Thursday, 31 December 2009

The Year on Nigeness

So much for the decade - now on to the altogether cheerier subject of the year on Nigeness. What have I enjoyed in 2009? Well, I read Home, the nearest thing to a new novel I've read all year - and rejoiced when Marilynne won (and thereby redeemed)the Orange prize. I discovered Garret Keizer's wonderful book, Help, and revelled in Stanley Elkins' The Dick Gibson Show. I was duly shaken by first encounters with Flannery O'Connor and Christina Stead. I continued to delight in Pritchett and Chekhov (and again), read more of the great William Maxwell, and pursued my backward course through the late novels of Penelope Fitzgerald. I finally read Epitaph of a Small Winner, Moominvalley in November and The Death of the Heart. Meanwhile, on my travels, I got Lost in Wales, enjoyed a London gallery I'd never visited before, found the perfect bookshop, got stuck on the Tube, and fell over. It was the year in which I discovered the Mitcham Cabbage - a cabbage that comes in infinitely many forms - and enjoyed much family happiness - but this is not That Kind of Blog. It's This Kind of Blog - and yes it was a wonderful butterfly summer...
A very happy new year to all who read this, and thank you for your kind comments throughout the year. Here's to all of us!

The Decade in a Haiku

The newspapers have for weeks been full of lengthy attempts to sum up the low dishonest decade that is now closing, with endless lists of key events, key books, films, records, best of this, that and the other (on one such TV show counting down the Best TV programmes of the Noughties, as the decade is perhaps fittingly called, No 1 turned out, bizarrely, to be Top Gear, a show from the 70s now well past its best). It seems to me the decade could be summed up much more concisely - in a haiku. Here's one, and it doesn't even use all the available syllables. I'm afraid it's not very cheery...

One thing happened.
The towers burnt and fell.
The rest, noise.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Like a Gift

The Christmas break is over, and it was, for various reasons, a rather gruelling one - but redeemed by the great joy of having my daughter back from New Zealand, and the equally great but more familiar joy of having my son around. A highlight as ever was Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve in this fine church. Another, on the last day of the break, bookended it perfectly. Walking with my daughter in glorious winter sunlight - crisp, low and golden-clear - I spotted a bird I couldn't at first identify, sitting restlessly on a wire fence. For a wonder, it stayed there long enough for me to raise my binoculars, locate it and focus on it - when I realised, to my quite inordinate delight, that it was a Tree Sparrow. I hadn't seen one in a long while, and had forgotten how pretty and charming these little sparrows - now on the Red List of endangered species - are. Both my daughter and I had time to take a good look, and soon the first was joined by a second bird, which also posed obligingly as we oohed and aahed. It felt like a gift, and, back at work on a wet grey day, the memory of the encounter is still warming and exalting.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Two Nativities

Here is Rembrandt's beautiful Adoration of the Shepherds (who for once look like shepherds, awkwardly astonished by something wholly new). And here, four centuries later, is Geoffrey Hill taking the Nativity scene into a strange and very different place, and a strange and very different beauty...

Picture of a Nativity

Sea-preserved, heaped with sea-spoils,
Ribs, keels, coral sores,
Detached faces, ephemeral oils,
Discharged on the world’s outer shores,

A dumb child-king
Arrives at his right place; rests,
Undisturbed, among slack serpents; beasts
With claws flesh-buttered. In the gathering

Of bestial and common hardship
Artistic men appear to worship
And fall down; to recognize
Familiar tokens; believe their own eyes.

Above the marvel, each rigid head,
Angels, their unnatural wings displayed,
Freeze into an attitude
Recalling the dead.

And with that - as I shall certainly be whirling in a pre-Christmas frenzy tomorrow, I wish a very happy Christmas to all who browse here. God rest ye merry...

Tepper's Lucky Testicles

I read today that hedge fund king David Tepper, who made $2.5 billion this year by betting that the banks would start making money again (duh - how obvious was that?), keeps a pair of brass testicles on his desk, which he rubs occasionally for luck. They seem to work. Perhaps I'd better get some - the pavements should be littered with them in this freezing weather...

Tuesday, 22 December 2009


Because that great (and long-lived) latterday Gothic revivalist Sir Ninian Comper died on this day in 1960, and because this picture shows some of his work in my parish church (All Saints, Carshalton) and because I hope to be there for Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve...

Coming Attractions

If it wasn't for the icy conditions (global warming kicks in - Continent cut off), there would no doubt have been dancing in the streets last night at the news that Broon, Cameron and the other one (Clegg is it?) are going to treat the nation to three (count them) 90-minute (count them too) live TV debates in the run-up to the election. The political class is certainly all of a doodah at the prospect, and the story led the news on radio and TV - but doesn't that only go to show how wide the gap is between them and the rest of us? The rest of us really aren't interested in politics as such - 12 years of Blair-Brown has seen to that - and this election will be all about Cameron managing to persuade us that the prospect of a Tory government is that bit less appalling than the prospect of five more years of the most catastrophically inept government of the postwar years. If he can't do that, then we might as well all despair of the whole business (I suspect many already have). Will four and a half hours of Brown lying, bludgeoning and flashing his weird smile, Cameron looking serious and managerial and faintly wounded, and the other one impersonating a hole in the screen revive our interest in politics and send us to the polling station in unprecedented numbers? Unprecedentedly low, I fear, is the likeliest outcome. Brown is said to be 'relishing' the prospect of the debates... God bless us one and all!

