Archive for the 'Things I Have Learned' Category

Pigs (And Plums)

I am indebted to Richard Carter for drawing to my attention this snapshot from the Tweeting account of Andrew Ray (@Some_landscapes). Mr Ray has been reading News from the English Countryside 1750-1850 compiled by Clifford Morsley:


The Amis Cat

This is probably the most accurate observation of a cat in world literature:

Victor was a blue-point Siamese, a neutered tom-cat now in the third year of his age. He entered, as usual, in vague semi-flight, as from something that was probably not a menace, but which it was as well to be on the safe side about. Becoming aware of me, he approached, again as usual, with an air of uncertainty not so much about who I was as about what I was, and of keeping a very open mind on the range of possible answers. Was I potassium nitrate, or next October twelvemonth, or Christianity, or a chess problem – perhaps involving a variation on the Falkbeer counter-gambit? When he reached me, he gave up the problem and toppled on to my feet like an elephant pierced by a bullet in some vital spot. Victor was, among other things, the reason why no dogs were allowed at the Green Man. The effort of categorizing them might have proved too much for him.

from The Green Man by Kingsley Amis (1969)

Black Cat

Shortly after the death of Constant Lambert in 1951, during a concert performance of his Eight Poems By Li Po, a black cat appeared on the stage, sat patiently during the music, then walked off, and was never seen again.

The Pier

To a great many people, and I am here to say that I am one of them, a seaside resort cannot stake a great claim on interest or affection unless it has a pier. More perhaps than speeches or proclamations, the one fact that convinced many Englishmen in 1940 that the nation was really up against it was when detachments of Royal Engineers at every resort and with precision blew great gaps in our beloved piers so that they could not be used as landing stages by the Germans then threatening seaborne invasion.

This affection for the pier can be doubtless proved to have psycholgical implications, particularly to any Freudians left in the audience. That rigid object penetrating the loved or hostile ocean from the anchorage of the land – well, as long as you know how to spell phallus you can barely go wrong.

Anthony Hern, The Seaside Holiday : The History of the English Seaside Resort (Cresset 1967)

Deranged Intense Conviction

James Delingpole in The Spectator suggests why Game Of Thrones is so unutterably fabulous:

I think the bottom line is if your film or TV series is to become one of the truly greats then the key is to throw conventional wisdom out of the window and pursue your deranged idea with the intensity and conviction of Fitzcarraldo up the Amazon or General Giap at Dien Bien Phu. It can’t be done, they’ll say. And maybe they’re right. But oh, the satisfaction in proving them wrong.

In my more light-headed moments I would like to think that Hooting Yard is precisely that kind of deranged idea pursued with intensity and conviction. Though, I must admit, not in recent days, when the Key Cranium seems like a vast and sleepy hollow. I shall try to channel the Lannisters. They know how to get things done.

Ten Years Ago Too

Another item that appeared on Hooting Yard ten years ago today was this:

Colossal, crude, terrible and sublime, Brann opened the ears of the people by the mighty power of his untamed language, by the smashing fury of his wrath of words… Waste, futile and planless, mere howling, empty, chaotic waste, for no purpose under heaven but to serve as food for idle fancies as to what might have been – such to me is the death of Brann, and my throat chokes with sorrow and my soul is sick with vain despair.

That is a quotation from Milo Hastings’ preface to Brann The Iconoclast, a collection of pieces by William Cowper Brann (1855 – 1898). You can read the whole thing here, or you might prefer, as I do, to repair to a deserted windswept promontory and shout those colossal, crude, terrible and sublime words at the sky, and watch birds drop down dead.


Norwegian Wood


In 1946, Sylvia Townsend Warner – superb novelist and archetypal posh communist – received, as a Christmas present from Alyse Gregory, an empty matchbox. This is her letter of thanks:


Dearest Alyse,

Usually one begins a thank-letter by some graceless comparison, by saying, I have never been given such a very scarlet muffler, or, This is the largest horse I have ever been sent for Christmas. But your matchbox is a nonpareil, for never in my life have I been given a matchbox. Stamps, yes, drawing-pins, yes, balls of string, yes, yes, menacingly too often; but never a matchbox. Now that it has happened I ask myself why it has never happened before. They are such charming things, neat as wrens, and what a deal of ingenuity and human artfulness has gone into their construction; for if they were like the ordinary box with a lid they would not be one half so convenient. This one though is especially neat, charming, and ingenious, and the tray slides in and out as though Chippendale had made it.

