01 December 2015

from The Lord of the Rings, book 6, chapter 6, Many Partings (J.R.R. Tolkien)

'Well, Mr Frodo, we've been far and seen a deal, and yet I don't think we've found a better place than this.  There's something of everything here, if you understand me: the Shire and the Golden Wood and Gondor and kings' houses and inns and meadows and mountains all mixed. [...]'

'Yes, something of everything, Sam, except the Sea,' Frodo had answered, and he repeated it now to himself: 'Except the Sea.'

03 November 2015

from Zuleika Dobson, chapter 12 (Max Beerbohm)

Clearly it was vain to seek distraction in my old College. I floated out into the untenanted meadows. Over them was the usual coverlet of white vapour, trailed from the Isis right up to Merton Wall. The scent of these meadows' moisture is the scent of Oxford. Even in hottest noon, one feels that the sun has not dried them. Always there is moisture drifting across them, drifting into the Colleges. It, one suspects, must have had much to do with the evocation of what is called the Oxford spirit—that gentlest spirit, so lingering and searching, so dear to them who as youths were brought into ken of it, so exasperating to them who were not. Yes, certainly, it is this mild, miasmal air, not less than the grey beauty and gravity of the buildings, that has helped Oxford to produce, and foster eternally, her peculiar race of artist-scholars, scholar-artists. The undergraduate, in his brief periods of residence, is too buoyant to be mastered by the spirit of the place. He does but salute it, and catch the manner. It is on him who stays to spend his maturity here that the spirit will in its fulness gradually descend. The buildings and their traditions keep astir in his mind whatsoever is gracious; the climate, enfolding and enfeebling him, lulling him, keeps him careless of the sharp, harsh, exigent realities of the outer world. Careless? Not utterly. These realities may be seen by him. He may study them, be amused or touched by them. But they cannot fire him. Oxford is too damp for that. The 'movements' made there have been no more than protests against the mobility of others. They have been without the dynamic quality implied in their name. They have been no more than the sighs of men gazing at what other men had left behind them; faint, impossible appeals to the god of retrogression, uttered for their own sake and ritual, rather than with any intent that they should be heard. Oxford, that lotus-land, saps the will-power, the power of action. But, in doing so, it clarifies the mind, makes larger the vision, gives, above all, that playful and caressing suavity of manner which comes of a conviction that nothing matters, except ideas, and that not even ideas are worth dying for, inasmuch as the ghosts of them slain seem worthy of yet more piously elaborate homage than can be given to them in their heyday. If the Colleges could be transferred to the dry and bracing top of some hill, doubtless they would be more evidently useful to the nation. But let us be glad there is no engineer or enchanter to compass that task. Egomet, I would liefer have the rest of England subside into the sea than have Oxford set on a salubrious level. For there is nothing in England to be matched with what lurks in the vapours of these meadows, and in the shadows of these spires - that mysterious, inenubilable spirit, spirit of Oxford. Oxford! The very sight of the word printed, or sound of it spoken, is fraught for me with most actual magic.

22 August 2015

from The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle (Beatrix Potter)

Once upon a time there was a little girl called Lucie, who lived at a farm called Little-town. She was a good little girl - only she was always losing her pocket-handkerchiefs!
One day little Lucie came into the farm-yard crying - oh, she did cry so! 'I've lost my pocket-handkin! Three handkins and a pinny! Have you seen them, Tabby Kitten?'
The Kitten went on washing her white paws; so Lucie asked a speckled hen -
'Sally Henny-penny, have you found three pocket-handkins?'
But the speckled hen ran into a barn, clucking -
'I go barefoot, barefoot, barefoot!'
And then Lucie asked Cock Robin sitting on a twig.
Cock Robin looked sideways at Lucie with his bright black eye, and he flew over a stile and away.
Lucie climbed upon the stile and looked up at the hill behind Little-town - a hill that goes up - up - into the clouds as though it had no top!
And a great way up the hill-side she thought she saw some white things spread upon the grass.
Lucie scrambled up the hill as fast as her stout legs would carry her; she ran along a steep path-way - up and up - until Little-town was right away down below - she could have dropped a pebble down the chimney!

