Pj Kavanagh

Muddling through

It so happened that in 1961 I was part of a little group — three of us — which welcomed ‘Mr Jazzman’ to London. That was the code name for Rudolf Nureyev, the dancer, who had that day jetéed over the barrier in Paris and defected to London. He had very little English but he

A man after his time

Denys Watkins-Pitchford (1905-1990) illustrated dozens of books under his double-barrel and wrote at least 60 of his own under the two initials ‘BB’. Denys Watkins-Pitchford (1905-1990) illustrated dozens of books under his double-barrel and wrote at least 60 of his own under the two initials ‘BB’. This Symposium is a demonstration of how his writing

Continuity under threat

This handsome and encouraging book is perhaps unfortunate in its title. The suggestion is that the author has been forced to rummage among the wreckage that is England in order to find something, anything, that is still intact. Its origins and intentions are quite the opposite. As Richard Ingrams explains in his short introduction, when

Spirit of place

A Writer’s Britain: Landscape in Literature, by Margaret Drabble This is a book about the inner landscapes of writers, or the ones they inhabited when young, and how these informed their work and affected their readers. In the process of describing these, Margaret Drabble makes lively connections, parallels and distinctions. The languor and melancholy of

Nearly guiltless

No one has ever successfully explained cricket-obsession, and Marcus Berkmann doesn’t even try. He just expresses it, stamping about like Basil Fawlty in exasperation at England’s nearly constant humiliation at the hands of the Australians. He even confesses to a disbeliever that ‘some of my best friends are Australians’, and puzzles at the way they

A balancing act

If anyone should wince at a hint of aggression in the title of this book — and some Catholics might — let him or her remember or read Charles Kingsley’s Westward Ho! (1855), in which every Spaniard is a sallow coward, every priest a slinking prevaricator and every Protestant Englishman an apple-cheeked exemplar of straightforwardness

Tough love

A Prickly Affair, by Hugh Warwick At a time when most of his fellow-mystics deplored this sinful world and longed to leave it, 17th-century Thomas Traherne ecstatically celebrated the world and confirmed his religious faith by observing its wonders. ‘The Ant is a great Miracle in a little room . . . its Limbs and

Nooks for rooks

Was it Wordsworth who discovered the ‘real’ rural? Later, the Georgian poets celebrated its passing, giving rise to what Edward Thomas called ‘the Norfolk Jacket school of writing’. The poets of the 1930s took up politics instead, and nowadays poets are mostly urban. These scatter-shot generalisations, riddled with exceptions, are only meant as an introduction

The pity of it

This book opens with a bang; things are suggested rather than described, in short paragraphs, mostly dialogue; the impression is of a (very English) Hemingway. A party of six inmates, two orderlies and a newly arrived doctor, Irvine, are being taken on a bus from Dartford Asylum to view a whale beached on the Thames

Llamas but no locals

Richard Askwith is Associate Editor of the Independent and lives in a small Northamptonshire village; presumably he commutes. After a year’s absence abroad he returns to his village and finds that two loved neighbours have moved, eight houses (out of 94) have been sold, and five more have ‘For Sale’ notices outside them. The pub

Fighting his corner

This author said of her biography of the wealthy Siegfried Sassoon, ‘A study of his life is a study of an age’. So is this one, from another aspect, deep down among the poverty of Jewish immigrants at the end of the 19th century, and it is warming to learn how the more successful of

Thinking like a river

‘You can tell a river-lover. They cannot help but pause on a bridge to investigate what lies beneath.’ It is hard to imagine anyone not doing that, but our author is a generous soul and wishes to include us all in his passion. I wanted to celebrate the ways in which rivers stirred spirits and

Hazy like foothills

As life-expectancy seems to grow longer by the minute, as it were — at least in our part of the globe — it was predictable that some writers would retain their marbles long enough to report ruefully back from the ageing-battlefield. At least two poets have done so very well: Roy Fuller and D. J.

‘Almost’ religious joy

Simon Barnes is chief sportswriter for the Times; wearing his other boots he is a fervent eco-warrior, a spell-binding preacher, a missionary. His book is broken into small descriptive sections and each contains a moment, an exaltation at a contact with ‘the wild’. These are perhaps best read in snatches, rather than as a continuum,

All together now

In my English school our hymns were mostly in Latin which, despite years of instruction, rendered them sufficiently opaque to be appropriate. What few hymns we sang in English seemed rather weepy, which didn’t appeal. Therefore, emerging from that place into a wider England, it was a surprise to discover there was a culture of

Fresh woods and pastors new

It is good to be reminded of the left-wing writers of the 1930s who took arms against the injustices of a society in which they were themselves privileged members. Sometimes they were over-hectic preachers — Take off your coat: grow lean:Suffer humiliation: Patrol the passes aloneAnd eat your iron ration. — but there was nobility

Richness in diversity

I seem to have missed the name David Crystal. He is clearly a phonetician, expert in linguistics, but the blurb tells us little about him except that he appears on television. He comes across as a genial cove. In one of his many digressions on the subject of words — this book is composed of

Guilt and defiance

It will be news to nobody that England (or ‘the Crown’) and Ireland had been in a state of mutual incomprehension since the time of the first Elizabeth. There had been much cruelty. Sean O’Casey spoke for his countrymen: ‘The English government of Ireland had often been soft-headed but never soft-handed.’ So, when Ireland, a

John Bull as a master of delicacy

This is a book that tells the reader a great deal about a certain kind of Englishman in his interesting times (1753-1828), and also raises the irritating question — the distinction, if any, between art and craft. Thomas Bewick, wood-engraver, was a ‘provincial’ craftsman who became a great artist. John Ruskin saw this: ‘The plumage

Ode to the A202

A personal note, but relevant: I first picked up this large book at about two o’clock in the afternoon, and began to dip into it, a preliminary reconnaissance. I had an appointment at six with an impatient man, the sort who leaves if you are ten minutes late. When I next looked at my watch,