Archive for May, 2012

Tuesday poem: Happiness

Tuesday, May 29th, 2012


by Jane Kenyon

There’s just no accounting for happiness,

or the way it turns up like a prodigal

who comes back to the dust at your feet

having squandered a fortune far away.

And how can you not forgive?

You make a feast in honor of what

was lost, and take from its place the finest

garment, which you saved for an occasion

you could not imagine, and you weep night and day

to know that you were not abandoned,

that happiness saved its most extreme form

for you alone.

No, happiness is the uncle you never

knew about, who flies a single-engine plane

onto the grassy landing strip, hitchhikes

into town, and inquires at every door

until he finds you asleep midafternoon

as you so often are during the unmerciful

hours of your despair.

It comes to the monk in his cell.

It comes to the woman sweeping the street

with a birch broom, to the child

whose mother has passed out from drink.

It comes to the lover, to the dog chewing

a sock, to the pusher, to the basketmaker,

and to the clerk stacking cans of carrots

in the night.

It even comes to the boulder

in the perpetual shade of pine barrens,

to rain falling on the open sea,

to the wineglass, weary of holding wine.

Loving things as long as you can

Friday, May 25th, 2012

In 1998 the great Adam Gopnik wrote a wonderful article in the New Yorker about his campaign to save his favourite Parisian restaurant, after a chain had bought it, and he feared it would be changed in ways he didn’t want to accept or tolerate. I can’t give you a link to the full article because the New Yorker has a pay wall, even for subscribers, but if you can access it some other way you should search for the edition of 3rd August 1998, and ‘Saving the Balzar’. Here’s the quote I want to talk about.

“… as I helped to organise the occupation I felt exhilarated, though I recognised in my exhilaration a certain hypocrisy. Like every American in France I had spent a fair amount of time being exasperated by the French because of their inability to accept change, their refusal to accept the inevitable logic of the market, and their tendency to blame Americans for everything. As I raged against the changes at the Balzar I began to hear people repeating to me the same tiresome and sensible logic that I had been preaching for so long myself: that nothing stays the same; that change must be welcomed; one must choose to live in the world as it is or live in a museum whose walls increasingly recede inward … It was all true, and when it came to the Balzar, I didn’t care.”

Mr Gopnik also reminds us that Jay Gatsby memorably said: “Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!” Americans are taught that Gatsby’s tragedy is rooted in that mistaken belief but Mr Gopnik argues that the idea isn’t absurd. We repeat the past every day, he points out: we build a life, or try to, of pleasures and duties that will become routine.

But this blog post isn’t so much about the shock of the new, as Robert Hughes characterised modern art, but more about the shock of the changed, of the ‘no never no more’. My particular recent sadness is the disappearance of my favourite stall at the Marylebone Farmers’ Market. Yeah, go on, sneer if you will; accuse me of elitist whinging if you like. I’m still going to explain why I think it matters.

Sunnyfields has been the best stall at the market since it opened. There are other strong competitors: the fish man, the potato man, the goat milk woman, and in season, the flower stall that sells old-fashioned scented roses. But the range and quality of Sunnyfields’ organic produce has always been exceptional: fresh, delicious seasonal veggies that aren’t over-priced. The generous bunches of parsley last for weeks if you need them to; the beetroot tops are as crisp and lively as the roots, the young carrots drip with juice when you try to snap them in half. Later in the season Sunnyfields’ broad beans are among the best I’ve ever eaten, and as fresh as our own. We always start our weekly shopping at Sunnyfields and go on from there, happily and automatically repeating the past in Gatsby fashion.

Or rather, we always started at Sunnyfields until the other week, but now it’s no never no more, because Sunnyfields have stopped attending any of the London markets. They can’t sustain their presence in any sensible economic way any more – it’s become too expensive and time-consuming to drive there and back from their Hampshire operation, and it makes better sense for them to concentrate on farming and marketing their produce locally – especially in their own shop. (They’re also developing a partnership scheme, which is an interesting idea.) So if we ever want their produce again, we’ll have to drive to them – and in broad bean season, let me tell you, that might very well happen.

There were other distressed customers wandering the Marylebone car park the day that Sunnyfields disappeared, unhappy about the loss of such a resource. Organic producers of that range and quality are fast disappearing in the UK; the one that has replaced Sunnyfields seems to be the kind that gives organic farming a bad name. (Soft slightly mouldy onions that cost £1 for four when you wouldn’t want to be given one for nothing. That kind of thing, known to disappointed shoppers the world over.)

I miss the eastern European farm worker who most recently ran the stall at the market; I miss Ian Nelson and his son Tom, who used to do it together back in the day. Yeah yeah, things change. Change is good: you have to believe that; you have to learn to welcome it, even if – perhaps especially if – you didn’t want it in the first place. And as Adam Gopnik says at the end of his article you have to love things as long as you can. And I did. But it doesn’t stop me missing Andreas, and Ian and Tom, and that parsley.

Tuesday Poem: song of the weather

Monday, May 21st, 2012

A Song of the Weather

January brings the snow,
Makes your feet and fingers glow.

February’s ice and sleet
Freeze the toes right off your feet.

Welcome March with wintry wind
Would thou wert not so unkind!

April brings the sweet spring showers,
On and on for hours and hours.

Farmers fear unkindly May
Frost by night and hail by day.

June just rains and never stops
Thirty days and spoils the crops.

In July the sun is hot.
Is it shining? No, it’s not.

August’s cold and dank and wet,
Brings more rain than any yet.

Bleak September’s mist and mud
Is enough to chill the blood.

Then October adds a gale,
Wind and slush and rain and hail.

Dark November brings the fog
Should not do it to a dog.

Freezing wet December, then
Bloody January again!

January brings the snow …

I know it’s not Tuesday. I even know this isn’t a poem. But it’s a wonderfully funny song, and a wonderfully apposite sing-along for the present weather in Britain. (In fact some bits of Britain, I hear, are getting very good weather – and some parts of northern Europe have weather as bad as ours. I have even heard that this week the weather is set to improve. None of these so-called facts is at all comforting.)

Here are the late, great, Flanders & Swann singing their song. My parents adored their work and we often used to listen to their records when I was growing up. My own favourite is ‘The Slow Train’ because it’s spot-on nostalgic about something that mattered, but this one about the weather makes me laugh every time.

Clout-casting, a provisional guide

Saturday, May 5th, 2012

Ne’er cast a clout
Till may be out.

This continuing dismal weather – five weeks of spring and early summer so far wet wet wet and miserably cold – has got me wondering again about the meaning of this arcane and somewhat dodgy piece of advice.

For example: does the ‘may’ in the rhyme refer to the month of May? That’s usually the preferred interpretation, but it doesn’t make the best sense. And if you go with that, is the recommendation that you shouldn’t cast a clout until the month of May is ‘out’ – that is, over? So, for just one e.g., you shouldn’t get your winter coats dry-cleaned until the end of May. In most years, that would be somewhat over-cautious. (Today I’m slightly regretting having done exactly that, in a burst of foolish impulsiveness.)

Or does ‘may’ refer to blossom on the May tree? So, the rhyme is suggesting, when the blossom comes out, you can cast a clout or two? Get your winter coat dry-cleaned? Sort out that shelf of summer clothes?

I’ve always gone for the second interpretation because it seems to make better sense – especially of the word “out”. (And yes, I do realise that it might only be there to effect a rhyme with “clout”, but then again, why choose “clout” at all? Why not try for something more dramatic: maybe “Ne’er cast a jumper/Till may be asunder.”) And by the time the blossom on the May trees has opened, presumably the temperatures have warmed up sufficiently to justify taking off the odd layer.


Well, here’s the present problem. The May trees on Primrose Hill are showing definite signs of opening blossom but it’s still much too cold to cast off sweaters, or finally – finally! – to sort out your summer clothes, let alone put them on. It’s cold. And rainy. And downright dismal.

But take a look at this:

And a close-up of another one:

It’s possible that pink May blossom comes out with less regard for the weather than the traditional white blossom. But even so …