Monday, 21 December 2009

Progress Becomes Stasis

There goes Eurostar then - yet another example of something that, when it's working, works spectacularly well, and when it's not working... Well, when it's not working it enters a state of total systems collapse - locomotive power, lighting, heating, air conditioning, water supply, and, to cap it all, even the most basic communications (never Eurostar's strong point), all gone. The accounts of what went on under the Channel are truly horrific, and many thousands are still living through the worst kind of travel nightmare. And why? Because Eurostar's highly sophisticated state-of-the-art trains found themselves unable to cope with a sudden shift from extreme cold into relative warmth. Water got into the electrical systems, and, since the whole shebang (like so many shebangs) depends on those electrical systems, every single function collapsed. It's yet another example of how progress, in the form of technological ultra-sophistication, can tip over into catastrophe and stasis, from the most seemingly trivial cause. Here, as so often, it was the weather, that ever unpredictable, ever surprising phenomenon. As extreme winter cold once again grips Europe and North America, and the curtain falls on the Copenhagen farce, how long will it be till we hear the first talk of a new Ice Age?

Saturday, 19 December 2009

'An acrid cocktail...'

Radio 4's Book At Bedtime has taken another of its occasional breaks from the dreary prosing of the latest 'acclaimed' contemporary novelist - and this time it's lurched off in a gloriously unpredictable direction with a rather stylish prose adpatation of 10 of The Ingoldsby Legends. This is one of those books (or rather series of books) so popular in its time and so entirely unfashionable ever since that I never thought it would be revived in any form, let alone as a Book At Bedtime. I doubt more than a handful have read these stories for pleasure in recent times (though one of them, The Jackdaw of Rheims, was still widely anthologised in my schooldays). The Legends seemed to survive only as unsold volumes on the shelves of second-hand bookshops. The received opinion, inasmuch as there is one, dismisses them as 'an acrid cocktail of gallows humour, antiquarian ghoulishness and atrocious punning' (what's not to like?). And yet, to judge by the radio adaptation, they are richly entertaining fare - jolly tales, often of supernatural events, very similar in tone to some of the stories Dickens inserted into the Pickwick Papers (which, sadly, is probably among the least read of Dickens's works nowadays). Dickens, indeed, was a friend of Barham (the author) and his editor on Bentley's Miscellany. There's a colourful account of Barham and his corner of Kent here. And there are still five of the Legends coming up next week on Book At Bedtime.

Friday, 18 December 2009


You can always rely on the weather gods, with their quirky sense of humour, to put on a cold weather spectacular just as we mortals are exercising ourselves with maximum solemnity over 'global warming'. With any luck, the delegates to the Copenhagen conference will find themselves snowed in, their fleets of limos standing idle, their squadrons of private jets snowbound on the runways of Scandinavia... Over here, the blizzards, whiteouts, snowdrifts and white hell scenarios painted for us Londoners by the Met Office didn't quite live up to the billing. It was - and is - very cold, that's for sure, but only a couple of inches of snow fell in my neck of suburbia, and scarce any at all in town. It was, of course, enough to bring the trains to a near-standstill and create the usual travel chaos - the infrastructure of London being so frail (wait till 2012...) - but at least, as we trudged through the snow and slush or stood waiting hopefully on frozen station platforms, we could warm ourselves with the thought that, over in Copenhagen, that nice Mr Brown was giving away billions of our money to corrupt power elites in the Third World - sorry, helping developing countries to adjust to the impact of climate change. As Scott Walker said, 'Copenhagen, you're the end.'

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Happy Birthday, VSP!

On an infinitely cheerier note, today is the anniversary of that great writer and bringer of happiness and illumination, V.S. Pritchett, born on this day in 1900. There's a good recent appreciation of the short stories here, which laments how little Pritchett is read today. He has featured on this blog often enough, beginning with this post, which set me to reading (and rereading) more of his works - and led to the discovery of fellow enthusiasts across the blogscape. It also led me to buy that endlessly rewarding volume of his writings, The Essential Pritchett, which I would recommend to anyone. He might never come back into fashion, but Pritchett was surely one of the greatest critics and short story writers England ever produced. Happy birthday, VSP!

Grim Viewing

'I shall be like that tree,' predicted Jonathan Swift, pointing to a stag-headed specimen. 'I shall die from the top.' As modern medicine becomes ever more adept at keeping our bodies going, increasing numbers of us can look forward to the same grim fate, and the misnamed 'care' (often no more than a form of warehousing) that goes with it. There was a harrowing programme on TV last night in which the businessman Gerry Robinson looked into what goes on in homes that care for the demented elderly, and it was grim viewing indeed. His uphill struggle to improve matters in one home - recently, to his undisguised amazement, upgraded to 'adequate' - was finally blown out of the water when allegations of sexual offences caused it to be closed down. The sight of the bewildered and terrified residents being wheeled out to die elsewhere was one of the most hauntingly terrible things I have ever seen on TV. What will future generations make of our treatment of the elderly - or indeed of babies and young children, who are similarly regarded as a problem to be farmed out to low-paid 'carers' (those that are allowed to live, that is - the scale of abortion in this country might also appall future generations)? It seems that any activity that involves one human being looking after, caring for another human being is by definition low status and low paid (unless it can be 'professionalised' into respectability). Is this because it is 'women's work'? Or is it just that we live in a society that values getting and spending above all else, regarding the truly important matters of life and death as peripheral - though all of us know that really they are central? If you're lucky enough to be lucid as you near death, will you look back and think Gosh I wish I'd spent more time in the office? And yet, while we are working, we must all entertain the delusion that it matters more than anything else. The result of all that getting and spending is that even the relatively poor among us live at a level of luxury that to past generations would seem beyond the remotest possibility. And yet, in the midst of this unheard-of wealth, we cannot spare enough to care properly for the most vulnerable among us. Swift, by no means a rich man, gave away a third of his earnings to charity, and saved another third to found the St Patrick's Hospital for Imbeciles. As he put it in his own ironic epitaph,
'He gave the little wealth he had
To build a house for fools and mad.'

