31 December 2011


I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being. 
Oscar Wilde

iPhone self-portrait by EP

Two weeks ago a lady sweetly accosted me at the Riverside Studios after a performance of The Importance of Being Earnest and told me she would remember my Dr Chasuble’s attempt to imitate a buzzing bee, in my duet with Miss Prism, to her ‘dying day’.

I imagined that nobody remembered my young Algernon Moncrieff from the New Zealand Players’ production of The Importance of Being Earnest in 1959, and I may well be right. The following memory, recounted in an email I received the other day, is appropriately described as ‘quirky’:

My niece and I saw your matinee yesterday and loved it all. … One quirky memory which might amuse you. I had no idea of who the cast were when we came yesterday, on the spur of the moment, and when I saw your name it took me back to 1959. I remembered I had rather taken your name in vain, back then in Blenheim, New Zealand, when I was an 11-year-old schoolboy. On the day in question our teacher had required us to perform an adlibbed impromptu and entirely unrehearsed sketch of whatever we chose and I was, I think, in the role of some kind of interviewee. I was asked my name, and I had to adlib, in character. The context required something rather grandiloquent and magnificent and I blurted out ‘Edward Petherbridge’. I got a big laugh from my classmates, and I remember feeling very guilty that I had got the laugh on false pretences because it was actually a real person’s name, whose feelings might be hurt, and it was not right to get a cheap laugh. I think I can recall that I had just been taken by my parents to see the NZ Players and that it must have been the name of one of the actors in whatever it was we then saw. My niece, to whom I recounted this yesterday, has subsequently Googled and found that it was indeed you and that you were playing Algernon! So can I now apologise, after 52 years, for my impertinence. It is just possible, of course, that you have been unaware all this time of this lese majeste

The cast of The Importance with Wilde’s grandson Merlin Holland.
Photo by Francis Loney

Happy New Year to all my readers and to the people who unwittingly provided me with this New Year card of white winter roses in the gloom outside their interesting West Hampstead window; lese majeste again, as an Englishman’s home is his castle!

Photo by EP

25 December 2011


To me, every hour of the light and dark is a
every inch of space is a miracle.
Walt Whitman
                                   To prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love. 
Philip Larkin 

Imagine a Gothic chapel in the snow. Well, I say Gothic – late nineteenth-century. It’s a cemetery chapel, quite near our house, and it was done up for Christ’s birthday, as it were, last year, with candles and a bit of holly and, I think for the first time, a carol concert was held in it. I wrote this occasional poem:

Note: John Clement Bell, of Clayton and Bell stained glass, lived in Kingdon Road, West Hampstead and is buried in our local cemetery. Sir Walford Davies, who succeeded Elgar as Master of the King’s Musick, lived in Fawley Road, whilst his friend Frederick Rothwell, who, as organ builder to the Queen, was commissioned to rebuild the organ in St George’s Chapel Windsor, had his workshop just across from the cemetery in Fortune Green Road.


Photo by EP

20 December 2011


West-End, of late years, has ceased to be an obscure nook, with a few houses almost hidden in trees. London, as on all other sites, has thrust itself in, and planted handsome houses of merchants and professional men, and opened up the secluded scene of former rude revels into a pleasant suburb of the great Babel.
William Howitt,  The Northern Heights of London (1869)

Last Monday, my day off from The Importance, I had the pleasure of opening a wonderful new exhibition at the National Library of Scotland, where my daughter Dora works as a curator in the Foreign Collections. The exhibition is called ‘Beyond Macbeth: Shakespeare in Scottish Collections.

On the last leg of my train journey north, I composed this sonnet, which, owing to time, I omitted from my speech:
Just fourteen lines, a sonnet’s worth I need
It’s four now of the clock and growing dark
The Bard he would be petrified – the speed
This Eastern Train is going to hit its mark
An ancient church tower, past it I was hurled
And yet our modern day doth have its limits
It seemed a good deed in a naughty world
But Puck got round the earth in forty minutes
Neither a borrower nor a lender be
Tell that to Britain and the Europeans
Just four more lines I’m writing, now let’s see –
Oh God bless Scotland’s hard-pressed Librar-ians
For what this precious horde today bequeaths
Is Shakespeare: if we choose, he lives and breathes.
Photo by EP
Photo by EP

The Importance of Being Earnest had its Press Night on Thursday, 15th December. Read the splendid reviews for the show and for Edward’s performance as Dr Chasuble on the Latest News blog.