02 August 2015

Fielder (Zaffar Kunial)

If I had to put my finger on where this started,
I’d trace a circle round the one moment I came to, or the one
that placed me, a fielder - just past the field, over the rope,
having chased a lost cause, leathered for six ...
when, bumbling about, obscured in the bushes,
I completely stopped looking for the ball -
perhaps irresponsibly - slowed by bracken, caught by light
that slipped the dark cordon of rhododendron hands,
a world hidden from the batsmen, the umpires and my team,
like the thing itself: that small, seamed planet, shined
on one half, having reached its stop, out of the sphere of sight.
And when I reflect, here, from this undiscovered city,
well north of those boyish ambitions - for the county,
maybe later, the country - I know something of that minute
holds something of me, there, beyond the boundary,
in that edgeland of central England. A shady fingernail
of forest. The pitch it points at, or past, a stopped clock.
Still, in the middle, the keeper’s gloves
clap at the evening. Still, a train clicks
on far-off tracks. And the stars are still to surface.
The whole field, meanwhile, waiting for me,
some astronaut, or lost explorer, to emerge with a wave
that brings the ball - like time itself - to hand. A world restored.
But what I’d come to find, in that late hour
was out of mind, and, the thing is, I didn’t care
and this is what’s throwing me now.

Vitaï Lampada (Henry Newbolt)

There's a breathless hush in the Close to-night -
Ten to make and the match to win -
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play and the last man in.
And it's not for the sake of a ribboned coat,
Or the selfish hope of a season's fame,
But his Captain's hand on his shoulder smote,
'Play up! play up! and play the game!'

The sand of the desert is sodden red, -
Red with the wreck of a square that broke; -
The Gatling's jammed and the colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England's far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of schoolboy rallies the ranks,
'Play up! play up! and play the game!'

This is the word that year by year
While in her place the School is set
Every one of her sons must hear,
And none that hears it dare forget.
This they all with a joyful mind
Bear through life like a torch in flame,
And falling fling to the host behind -
'Play up! play up! and play the game!'

14 July 2015

'O may I join the choir invisible' (George Eliot)

longum illud tempus, quum non ero, magis me movet, quam hoc exiguum - Cicero, Ad Att. xii. 18 

O may I join the choir invisible
Of those immortal dead who live again
In minds made better by their presence; live
In pulses stirred to generosity,
In deeds of daring rectitude, in scorn
Of miserable aims that end with self,
In thoughts sublime that pierce the night like stars,
And with their mild persistence urge men’s minds
To vaster issues.

   So to live is heaven:
To make undying music in the world,
Breathing a beauteous order that controls
With growing sway the growing life of man.
So we inherit that sweet purity
For which we struggled, failed and agonized
With widening retrospect that bred despair.
Rebellious flesh that would not be subdued,
A vicious parent shaming still its child,
Poor, anxious penitence is quick dissolved;
Its discords, quenched by meeting harmonies,
Die in the large and charitable air;
And all our rarer, better, truer self,
That sobbed religiously in yearning song,
That watched to ease the burden of the world,
Laboriously tracing what must be,
And what may yet be better - saw within
A worthier image for the sanctuary
And shaped it forth before the multitude,
Divinely human, raising worship so
To higher reverence more mixed with love -
That better self shall live till human Time
Shall fold its eyelids, and the human sky
Be gathered like a scroll within the tomb
Unread forever.

   This is life to come,
Which martyred men have made more glorious
For us who strive to follow.

   May I reach
That purest heaven - be to other souls
The cup of strength in some great agony,
Enkindle generous ardor, feed pure love,
Beget the smiles that have no cruelty,
Be the sweet presence of a good diffused,
And in diffusion ever more intense!
So shall I join the choir invisible
Whose music is the gladness of the world.