Tuesday, 15 December 2009


Here's a thing I don't recommend - having your central heating pack up just as the temperature starts plunging towards zero. Having behaved eccentrically for some while, our system finally gave up in the middle of last week, and (I'll spare you the details of the ensuing saga) was still out of action yesterday. Only one room of the house could be effectively heated, by means of a ferociously effective Chinese log-effect fire, and the rest of the draughty old place was probably a touch colder than the inside of the fridge. As the laptop lives in a now unheated room, there was no question of blogging or any such activity yesterday - not only were my fingers not working, but my brain too seemed to have succumbed. I had forgotten how numbing in every way deep, persistent cold is - it makes everything, physical and mental, fainter, more distant, more sluggish, so that the mind barely functions, and can think of little but the quest for warmth. The only cure - as to so many things - was to take a walk. A brisk march out to a local bird reserve in the making - gravel pits which are not yet worked out - got the chi, as well as the blood, flowing, and temporarily restored my spirits with its glimpses of watery, wintry beauty - the sky in the water, the distant trees, the crows mustering to roost as the light faded. I returned to the icebox house heartened and cheered and indeed feeling properly warm for the first time. Sadly, this did not last... However, the good news is that today, at last, the heating has been fixed. I'll never take it for granted again. Well, I shall of course, but I know I shouldn't.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Mr James Puts Us All to Rights

Another fine Point of View talk by Clive James this week (why do they ever give that slot to anyone else?). I had forgotten about the 'futurologist' Herman Kahn (said to be one of the models for Stanley Kubrick's Dr Strangelove), who was at one time taken very seriously indeed and was always pontificating away to reverential interviewers. (Futurology eh? Presentology is impossible enough, and even Pastology is fraught with difficulties...) On the matter of the warmist 'consensus', James thinks, or hopes, that the debate will now begin. Others, in the wake of Climategate (the East Anglia email scandal), are talking of a 'paradigm shift' (that's from Kuhn not Kahn) - which looks like an overstatement. I think what is happening - despite the Copenhagen juggernaut rolling on regardless - is a marked change of mood, detectable even in such once unbreachable bastions of consensus warmism as the BBC, towards a more open-minded attitude. If the media are heading that way, the politicians will surely follow - and the public, if opinion polls are to be believed, are already there. Being something of a futurologist myself, I, of course, saw this coming (hem hem). And here's another glimpse of the future from Nige's crystal ball: eventually whichever government is in power is going to inflate that deficit away - it's simply too huge to be got rid of by any other means. Mark my words, it's only a matter of time...

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Victor McLaglen

I somehow missed the anniversary of Victor McLaglen (b 1886) the other day. My father, who'd been a bit of a boxer in his youth, always had a soft spot for the old pugilist turned actor. Here's McLaglen in action in John Ford's classic She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. They don't make them like that any more - either the films or the actors.

Friday, 11 December 2009

1975 - A Vintage Year?

It is a truth universally acknowledged by music journalists of the rockular variety (as parodied brilliantly here by Brit) that 1975 was the pits, the year the music all but died in a welter of guitar noodling, before Punk came along in 1976, applied the electrodes and restored rock to life. Well, I have a friend who believes that, au contraire, 1975 was the greatest year ever (never mind that she was only 10 at the time and is a Led Zep fan). I decided to examine the evidence - and what do you know, she could be right! 1975 was the year in which Dylan released what many regard as his greatest album, Blood on the Tracks, and Patti Smith produced the still astounding Horses. Emmylou Harris released not one but two great albums, Pieces of the Sky and Elite Hotel. Paul Simon came up with Still Crazy After All These Years, Tom Waits released Nighthawks at the Diner, John Cale treated us to Slow Dazzle (the one with his version of Heartbreak Hotel on it)... There must be more in the way of great 1975 albums - but what clinches it for the year is that this song reached number 2 in the singles charts. There - now you'll be humming it all day. But you'll be smiling...