11 December 2011


Modernity signifies the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art of which the other half is the eternal and the immutable. 

Photo by EP
Oh! No wonder modern life is so tiring! I keep thinking it’s my age, but having forgotten to take my Kindle on the Tube with me to the Saturday matinee (that is a sign of age), I bought a copy of i, the Independent digest and a snip at 30p, and by the time I had reached Hammersmith I had read yet more confusing opinions about Prime Minister Cameron’s ‘Non’ to Europe; a scant précis of the state of the British Arts; and an account of a rather enormous Bronze Age discovery in the Fens – of boats, spears and swords, to say nothing of clothing, found in the silt and peat of the old course of the river Nene in Whittlesey. Items that would ‘normally have been long since decomposed have been pulled out of the earth by archaeologists in pristine condition.’

As an actor one is conditioned to get one’s imagination round what one reads; perhaps one mistakes anything printed for a script. In any case, I was soon reading the words of David Gibson from Cambridge University’s archaeological unit: ‘It is giving us a 3-D vision of this community that we see very rarely in the world, let alone in this country.’ The site of the settlement is thought to have burned down around 800 BC.

The harsh, unlovely world of Hammersmith Tube station, which is really a shopping mall, gives out onto the confusing traffic island, dominated by the notorious flyover.

Photo by EP
Eventually one gains a sight of the river and the bridge. 

Photo by EP
Photo by EP
The dressing rooms at Riverside Studios are airless and too warm, but I was soon taking part in the regular vocal warm-up. The psychic warm-up to put oneself into Wilde’s world of 1895, a mere eight years after the opening of Hammersmith Bridge, is one’s own responsibility as one ties the laces of one’s shoes or mutters the odd line, stares at oneself in the mirror.

The bridge has been in constant need of repair and fortification ever since it was built, but Wilde’s play is as sound as a bell and a living delight, even surviving the addition of songs. Tonight the audience not only laughed at Miss Prism and Canon Chasuble’s restrained love duet, but mollified the laughter with sympathetic cries of ‘Ah!’ and ‘Oh!’

I have been reading on my Kindle Henry Arthur Jones’s drawing-room comedy Dolly Reforming Herself, first performed at the Haymarket thirteen years after The Importance premiered in London but somehow less ‘modern’ and certainly more morally simplistic. The Importance is just as hedged about with moral conventions, of course, but Wilde himself isn’t and the play sparkles and lives.

by Italian surrealist Giorgio de Chirico (1921)
Kathleen tells me The Importance is partly inspired by Euripides’ Ion of c.413 BC, that Wilde’s famous ‘handbag’ episode has its origins in the recognition scene surrounding the basketwork crib of the orphaned Ion. Wilde’s admiration and affinity for the ‘modern’ Euripides – who was attacked by the conservatives of his day and equally so in Victorian times – was a fascinating aspect of his own enlightened and humane thinking. In the commonplace book he kept at Oxford, he wrote:
And we who toil in the heated quarries of modern life may perhaps—or is it only a fancy—gain some freedom of soul from his genius who was the great humanist of Hellas, the cor cordium of antiquity.
So we are not so far away from those Bronze Age artefacts. Perhaps the word ‘pristine’ should also be attached to Wilde’s perfect comedy?

Tomorrow Wilde’s grandson is coming to our matinee.

Another modern drawing-room comedy inspired by Euripides’ Ion was one-time West Hampstead resident T. S. Eliot’s The Confidential Clerk, which premiered at the Edinburgh Festival in 1953. As a young actor in the 50s, The Confidential Clerk, which had at least one long speech for the foundling Colby, furnished me with an excellent audition piece.

Joan Greenwood and Douglas Watson in The Confidential Clerk,
Morosco Theatre, New York, 1954. Greenwood played Gwendolen in
the 1952 film version of The Importance.

04 December 2011


Youth, large, lusty, loving – youth full of grace, force, fascination.
Do you know that Old Age may come after you, with equal grace,
        force, fascination?
Walt Whitman

Photo by EP
I hope you won’t find it cloying when I say that it has struck me afresh what an extraordinary job it is being an actor and what extraordinary creatures actors are. In all modesty I exempt myself; for this is by way of being a hymn to young actors, whereas I find myself in the inescapable default position of veteran. 

