Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Pertinent Bard

“If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work.”
1 Henry IV

Birches by Robert Frost

When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy's been swinging them.
But swinging doesn't bend them down to stay.
Ice-storms do that. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun's warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust--
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You'd think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
(Now am I free to be poetical?)
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows--
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father's trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It's when I'm weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig's having lashed across it open.
I'd like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth's the right place for love:
I don't know where it's likely to go better.
I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane

I had never heard of this book. My sister gave it to me for Christmas. It is a wonderful present, like one of the pebbles that the author might pick up from one of the shingle beaches he so beautifully describes. In reading I thought of two other authors in particular - Seamus Heaney and Patrick Leigh Fermor. There is a love of language here that goes beyond mere cleverness or look-at-me; the language makes the world it describes. Language becomes as articulate as painting in rendering particular experience. It is a book about the 'wild places' of the British isles, but it is also about friendship and science and history and poetry. I shall post separately a poem by Robert Frost quoted in the text.

Thursday, 24 December 2009


There is an exhibition currently running at the Vatican that purports to prove that Shakespeare was a Roman Catholic. Maybe he was. I think the truth is that he was - like John Donne and many many others of the time (it tended to depend on the monarch) - both an Anglican AND a Roman Catholic. Those of us who enjoy Shakespeare are ever conscious - and appreciative - of the absence of God from most of his plays. I think that this absence may explain both his enduring and international popularity.

Liu Xiaobo

Liu Xiaobo, a 53-year-old poet, literary critic and former professor previously jailed for nearly two years for his role in the 1989 student-led protests at Tiananmen Square. is on trial again in Beijing. His role in promulgating Charter 08, a manifesto in favour of Chinese political freedom, is the chief reason for the government’s latest attempt to silence Liu.

UPDATE Liu Xiaobo has been sentenced to 11 years in jail.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Howards End

It is of course ridiculous - perhaps even shameful - that an Oxford English graduate should not have read 'Howards End', but I haven't until now. A few years ago I read Steinbeck's 'Grapes of Wrath' for the first time. I was shocked that no-one had ever told me how very good it was. Nobody had said to me "you have GOT to read this book. It's marvellous". Well, the same is true of 'Howards End'. Why did nobody tell me? It is a scintillating piece of litearture. I know everyone knows this, but I didn't and it has come as an utter pleasure and surprise. I chose to read it after reading a review of Frank Kermode's new book, 'Concerning E. M. Forster'. I like Kermode and fancy reading this, but there would have been little point without knowing something of Forster first, and so...

As I was thinking about this - and about how Trilling, too, had written a book about Forster - I remembered a scene from 1974. I was sixteen years old. I was standing in a group of people at a party or gathering of some sort. We were in a triangle of room that obtruded from some house or institution somewhere in Colorado. At the apex of the triangle were shelves. On either side were windows strecthing from ceiling to floor. The views were spectacular, over the Rockies. We were very high up. To my left was my father. To his left was Lionel Trilling with tremendously white hair. To Trilling's left was Isaac Stern, the great violinist. Between Stern and me was, I think, Saul Bellow. I think. Of the first three I am certain.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Optical Illusion

Failing to Resist a List

Since - and including - the year 2000 - people from the USA have been awarded no less than 67 Nobel Prizes. The UK boasts 15. These two added together (82) are considerably more than the rest of the world put together (60). So despite what many a continental European intellectual would maintain, that Anglo-Saxon culture is essentially philistine, it doesn't seem to do badly. Next up after the UK by the way are Japan and Germany (8 each).

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Oh Mr Porter

I fear I'm getting altogether too sporty. One of the reasons why I shy away from politics is that I get so terrifically angry about so many things and I fear my own incoherence. One of the things that drives me crazy is the State's approach to children (who says New Labour isn't socialist?). The blessed Mr Porter says it all for me, here.

Ballon d'Or Winners

1956 - Stanley Matthews (England), 1957 - Alfredo di Stefano (Spain), 1958 - Raymond Kopa (France), 1959 - Di Stefano, 1960 - Luis Suarez (Spain), 1961 - Omar Sivori (Italy), 1962 - Josef Masopust (Czechoslovakia), 1963 - Lev Yashin (USSR), 1964 - Denis Law (Scotland), 1965 - Eusebio (Portugal), 1966 - Bobby Charlton (England), 1967 - Florian Albert (Hungary), 1968 - George Best (Northern Ireland), 1969 - Gianni Rivera (Italy), 1970 - Gerd Mueller (West Germany), 1971 - Johan Cruyff (Netherlands), 1972 - Franz Beckenbauer (West Germany), 1973 - Cruyff, 1974 - Cruyff, 1975 - Oleg Blokhin (USSR), 1976 - Beckenbauer, 1977 - Allan Simonsen (Denmark), 1978 - Kevin Keegan (England), 1979 - Keegan, 1980 - Karl-Heinz Rummenigge (West Germany), 1981 - Rummenigge, 1982 - Paolo Rossi (Italy), 1983 - Michel Platini (France), 1984 - Platini, 1985 - Platini, 1986 - Igor Belanov (USSR), 1987 - Ruud Gullit (Netherlands), 1988 - Marco van Basten (Netherlands), 1989 - Van Basten, 1990 - Lothar Matthaeus (Germany), 1991 - Jean-Pierre Papin (France), 1992 - Van Basten, 1993 - Roberto Baggio (Italy), 1994 - Hristo Stoichkov (Bulgaria), 1995 - George Weah (Liberia), 1996 - Matthias, Sammer (Germany), 1997 - Ronaldo (Brazil), 1998 - Zinedine Zidane (France), 1999 - Rivaldo (Brazil), 2000 - Luis Figo (Portugal), 2001 - Michael Owen (England), 2002 - Ronaldo, 2003 - Pavel Nedved (Czech Republic), 2004 - Andriy Shevchenko (Ukraine), 2005 - Ronaldinho (Brazil), 2006 - Fabio Cannavaro (Italy), 2007 - Kaka (Brazil), 2008 - Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal).

And this year? Lionel Messi (Argentina)