Thursday, 10 December 2009

The Sound of the Suburbs

I slipped out to Kensington Gardens earlier today, to enjoy a 'quiet' baguette on a bench outside the orangery. I use the inverted commas advisedly, as, while I sat there, the air was rent every few minutes by the raucous shrieks of squadrons of ring-necked parakeets chasing each other at speed across the sky. I never dreamt that in my lifetime the dominant - indeed the overwhelming - sound of most open spaces in London and its suburbs should be this alien shrieking. It was fun - exciting indeed - to see these exotic creatures at first, but once their numbers started to grow, it was a different matter... And it's not just the parakeets. Rather too many of the changes in birdlife in my time have had a deleterious effect on the soundscape. While the most beautiful of garden singers, the song thrush, has declined steeply, the magpies and crows have come into town, and their unlovely shouts and caws are the only sounds that can match the parakeets. Even the collared dove (another one I never dreamt would become common), a lovely bird and a delight to see, has a strange, unmusical, quite undovelike call. Generally, the more musical birds that have increased in numbers are the ones with the weakest voices - the goldfinch with its beautiful soft liquid burbling, the longtailed tit with its thin piping whistle. On the other hand, there are more blackcaps around, and they're overwintering now - but that's a fact that might lead us to another, less agreeable subject...

Scepticism Is Conservative (since you ask)

Over at the Yard, our man is asking why opposition to warmism is 'such a right-wing thing'. No doubt I've said it before (and no doubt many others will), but I'll say it again. Conservatives (never mind 'neocons', who are mostly mutated Marxists) are bound to be sceptical about all large claims made by 'experts', governments and international bodies, if only because of their dismal record on such things, and the dubious purity of their motives. Warmism looks to us like apocalyptic projection, which is both a spillover from religion (answering to emotion rather than science) and a reverse form of Utopianism, about which conservatives too are deeply sceptical, for the best of historical reasons. It is also perfectly obvious that the enthusiasm of governments for the warmist scenario is driven by the possibilities it opens up for massive exactions of revenue from the public and considerable extension of state control over individuals and enterprises. What's not to be sceptical about? 'The science'? There is no (scientifically respectable) way on earth that such large claims and precise projections can be made about such a vast and complex web of systems. It reeks of human arrogance - overestimating our importance to the planet (as to everything else) - whereas conservatives (and indeed Christians) veer towards humility in regard to man's place in the scheme of things, and mistrust fierce conviction ('enthusiasm', in the old sense) in anything. The best, after all, lack all conviction...

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Any Excuse for a Venetian Drawing

And the excuse is that a drawing by Raphael has sold for a very high price. That kind of money is meaningless of course, but if it's going to be paid for anything, then better a Raphael drawing than, say, an Andy Warhol screen print. Raphael's drawings are among the greatest ever drawn, and, being less finished, they seem to tell us more than the paintings, under their reflective sheen of ultraperfection. It is good, then, that the worth of the drawings should be recognised in the market. An artist whose drawings were, in his lifetime, valued as highly as his paintings was the great (and underrated) Venetian, G.B. Piazzetta, who specialised in highly finished, large-scale drawings, whose delicacy of touch and tonality is quite wonderful. That's one of his above. Enjoy... And from that brief encounter with art and beauty I return to the eye of the workstorm.

Monday, 7 December 2009


Birthday again - and this year's a big one for me and Tom. As ever at this time of year, I'm up to the oxters in work, but I expect Tom to touch down on the NigeCorp helipad this evening, bearing a case of the Lafitte '49 (a legendary year). Then it's all back to Edmundo Ros's - he's 99 today. Happy birthday, Edmundo!

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Nevil Shute

I'm glad to hear that the novels of Nevil Shute have suddenly come back into fashion and are being reprinted by Vintage - see this excellent piece. My gladness is largely on behalf of my late father, who adored these books, even investing in a book club uniform edition, red-and-gilt, bound (as Private Eye would put it) 'in hand-tooled Gnomitex'. He would read them repeatedly, and some of them would, oddly, reduce him to tears (he wasn't a lachrymose man, unlike the one his younger son seems to be turning into). A pity he isn't alive to see his man restored to favour (and to replace his uniform edition with something a little easier on the eye). Mind you, he'd be 100 years old...

The Cost of Living

I've been half-reading a small book on Edward Thomas, which I picked up in a second-hand bookshop that was so perfect of its kind I couldn't bear to leave without buying something. On closer inspection, I discovered that this nicely produced little book was a 'Faber Student Guide', published in the mid-80s and clearly designed to fit poor Thomas's works to a Procrustean bed of Marxian analysis. This approach does yield the odd insight in passing, and the book's concentration on Thomas's prose as well as his poetry is refreshing. There's also enough extensive quotation from both to remind the reader of the real thing. But, putting all that aside, it was a biographical detail that caught my eye. Thomas's father was a clerk - 'staff clerk for light railways' at the Board of Trade - and on his Civil Service salary alone, he was able to support a wife and large family (six sons), plus domestic help, in a large detached house near the common in Clapham. So, at that time, a clerk in the Civil Service could afford what today only millionaires or the recipients of City bonuses can run to. What level of inflation does that suggest? It's barely computable. Similarly, in The Death of the Heart, set in the 1930s, we are informed that the total income of the Quayles amounts to £3,000, which is ample for a large house on Regent's Park with live-in domestics, all the comforts of upper-middle-class life, and long holidays abroad (when travel was relatively dearer). To achieve that standard of living today would surely require an income nearer £3 million than £3,000. My question is - What happened? Why would it now cost a fortune to live in the kind of style our middle-class ancestors took for granted? No Marxists need respond.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Richard Todd

It was sad to hear yesterday that the actor, war hero and all-round good egg Richard Todd had died, albeit at a ripe old age. To say that Todd had a good war would be an understatement - read this and be humbled... This was a man - and, to judge by that piece, he was rather a good writer too.