The point I am making is how touching it is to find these youngsters so at home with their craft, plying the ancient trade in the time-honoured ways with such beautiful young heads on their supple shoulders. Transformation is their stock in trade. I noticed a moment when one of our young company failed, not for the first time, to find the right note to enter into a number. ‘Oh, how am I to get that!’ the actor lamented, suddenly looking tired, pale and disappointed whilst listening to the MD’s advice. But then, simultaneously, the voice successfully sang the opening bars and the face came alive as if some internal light had been turned on.

I was also touched today when, during a break, my stories of ‘the old days’ seemed to hold a young actor’s interest. I realize that it was the equivalent of my young self hearing the green-room talk of an old thespian harking back to 1910, only fifteen years away from the very first night of The Importance of Being Earnest.

Toulouse Lautrec’s watercolour portrait
of Wilde in 1895

In 1895 Wilde, comparing English actors with their French counterparts, wrote: ‘The English actors act quite as well; but they act best between the lines.’ (That was thought a modern fault in my young day in the mid-1950s, and still is today!)

Having praised the few English actors capable of the superb elocution of the French, ‘so clear, so cadenced, and so musical’, Wilde opines: ‘Yet there is more than one of our English actors who is capable of producing a wonderful dramatic effect by aid of a monosyllable and two cigarettes.’

Irene Vanbrugh as Gwendolen Fairfax and George Alexander as Jack Worthing in the 1895 production of The Importance of Being Earnest, from The Sketch magazine. V&A Images

Of the cast of An Ideal Husband, his current success in 1895, he wrote: ‘I am charmed with all of them. Perhaps they are a little too fascinating. The stage is the refuge of the too fascinating.’  

Put this fascination into a rehearsal room at ten in the morning after a long Tube journey, add music, composed and played by two young, good-looking musicians (we are yet to add the percussionist), add dance, and the effect may not be too fascinating, but it can lift one to what I would describe as a state of workaday euphoric.


On Friday, Phyllida Crowden and her actress daughter Sarah hosted a lunch in celebration of the life of my old acting colleague Graham Crowden. Oliver Cotton read a witty and affectionate tribute, quite the height of the occasion, held in a lovely wainscot-lined eighteenth-century upper room in Lexington Street, Soho. I composed and recited this occasional little verse:

Click to enlarge.

A few related links you might find interesting:

‘Hear Here for Gyles and Ted’, a blog by Michael Coveney


27 November 2011


Yet there are moments when the walls of the mind grow thin; when nothing is unabsorbed, and I could fancy that we might blow so vast a bubble that the sun might set and rise in it and we might take the blue of midday and the black of midnight and be cast off and escape from here and now.
Virginia Woolf, The Waves (1931)

Photo by EP

Photo by EP
I have been searching through over fifty years of unsorted sound; my backlog of cassettes is a chaotic Tower of Babel, containing chanted lines of old parts, family recordings of Christmases past and golden summers. I even have some tape over forty years old of my elder son. There is dictation from the days before I taught myself to type, and of course the odd radio play. Actually Emily has a very thorough set of her old radio plays. I still remember her wonderful rendering of the line ‘Take me home’ at the end of Michelle Magorian’s Back Home (1995), which recently, on waking, I heard repeated on the radio and which you can hear in my homemade radio talk One’s Own Voice.

This afternoon I decided it would be a treat to hear Bernard Shaw’s play Candida, with Hannah Gordon in the title role, Christopher Guard as the young poet Marchbanks, and myself as the Reverend James Morell. The performance was first broadcast on Radio 4 in 1977 and I find it has been repeated no less than seven times in the last two years on Radio 7 and Radio 4 Extra, without my knowing! My treat was to sit with the afternoon sun pouring through the windows, Shaw’s astringent, witty and sometimes very touching dialogue pouring out of my battered old radio cassette player whilst I finished off my painting of The Allegory of Acquaintance.