But what I like best of all about my matchbox is that it is an empty one. I have often thought how much I should enjoy being given an empty house in Norway, what pleasure it would be to walk into those bare wood-smelling chambers, walls, floor, ceiling, all wood, which is after all the natural shelter of man, or at any rate the most congenial. And when I opened your matchbox which is now my matchbox and saw that beautiful clean sweet-smelling empty rectangular expanse it was exactly as though my house in Norway had come true; with the added advantage of being just the right size to carry in my hand. I shut my imagination up in it instantly, and it is still sitting there, listening to the wind in the firwood outside. Sitting there in a couple of days time I shall hear the Lutheran bell calling me to go and sing Lutheran hymns while the pastor’s wife gazes abstractedly at her husband in a bower of evergreen while she wonders if she remembered to put pepper in the goose-stuffing; but I shan’t go, I shall be far too happy sitting in my house that Alyse gave me for Christmas.

Oh, I must tell you I have finished my book—begun in 1941 and a hundred times imperilled but finished at last. So I can give an undivided mind to enjoying my matchbox.


P.S. There is still so much to say…carried away by my delight in form and texture I forgot to praise the picture on the back. I have never seen such an agreeable likeness of a hedgehog, and the volcano in the background is magnificent.

The Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner, ed. William Maxwell (Chatto & Windus 1982)


You lot do not visit Hooting Yard for news of the latest doings in the world of pop culture, but this, I think, is worth noting:

The ballads are seldom the high point of a huge pop show, but in [Miley] Cyrus’s case, a degree of interest is added by the fact that she sings one of them while being pursued around the stage, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, by a giant fluorescent orange fluffy bird.

Alexis Petridis in The Guardian.


Last night I dreamed of Sir Maurice Bowra (1898 – 1971). When I awoke, this morning, I had to look him up to find out who he was. When I went to sleep last night, his was a name I knew, that I had come across here and there over the years, but I could not have said I knew anything about him.

I learn, today, among other things, that he wrote : “I expect to pass through this world but once and therefore if there is anybody that I want to kick in the crutch I had better kick them in the crutch now, for I do not expect to pass this way again.”

In my dream Bowra was hanging about on the street wit a man named Henderson and a third party whose name was not divulged. Bowra had lank sandy hair and looked not unlike the actor David Warner. But in reality, he was “built like a sandbag, … short and square with no neck and possessed a huge bittern booming voice”. This is what he really looked like.


The Home Life Of The Grahames

The marital life of the Grahames became uncosier by the year. “Elspeth seldom got up before eleven, often went to bed in her clothes … Much of the time she spent on her divan, sipping hot water. She ate practically nothing and mouse-nests proliferated in the larder ; she put Kenneth into special underwear which was only changed once a year. It is perhaps not surprising that he took a long solitary walk every day.”

John Sutherland, The Lives Of The Novelists (Profile Books, 2011), quoting from (I think) a 1959 biography of Kenneth Grahame by Peter Green.


Sentences that leave you wanting to know more:

Later this duke shot himself while searching for cormorants.

One of the Dukes of Bedford, mentioned in a review of Requisitioned : The British Country House in the Second World War by John Martin Robinson.

The Sweat Of The Peasant

I have just read The Wilder Shores Of Marx by Anthony Daniels, a 1991 book subtitled Journeys In A Vanishing World. Daniels – better-known by the pseudonym he has latterly adopted, Theodore Dalrymple – sensing in 1989 that communism was on the verge of collapse, and “long fascinated by the passing of ways of life”, travelled to five countries “whose leaders refused to read the writing on the wall” – Albania, North Korea, Rumania, Vietnam, and Cuba. (The Ceausescu regime fell about a week after his visit.)