Christina Rossetti

The annual winter workstorm has kept me from blogging much lately, but I note that today is the birthdate of Christina Rossetti (born 1830). The poor woman led one of those sad Victorian lives that were the lot of so many of her sex, self-thwarted by religious scruples whose force we can scarcely comprehend today. She left behind much half-good poetry, little of which entirely works (she certainly wasn't our homegrown Emily Dickinson) - but In the Bleak Midwinter will surely survive. In its beautiful setting by Holst, it's one of the most moving of Christmas carols - and read as a poem it has something of the force and simplicity of George Herbert. Played by a Salvation Army band, it is certainly more than I can easily bear - but more and more things reduce me to tears these days. I think it's part of growing older. Lacrimae rerum...

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Winter Night, Summer Meadow

Lying awake in the small hours this morning (having been abruptly woken by a violent calf cramp, the afterpain of which is still with me), I realised again how poorly we semi-insomniacs are served by the radio since the demise of the much missed Birdsong radio. The World Service, at an appropriately low volume, is fine, though it's all too likely to grab the attention and haul you back from incipient slumber - or, worse, wake you from a doze with a blast of vibrant ethnic music. Radio 4 has an appalling habit of switching from the World Service to loud, jaunty and utterly infuriating song-and-dance programmes that appear to be aimed at deaf imbeciles, but are, I believe, intended for teachers to record and inflict on classrooms of helpless children - one can but pity them. Similarly, Radio 7, once the studio laughter shows have died down, is likely to jolt you with a blast of jollity aimed at the little ones, god bless 'em. Radio 3 would be fine, but you just can't rely on music to stay at the same volume for long, so there's no sleeping through it. What to do then? I know what I'd have, to see me through the long winter nights in a calm, going on blissful state - an endless loop, a la Birdsong, of the sound of a summer meadow. The buzzing of bees from flower to flower, the intermittent chirring of grasshoppers, birds singing merrily in the middle distance, every now and then the faint susurration of a passing butterfly... I'm nodding off already. Here's a project for some right-minded philanthropist - maybe that Anglophile Getty, whatever his name is - Radio Summer Meadow. What could be more perfectly relaxing in the long small hours of a winter night?

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

That's What I Call a Walk...

The other day I came across a mention of a chap called Foster Powell, who, back in 1773, was now about halfway through an epic walk, from London to York and back (396 miles) in less than six days, that won him a hefty bet and made him a celebrity. I've long been vaguely fascinated by these feats of 'pedestrianism', but hadn't realised quite how extreme they were - or, still more surprisingly, that they are still being surpassed in the 21st century. Foster Powell's great walk was soon bettered, and, in the 19th century, the six-day walk became a fiercely competitive, big money, big crowd (a staggering 70,000 for one event!) indoor sport, largely because of the prodigious feats (500 miles in 6 days? No problem) of an American pedestrian called Edward Payson Weston. By the time the 500-mile mark was reached, the six-day walk was open to all comers - runners or walkers. The distances covered in six days became ever more mind-boggling, Weston reaching 550 miles and the Englishman Charles Rowell managing 530. Then in 1882 another Englishman, George Hazel, hit the altogether unbelievable 600-mile mark - but even that record didn't stand long, with yet another Englishman, competing in America, clocking up 623 miles in 1888 - by which time interest in the six-day event was waning. So that was that? No, far from it - there was a revival of interest in this form of 'ultrarunning' in the 1980s, and new six-day records were set in 1984 - 635 miles - and, finally and surely unbeatably, 644 miles, run indoors by a Greek runner, Yiannis Kouros (nicknamed 'Pheidippides' successor') as recently as 2005. Why do we never hear of these astonishing feats - equivalent to running four consecutive marathons a day for six consecutive days? Oh of course - there's no money in it, and it's too boring to attract spectators or TV cameras. This makes these lonely endeavours at the extremes of human endurance all the more noble - or mad, or both... There's a potted history of the six-day race here. Read and boggle.

Monday, 30 November 2009

A Novel Use for Stone Genitals

On this day in 1900, Oscar Wilde died, in the Hotel d'Alscace in Paris, apparently from meningitis resulting from an ear infection (not, as was long assumed, syphilis). Illustrated above is his frankly bizarre and rather ugly tomb, designed by Jacob Epstein at Robbie Ross's request. That modernist angel originally had an impressive set of stone genitals (something of an Epstein trademark), but these proved irrestistible and were broken off and used as a paperweight by a succession of cemetery keepers, until they disappeared from view. In 2000 (according to Wikipedia) an 'intermedia artist' called Leon Johnson performed a ceremony, Re-Remembering Wilde, at the tomb, in the course of which a silver prosthesis was installed to replace the vandalised genitalia. What a charming thought - I'm sure Oscar would have been much amused.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

A Mitcham Cabbage

This morning, as I walked through the park, cold rain was spattering down from a sodden sky. A cheerless prospect, from which even the usual standing army of crows (one of which I came across yesterday feasting with relish on a dead grey 'squirrel') had retired. I paused where the yew trees had formed a natural arch over the path, and became aware of a thin busy twittering sound all around me - a foraging party of tits, I guessed. But no - I soon realised that I was surrounded by goldcrests, some of them so low down in the branches that I could have reached out and touched them. These beady-eyed little birds - and they are truly tiny - seem to have little fear; perhaps being in company emboldens them. This party - there must have been a couple of dozen, probably more - was soon on its merry way (that chatty twittering sounds very much like a Synonym For Joy), but it had stayed long enough to lift my rainy heart. It had been, indeed, a gift from nowhere - a Mitcham Cabbage.