The Whitsun Weddings (Philip Larkin)

That Whitsun, I was late getting away:
Not till about
One-twenty on the sunlit Saturday
Did my three-quarters-empty train pull out,
All windows down, all cushions hot, all sense
Of being in a hurry gone. We ran
Behind the backs of houses, crossed a street
Of blinding windscreens, smelt the fish-dock; thence
The river's level drifting breadth began,
Where sky and Lincolnshire and water meet.

All afternoon, through the tall heat that slept
For miles inland,
A slow and stopping curve southwards we kept.
Wide farms went by, short-shadowed cattle, and
Canals with floatings of industrial froth;
A hothouse flashed uniquely: hedges dipped
And rose: and now and then a smell of grass
Displaced the reek of buttoned carriage-cloth
Until the next town, new and nondescript,
Approached with acres of dismantled cars.

At first, I didn't notice what a noise
The weddings made
Each station that we stopped at: sun destroys
The interest of what's happening in the shade,
And down the long cool platforms whoops and skirls
I took for porters larking with the mails,
And went on reading. Once we started, though,
We passed them, grinning and pomaded, girls
In parodies of fashion, heels and veils,
All posed irresolutely, watching us go,

As if out on the end of an event
Waving goodbye
To something that survived it. Struck, I leant
More promptly out next time, more curiously,
And saw it all again in different terms:
The fathers with broad belts under their suits
And seamy foreheads; mothers loud and fat;
An uncle shouting smut; and then the perms,
The nylon gloves and jewellery-substitutes,
The lemons, mauves, and olive-ochres that

Marked off the girls unreally from the rest.
Yes, from cafés
And banquet-halls up yards, and bunting-dressed
Coach-party annexes, the wedding-days
Were coming to an end. All down the line
Fresh couples climbed aboard: the rest stood round;
The last confetti and advice were thrown,
And, as we moved, each face seemed to define
Just what it saw departing: children frowned
At something dull; fathers had never known

Success so huge and wholly farcical;
The women shared
The secret like a happy funeral;
While girls, gripping their handbags tighter, stared
At a religious wounding. Free at last,
And loaded with the sum of all they saw,
We hurried towards London, shuffling gouts of steam.
Now fields were building-plots, and poplars cast
Long shadows over major roads, and for
Some fifty minutes, that in time would seem

Just long enough to settle hats and say
I nearly died,
A dozen marriages got under way.
They watched the landscape, sitting side by side -
An Odeon went past, a cooling tower,
And someone running up to bowl - and none
Thought of the others they would never meet
Or how their lives would all contain this hour.
 I thought of London spread out in the sun,
Its postal districts packed like squares of wheat:

There we were aimed. And as we raced across
Bright knots of rail
Past standing Pullmans, walls of blackened moss
Came close, and it was nearly done, this frail
Travelling coincidence; and what it held
Stood ready to be loosed with all the power
That being changed can give. We slowed again,
And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled
A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.

06 June 2015

from The Case of the Gilded Fly, chapter 1, Prologue in Railway Trains (Edmund Crispin)

To the unwary traveller, Didcot signifies the imminence of his arrival at Oxford; to the more experienced, another half-hour at least of frustration.   And travellers in general are divided into these two classes; the first apologetically haul down their luggage from the racks on to the seats, where it remains until the end of the journey, an encumbrance and a mass of sharp, unexpected edges; the second continue to stare gloomily out of the window at the waste of woods and fields into which, by some witless godling, the station has been inexplicably dumped, and at the lines of goods trucks from all parts of the country, assembled like the isle of lost ships of current myth, in the middle of a Sargasso Sea.  A persistent accompaniment of dark muttering and shouting, together with a brisk tearing of wood and metal reminiscent of early Walpurgis Night in a local cemetery, suggest to the more imaginative of the passengers that the engine is being dismantled and put together again.  The delay in Didcot station amounts as a rule to twenty minutes or more.

