Have you ever looked at a British £10 note? It’s a thing of beauty

I’m 67 and have been using banknotes for some 60 years, but I never really looked at one until yesterday. I handed my son Freddie a £10 note to buy me some exquisite Italian tomatoes from a fancy greengrocers and noticed that there was writing beneath the picture of Jane Austen. It’s a quote from her: “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!” I agree completely, although I don’t like the unnecessary exclamation mark.

My daughter Flo then pointed out to me that the note includes a metallic image of the front of Winchester Cathedral, where Austen is buried. Flo lives in Winchester, and when I stay with her I take an early morning walk past the front of the cathedral, through the cathedral close, and down the street that includes the house where Austen died. My affinity to the £10 note grows.

As I look closely I see that the note is enormously complex. Designers have worked hard to make it difficult to forge, but at the same time—unlike the architects of hospitals—they have kept beauty and integrity in mind. There is a coloured quill pen, which changes from purple to orange when you tilt the note; Austen would have written with a quill pen. Her initials appear on a copper foil image of a book, and I learn later from the Bank of England website that there are other foils that give “a multi-coloured rainbow effect” when tilted. https://www.bankofengland.co.uk/banknotes/polymer-10-pound-note

Behind the portrait of Austen there is a house, which I learn from Wikipedia is, “an image of Godmersham Park (the home of Austen’s brother). There is also a picture by Isabel Bishop of Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice, Austen’s best known novel. I learn as well that the design is based on Austen’s 12-sided writing table, although to be honest I can’t see it.

At first I was also a little disappointed to learn that the quote on the pleasures of reading actually comes from Caroline Bingley, a character in Pride and Prejudice who has no interest in reading but is simply attempting to impress the rich and sexy Mr Darcy. But then I realise that the quote is doubly right in being true but also illustrating the satire and irony that set Austen apart from her vanished contemporaries.

This experience shows me how I don’t pay enough attention to the beauty and cleverness all around me—just as I can’t identify star constellations, rocks, flowers, and birdsong. I’m a fool.








The joy of walking: a vain attempt to convince a non-walker

I read this morning a wonderful poem on the pleasure and importance of walking, and it reminded me of a blog I wrote nine years ago to try and transmit to my wife the pleasures of walking. https://blogs.bmj.com/bmj/2010/05/25/richard-smith-on-the-joy-of-walking/ I failed, but I’m glad to have rediscovered the piece.

My wife hates walking. For her it means trudging through the rain and mist, cold, exhausted, wet to her underwear, and with five miles still to go to a smelly bed and breakfast. It can be exactly that, but for me walking 15 miles day after day is one of life’ s greatest pleasures. Could I ever convince my wife of its pleasures I wondered as I walked with friends the 90 miles from Mevagissey to Marazion round the Cornish coast? I decided to structure my argument around the five senses and to begin with the least obvious.

The smells were marvellous on this walk. We walked through acres of bluebells with their sweet, slightly sickly smell, but even better was the coconut smell of the gorse, becoming stronger as the weather grew hotter. All the way there was the fresh, salty tang of the open sea, but every so often it gave way to the fishy reek of stranded seaweed. At one point we walked through a field of freshly cut grass, and as we plodded along there were human, animal, and cooking smells, some enticing, some disgusting.

Much of the pleasure of walking is the variation underfoot, sometimes hard rock, sometimes mud, and sometimes grass like a carpet. Even tarmac and pavement have their place because it’ s the variation that brings most joy. Then there’ s the heat of the sun, the caressing breeze, the cold wind, and the rain trickling down your neck. A week without any rain disappoints, and a week of nearly constant rain – like last year on Offa’ s Dyke – has its own pleasure, like the darkest of comedies.

I’ m no masochist, but aching limbs and even blisters are part of the experience, and the half hour soak in the hot bath reading some of Daphne du Maurier’ s most romantic novels is bliss. Physicality and tiredness are central to the joy of walking as is the deep sleep that follows a long day.

The sound of the Cornish coast is the constant churning and boiling of the sea with the mournful cry of seagulls, each bird carrying the soul of a drowned sailor. The foghorn at the tip of the Lizard adds to the spell of Cornwall, a country of dragons, witches, poltergeists, doomed lovers, and lost kings. The chatter of friends is a key part of the pleasure, but unlike at a dinner party hours of silence are fine.

Taste features in walking in that the expenditure of so many calories justifies the intake of the hugely calorific foods of Cornwall – clotted cream, apple crumble ice cream, pasties, hog’ s pudding, and Proper Job beer. And all the way fish and shellfish – turbot, mackerel, John Dory, sole, brill, crab, mussels, oysters, and even whelks, my very favourite food.