Photo by EP

It strikes me that Candida, the ideal woman whom everybody is in love with, and Marchbanks the young poet are genuinely, refreshingly ‘new types’ and remain so. Gordon and Guard are superb. It strikes me, too, what a world of difference there is between Wilde’s Canon Chasuble (whom I’m currently rehearsing) and Shaw’s Reverend Morell, both in their own ways unique as well as being clerical clichés, both in love, both delightful to play. I am disappointed in Shaw for not appreciating The Importance of Being Earnest, but the light touch and the emotional imagination with which he creates the story of his characters in Candida is wonderfully alive.

Athene Syler played Miss Proserpine ‘Prossy’ Garnett on stage in 1937, and told me in her ninety-ninth year that, in the scene where she is tipsy, having tasted champagne for the first time, Shaw wanted her to trip over the mat on her exit. ‘I refused to do it’, she said. ‘“I’ll show you what I’ll do”, I said. And I made for the door from down left to up centre in a sort of controlled curve and got a round every night!’

As I listened, and painted, I imagined … well the play of course, all oddly familiar yet coming as a series of dramatic surprises, and Shaw himself walking up the road to our local train station, which, as we know from his diary, he did at least once. And I read the other day in Trent’s Own Case, the 1936 whodunit written by E. C. Bentley not five minutes’ walk from the same station, his Police Detective Bligh describing Shaw as his favourite ‘literature of escape’ – a phrase coined by a gaolbird who recommended Shaw to the detective:

‘I had to interrogate a prisoner some years ago about a certain matter. A confirmed criminal he was. They used to call him Pantomime Joe, on account of the cheek he used to give everybody from the dock … Joe was an educated man, and it was no surprise to me, when I visited him in his cell, to find him reading a book from the prison library. He showed it to me – Plays Pleasant, by G. B. Shaw. “What’s this?” I said. He grinned at me. “This is the literature of escape, Blighter,” he says, using a silly nickname he and his sort have always had for me. I thought that sounded a funny sort of reading to be put in the hands of a man who spent half his time in gaol, but he explained his meaning.’
‘And what can that have been?’ Trent wondered.
‘Why,’ the inspector said, ‘Joe meant, and I agree with him, that Shaw takes you right out of the beastly realities of life. I can tell you, after a hard day at our job, with all the spite, and greed, and cruelty, and filthy-mindedness that we get our noses rubbed in, it’s like coming out into the fresh country air to sit down to one of Shaw’s plays. … And there’s never a dull moment. Every dam’ character has something to say; even the stupidest ones. … Who ever had the luck to listen to anything like it in real life? I tell you, it’s a different world.’

The recommendation charmed me and I realized this afternoon how fresh an escape Shaw still is, and the characters all do have something to say and say it so well. True escapism, as I observed only last week in speaking of A. L. Kennedy’s The Blue Book, never lets you go.

And talking of prison and libraries, I’ve been re-reading Oscar Wilde’s letters to the Daily Chronicle, written after his imprisonment, with his plea that prisoners should be provided with good books:

Deprived of books, of all human intercourse, isolated from every human and humanising influence, condemned to eternal silence, robbed of all intercourse with the external world, treated like an unintelligent animal, brutalised below the level of any of the brute creation, the wretched man who is confined in an English prison can hardly escape becoming insane. (23 March 1898)

The painting is an attempt at mythography, inspired by Titian, and – as in Titian’s Allegory of Prudence – there will be a Latin motto added by next week. It is a story of another West Hampstead happening: our dog effecting an introduction to one of our notable elderly characters who recounted tales to me of his young and exotic self. I had seen him about the place for twenty-eight years but never spoken to him until Bean introduced us!

Photo by EP
You might like to visit the newly styled homepage of Peth’s Staging Post which features a lovely new portrait of Edward by Bronwen Sharp.

21 November 2011


Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies
Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness.

Shelley,  ‘Ode to the West Wind’ (1820)

Season of mists ...

and mellow fruitfulness. Photos by EP


It has saddened me on this perfect autumn day to hear from Harriet Walter that Richard Morant, who of course played Bunter in our Dorothy L. Sayers Mysteries, has died at the age of sixty-six.

Actors make so many transient, relatively intimate working relationships with one another and, so often, move on. I had only come into chance contact with him once since those days and, as usually happens, we took up the reins of our good humour and comradeship as if we had just finished a scene together.

The first time Richard and I worked together was in a BBC TV 
production of The Merchant of Venice. I played Lorenzo and he Solanio.