Then there are about three fausses sorties, involving a tremendous crashing and jolting of machinery which buffets the passengers into a state of abject submission.  With infinite reluctance, the cortège gets on the move at last, carrying its unhappy cargo in an extremely leisurely manner through the flat landscape.  There are quite a surprising number of wayside stations and halts before you arrive at Oxford, and it misses none of these, often lingering at them beyond all reason, since no one gets either in or out; but perhaps the guard has seen someone hurrying belatedly down the station road, or has observed a local inhabitant asleep in his corner and is reluctant to wake him; perhaps there is a cow on the line, or the signal is against us - investigation, however, proves that there is no cow, nor even any signal, pro or contra.

Towards Oxford matters become a little more cheerful, within sight of the canal, say, or Tom Tower.  An atmosphere of purposefulness begins to be felt; it requires the utmost strength of will to remain seated, and hatless, and coatless, with one's luggage still in the rack and one's ticket still in an inside pocket; and the more hopeful occupants are already clambering into the corridors.  But sure enough, the train stops just outside the station, the monolithic apparitions of a gas-works on one side, a cemetery on the other, by which the engine lingers with ghoulish insistence, emitting sporadic shrieks and groans of necrophilous delight.  A sense of wild, itching frustration sets in; there is Oxford, there, a few yards away, is the station, and here is the train, and passengers are not allowed to walk along the line, even if any of them had the initiative to do so; it is the whole torture of Tantalus in hell.  This interlude of memento mori, during which the railway company reminds the golden lads and girls in its charge of their inevitable coming to dust, goes on usually for about ten minutes, after which the train proceeds grudgingly into that station so aptly called by Max Beerbohm 'the last relic of the Middle Ages'.

But if any traveller imagines that this is the end, he is mistaken.  Upon arrival there, when even the most sceptical have begun to shift about, it is at once discovered that the train is not at a platform at all, but on one of the centre lines.  On either side, waiting friends and relations, balked at the eleventh hour of their re-union, rush hither and thither waving and uttering little cries, or stand with glum, anxious faces trying to catch a glimpse of those they are supposed to be meeting.  It is as if Charon's boat were to become inextricably marooned in the middle of the Styx, unable either to proceed towards the dead or to return to the living.  Meanwhile, internal shudderings of seismic magnitude occur which throw the passengers and their luggage into impotent shouting heaps on the floors of the corridors.  In a few moments, those on the station are surprised to see the train disappearing in the direction of Manchester, with a cloud of smoke and an evil smell.  In due time it returns backwards, and miraculously, the journey is over.

The passengers surge self-consciously through the ticket-barrier and disperse in search of taxis, which in wartime collect fares without regard of rank, age or precedence, but according to some strictly-adhered-to logic of their own.  They thin out and disappear into the warren of relics, memorials, churches, colleges, libraries, hotels, pubs, tailors and bookshops which is Oxford, the wiser looking for an immediate drink, the more obstinate battling through to their ultimate destination.  Of this agon there eventually remain only a solitary few who have got out to change, and who dawdle unhappily on the platform among the milk-cans.

22 February 2015

from The Towers of Trebizond, chapter 18 (Rose Macaulay)

I went to a travel agent and got a passage to Istanbul on a cargo ship that sailed from Haifa in ten days, so I had these days in which to see Israel, which is a very beautiful country indeed.  I went to Acre, and spent a night in an inn that looked as if the Crusaders might have spent their last night in it before fleeing from the Holy Land to Cyprus in 1291, and I bathed in a blue and green sea outside the citadel.  I went to Nazareth, which was full of tourists and touting guides and fake holy places, and I went on to the Sea of Galilee, and this was so beautiful that I stayed by it for several days, stumbling about the ruins of old Tiberias and going out with the fishermen in their boats while they cast their nets, fishing alone from the shore, sleeping in a small Franciscan guest-house above the lake, with a balcony from which I could every morning watch the sun rise over the wild brown and mauve mountains on the Syrian shore.  The days were very hot.  I rode the camel up the shore, to Magdala and the ruins of Capernaum, and the little bays beyond, where I swam in buoyant blue water.  Every place along the Genesaret shore was in the Gospels; Magdala, and the ruined Capernaum synagogue, and the sermon on the mount, and the feeding of the five thousand on the opposite shore, and the rowing on the lake, and the drafts of fishes, and the healings, and the floutings of Pharisees and sabbatarians, and the vision in the dawn to Peter and the rest as they fished, and the calling of the disciples in turn to leave their work and follow.  St Matthew, people think, sat at the receipt of customs on the quay of Capernaum, taking the dues from those who landed there.  When he arose and followed, did he have time to hand over his job to someone else, or did he just take up his cash-box and go, so that for a time people landed and departed without paying anything?  There is nothing at the customs now but the black basalt quay stones lying about, and the little waves of the Sea of Galilee lapping among reeds.