The constantly varying sights are perhaps the most obvious pleasure of walking because as you walk you see in a way that you don’t from a train, car, or even bicycle. You see the deep blues and greens of the sea, the ancient churches, the robin in its nest, the yacht on the distant horizon, and the profusion of flowers – primroses, bluebells, thrift, fumatori, forget-me-nots, the invading hottentot fig, and a hundred others that I can love but not name. Every step presents a new tableau, even in the mist.

So will I convince my wife? Not a hope, but I’ ll go on until I drop, which may not be long.



A hugely enjoyable novel that taught me, an old man of 67, much about myself and the world

A friend, a friend who lives a long way away, is locked in grief. It’s as if she is in another room that I can’t reach, but this marvellous novel, Abide with Me, helped me know something of that room. I can’t think of a book, fiction or non-fiction, that has said more to me about grief. It also taught me much more about myself and the world, and I read its clear prose and enjoyed the story with much pleasure. What more can anybody ask of a novel?

I’d never heard of Elizabeth Strout, and I read the book because somebody, I can’t remember who, had recommended it on Goodreads with great energy and conviction. I now learn that Strout, an American from Maine, has won the Pulitzer prize and written books that have sold over a million copies and be made into films.

Then I was shocked, even insulted, to learn that Abide With Me is her least popular book and that while many critics have praised it others have condemned it. What, I wonder, must her other books be like? I will soon know because I have downloaded Olive Kitteridge, her novel that won the Pulitzer Prize and has sold more than a million copies. I have the highest expectations, so high I’m perhaps bound to be disappointed.

It’s perhaps not surprising that a novel about grief is not popular. Do people want to read about grief and death? Plus Strout repeatedly quotes the Bible, such wonderful prose, and the writings of Dietrich Boenhoeffer, a German theologian who was executed after participating in a plot against Hitler. I liked the way that she wove both into the story, but some might be irritated.

The novel is set in Maine, up the river, far from big cities, and the repeated descriptions of the frozen but beautiful winter landscape fit exactly with the mood of the novel. Strout was born in Maine, and the state is clearly deep inside her—as Northumberland is deep inside Kathleen Raine. https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2019/06/15/i-read-a-book-of-poems-i-loved-and-discover-that-i-read-it-two-years-ago-but-completely-forgot-it/ I can’t say that South London is deep inside me, although I suppose that it must be. Countryside, especially wild countryside, inspires more than cities.

The novel almost made me religious. I don’t know if Strout is religious, but God clearly knows something that Freud doesn’t. The main character—Tyler, the grieving priest—feels God, while Rhona, a ridiculous woman with a doctorate in psychology, tries to explain what is happening to Tyler’s grieving small daughter by resorting to Freud. She sounds absurd.

I took many quotes from the book, and some spoke to me very directly. Below are the comments with added thoughts from me in italic.


He liked to compliment people—he always had. Who, after all, wasn’t afraid, deep down, as Pascal had been, of those “spaces of nothing . . . which know nothing of me”? Who, in God’s world, he thought, wasn’t glad to hear that his presence really mattered?

He thought of Bonhoeffer writing that it was not love that sustained a marriage but the marriage that would sustain the love.

Life, what have you done to me? Why did you come? Why do you pass away?

“I like to help,” his mother answered. “When there’s no one left for me to help, I will just be a worthless old woman.”

This made me think of older women I have known who were bred to serve others and became lost when there was nobody left to serve.

“Trouble is,” George said, and cleared his throat, “for a man who needs an audience, the audience will never be enough. He’ll even come to dislike the audience. It’s a trap, you see.”

“A man who needs an audience” made me think of my brothers, one a stand-up and one who loves to act. I don’t see signs yet of them coming to dislike the audience, but perhaps that will come. I hope not.

When other helpers fail and comforts flee . . . O Lord, abide with me.

We should be there with the grieving. There is no magic but being there.

Long-ago terrors from childhood, disappointments from her years of marriage, more recent anxieties and confusions, were all tucked down inside her.

A summary of a human being.

He was glad he was not a woman; it seemed to him their job was immeasurably more difficult than a man’s.

I agree.

“You get to be my age, Tyler, and you realize something. People hate to hear the truth. They hate it.”

Probably true.

People were comforted by writing things down.

I certainly am.

“Do you think,” Tyler wrote, “that because we have learned the sun does not go down, that in fact we are going around at a dizzying speed, that the sun is not the only star in the heavens—do you think this means we are any less important than we thought we were? Oh, we are far less important than we thought we were, and we are far, far more important than we think we are. Do you imagine that the scientist and the poet are not united? Do you assume you can answer the question of who we are and why we are here by rational thought alone? It is your job, your honor, your birthright, to bear the burden of this mystery. And it is your job to ask, in every thought, word, and deed: How can love best be served?

“It is your job, your honor, your birthright, to bear the burden of this mystery.” Marvellous.

He saw that he had broken a cardinal rule of homiletics; he had used the word “you” instead of “we.”

I’d never heard the word homilectics, but I could perhaps have guessed that it meant-the art of writing homilies; and the cardinal rule is right.

“Tyler,” said George, slowly stretching his legs out in front of him, “are you irritated with the man because he was human? Because he wrote about courage, but experienced fear? What was it you’d have liked him to do, Tyler? Stayed alive and faced the prison of domestic drudgery where no one would hail him as a hero? Lived long enough for the seventeen-year-old to become a middle-aged wife who was tired of attending to the laundry and meals, who no longer lit up like a Christmas tree every time he walked through the door? Would you prefer he not be marched out naked to be hanged in the woods, but live to face the horrors of old age, to have his wife die, his children move away?”

“Goodness,” Tyler said. He put down the teacup and loosened his tie. “Well, both scenarios require a great deal of courage, I think.”

George smiled with his mouth closed, but his old eyes were kind as they rested on Tyler. “Most scenarios do.”


George shrugged. “You just stood up to your mother, Tyler. I should think now you could take on the world.”

My mother was always a support rather than a burden to me. I was lucky, but I know people for whom their mother has been a curse. It’s hard to stand up to your mother, but sometimes it must be done.

ANYONE WHO HAS EVER GRIEVED knows that grieving carries with it a tremendous wear and tear to the body itself, never mind the soul. Loss is an assault; a certain exhaustion, as strong as the pull of the moon on the tides, needs to be allowed for eventually.

Over and over he played it out in his mind—the image of Lauren’s suffering those final days—and picturing this, he felt that if he’d had the wherewithal and means, he might have slipped a needle into her so that she need not wake up and learn all over again that she was sick and had to leave her babies. He would have ended her life, if he had dared. She had dared. He thought about this often. It even came to seem to him that it was their last act of intimacy, his leaving the bottle of pills for her. It was wrong, but he would do it again. For this reason he never spoke of it; it was their final, private deed.

A religious man supports assisted suicide.

“I suspect the most we can hope for, and it’s no small hope, is that we never give up, that we never stop giving ourselves permission to try to love and receive love.”

“Good,” said George. “Confusion will prevent you from being dogmatic. A dogmatic pastor is useless.”

Similarly a dogmatic doctor may be useless.

He thought of Kierkegaard writing that “No one is born devoid of spirit, and no matter how many may go to their death with this spiritlessness, it is not the fault of Life.”




Nietzsche buys silk tailor-made underwear for Wagner

If you have an eye for the absurd in life and history then you will surely enjoy imagining the scene in Basel in 1869 of Friedrich Nietzsche, the man who murdered God, buying tailor-made silk underpants for Richard Wagner, the composer whose music could and still can bewitch.

Meeting Wagner was on the most important moments, perhaps the most important moment, in Nietzsche’s life. He quoted Wagner in his writings more than he quoted Christ, Plato, or Goethe and wrote: “All things considered, my youth would have been intolerable without Wagner’s music.” He became very close to Wagner and his mistress and later wife Cosima. He spent time alone with them (apart from servants, of course), including over Christmas, in their highly decorated house Tribschen on the shores of Lake Lucerne. Their three-way relationship had strong erotic overtones. Later in life Nietzsche turned against Wagner and his Dionysian music.

At the time he visited Tribschen Nietzsche was a professor in Basel, and so it was natural for him to carry out errands for the Wagners. Although he dressed smartly and wore a huge moustache, Nietzsche was almost an ascetic, uninterested in things except books. Wagner, in contrast, was an aesthete, wearing a velvet cloak and beret, who had created his own world at Tribschen. It was entirely in character that he would wear tailor-made silk underpants.

In her marvellous biography Sue Prideaux describes how the task of buying the underwear “filled Nietzsche with anxiety.” But, a man who aspired to be an Ubermensch, he did what had to be done: “Directed to the daunting shop, he squared his shoulders manfully, observing before going in, ‘Once you’ve chosen a God, you’ve got to adorn him.’”



Linguine alla cecca, a delicious recipe from Nora Ephron’s novel Heartburn

Many novels include accounts of the preparation of food and delight in food, and some even have recipes. But I have never before yesterday prepared a meal from a recipe in a novel, although  I was inspired by The Leopard to try and make a macaroni pie—an inspiration that ended in disaster. https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2019/04/30/three-culinary-disasters/

Yesterday I made linguine alla cecca following the simple recipe in Nora Ephron’s Heartburn. https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2019/04/02/heartburn-by-nora-ephron-a-laugh-out-loud-book-with-astute-women-men-love-marriage-and-adultery/ Here is how she describes the dish and gives the recipe, all in 110 words, very economical:

“As for the linguine alla cecca, it’s a hot pasta with a cold tomato and basil sauce, and it’s so light and delicate that it’s almost like eating a salad. It has to be made in the summer, when tomatoes are fresh. Drop 5 large tomatoes into boiling water for one full minute. Peel and seed and chop. Put into a large bowl with ½ cup olive oil, a garlic clove sliced in two, 1 cup chopped fresh basil leaves, salt and hot red pepper flakes. Let sit for a couple of hours, then remove the garlic. Boil one pound of linguine, drain and toss with the cold tomato mixture.”

She’s right that it felt “almost like eating a salad”—light and delicious with a feeling that it was doing you and the planet good to be eating it. Chicken is suspicious of combining hot and cold, but she liked it enough to want it again regularly.




How to know humanity?

While out walking I meet a Martian.

“Excuse me,” he says,

A very polite Martian,

“But I need to know humanity.

Can you advise me?

I have only five days,

But I’m fast learner.”

This is a tough question,

Especially encountered on an evening stroll.

What about reading all of Wikipedia?

Most is nothing to do with humanity.

Walk the streets of New York

For 24 hours, questioning everybody?

Not a bad start.

Perhaps a war?

That brings out the best and worst,

Displays the extremes.

I’ll send him to Syria.

Some films surely,

But they are slow.

I’ll allow one Herzog

And one Tarantino.


I think the Martian will know all that,

And is that humanity?

I think not.

Better religion,

Twelve hours in the Vatican

And twelve in a Peruvian mission.

Now music.

A Bach suite,

Some Bruce Springstein,

And something Chinese.

This is far too Western:

To Kyoto for 12 hours.

Travel, I’m discounting

But maybe a crowded London tube

Is an essential introduction

To humanity.

Poetry will be Dante, Lao Tzu, and Shakespeare.

Novels will be Eliot, Proust,

Dostoevsky and Garcia Marquez.

But finally it must be a hospital

To see humans born, die, suffer,

And be cut to the bone.

That, my Martian,

Is your prescription for

Understanding humanity.

But to really know

You must become human

To feel the great confusion of humanity.


I read a book of poems I loved and discover that I read it two years ago but completely forgot it

This morning I read a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who led an attack on Hitler, that our ability to forget is a gift.  I know what he means, although it seems to conflict with the idea that it is our memories that are us and that if we lose them we are nothing. Of course, memories don’t have to be complete in order to make us, and anyway—after my experience with my memoryless mother—I don’t accept that you become nothing if you have no memories.

These thoughts on memory and forgetting are a prelude to my shock on discovering that a poet I think I have just discovered, Kathleen Raine, I actually discovered not 50 years ago but two years ago. I’ve discovered this through the magic of Goodreads, a website where I now record the books I read and record what I think of them. (How I wish that I had had this when I was 12—because since then I have been reading an unbroken chain of books. What fun it would be to retrace that path.) Not only did I read a collection of Raine’s poems two years ago, but I wrote a piece about what I thought of them (see below). I found them then, as now, very affecting. How could I forget them and her? Perhaps it is precisely because I found them so affecting.

And have I read the same book again? I don’t think so, but my review of two years ago says that I tracked down a copy of her Collected Poems which were out of print. Well, I’ve done that again. But I don’t think that it can be the same book because I didn’t, as I have done this time, list at the front the poems that particularly appealed to me.

But this is getting stranger. The book does have lines that are marked, and I was struck by how the person who marked them chose lines that particularly appealed to me. I thought that these marks were made by the person who wrote with a fountain pen in the front of the book in copper plate handwriting: “with all [his underlining]my love. Richard. Manchester-Bruxelles 1958, March 15th.” I wondered who this person might be and what we might have in common. I thought that perhaps it was just good poetic taste. But now I think that the original markings were by me. I have read the same book twice in two years without the second time knowing I’d read it at all.

This experience makes me think of the joke that “The great thing about having Alzheimer’s is that you can hard your own Easter eggs.” Perhaps I can rediscover books that I have loved again and again without realising that I have read them before. I can experience everything for the first time.

Anyway, below is what I wrote two years ago, and then I’ll add some current thoughts and attach a poem of Raine’s that I have managed to track down.


“Kathleen Raine wrote on William Blake and W B Yeats, married two men, had two children, and held to her death an unrequited passion for the homosexual Gavin Maxwell. Perhaps through frustration she cursed him, lost his pet otter, and, she believed, caused him to die of cancer. She grew up in Northumberland, but lived mostly in Cambridge, London, and the Lake District, despite writing: “In Northumberland I knew myself in my own place; and I never ‘adjusted’ myself to any other or forgot what I had so briefly but clearly seen and understood and experienced.”

I knew none of this when I read her Collected Poems. Indeed, I had never heard of her until I read two poems by her that spoke very directly to me in Philip Larkin’s Oxford Book of English 20th Century Verse. Neither of the two poems I read in Larkin’s collection was included by Raine in her Collected Poems, and perhaps she (like most people) was not the best judge of her own work.

Those two poems were enough to prompt me to track down a copy of her Collected Poems (which is not in print), and I’m glad I did. I’ve read it right through, and some of the poems struck right to my heart. Others I could barely follow. She’s a poet in the lyrical tradition of Shelley and Yeats, and many of her poems reminded me of those of Dylan Thomas, a near contemporary.

I learnt all that is in the first paragraph of this note from Wikipedia after reading her poems, but now I realise that I saw her life in her poems. What else could she write about?

When I have a moment I will copy out the many lines that appealed to me and place them on my blog.”

Although one critic I have read says that she is as good as Yeats, Kathleen Raine seems to have gone out of fashion.  The only anthology that seems to include any of her poems is the one I quote by Philip Larkin. People, including me until recently, have not heard of her. I think (but I may be wrong) that I’ve discovered her this time by reading about her in a collection of Bertran Russell’s letters.

Her poems are in the tradition of Shelley, Blake, and Yeats, a tradition which has perhaps itself gone out of fashion, and her poems are carefully crafted, which again may have gone out of fashion.

As I read through her collected poems (for the first or second time) I liked her poems from the beginning, but they reached greater heights with her Northumbrian Sequence, which is inspired by the Venerable Bede’s vision of life being like the sparrow that flies out of the winter’s night through the king’s banqueting hall and into the night again. Raine was brought up in Northumbria, and the place—the moors, the emptiness, the sea, the birds and shells—clearly was deep inside her.

Never, never again

This moment, never

These slow ripples

Across smooth water,

Never again these

Clouds white and grey

In sky sharp crystalline

Blue as the tern’s cry

Shrill in light air

Salt from the ocean

Sweet from flowers.


Here is sequence IV from Northumbrian Sequence


Let in the wind,

Let in the rain,

Let in the moors tonight,

The storm beats on my window-pane,

Night stands at my bed-foot,

Let in the fear,

Let in the pain,

Let in the trees that toss and groan,

Let in the north tonight.

Let in the nameless formless power

That beats upon my door,

Let in the ice, let in the snow,

The banshee howling on the moor,

The bracken-bush on the bleak hillside,

Let in the dead tonight.

The whistling ghost behind the dyke,

The dead that rot in the mire,

Let in the thronging ancestors,

The unfilled desire,

Let in the wraith of the dead earl,

Let in the dead tonight.



Let in the cold,

Let in the wet,

Let in the loneliness,

Let in the quick,

Let in the dead,

Let in the unpeopled skies.

Oh how can virgin fingers weave

A covering for the void,

How can my fearful heart conceive

Gigantic solitude?

How can a house so small contain

A company so great?

Let in the dark,

Let in the dead,

Let in your love tonight.

Let in the snow that numbs the grave,

Let in the acorn-tree,

The mountain stream and mountain stone,

Let in the bitter sea.

Fearful is my virgin heart

And frail my virgin form,

And must I then take pity on

The raging of the storm

That rose up from the great abyss

Before the earth was made,

That pours the stars in cataracts

And shakes this violent world?


Let in the fire,

Let in the power,

Let in the invading might.

Gentle must my fingers be

And pitiful my heart

Since I must bind in human form

A living power so great,

A living impulse great and wild

That cries about my house

With all the violence of desire

Desiring this my peace.

Pitiful my heart must hold

The lonely stars at rest,

Have pity on the raven’s cry,

The torrent and the eagle’s wing,

The icy water of the tarn

And on the biting blast.

Let in the wound,

Let in the pain,

Let in your child tonight.