It’s a splendid book, as one would expect from a man who keeps alive that curious tradition of medical doctors who are also accomplished writers. I was particularly pleased to learn that the Albanian town of Fier had a twice-weekly newspaper entitled The Sweat Of The Peasant.

Of necessity, Daniels had to travel as part of an organised group, and he is very good on the type of wide-eyed western lefties who were the majority on such trips:

I cast my eye over my companions of the next twelve days. I had hoped for a rich crop of eccentrics among them, such as I had encountered at the annual general meeting of the Anglo-Albanian Society in London a month previously. The secretary of the society was a retired optician from Ilford who had discovered the Balkan paradise late in life and learned its language; the rank and file of the society seemed either elderly revolutionaries of the upper classes, who knew the key to world history yet somehow had never learnt how to do up their shirt buttons properly, or lonely, embittered proletarian autodidacts, who dreamed of vengeance upon the world and called it love of humanity.

While in Albania he visited the Enver Hoxha Museum in the Boulevard of Martyrs in Tirana. There is a display of the condolences received from all over the world following Hoxha’s death, and one of them is from our old pal Hardial Bains, First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist) of Canada and the man who wrote song-lyrics for Cornelius Cardew:

The path which has been proven to be invincible by the life and work of Comrade Enver Hoxha, who led his party and people in their most militant and uncompromising struggle against imperialism, social imperialism, the bourgeoisie and all reaction and revisionism and opportunism of all hues in their service and who has left an indelible mark on history.

Cardew devotees will note that Bains used some of the exact same wording in the song There Is Only One Lie, There Is Only One Truth. It says something for the genius of Cardew – who may or may not have been able to do up his shirt buttons properly – that his setting of such twaddle is both moving and beautiful.

Mad As A Badger

Having ploughed his way through The Literary Churchill : Author, Reader, Actor by Jonathan Rose, Sam Leith in The Spectator comes to the conclusion:

You come away, finally … with the reconfirmed notion that Churchill was as mad as a badger. And that, bizarre but true, posterity should be grateful that he was.

Syllable By Syllable

In 1653, the dying Backhouse had whispered to Ashmole, syllable by syllable, the true and innermost secret of the Philosopher’s Stone ; this would have been a more impressive event, if Backhouse had not come to life again for nine more years, and if Ashmole had not meanwhile forgotten the formula.

Edmund Gosse, English Men Of Letters : Sir Thomas Browne (Macmillan 1905)

Browne’s Badger


One of the “vulgar errors” addressed by Sir Thomas Browne in his Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646) was the belief that the legs of the badger are longer on the right side than on the left. This was generally accepted, and stated in many early books of natural history with considerable authority. Browne argued that the theory was completely absurd, deprecating Albertus Magnus, calling Aldrovandi in his support, and noting that Aristotle had said an odd leg was repugnant to the course of nature. He considered the cases of spiders, frogs, and lobsters in making the case for badgers having legs of equal length.

Edmund Gosse was a great admirer of Browne and wrote a monograph on him for Macmillan’s English Men of Letters series in 1905. Browne on badgers provoked Gosse to a rare fit of exasperation:

Meanwhile, we cannot help asking ourselves why the learned sceptic did not immediately get hold of a real badger, and measure his legs. He says that “upon indifferent inquiry, I cannot discover this difference” in the length of them ; but why did he not make sure for himself? It is true that badgers are extremely shy and mysterious in their movements, and that, no doubt, it was not every sportsman in the neighbourhood of Norwich who could boast of having dug one out of its earth. It is perhaps to ask too much for us to wish that, in the zeal of his zoology, Thomas Browne himself, with a sack and a pair of badger-tongs, and accompanied by some trusty yokels and a cross-bred bull terrier used to the business, should have worried the bowels of earth in some copse on a starlight night, and have procured a badger for himself. But, surely, an observer so curious might have bargained with some farmer who lived out Catton way, or close to a snug rabbit-warren under Earlham, for a specimen of so common an animal, He comes to the correct conclusion, that the monstrosity is ill-contrived, “the shortness being affixed unto the legs of one side, which might have been more tolerably placed upon the thwart or diagonal movers”. Quite so ; but how briefly the question might have been settled once for all with a tape measure on the dead body of a badger.