I do not recall from 1986 that we discussed the relationship of officer and batman in the trenches as it developed into man-about-town and gentleman’s gentleman, amateur sleuth and technical assistant. The books had given us chapter and verse and we seemed to come to an understanding, a modus vivendi by some process of osmosis. We developed a supreme tact between us. I remember something about Richard that seemed reliable, benign, with always the twinkle of a possible smile.

Here is just a handful of our scenes together. In the one in which I am tying my bow tie, I remember we made up most of our dialogue.

14 November 2011


And they buried him in the citie of David among the kings, because he had done good in Israel, both towards God, and towards his house.
2 Chronicles, 24:16 (1611 King James Bible

Photo by EP
Some mornings this last week have been grey and the poor shred of a no longer protected ancient orchard, hemmed in by the local railway line and overrun with Japanese knotweed, was hardly visible and more disregarded than ever.

The train journey to Barnes for Importance rehearsals is convenient in theory but often very long in practice. Never mind! Since A. L. Kennedy mentioned and quoted from my book, Slim Chances, on her Twitter page on 27 October, I have sought out and been reading on my Kindle her latest novel The Blue Book and thus enriching my daily commute no end. In fact I have often been annoyed at the disruption caused by my arrival at Barnes station.

Photo by EP
It is one of those almost folly-like stations, Victorian cottage Gothic with impressive chimneys.

The strange, delicately intense – hopeless adjectives –‘fierce’ would do as well and still convey nothing of the world of The Blue Book … anyway it is a world that has been separated from Wilde’s Act 2 and the charms of Cecily’s garden by a ten-minute walk through Barnes Common, which is pleasant enough in the mists but positively uplifting when the summer decides it is not yet over.

Photos by EP
Failing sunshine, there is nothing like a good couple of hours of a full-cast singing rehearsal to lift the heart.

Actually I thought it might not be too late to lift the spirits and take up Tai Chi this morning when I was observing a local exponent on the edge of our green. Tai Chi is related to the martial arts, but a world away from the martial deportment I had been watching in the Remembrance Day ceremony minutes before, televised from Whitehall.

The remnants of the foundations of a WWII air raid shelter were dug up on the green recently; hardly anyone knew what they were. I happened to notice a Jewish boy happily kicking a football nearby.

Photo by EP
On Saturday night in Trafalgar Square, when I emerged from a late-night viewing of the Leonardo da Vinci exhibition, there was another exhibition of grace on the wide pavement in front of the National Gallery Portico.

Kathleen reminded me today that the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior is the only tombstone in Westminster Abbey’s floor that one cannot walk over.

I remembered a moment from The Blue Book which I will dare to quote here: 
They used to say that there was one time when a king would have to salute a private soldier and the soldier could ignore him – which is when the private soldier is dead.
The Burial of the Unknown Warrior. Painting by Frank O. Salisbury, 1920
King George V and, behind him, the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII),
the Duke of York (later George VI) and Prince Henry.

05 November 2011


Without assuming that the world, or a tiny fraction of it, awaits my weekly blog, I feel I ought to post something, come what come may, by each weekend. I have done two days of research and development on the King Lear project, and start rehearsals for the musical of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest on Monday: perhaps I scribbled whilst Rome burned, attempting a drawing class the other morning … I say if a job’s worth doing it’s worth doing not very well, as long as it’s the best you can manage at the time.

The art school is the former home of a forgotten but once famous late Victorian and Edwardian playwright, Henry Arthur Jones. Kathleen tells me that Oscar Wilde quipped: ‘There are three rules for writing plays. The first rule is not to write like Henry Arthur Jones; the second and third rules are the same’.

The top-floor studio of Hampstead Art School in Kidderpore Avenue.
Photo by EP
Saw Arthur Miller’s Broken Glass on Friday night, done superbly well. It was for me a somewhat late conversion to the extraordinary talent of Antony Sher.

The children used to like a supper called bits and pieces; my diet has included this last few days bits and pieces too numerous to mention and piecemeal work on my painting. Here’s a hasty snap of work in progress showing a stab at the young Oliver Cox. One of Kathleen’s last achievements before flying back to Sydney on Saturday night has been to Latinize my motto for the ‘Allegory of Acquaintance’: canis meus erat qui me in hunc antiquum militem induxit, triginta annos hospitem exoticum (‘It took my dog to introduce me to this old soldier, thirty years an exotic stranger’).