Friday, 27 November 2009

The Death of the Heart

Well, I have finished reading The Death of the Heart - about which I have so far only posted dietary notes. I must say that, though it has the ultimately elating quality of all really good art, it is a bleak and dejecting piece of work, beautifully but mercilessly wrought. (Synopsis: Orphaned 16-year-old Portia comes to stay with her half-brother Thomas and his wife Anna in their house overlooking Regent's Park. Neither of them wants her there. She falls in love with the philandering poseur Eddie, a 'friend' of Anna's, and all paths lead to betrayal, disenchantment and the 'death of the heart'.) Bowen writes in a rich, bold style, a dense and discriminating prose that sometimes ties itself in all but Jamesian knots - she is never an easy read, especially when she is exploring the nuances of the interior lives of her characters. But her bravura passages achieve quite extraordinary effects, especially when she is describing - rather, creating - her overwhelmingly present settings. No one is better on English weather - from the frozen Regent's Park with which the novel opens (Anna telling St Quentin about her discovery of Portia's diary) to the springtime and sea air (and, in a key passage, the brilliantly realised woodland) of the middle section of the novel, and on to the treacherous early summer back in London, the backdrop to Portia's final disenchantment. And no one is better on interiors - the elegantly oppressive house on Windsor Terrace, in winter and, in an especially vivid passage, after its great spring cleaning; the resounding, wind-defying seaside villa to which Portia is sent to get her out of the way; the self-consciously dismal room in which Eddie puts on his show of living; and, most heartbreakingly, the Karachi Hotel, temporary home of poor Major Brutt, the only other innocent who crosses Portia's path. Bowen is almost Dickensian in her dense, detailed evocation of the settings in which people live - and, as in Dickens, these interiors and exteriors provide far more than background - they are the structure of the novel, and, in sense, they are the people who inhabit them; indeed they often seem more real. The people with whom Portia is surrounded are not evil, not even bad as such (even Anna) - they have just got life wrong, and from sheer inertia are trapped unhappily where they are. Anna and Thomas plainly have an 'unhappy marriage', but they have glumly accommodated to it, to its silences and evasions, to the cold comfort of habit. They are the last people Portia should have had in her life, and she is the last person they should have had in theirs. The effect of her innocence on them - as a mirror which shows them their own corruption - and of their corruption on Portia's innocence, can only be catastrophic, and it can only be Portia who ultimately pays the price...
Final verdict? I'm glad I finally read what is clearly a masterpiece by a very remarkable writer. I should also say that, rather surprisingly, it develops into a real, riveting page turner - though, as the end approaches, one turns the pages with a degree of dread.

An Encounter

On the way to the station this morning (on foot of course), I passed a small round West Indian lady, who emitted a kind of yelp. I gave her a mildly inquiring look and she told me not to worry, she was just glad to be alive. She'd woken up this morning full of the joy of it, and, though she hadn't a bean in the bank and no idea what she was going to do with the day, she rejoiced in being up and about in God's world. I applauded her sentiments. She was especially bucked, she told me, laughing, because someone at Mitcham Junction had kindly given her two cabbages. She showed them to me - one large cabbage, one small - in a plastic bag. I congratulated her and shook her cordially by the hand. She went on her way rejoicing, and I strode off, warmed by the enounter, to catch my train. We all should rejoice, and often - why do we so seldom have the heart for it?

The Original of Jennings

There are diminishingly few reasons for reading newspapers, and I sometimes think that chief among them is the Telegraph obituaries page. There are more wonders here - deft character studies, outlines of quite extraordinary lives and careers, tragedies, comedies, tales of heroism, enterprise and folly - than in a library of novels, let alone newspapers. Here, too, is (one suspects) the chronicle of a vanishing England, and of vanishing human types... Yesterday yielded this richly comic gem, an account of a life well (if a little wildly) spent, which hardly needs further comment. Keep on scrolling down - it gets better and better.


'Copenhagen, you're the end...'
In the small hours of this morning, a World Service report on the Copenhagen summit (of folly?) was heralded by the above snatch of a rather lovely early Scott Walker song. Smart work, I thought - it should be done more often. And thank heavens it wasn't Wonderful Wonderful Copenhagen... Many cities have an all too obvious signature tune for radio producers to wheel out - but this one was inspired. I now look forward to something happening in Andalucia - the old John Cale song is ready and waiting: Andalucia, When can I see ya? When it is snowing out again...
American towns and cities are especially well catered for in terms of signature music; over here our town names seem to lack the requisite glamour. 24 Hours From Peebles anyone? By the Time I Get to Cleethorpes? (Anyone know which old comedy show I nicked those from?)

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Happy Birthday, Marilynne!

