42. 14 November 1991 [ES] (Sunset; Bernard Levin; word-play symposium)
Thanks for your good letter and sweet photograph. I loved the proud and shy expression, holding flowers. It must have been a great moment and a fine occasion.
I've just understood, for the first time, what Housman meant by 'the orange band of eve'; the western sky is awash with a splendid dark-golden colour, in a broad stripe running along the skyline. I half expected to see the horizon signed 'Vincent'. No doubt everyone else is familiar with this phenomenon and speaks of it disrespectfully, even disparagingly, as Heine did of sunset in general ('ein altes Stück'). I really must look at things more intently. It comes of being a civil servant; we never lifted our heads.
No, I still haven’t seen the South Downs this season, nor come to my own country (which is a pleasant land) of estuarine Essex' where also the light slopes very liquidly, to mingle with the sea. I'm waiting for a fine day. Meanwhile I'm in a rather brooding late-autumnal mood. Bientôt nous plongerons dans les froides ténèbres.
As to Bernard Levin the conversationalist; he seemed quite responsive but not initiatory. My chief recollection of our various chats is his amused observation that a bishop of the Anglican communion had instructed his flock that it was lawful to march out of the house of God in dignified protest if the Almighty was ever referred to as 'she'. I said I could discern the nature of his objection: to refer to God in terms of the 'wrong' sex would soon (rationally considered) lead everyone to notice how equally absurd it was to call Him (Her, It) any sex at all. Besides, suppose She's black?
The explanation of the obscure Punch caption is that the question 'or a meringue' is supposed to sound like (Scots) 'or am I wrong', with the answer 'no, you're right'. But it's unfair to inflict such unrewarding paranomasia upon you. I'd better reserve those for the symposium on word-play to which my Münster learned journal editors have kindly invited me next summer. Well, it's a good topic; and the Germans might be quite surprised to learn that the English can be as passionately serious in playing with words as with a cricket-ball. But I hear there's a neo-Nazi movement in Münster making life hell for foreigners' and I've so far managed to avoid going to Germany or Austria. I've rather taken against that lot in the 20th century' though it's my home in the 19th. Perhaps if I live a good life I shall go to Vienna when I die, as Wilde said about Paris. But I fear I've left that a bit late. Perhaps it's not necessary; after all' Wilde did go to Paris; present address, Père Lachaise. Meanwhile I have my memories of Italy (whence I enclose some souvenir stamps). One special pleasure was renewing my acquaintance with Tosti's L'Ultima Canzone, with which a tenor and I once won a music contest, on Cyprus.
I'm still waiting for Yale; but they seem at the moment to be, aptly enough, on a lock-out, if not a strike. So it's back to Schumann and Wolf revision for my 1992 Faber paperbacks. Then on to Brahms and (if I'm spared) Schubert, perhaps in time for the bicentenary. That reminds me of the time in 1978 when I was asked by my alma mater to give a commemorative talk on Schubert; before I was introduced by the then recently appointed Cambridge Professor of Music he took me to one side and asked me to remind him whether the occasion was the l50th anniversary of Schubert's birth, or death? I thought to myself, disloyally, that they'd have known the answer
to that at Oxford.
Best regards as ever,