Friday, 1 August 2014


There's a nice piece on the AbeBooks website about the strange things people have used as bookmarks and forgotten about - everything from forty $1,000 bills to a rasher of bacon (at least it wasn't a fried egg).
It puts me in mind of the time I opened a book and found some chap had cut off the end of his trouser-leg to use as a bookmark. 'Well,' I thought, 'there's a turn-up for the book.'

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Remembering Laddie

There is seldom anything to add to the notoriously exhaustive general-interest features on the BBC News website (remember the cardboard boxes?). However, I noticed that this piece on railway collections dogs - which I much enjoyed, especially the tales of Brighton Bob's embezzlement and subsequent kidnapping - makes no mention of Laddie.
 I have fond memories of Laddie, a stuffed Airedale who used to stand in a glass case on platform 9/10 at Wimbledon station. Laddie, born in 1948, collected more than £5,000 for the Southern Railwaymen's Homes in Woking before retiring in 1956, dying in 1960, and being stuffed and returned in a glass case to Wimbledon station, where he stood until 1990, when he was carted off to join the National Railway Collection.
 Our children always enjoyed going to say hello to Laddie whenever we found ourselves waiting on Wimbledon station. I rather miss him... We've all been there. You're waiting on the station, the children are bored. You wonder, is there by any chance a stuffed dog in the vicinity? Enter Laddie.
 (I wonder if any of my fellow South Londoners remember him too?)

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

The Historic Present: A Challenge

The great Humphrys-Bragg Battle of the Historic Present rumbles on, with Braggy sounding off today, I believe, from behind the Times firewall. These two broadcasting silverbacks have long cultivated a half-joshing antagonism, but I'm not quite sure why Humphrys chose to have a pop at Bragg over this particular issue. In fact, I wonder if Humphrys was thinking not of Bragg's In Our Time (which makes sparing use of the HP) but of the Radio 4 history series The Long View, which uses it on a grand scale, to irritating effect.
 The wider problem with the historic present, it seems to me, is the way it's invaded fiction. Entire novels are now routinely written in the HP - a case in point being the current Book at Bedtime, a historical novel called The Miniaturist. Does this make the action more vivid and immediate? Far from it; when everything is in the HP, it would take a switch into a proper past tense to liven things up. The historic present is fine and effective in its place, used thoughtfully, but too often in contemporary fiction it's no more than a lazy habit, encouraged by publishers, who seem to think it helps to sell their books (not to me it doesn't - if a book begins in the HP I'm liable to abandon it straight away). I suspect that this fashionable trope will be one of the things that make the novels of our time unreadable to subsequent generations (which is, after all, the fate of most of what is written in any age).
 But here's a challenge for my erudite readers: Can anyone name a great, or even first-rate, full-length novel (in English) that is written entirely in the historic present? I can't think of a single one, but that might just be the summer heat addling my brain...  

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Cass Elliot

Today is the 40th anniversary of the death of Cass 'Mama Cass' Elliot - who did not choke on a ham sandwich in that Curzon Place apartment, though the myth has proved sadly persistent. She died in fact of heart failure, probably brought on by her various drastic attempts at losing weight. Her solo career was on an up at the time, after some sad downs, and she probably had much fine music still in her.
 It was Cass's voice alone that won her a place in the band that became The Mamas &The Papas. John Phillips, typically, was reluctant to take her on, on the grounds that she was too fat. Cass was in love with Denny Doherty, and on one occasion - according to him - proposed marriage, though Denny claims he was too stoned at the time to even respond. Denny's eyes were on Michelle Phillips anyway, with whom he had the affair that led to Michelle being temporarily sacked from the band. Cass herself quit after one too many vicious insults from John (though she fulfilled her recording obligations). And so it went on, until the inevitable final disintegration of the once great band.
 Now, happily, what lives on is the glorious music that somehow emerged from that seething emotional snakepit: the Mamas & Papas' catalogue of joyous songs brilliantly performed and produced, the dark masterpiece that is John Phillips' solo album Wolf King of LA (the jauntiest cry of despair ever committed to vinyl) - and the wonderful voice of Cass Elliot. RIP.