A reason to rejoice - it's Marilynne Robinson's birthday today. Furthermore she seems to be at the point where, relatively late in her career, the world is noticing her - especially since Home won the Orange Prize. Whether the world quite understands her is another matter... But for myself, I can only say that she's almost the only living writer who has changed the way I look at the world (and therefore changed the world I live in) and whose works seem to be deeply and entirely (though never solemnly) serious. I can only be grateful that such a writer is still at work - and, of course, wish her a happy birthday!

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Into the Woods

The myth of the vast wildwood that cloaked most of medieval England in trees is of course just that - a myth (See Oliver Rackham, passim) - much more woodland was cleared or brought under management, much earlier, than was/is commonly supposed. However, the idea of the great wildwood has a strong pull. There is a special edge of wonder to walking in woodland - it feels like home, yet not like home - and a special edge of (at least half enjoyable) fear to getting thoroughly lost in woodland, as if the wildwood might reclaim us after all. Similarly (though here, as ever, I may only be speaking for myself), there's a special thrill in the prospect of more woodland - good broad-leaved woodland - being created in this under-wooded land. Now, by a happy convergence of 'climate change' and 'sustainability' preoccupations, it looks as if it's going to happen. This is a splendid piece of retroprogressive news, improving our world by returning it to something more like the past. My only reservation is that they might not pay enough attention to managing these vast new tracts of woodland. It's the neglect of proper woodland management - particularly creating the right kind of clearing at the right time of year - that has led to the decline of such woodland butterfly species as that pretty pearl-bordered fritillary that's perched on the corner of this post. If the Forestry Commission get this one right - particularly if they join up existing patches of woodland, creating 'corridors' between isolated communities - it should be good news for butterflies, as well as the rest of us.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Paul Celan

Not (quite) too late to mark the birthday of Paul Celan, born on this day in 1920. Much of his poetry - like the well-known Death Fugue - is almost too much to bear, but he somehow managed to hold on to his sanity long enough to do (or at least hint at) what he had to do. Poor Celan, one of those lives comprehensively mangled by mid-Europe's terrible 20th century...

'World to be stuttered after,
in which I'll have been
a guest, a name
sweated down from the wall
where a wound licks up high.'

Fares, Please

Yesterday, for reasons too tedious to go into, I was obliged to board a bus and buy a ticket - i.e. exchange cash for a ticket. I had not realised what an outlandish piece of behaviour this now is. The driver greeted my request with a look of mingled astonishment, bewilderment and pity, and, having reluctantly printed a ticket, motioned me to bide awhile beside his cab. He then launched into an interminable monologue in which he explained, first, the various ticketing (and of course non-ticketing) options available to me for this particular journey, weighing their relative merits, then advised me on the pros and cons of the season ticket as against the Oyster card, entered into a history of said Oyster card, explained its uses and virtues in minute detail, offered a beguiling glimpse of the all-Oyster travel utopia of the near future, permitted himself a digression on card fraud... On and on he went, as I stood there swaying, trying to remain upright, and, quite illegally, blocking his view. Whenever he paused for breath - which was rarely - I tried to make my excuses and escape to a seat, but, like the ancient mariner, he would fix me again with his inescapable, fare-fixated eye and resume. Was this, I wondered, some kind of hidden camera stunt? Apparently not. Was he having his little joke on me? No, he was deadly serious. It was simply a case of a man with a compendious knowledge of, and a burning love for, his subject, bursting with enthusiasm to share his love with anyone who would listen (however reluctantly). He was still in full flow, sharing away, when I thanked him, with every appearance of sincerity, and staggered off to my seat. Anybody want to know anything about ticketing systems in London?

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Cravat Heroes: The Next Generation

This handsome young fellow, who seems to be wondering if the missus's dress is quite the thing, is Hollywood star Ashton Kutcher (and the missus is of course Demi Moore). Needless to say, Kutcher's neckwear looks fabulous, elevating the star of Dude Where's My Car? above the Hollywood pack, and placing him firmly in the tradition of such great cravat men as Cary Grant and David Niven. Mark my words, there will be no stopping this young chap now he has discovered the power of the cravat...

Friday, 20 November 2009

John Craxton

I only discovered today that the painter and illustrator John Craxton has died. I like some of his work very much (above is his Llanthony Priory, which hangs in the Tate), but,to be honest, I had no idea he was still alive. To judge by the obits, his was not only a long but, for the most part, a happy life, and, like Patrick Leigh Fermor (whose books he illustrated and who is still, wonderfully, alive), he found his earthly paradise in Greece. More of Craxton here - he sounds a lot more fun than his old flatmate Freud (and I'd sooner have a Craxton on the wall).

