research the family’s history, which took all the time from Thursday to Saturday. All the good pictures were taken on the digital cameras we took and I don’t have copies, but one of the shots from my phone sums up the trip as imperfectly as any single photograph can.

Beware of ducks. Giant ducks if the sign is in any way accurate.

Beware of ducks. Giant ducks if the sign is in any way accurate.

That brings us relatively up to date with activities under the Shadow, and it’s time for the poems again. This week’s selection has no particular theme: the poems are chosen at random from the first few books I dragged off the shelf this evening. The first is a cheery little piece from Helen Gray Cone, which has a really good title.

Heartbreak Road

As I went up by Heartbreak Road
Before the dawn of day,
The cold mist was all about,
And the wet world was gray;
It seemed that never another soul
Had walked that weary way.

But when I came to Heartbreak Hill,
Silver touched the sea;
I knew that many and many a soul
Was climbing close to me;
I knew I walked the weary way
In a great company.

Next is a strange anonymous piece about two Scottish rivers, which is pretty self explanatory. The second stanza is my translation, just in case the meaning’s a little obscure.

Two Rivers

Says Tweed to Till –
‘What gars ye rin sae still?’
Says Till to Tweed –
‘Though ye rin with speed
And I rin slaw,
For ae man that ye droon
I droon twa.’

Says Tweed to Till –
‘What makes you run so still?’
Says Till to Tweed –
‘Though you run with speed
And I run slow,
For each man that you drown
I drown two’.

It’s about time we had some Keats around here, so I’ve included one of his sonnets. I’ve had days like this one, and it’s always a shame to see them end.

X

To one who has been long in city pent,
‘Tis very sweet to look upon the fair
And open face of heaven, – to breathe a prayer
Full in the smile of the blue firmament.
Who is more happy, when, with heart’s content,
Fatigued he sinks into some pleasant lair
Of wavy grass, and reads a debonair
And gentle tale of love and languishment?
Returning home at evening, with an ear
Catching the notes of Philomel, – an eye
Watching the sailing cloudlet’s bright career,
He mourns that day so soon has glided by:
E’en like the passage of an angel’s tear
That falls through the clear ether silently.

This poem by Amelia B. Welby should have gone in with the sea poems two weeks ago, but as twilight approaches here it might still be appropriate for today.

Twilight at Sea

The twilight hours like birds flew by,
As lightly and as free;
Ten thousand stars were in the sky,
Ten thousand on the sea;
For every wave, with dimpled face,
That leaped upon the air,
Had caught a star in its embrace
And held it trembling there.

Sorry to have kept you hanging on for eight days waiting for only four poems. I hope they’re enjoyable enough to be worth the wait.

At the risk of sounding extremely English, the weather here is absolutely atrocious. It’s August, it’s cold and it’s raining, so I think this is a good time to think of other climes and places. Since I’ve been doing some travelling of my own recently, I think that the sea, medium of journeys and my close neighbour here at home, is an appropriate theme for today.

The first poem is from John Masefield, who is generally known as the author of Sea Fever. This poem is also in a nautical vein, and suggests itself because it’s relatively short, has a touch of the exotic to its first two stanzas and compares that with the eternally prosaic Now. It also approaches the issue of how those commodities that govern the wealth of nations change over time in a way that I find very interesting.

Cargoes

Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.

Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-tree shores,
With a cargo of diamonds,
Emeralds, amethysts,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.

Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Road-rail, pig-lead,
Firewood, iron-ware and cheap tin trays.

In this next poem by Shelley the sea is only a metaphor; but time itself is also a medium of journeys. For it to be personified as a limitless ocean makes a great deal more sense than as an old man.

Time

Unfathomable Sea! whose waves are years,
Ocean of Time, whose waters of deep woe
Are brackish with the salt of human tears¬
Thou shoreless flood, which in thy ebb and flow
Claspest the limits of mortality!
And sick of prey, yet howling on for more,
Vomitest thy wrecks on its inhospitable shore,
Treacherous in calm, and terrible in storm,
Who shall put forth on thee,
Unfathomable Sea?

The next poem is a natural continuation from the last. Shelley’s most famous poem is his ode to a skylark (whence comes Noël Coward’s title for Blithe Spirit), and on opening The Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins I find a poem about skylarks, the sea and Time.

The Sea and the Skylark

On ear and ear two noises too old to end
Trench – right, the tide that ramps against the shore;
With a flood or a fall, low lull-off or all roar,
Frequenting there while moon shall wear and wend.

