The Thames near Cookham.

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I shouldn’t normally show what I’d written to anyone: what would be the point? You remember Tennyson reading an unpublished poem to Jowett; when he had finished, Jowett said, “I shouldn’t publish that if I were you, Tennyson.” Tennyson replied, “If it comes to that, Master, the sherry you gave us at lunch was downright filthy.” That’s about all that can happen.

Philip Larkin, interviewed by The Paris Review.

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Article 50

Twitter is a Brexit battleground today. I thought I’d feel more passionate one way or the other about the milestone we’ve just passed. Instead I’m just impatient for the whole process to start. I’ve already explained how I voted Remain and then instantly regretted it. All I’ll add is that if pro-EU campaigners had displayed as much emotion in the weeks before the referendum as they have in the last nine months they would probably have won. Instead they expected to get a victory by default, and now they’re understandably bitter and frustrated. Larry Siedentop saw the warning signs in “Democracy in Europe” nearly twenty years ago:

In recent decades the language of economics has largely driven out the language of politics and, in particular, the language of constitutionalism in Europe… [T]he pursuit of economic integration has resulted in a curious outcome. A European Union inspired by liberal democratic principles has increasingly acted on quasi-Marxist assumptions, assuming that when economic progress has been achieved, other institutional improvements will follow “inevitably” or as a matter of course. But that is a vulgar form of economic determinism which has been discredited both intellectually and practically. The state, whatever its form, is not the mere scaffolding of a market economy.

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Face to face


At the Royal Academy for America After the Fall. It was much more crowded inside the gallery. The Russian revolutionaries downstairs have way more space.

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Desperate to regain royal favour, Lenthall had sent £3,000 as a gift to the new King. The money was banked, but resulted in no encouraging signs from the Crown. Lenthall now offered himself as a witness against Scott, claiming to have heard his treasonous words, even though he had been forced to concede that from the Speaker’s chair he had not been able to see who spoke them. As a reward for his useful testimony Lenthall was granted an audience with Charles II. But, to the delight of the many who held the former Speaker in contempt, on being presented to the King, Lenthall misjudged his courtly bow, lost his balance, and toppled over onto his back.

Lenthall retired from public life after this, retreating to his two Oxfordshire estates: Besselsleigh Manor and Burford Priory. There, with plenty of time to look back on his life, he became racked with guilt over his shortcomings, especially his words that had damned Scott. Lenthall died in November 1662, insisting that he was such a miserable, flawed human being that there should be no great memorial to him, such as might have been expected of one who had achieved great political office. Instead, he ordered that a simple slab would serve, and he had two Latin words carved on it: Vermis sum – “I am a worm”.

Charles Spencer, “Killers of the King”. 

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Messing about in boats 

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I don’t go to classical concerts as often as I should. Perhaps that’s why the etiquette can sometimes seem incongruous. After eighty-odd minutes of convulsive energy and despair, we stumbled, dazed, to the end of Mahler’s Sixth – one of my very favourite pieces of music – at the Festival Hall.  Those famous hammer blows of Fate came crashing down, and then what? A long, long, deathly pause, as Paavo Järvi stood immobile at the podium. Then the applause began to flow. Smiles and handshakes all round as each section of the NHK Symphony Orchestra took a well-deserved bow. And yet it somehow seemed an inadequate way of ending a performance that takes you to the spiritual brink and beyond. Shouldn’t there be some other way of rounding off an experience as gruelling – and, sometimes, uplifting – as that. Or is the ritual of shaking hands and smiling simply the sensible way of allowing the emotions to settle? Maybe. But someone, somewhere, must have a better idea. I don’t have any specific suggestions on how classical concerts should be staged, although I can’t help being distracted – even though I try not to be – by the archaic dress and the over-bright lighting. Personally, I would prefer to sit in darkness as if I were at the cinema. But I assume there are good reasons why that doesn’t happen. I don’t want to give the impression I’m complaining. I’m really not. It was a totally absorbing evening. As soon as the final movement ended, I just wanted the whole thing to start again. (The Times and Arts Desk reviews are here and here, btw.) Last time I heard the piece live, the scherzo came after the andante, which may be correct (the arguments have raged for years) but just felt wrong. And the music aside, it was fascinating to watch the way Järvi responded so physically. I couldn’t help thinking of the caricature – reproduced in Norman Lebrecht’s “Mahler Remembered” – comparing Mahler to the much more sedate Richard Strauss. One man conducts, the other is possessed.

mahler strauss

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In the Golden Hall there was always electricity in the air. One could feel the current flowing through the temples of those who had been summoned, making them quiver. Everyone knew the source of that current: the little bag of finest lambskin. People would approach His Benevolent Highness by turns, saying why they needed money. His Majesty would listen and ask questions. Here I must admit that His Highness was most meticulous about financial matters. Any expenditure, anywhere in the Empire, of more than ten dollars required his personal approval, and if a minister came to ask approval for spending only one dollar, he would be praised. To repair a minister’s car – the Emperor’s approval is needed. To replace a leaking pipe in the city – the Emperor’s approval is needed. To buy sheets for a hotel – the Emperor must approve it.

Ryszard Kapuscinski, “The Emperor”.

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Cock Marsh, Cookham


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The new Trump is the old Trump

“This speech contained whoppers.” A lot of the pundits may be raving about that State of the Union speech, but James Fallows is unimpressed.

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