And talking of bits and pieces, I end with an attempt in sonnet form to justify my temerity in approaching Lear:

How can one have the courage to approach
The magnitude of Lear’s history
And yet the actor’s pride’s beyond reproach
For all the play’s great depths and mystery
Its raw, severe and storm-lashed language springs
Alive on to the paper to be spoke
Its tender limpidness so gently wings
While limps and swerves the Fool’s dry bitter joke
All tailored to the actor on the stage
To strut his flawed path, recognized and shared
By followers in youth and seasoned age
The audience, all captive and ensnared
All bound by mere pretence and play, to see
That pity for a while can set us free.

Benjamin West’s depiction of Lear and the Fool in the storm scene, 
commissioned for the first illustrated edition of Shakespeare’s plays - 
a project conceived in Georgian West Hampstead.

31 October 2011

BLOG 100

A modern house, he saw, perhaps ten years old. The place was beautifully kept with that air of opulent peace that clothes even the smallest houses of the well to do.
E. C. Bentley, Trent’s Last Case 

I was touched when some of my regular readers sent messages. There had been an unexplained long lull in my so-called weekly postings and the messages expressed the hope I was well. I responded to them and then posted my ninety-ninth blog.

I must not be intimidated by the task of this, the hundredth. At least I have some news and have the delicious chance to be thinking about two plays at once, the greatest tragedy in English and what many think of as the most perfect comedy. It may not be wise to tamper with perfection but, from the moment I heard the duet for Miss Prism and Canon Chasuble in a new musical version of The Importance of Being Earnest, I was smiling away my last scruple. This is the week in which I will have my first rehearsal of that duet with Susie Blake and meet with Paul Hunter under the joint auspices of the RSC and his company Told by an Idiot, just the two of us in duet form to tamper with and explore the colossal structure of King Lear.

My younger incarnation of Dr Chasuble, for the Actors’ Company in 1977.
Photo by Sophie Baker 
Meanwhile I have been preoccupied with the research into West Hampstead, or should I say Kathleen’s research. I said to her last week, on the strength of the breadth of her discoveries, that perhaps our book should be called West Hampstead – Hub of Empire, and that was before she discovered that Cecil Rhodes in 1873 bought ten new brick houses ‘prettily situated’ three minutes from West Hampstead Railway Station; he was twenty years old and had capital made from Kimberley diamonds he wanted to invest. We need to discover which houses they were and whether one of them was the house in which E. C. (Edmund Clerihew) Bentley wrote Trent’s Last Case, the detective novel which was the inspiration for the Peter Wimsey stories of Dorothy L. Sayers. 

Bentley’s house in Lymington Road. Photo by EP
E. C. Bentley by Hugh Goldwin Riviere, 1915.
National Portrait Gallery

Bentley was a groundbreaker, introducing not only the idea that his hero was not a superhuman mastermind but also a man involved in a romantic love story within the complexities of the plot. It was a plot, we are told, he worked out on his daily walks from West Hampstead to Fleet Street where he was a leader writer for the Daily Telegraph. It was no doubt easier to be creative and think strategically in the London streets circa 1911 with only the noise of horse traffic, even though there were twice as many Londoners as had been counted in the census of 1851. 

‘Traffic’ at West End Green, circa 1905

What would Bentley think of me now, not walking but Tubing it into the centre (as he could have done of course), but thrilling to his astonishing twists and insights in electronic form on my Kindle? What would he make of the Dog Roses I managed to ‘paint’ on my iPhone as I sped underground to play Sophocles’ Tiresias near London Bridge, a painting inspired by the blooms in the cemetery he too must have known.  

Bentley was also the inventor of the ‘Clerihew’, which The Poet’s Manual and Rhyming Dictionary defines as ‘a humorous pseudo-biographical quatrain, rhymed as two couplets, with lines of uneven length more or less in the rhythm of prose.’ And so I leave you with my very first clerihew:

Trent’s Last Case, by E. C. Bentley
Was the first case to introduce love themes, very gently.
In similarly tender hue
I dedicate this clerihew.