Left hand, off land, I hear the lark ascend,
His rash-fresh re-winded new-skeinèd score
In crisps of curl off wild winch whirl, and pour
And pelt music, till none’s to spill nor spend.

How these two shame this shallow and frail town!
How ring right out our sordid turbid time,
Being pure! We, life’s pride and cared-for crown,

Have lost that cheer and charm of earth’s past prime:
Our make, and making break, are breaking down
To man’s last dust, drain fast towards man’s first slime.

I think something rather more cheerful is in order for the last poem. In this next piece, Richard Hovey captures the excitement of ocean travel and the call of the sea that so many Devonshire people have followed.

The Sea Gipsy

I am fevered with the sunset,
I am fretful with the bay,
For the wander-thirst is on me
And my soul is in Cathay.

There’s a schooner in the offing,
With her topsails shot with fire,
And my heart has gone aboard her
For the Islands of Desire.

I must forth again to-morrow!
With the sunset I must be
Hull down on the trail of rapture
In the wonder of the sea.

Tagged by Natalia (indirectly); tagging whoever really wants to fill this thing in.

I started trying to correct the grammar of these questions, but then I got bored and decided to ridicule them instead. This may explain any inconsistencies in my tone or style.

1. At what time did you get up this morning?
7.00. Barely alive, but I still made it.

2. How do you like your steak?
So rare it’s almost alive.

3. Which was the last film you saw at the cinema?

That would be Brüno. Crazy, crazy nonsense.

4. Which is your favourite TV show?
I no longer receive television, but I have a lot of Dad’s Army and Star Trek, all of Spaced and Black Books on DVD. I like those.

5. Where would you live if you could live anywhere?
Right here in Exmouth. It’s quiet, surrounded by nice scenery and my family are here. We have a railway station, and the motorway and an airport are nearby, so anywhere else I can visit.

6. What did you have for breakfast?
A bacon sandwich and a coffee

7. Which is your favourite cuisine?
Indian. I like food that tastes of something.

8. Which foods do you dislike?
Mayonnaise, salad that has any dressing on it at all, potato salad and trifle.

9. Which is your favourite place to eat?
Home.

10. Which is your favourite dressing?
What did I just say?

11.Which type of vehicle do you drive?
Two-seat sports cabriolet. Black.

12. Which are your favourite clothes?
I have different favourites depending on whether the occasion is casual, formal or professional. I like my dinner jacket a lot, but I wouldn’t wear it to the pub. The common factor is black. I like black.

13. Where would you visit if you had the chance?
Iceland

14. Cup 1/2 empty or 1/2 full?
That entirely depends on whose round it is next.

15. Whence would you like to retire?
I’ll worry about that if I make it to fifty.

16. Which is your favourite time of day?
Probably early evening, when work’s over but I’m not too knackered to enjoy it.

17. Where were you born?
Exeter, the county town of Devon, about seven miles up the river from here.

18. Which is your favourite sport to watch?
Snooker.

19. Who do you think will not tag you back?
No idea who’s tagged.

20. Whom do you expect to tag you back first?
See above.

21. Whose responses to this are you most curious to see?
I’m not.

22. Are you a bird watcher?
If I’ve nothing better to look at, yes.

23. Are you a morning person or a night person?
I’m a person all the time, but I’ll answer the question I think you meant to ask. Night. Mornings belong to work, but the night belongs to me.

24. Do you have any pets?
Not to my knowledge. I had a pet spider that I didn’t know about, but it walked over the wrong shoulder.

25. Any new and exciting news you’d like to share?
I nearly had a nasty car accident yesterday afternoon because some idiot thought that approaching a blind corner on the wrong side of the road in a sixty zone was better than sitting behind cyclists. My quick reactions saved all of us.

26. What did you want to be when you were little?
A Spitfire pilot.

27. What is your best childhood memory?
My brother and I had found a blank cartridge case on the common and put it into a fire to see what would happen. That was a very loud noise.

28. Are you a cat or dog person?
Cats. Install a flap in the door, put food down twice a day and they’ll take care of the rest. Dogs require work.

29. Are you married?
No.

30. Always wear your seat belt?
Always wear your seat belt.

31. Have you ever been in a car accident?
Yes. Nothing serious recently, but I slept through a nasty one when I was a baby.

32. Any pet peeves?
Yes.

33. Which pizza toppings are your favourites?
Anything made of meat, especially when it’s spicy.

34. Favourite flower?
I used to eat daffodils when I was a toddler, but these days I have no preference.

35. Favourite ice cream?
Mint choc chip.

36. Favourite fast food restaurant?
Ali’s kebab house, Exeter Road, Exmouth.

37. How many times did you fail your driving test?
Three or four times. I forget how many. Full marks first time for the theory test, though.

38. From whom did you receive your last email?
A friend in Canada.

39. In which shop would you choose to max out your credit card?
I neither want nor need a credit card. Give me an unlimited line of credit and a couple of dusty old bookshops, though, and I’ll show you how to spend money.

40. Have you done anything spontaneous lately?
Booked flights to Kiev, basically on a whim.

41. Do you like your job?
Most of the time.

42. Broccoli?
If you mean ‘is there broccoli?’, of course there is: if it didn’t exist you wouldn’t be talking about it. If you’re just naming vegetables and putting question marks after them, then I say unto you: ‘cabbage?’. If you’re asking whether I like it or not, then yes; provided that it’s fresh and properly cooked.

43. Which holiday has been your favourite?
Florence, about six years ago. Three of us went there and it was great.

44. Who was the last person with whom you went out to dinner?
The last people were my parents, my brother, his girlfriend, a couple of friends who are in the same line of business as us and a trainee who was coming into the lab the following day for some training.

45. What are you listening to right now?
High-speed grinders from downstairs and the rustle of the post being packaged to my right.

46. Which is your favourite colour?
It’s more of an absence than a colour, but black.

47. How many tattoos do you have?
None.

48. How many people are you tagging for this quiz?
I don’t tag.

49. At what time did you finish this quiz?
About eleven in the morning: tea-break time.

50. Coffee Drinker?
I’ll take three coffee drinkers and someone who likes scones, please. Try using verbs, articles and pronouns in your sentences: you’ll be amazed how much more sense you make that way.

I drink coffee when I’m tired and need not to be. The rest of the time I don’t.

I’ve not been posting much recently, mainly because I was planning and then executing a trip over to Kiev. They were having something of a heat-wave there, which made a nice change from the occasional rain we’ve been having here in Devon, and I got to see some more of my friend and be there for her birthday, which was nice.

Kiev is an interesting place. Like most European cities it’s felt the touch of uncaring twentieth-century architecture, but in the main it’s quite beautiful: wooded hills overlooking the vast expanse of the Dniepr, many churches and cathedrals that vary from European gothic to minarets and rotundas reminiscent of the Middle-east, the legacy of a Greek conversion. One thing I particularly noticed about the ecclesiastical architecture was a preference for gilded roofs, which you never see in England. The streets are ill-maintained, but on the buses people pass money forward to the driver and change back to the passenger with utter unconcern, which is completely alien to the public transport system here. Everywhere there are the little trailers that dispense Kvas, painted in the Ukrainian national colours of blue and yellow. Another thing that you notice a lot is how much English there is around. Most signs are in Cyrillic text, and there are enough that by the time I left I could read them after a fashion, but on the walls are numerous messages in my language. Graffiti in England is in English, but in Kiev people express their hatred of Emo in the language and alphabet responsible for it and expect to be understood. Agreement with that was inevitable, but my favourite piece simply told me to smile.

Nice though it can be out there, though, the thing that came home to me most is just how much I belong here in Exmouth. It was raining when I arrived, from a leaden sky that threatened more, but that was like a much-loved quirk in a dear friend. It was so good to be back among familiar things and people, without the constant pressure of new sensations and ways. I think it’s important to live in a place that feels that way, that fits like an old pair of slippers and makes you smile when you arrive, and there are only two places in the world that do that for me: Canterbury, where I was an undergraduate, and Exmouth, where I have my home and family. I like to see other countries and experience how other people do things, but in the end they just tell me what’s right or wrong with my own home. I think I appreciate them and it far more for loving this tatty little seaside town, with its battered crazy-golf course, cheesy amusement arcade and two miles of sometimes overcrowded beach. I might prefer Kiev’s swallows to our seagulls (quite a lot, as it happens), and their market to our Sunday jumble sale, but I wouldn’t exchange them for the world.

So if you’re thinking of going to Kiev, I say do it. It’s a great place, and I’d like to go back one day. For now, though, I’m happy to be back at home and to be planning a drive with the owners’ club tomorrow that will let me see more of it.