“Swallows”, George Szirtes

George Szirtes is a poet who writes both children’s and grown-up verse. His book “How To Be A Tiger” neatly shows how ostensibly children’s verse can be as valuable as adult-orientated work

One highlight: “Swallows”:

Hustling on the wing

all billow and swoop

Laughing as they go

Pouring from the sky

In one vast troupe

They fly tails forked

Suddenly uncorked.


“The Menace From Ennis”, a lost classic from Sonny Knowles

The singer Sonny Knowles “known as The Window Cleaner to his fans,”, a staple of the Irish showband scene, has died.

Via Wikipedia I came across this, which I screenshotted in case the uncited reference to two 1966 masterworks got deleted:

I can’t find online recordings of either “Chuaigh Mé Suas Don Chluiche Mór” (I went up to the big match”) or “The Menace From Ennis” However their existence is partly verified by the the Wikipedia page for Ireland’s selection process for the 1966 Eurovision. I note a 20 year old Dickie Rock took part.

“November Woods”, Arnold Bax

Back during the summer heatwave I included Arnold Bax’s “Summer Music” in a seasonally appropriate playlist. Here via YouTube is a piece for this season:



Bax himself disavowed programmatic intent. According to Wikipedia:

November Woods, like several other symphonic poems by Bax, is inspired by nature. The composer disavowed any programmatic content, declaring that the work “may be taken as an impression of the dank and stormy music of nature in the late autumn, but the whole piece and its origins are connected with certain rather troublous experiences I was going through myself at the time….”.[3] The experiences to which he alluded were connected with the break-up of his marriage and his love affair with the pianist Harriet Cohen.[4] The untroubled second theme of the work may, according to the commentator Keith Anderson, suggest more tranquil feelings of earlier days.[5]

In the earlier years of his career, Bax was given to writing for very large orchestral forces.[6] November Woods calls for three flutes; piccolo; two oboes; cor anglais; three clarinets, one doubling bass clarinet; two bassoons, one doubling contrabassoon; four horns; three trumpets; three trombones; one tuba; two harps; timpani; cymbals; glockenspiel; celeste; and strings.[4] The analyst John Palmer comments that despite the large forces, Bax’s orchestration is among the most subtle in his entire oeuvre: “In the opening moments, quivering woodwinds, harps, and muted strings present a delicately shifting array of colors”.[4] Palmer draws attention to instrumental combinations, such as oboe doubling cello and viola playing with bassoon and cor anglais.[4]

After an opening that evokes a strong breeze, with harp glissandi and a swift and agile woodwind theme, a muted solo cello moves the melodic content forward. The main theme, a descending, chromatic, three-note figure, dominates the first part of the work, which is developed before the second subject, an andante con moto, in which harp and celeste add colour to a theme played by cor anglais, bassoon and viola. A central section, with pianissimo strings and high horns precedes a brief sonata form development and recapitulation. After a sonorous climax the music returns to the opening key of G minor and the work ends with the bass clarinet fading to a quiet finish.[4][5]

Prior Bax posts include excerpts from his memoir Farewell My Youth:  here on the forgotten and despised man of the Irish revolution, Darrell Figgis and here on a literary bus conductor ,  and here on a mystical experience in Donegal.


November 12th 1988: Two contrasting letters from Kingsley Amis

In “The Letters of Kingsley Amis”, edited by Zachary Leader, we find two contrasting and yet in their own way characteristic letters from Kingsley Amis from this day thirty years ago.

The first is a letter to editor of the Spectator, in response to a letter by Frank Dunne . This is a letter conjuring something close to the splenetic, rather reactionary Amis of his public image, with a swipe at Modernism and subsidy for the Arts and a boost for the unfashionable figure of Edward Thomas:

Sir: Frank Dunne is in such a rush to put me right on modernism (Letters, 29 October)that he cannot stay to read even what Auberon Waugh says I said about it. Waugh says I said, and I said, and I say, not of course that the modernist movement “would never have succeeded” without bodies like the Arts Council, but that the movement “would be over but for the life-support machine provided by the Arts Council and other malign institutions”. In this country, that is was was understood: Americans, Irish, French etc modernists are no doubt still doing well enough unassisted.

As to modernism’s success in past years, it must have been helped by those like DUnne whose palates are so jaded that they find only a “tepid, weak-tea” tradition in the work of that classic English poet, Edward Thomas. But then Thomas never achieved “worldwide acclamation”, as far as I know.


194 Regents Park Road, London N1

An explanatory footnote reads: “Auberon Waugh’s comments on Amis and modernsism appear in a column entitled ‘Something Slimy and Spongiform in the Saleroom’. Spectator, 8 October 1988 p 8. Frank Dunne (b 1932) is an Irish writer and actor.”

Immediately afterwards we find a contrasting letter to W. Y McNeil. A footnote explains : ‘McNeil (b. 1916), a retired Director of Social Work at a Scottish local authority, had met Amis as a young subaltern in Signals. He wrote to Amis on 11 October 1988 after seeing him interviewed on television.”