23 October 2011


               Through the sweet-briar, or the vine,
               Or the twisted eglantine;
               While the cock with lively din,
               Scatters the rear of darkness thin.
                                                                     Milton, LAllegro

 The Metropolitan railway bisects West Hampstead terraces.
Photo by EP

I believe I am coming up to my hundredth blog, though I admit the title ‘Weekly’ has been a misnomer lately. The truth is I have been leading a double life, which takes twice as long as a straightforward single one. I doubt that any of you lives such a simple thing as a single life, however blameless you may be. 

I can’t walk or bus about London NW6 where I live without musing about the people who lived here before me and the delicious names of the places where they walked, so that I am half in the present and half in a series of pasts. Who could not wish that this dense, brick-built suburb of London still had a turning called ‘Sweetbriar Walk’, or that the young Queen Victoria could still be seen strolling between the hawthorn hedges bordering the meadows of West End Lane, having taken a drive in her horsedrawn carriage from her palace, up what was once the ancient Roman Watling Street. Walking to the Tricycle Theatre in neighbouring Kilburn the other night to see a play, in Kilburn High Road, aka Watling Street in fact, we passed a house where the Vorticist painter David Bomberg lived in the 20s and 30s, and I marvelled again, not only that this railway-riddled suburb was once the subject of Constable’s sylvan idyll with a shepherd lad, but that its dense regimented terraces of houses has not succeeded in creating regimented people. 

If we think of West End Green as a suburban vortex (it began life as a village green and is now a traffic island for all its stately plane trees), then a mere 500 yards up the road there is a little vortex of history in our kitchen formed by three fridge magnets: Romneys Lady Hamilton (fancifully portrayed at the spinning wheel), c. 1785; Bomberg’s Mud Bath of 1914 - both artists we know traversed the Green; and our magnetic London Underground bottle opener, reminding us of West Hampsteads Tube station opening as early as 1879, harbinger of Bombergs mechanized future which fractured Romneys handmade past. 

 Photo by EP

As Ezra Pound, another quondam habitue of West End Green, put it: All experience rushes into this vortex. All the energized past, all the past that is living and worthy to live. All momentum, which is the past bearing upon us, race, race-memory, instinct charging the placid, non-energized future.

Kathleen Riley, who has been editing this blog from the other side of the world in Sydney, but is now here, walked with us into the grime and noise of nearby Kilburn High Road last night to see the Cold-War play A Walk in the Woods, and there we were in another past, the Geneva woods, fascinated by two nuclear disarmament negotiators, one Soviet, one American. We had done the same journey the night before to the Tricycle Cinema to see Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, which took us in enchantment to a world before the moon had been reached or The Bomb dropped. 

As we walked back home we were not three minutes’ walk away at one point from the 1920s house where until only six years ago the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Professor Joseph Rotblat lived. Having worked on the Manhattan Project to create the first atomic bomb, he pulled out and eventually concentrated on harnessing nuclear radiation for medical purposes, meanwhile founding, with Bertrand Russell, the Pugwash Conferences, following the Russell-Einstein Manifesto of 1955, which sought to urge international leaders to resolve their disputes through peaceful means. 

 The semi-detached house on the left is Rotblat’s former home in Asmara Road and the unlikely headquarters of the Pugwash Conferences. 
Photo by EP

The week before wed walked past the L-shaped Annesley Lodge on the corner of Platt’s Lane and Kidderpore Avenue, designed by C. F. A. Voysey in 1896, an Arts and Crafts breakaway from late Victorian brick-built conformity. Voysey’s father, the Rev. Charles Voysey, for whom the house was built, was also a breakaway from conformity; he was condemned by the Privy Council for heresy, having denied the doctrine of everlasting hell. What would he have thought of the unimaginable man-made hell, discussed endlessly in the Geneva woods and in the West Hampstead headquarters of the Pugwash Conferences?

 Annesley Lodge. Photo by EP

So you see we walk through our research every day as well as trawling the internet and delving into the archives of local history. Along the way we encounter poets, painters, parliamentarians and peace-brokers, magicians, musicians, magnates and modernists, conjurers, clowns and clerics, harlequins, hypnotists and heretics …

Photo by EP
There may be no time like the present but the past is currently our parallel universe. This morning we even walked on a pavement bordered by a descendant of sweet briar on our way to the old railway sidings, now a Peace Park, where we read the words of a Mayor of Hiroshima inscribed on a paving stone.

 Photo by EP. (Click to enlarge image)