Monday, 28 July 2014


Here I am, back from a week of jaunting around the country in almost unbroken sunshine. Early in the week, on an impulse, I went to have a look at Margate, a Kentish coastal resort with a reputation for being thoroughly scuzzy and run-down. The reputation is well earned by the part of town nearest the station (as is so often the way - why do so many towns present their worst side to those arriving by train?). However, as you walk further, along the sweep of what is by any standards an impressive bay with fine sands (on which, as Eliot noted, one can connect nothing with nothing), Margate improves, indeed gets better and better the farther you go. Lots of fine Victorian and Georgian buildings with exuberant seaside detailing, looking out over bay after sandy bay, all bathed in a wonderful light - the light that attracted Turner to Margate year after year...
 The Turner connection is celebrated in the town's landmark (literally) art gallery, the Turner Contemporary, which dominates the harbour. Opened three years ago, it was designed by David Chipperfield and has been described as 'ugly, alien and bleak'. From the outside, especially close up and especially at certain angles, it lives up to that characterisation, and my expectations were not high as I approached - but, once inside, all that changed. What looks from the outside like a random collection of blank boxes turns out to be a space full of light and sky, in which the view out to sea and across the bay becomes, to a quite magical extent, part of the building. The effect is breath-taking.
 In an upstairs gallery (artificially lit, which seems a pity) the exhibition Mondrian & Colour was still under way - an interesting small-scale display of works by Mondrian before, as it were, he became Mondrian. Some of them are very fine, others seem like mere experiments in other artists' styles, and as a whole the exhibition doesn't really explain how Mondrian made the leap to his form of extreme abstraction (represented by a few characteristic works, which certainly give more in reality than they do in reproduction).
 In another gallery - this one making good use of natural light - was an enjoyable little exhibit by Spencer Finch, an American artist I hadn't heard of. This was unfortunately dominated by a large 'cloud' suspended from the ceiling which had something of the air of a Sixth Form art project about it. But there was also a fascinating display along one wall that, at first glance, looked like a row of black squares. These were in fact 60 photographs taken with a fixed camera at one-minute intervals as fog came and went across a swathe of forest. Peering into the images in succession, as the fog clears and thickens again, ghostly trees come in and out of vision and sunlight occasionally breaks through, was a strangely rewarding experience. As indeed was visiting Margate. 
 But enough - I must now step out into the sunshine...

Monday, 21 July 2014

A Lover of the Dawn?

When I got up this morning (I'm on holiday this week), there was a female Gatekeeper perched on a leaf of the Buddleia bush outside the back door, her tail in the air, waiting for some passing male to take the, er, hint. She is still there as I write...
It's been another bumper year for the delightful Gatekeeper, the most cheering and approachable of our summer butterflies. Its Latin name is Pyronia Tithonus - yes, Tithonus, the mortal cursed by Zeus with the inability do die, whose wretched plight is so powerfully expressed in Tennyson's poem: 'The woods decay, the woods decay and fall...' What could he possibly have to do with the merry little Gatekeeper? I think the explanation must be that Tithonus was the (reluctant) lover of Eos, the goddess (strictly speaking, Titan) of the Dawn. Is the Gatekeeper, then, a lover of the dawn, or at least an early riser among butterflies? This would seem likely, to judge by the hopeful female on my Buddleia bush.
 I've been thinking about the Latin/Greek nomenclature of butterflies ever since reading a fascinating article on the subject in the current edition of Butterfly magazine. From this I learnt that my old friend the Dingy Skipper [see Nigeness passim], Erynnis Tages, is named after the Erynnes - the Furies - because it flies as if pursued by them, and after Tages, a miraculous boy who 'rose suddenly from the ground', just like a Dingy Skipper taking off.
 In other butterfly news, on Ashtead Common yesterday, where Silver-Washed Fritillaries were flying in glorious abundance (along with a few White Admirals), I spotted, high up in an oak, the second Purple Emperor of my life. He was only briefly in sight, but on size alone he was unmistakable, and I got a good sight of the equally unmistakable underwing. As a lepidopteral thrill, it wasn't quite up there with seeing my first - especially as that one was settled on the ground - but it was not far behind. There really is nothing like seeing the Emperor.
 Update: The Gatekeeper has flown - I hope she found her male.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

The Great Fire of Carshalton; An Eye-Witness Report by Your Man on the Spot

Having enjoyed a morning stroll around our little local nature reserve - where the Gatekeepers and Ringlets were flying in merry abundance - I was walking back into the village when I noticed a thick  plume of pretty ugly smoke rolling up from somewhere behind the High Street shops. It looked like too much to be an over-exuberant bonfire - and so it proved. As I drew nearer, I discovered that it was the old bakery building behind the baker's shop. There were no flames, but the smoke was billowing out in quantity.
 Already knots of interested bystanders were forming all around, and in minutes the first batch of cops had turned up and set about their usual thing - putting up tape barriers, closing the road and gesticulating at drivers and onlookers alike. More police were soon piling onto the scene, with cars turning up every minute - but no sign of the fire brigade. I nipped into the Co-Op supermarket as it was still open (it wouldn't be for long), and while I was at the till, a young House Sparrow - no doubt disoriented by the smoke and kerfuffle - flew in through the open door, like Bede's sparrow flying through the hall, except that there was no exit at the other end. The last I saw of him he was perched atop Tinned Vegetables.
 When I passed that way a couple of hours later, still more of the High Street was closed, and half a dozen fire engines were now at the scene, with miles of hoses trailing everywhere. They seemed to have done their work and nothing remained of the fire but a smoky tang to the air. The firefighters were sorting out their equipment, amid much joshing and badinage. They seemed to be enjoying themselves; they don't often get to see a fire these days.
 Stop Press: I just discovered that this fire broke out just as the firefighters' latest two-hour strike was under way - what are the chances?