194 Regents Park Road, London NW1 8XP

Dear Mac,

How nice to hear from you Of course I remember . you very well: red-haired, lively, always ready with a laugh, especially at our superiors’ expense – something we all needed in those days of (my God!) 43-44 years ago

Though I remember the names of everyone in the photograph you kindly sent – returned with many thanks – I have no recent news of any except Eric Milner, on your left in the photograph. He turned up at a Foyle’s luncheon I was at not much changed, now of course an ex-Lt-Col-TA with a place in Surrey. He wasn’t my favourite man in the old days but seems to have mellowed since, or perhaps I have.

I remember Urquhart well too, so well I can’t believe he was only with us until we left High Wycombe: dark, pale, serious, with walking-stick, bonnet with pompom  and (could it have been?) kilt. I once said to him, just to make conversation, ‘Are German ciphers made in the same sort of way as ours?’ He said ‘I’m afraid I can’t tell you that,’ and I thought, wow, Jerry must be in a bad way if still doesn’t know that (in ’44). Give him (Gordon, not Jerry) all my best.

If you’re ever in London do think of giving me a ring. We could summon up the ghosts of Bill Yorke, Jack Reeves, Col. Walker (aargh!) and not least RSM Fryer over a wee tassie.

With every good wish,


Bill Amis.

Zachary Leader’s footnotes do provide more context (in relation to the last paragraph, it is noted that “neither Bill Yorke, the Adjutant, nor Lieutenant-Colonel  G.F.H. Walker the CO, were favourites”) , but I feel that it is worth letting this affectionate and rather touching letter speak for itself.

The strange tale of Furia Infernalis

I have only read a little of John Wright’s “The Naming of the Shrew” but already this is the third extract I have found blog-post worthy. I had never heard of Furia infernalis before. I think it deserves to be better known, this is definitely a scientific story worth persisting with – it has an almost fable-like quality:

Few animal names are more evocative than Furia infernalis. One imagines a flying dragon, or perhaps a sabre-toothed tiger, only bigger. On one of his early expeditions, Linnaeus was bitten on the arm by an unidentified creature. The bite was painful, but he thought little more about it until his arm swelled up. He became seriously ill for some time until a surgeon called Dr Schnell incised the arm from armpit to elbow and he recovered. A few years later, Linnaeus settled on a tiny ‘worm’ that had been described by his pupil Daniel Solander as the cause of all his suffering, and proceeded to seek redress against his tormentor. He gave it the rather splendid name Furia infernalis (the fury of Hell – the Furies were mythical creatures of vengeance), describing it as threadlike with ciliate, appressed spines on both sides of its body. Worst of all, he wrote, it fell from the air, penetrated the bodies of animals and caused excruciating pain.

The creature, evidently thrilled with its new name and no doubt emboldened by all the publicity, proceeded to make a thorough nuisance of itself for the best part of a hundred years. A celebrated traveller from England, one Dr Clarke, reported that he, too, temporarily lost the use of his arm due to the attentions of a Furia infernalis, with only the Lapp remedy of a curd poultice saving the day. Cattle also suffered, and in 1823 a five-thousand-strong herd of Lapland reindeer was slaughtered by pestilential hordes of Furia. A young girl, having been stung on the finger by a Furia, survived only because of the quick thinking of her master, who cut off the afflicted finger on the spot.

A ban on fur imports was introduced by Finland to prevent the spread of this calamitous worm, with some success because only Russian and Swedish Lapland were affected. Subsequent to Linnaeus’s establishment of Furia, other naturalists produced dissertations on the creature, establishing its modus operandi (it crawls to the top of a reed and allows the wind to blow it onto the skin of mammals), several more cases of human infection were recorded and a better description than that supplied by Linnaeus – ‘it is the thickness of a human hair, grey with black extremities’ – was made.

Even at the time of its first publication, however, not everyone accepted the existence of the animal. They were supported in their cynicism, it must be said, by a total lack of any specimens. The Academy of Sciences in Stockholm offered a reward for one, but none was forthcoming, and a Mr Retzius of Stockholm undertook an extensive search for the elusive creature without success.

Furia infernalis does not exist and has never existed, but, owing to the rules of zoological nomenclature (see here), its name will live on for all time. Linnaeus (who, to his credit, came to doubt the existence of the species later in life) named it in the tenth edition of Systema Naturae, the edition that is accepted as the starting point for the naming of animals. F. infernalis is counted as a valid name and cannot be used for anything else, but it is not an accepted name, having never had a species to which it could belong. Linnaeus was, no doubt, bitten by a horsefly

Arthur Benjamin speed calculation video

I’m not an almighty fan of TED talks, which can reek of solutionism and can privilege a certain slick, clickbait-y style of communicating in which sleekly presented ideas drown out less sexy ones. However, there are some highly entertaining and enlightening talks from TED – and here is one from “mathemagician” Arthur Benjamin which definitely falls into the former camp: