Vignettes: Liz Taylor, Fred Titmus

A whimsical departure from my usual book-based posts today. I find myself on dog-sitting duties while visitors and spouse are out and I came across some vignettes in an old notebook that I wanted to pass on, to pass the time. Please give this a miss if you want serious literary analysis this time. There are taboo terms, too (advance warning).

On 23 March 2011 (the date of my notebook entry) the film star Elizabeth Taylor died at the age of 79.

Fred Titmus in 1962

Fred Titmus in 1962

So too did Fred Titmus, the former Middlesex and England off-spinner (b. 1932, so he was one year younger than Taylor; one wonders if they ever met); this will mean little, I presume, to some readers, but he was a hero of mine in my youthful cricketing days. His career was curtailed when he lost four toes in an accident (while on tour with the England team in the West Indies) involving an encounter with a speedboat’s propellors when he was swimming .

The indie band Half Man Half Biscuit (from NW England) have a song called ‘Fuckin’ ‘ell, It’s Fred Titmus’ (link to a YouTube recording here), from their 1985 album Back in the DHSS – this was the British government department which was responsible for Social Security, including unemployment benefits (colloquially known as the dole). The song has interesting lyrics:

Oh I was walking round my local store

Searching for the ten pence off Lenor

When suddenly I bumped into this guy

On seeing who it was I gave a cry…(title refrain)

In subsequent verses the narrator encounters the bowler in a park and at a railway station. Lenor is the proprietary name of a brand of fabric conditioner here in the UK.

Statue of Larkin in Hull

Statue of Larkin in Hull

Trains tend to play a significant part in the band’s lyrics; they have a song called ‘Time Flies When You’re the Driver of a Train’. The video for ‘National Shite Day’ includes footage shot from a train pulling out of (or into) Hull station, in the NE of England. This is not a fashionable city – though Philip Larkin was librarian at its university library, and Andrew Marvell was born near there.

I rather like their songs; they delight in satiric references to minor celebrities and pop culture (such as the facile pun on Stevie Nicks’ name in the Titmus song), and the slow tedium of life on the dole. Another track on the DHSS album rejoices in the title ‘Sealclubbing’, which could also be seen as a pun of sorts, but probably isn’t. A character in this song tries fruitlessly to commit suicide by taking an overdose of Haliborange – a brand of harmless vitamin pills for children.

National Shite Day includes a reference to a character called Stringy Bob (who’s ‘still on suicide watch’; life on the dole is grim) finding a dead wading bird while beachcombing on the Dee Estuary (I used to live in Bagillt, a desolate village on the opposite shore of the estuary from Birkenhead-Wirral, where HMHB hail from). Bob parcels the bird up and posts it with a note reading:

‘Is this your sanderling?’

A sanderling (with leg tag)

A sanderling (with leg tag)

Surely the only pop song to namecheck this particular wader.




Andrew Marvell, ‘The Garden’

As it’s National Poetry Day in the UK today, and I don’t have much time to compose a post, I thought I’d just accept the challenge of the NPD website and reproduce here two stanzas (there are nine in total in the poem) from one of my favourite poems by Andrew Marvell (1621-78): ‘The Garden’:

What wondrous life is this I lead!
Ripe apples drop about my head ;

The luscious clusters of the vine
Upon my mouth do crush their wine

The nectarine and curious peach
Into my hands themselves do reach

Stumbling on melons as I pass,
Ensnared with flowers, I fall on grass.

Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness :
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find

Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas

Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade.

I recall studying this poem as a new undergraduate (we started in term 1 with the Metaphysicals at Bristol!) and relishing the interplay of sensuality and cerebral thinking in it. One of my first essays for my tutor was to discuss Eliot’s description of Marvell’s poetry as having  ‘a tough reasonableness beneath the slight lyric grace’. I don’t think I knew what I was talking about then.

NPG 554,Andrew Marvell,by Unknown artistNow I’m just happy to savour these lush, surprising couplets.

I wonder if that opening couplet reflects the pronunciation of the period; presumably ‘lead’ and ‘head’ rhymed then (one finds similar things in Shakespeare, as David Crystal points out in his published and forthcoming works on Shakespearean pronunciation).

The natural cornucopia in these stanzas is a poetic commonplace – Jonson used the trope in ‘To Penshurst’ (published 1616). I can’t resist giving a short extract here, for he goes completely overboard in his description of the veritable anxiety of game and edible fish to leap into the maw of the hungry aristocrat:

Each bank doth yield thee conies; and the tops,

Fertile of wood, Ashore and Sidney’s copse,

To crown thy open table, doth provide

The purpled pheasant with the speckled side;

The painted partridge lies in every field,

And for thy mess is willing to be killed…

Then it’s the turn of the exotic and conveniently low-hanging fruit:

Then hath thy orchard fruit, thy garden flowers,

Fresh as the Ayre, and new as are the houres.

The early cherry, with the later plum,

Fig, grape, and quince, each in his time doth come:

The blushing apricot and woolly peach,

Hang on thy walls, that every child may reach.



Marvell can’t resist outdoing Jonson by adding the even more exotic, newly-arrived (in England) ‘nectarine’.

With typically Metaphysical panache he subverts the familiar image of Eden as the setting for the Fall by suggesting that any ‘fall’ in this garden leads not to disaster but to enlightenment. The peaceful serenity of the natural garden provides a perfect setting (the paradisal physical or material world – ‘all that’s made’) for transcendence to the superior pleasures of a metaphysical, rational world of ideas (the wonderful ‘green thoughts in a green shade’).

A final note on that puzzling couplet about the mind’s reflection in the ocean: ‘In the history of ideas, the concept that in a perfect, and therefore symmetrical Creation, each creature of the earth found its counterpart in the sea had a long career; it had been firmly dismissed by Sir Thomas Browne, in Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646) in which one of the “Vulgar errors” is “that all Animals of the Land, are in their Kinde in the Sea”; even exploded philosophy was grist to Marvell’s metaphysical wit.’ (Wikipedia)

Image of Marvell in the public domain at Wikimedia Commons.