In all these places that I go through, I thought, he once was, he once taught and talked, and drew people after him like a magnet, as he is now drawing me.  And I thought that if David had been with me and had asked me again what he had asked me in the cloister of St. George's Cathedral, I would have answered him rather differently, for by the sea of Galilee Christianity seemed local and temporal and personal after all, though it included Hagia Sophia and all the humanities and Oriens, sol justitiae, that has lighted every man who has come into the world.

I would have liked to spend a long time in Galilee, fishing and rowing and swimming and riding about the hills and trying to paint the changing colours of the water and of the mountains across it on the Syrian shore, and everywhere coming on fragments of Rome and of Greece.  But I had to leave it, and I did not think I should come back, it was too subversive, it filled me with notions and feelings that were dangerous to my life.  I did not want Vere to come there, though Vere had not my brand of flimsy and broken-backed but incurable religion, of which I have always been ashamed, so it might work out all right.

21 January 2015

from Marking Time (Elizabeth Jane Howard)

But really, she felt, although it might be OK in a sort of personal way the fact remained that she had failed to have a calm disagreeing conversation with two of the people she was most attached to, and she, who had often watched with contempt her parents and their peers saying things to one another that they did not mean found herself wondering uneasily whether concealment and deceit were a necessary part of human relationships.  Because if they were, she was going to be pretty bad at them.

03 January 2015

Psalm 139 (trans. Coverdale)

O Lord thou hast searched me out and known me : thou knowest my down-sitting and mine up-rising, thou understandest my thoughts long before.

Thou art about my path and about my bed : and spiest out all my ways.

For lo there is not a word in my tongue : but thou O Lord knowest it altogether.

Thou hast fashioned me behind and before : and laid thine hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful and excellent for me : I cannot attain unto it.
Whither shall I go then from thy Spirit : or whither shall I go then from thy presence?

If I climb up into heaven thou art there : if I go down to hell thou art there also.

If I take the wings of the morning : and remain in the uttermost parts of the sea;

Even there also shall thy hand lead me : and thy right hand shall hold me.

If I say, Peradventure the darkness shall cover me : then shall my night be turned to day.

Yea the darkness is no darkness with thee, but the night is as clear as the day : the darkness and light to thee are both alike.

For my reins are thine : thou hast covered me in my mother’s womb.

I will give thanks unto thee, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made : marvellous are thy works, and that my soul knoweth right well.

My bones are not hid from thee : though I be made secretly, and fashioned beneath in the earth.

Thine eyes did see my substance yet being unperfect : and in thy book were all my members written;

Which day by day were fashioned : when as yet there was none of them.

How dear are thy counsels unto me O God : O how great is the sum of them!

If I tell them, they are more in number than the sand : when I wake up I am present with thee.

Wilt thou not slay the wicked, O God : depart from me ye blood-thirsty men.

For they speak unrighteously against thee : and thine enemies take thy Name in vain.

Do not I hate them O Lord that hate thee : and am not I grieved with those that rise up against thee?

Yea, I hate them right sore : even as though they were mine enemies.

Try me O God, and seek the ground of my heart : prove me and examine my thoughts.

Look well if there be any way of wickedness in me : and lead me in the way everlasting.