Bowen: Eating and Electric Cleaning

After years - no, decades - of meaning to (and at least once beginning to), I've finally got round to reading Elizabeth Bowen's The Death of the Heart. No doubt I'll post on it when I've finished, but, slow and distracted reader that I am, I'm barely halfway through. Leaving critical judgment, then, on one side, one of the most startling things about the novel is the endless hours of leisure Bowen's characters (even the ones who 'work') have at their disposal in those far-off prewar years, and another is the staggering quantities of food they shovel in. The typical day proceeds from hearty cooked breakfast to morning tea or coffee, with biscuits or cakes, then a full sit-down lunch, followed in short order by afternoon tea - more cakes and biscuits - to keep body and soul together till the full sit-down evening dinner, which might very well be followed by a pre-bedtime snack or two to see a body through the long hungry reaches of the night. Lord, these elegant ladies and gents know how to put it away! Did people need more food in those days, perhaps because they had no central heating and tended to walk more? Why was there no 'obesity epidemic'? Needless to say, all this food was cooked for them - by 'cook' or in restaurants - and domestic staff could also be relied upon to give the house a quite hair-raisingly thorough spring clean every year. Readers of The Death of the Heart will recall that it's the annual spring clean that causes the Quaynes to vacate their London home, pootling off to Capri for a few weeks, and sending poor Portia to the seaside. Part of the spring cleaning ritual, it seems, was the cleaning of the library, washing the shelves down and sending the books to be 'electric cleaned'. What? What on earth is that? My online researches have yielded nothing in the way of electric cleaners that doesn't involve water and undue violence, quite unsuited to books. Perhaps a machine along these lines was involved? I can't say I'm tempted to send my books away for treatment...

Thursday, 19 November 2009

A True One-Off: Bruno Schulz

On this day in 1942, Bruno Schulz was shot dead in the street by a Gestapo officer, having slipped out of the ghetto in Drohobysz, the small town in Galicia where he had lived all his life. Schulz, who had been given a pass by another Gestapo officer, had been buying a loaf of bread when he was spotted by a rival of his protector and gunned down. So died a true literary one-off, leaving behind him two collections of short fictions which are quite unlike anything else in literature - closest perhaps to Kafka (though Schulz apparently hadn't read Kafka when he published his first collection) and, visually, suggesting early Chagall. His subject matter was nothing but his home town and his family - but what he did with that material was something else altogether... If you haven't come across him, I'd suggest trying the very short stories August and Mr Charles, and the longer fiction The Comet, in Cinnamon Shops here. As for biography - a Wiki life will give you all the facts...


Hot off the production line at Research-U-Like comes the latest on booze. After a lifetime of diligent research in the field, I'd formed much the same conclusion myself - but it's always nice to have one's hunches confirmed.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Stanley Plumly

Another November, another workstorm... Seeking refuge with some online poetry bowsing last night, I came across this, by an American poet I had never heard of, Stanley Plumly:

"Another November"

In the blue eye of the medievalist there is a cart in the road.
There are brushfires and hedgerows and smoke and smoke
and the sun gold dollop going down.

The light has been falling all afternoon and the rain off and on.
There is a picture of a painting in a book in which the surface
of the paper, like the membrane of the canvas,

is nothing if not a light falling from another source.
The harvest is finished and figure, ground, trees lined up against
the sky all look like furniture --

even the man pushing the cart that looks like a chair,
even the people propped up in the fields, gleaning, or watching
the man, waving his passage on.

Part of a cloud has washed in to clarify or confound.
It is that time of the day between work and supper when the body
would lie down, like bread, or is so much of a piece

with the whole it is wood for a fire. witness how
it is as difficult to paint rain as it is this light falling across
this page right now because there will always be

a plague of the luminous dead being wheeled to the edge of town.
The painting in the book is a landscape in a room, cart in the road,
someone's face at the window.

Impressed and intrigued, I looked for more, and came up with these:


Some--the ones with fish names--grow so north
they last a month, six weeks at most.
Some others, named for the fields they look like,
last longer, smaller.

And these, in particular, whether trout or corn lily,
onion or bellwort, just cut
this morning and standing open in tapwater in the kitchen,
will close with the sun.

It is June, wildflowers on the table.
They are fresh an hour ago, like sliced lemons,
with the whole day ahead of them.
They could be common mayflower lilies of the valley,

day lilies, or the clustering Canada, large, gold,
long-stemmed as pasture roses, belled out over the vase--
or maybe Solomon's seal, the petals
ranged in small toy pairs

or starry, tipped at the head like weeds.
They could be anonymous as weeds.
They are, in fact, the several names of the same thing,
lilies of the field, butter-and-eggs,

toadflax almost, the way the whites and yellows juxtapose,
and have "the look of flowers that are looked at,"
rooted as they are in water, glass, and air.
I remember the summer I picked everything,

flower and wildflower, singled them out in jars
with a name attached. And when they had dried as stubborn
as paper I put them on pages and named them again.
They were all lilies, even the hyacinth,

even the great pale flower in the hand of the dead.
I picked it, kept it in the book for years
before I knew who she was,
her face lily-white, kissed and dry and cold.

The Crows at 3 A.M.

The politically correct, perfect snow of Vermont
undulant under the lightly bruised, moonlit-backed-
becoming-storm-clouds slowing then speeding just above
the line of blue spruce on Mt. Mansfield here in
what I’m told is the state’s “cloudiest county,”
vaguely an analogy for the plate tectonics of the blankets
constantly shifting from the left to the right side
of my body, pulling the heart, until by dawn I’m holding on,
waking with the cold, somehow looking at my hands
that, in the pearl dark, look like the first fall castings
of the sycamore, those pocked dry leaves
that were my mother’s final hands: sallow
dying coloring, mapping liverspots, rootlike
veining texturing the underdermal surfaces. The test,

writes Fitzgerald, in an essay called “The Crack-Up,”
of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold
opposing ideas in the mind at the same time yet retain
the ability to function. He couldn’t, he says, so he cracked
like a plate. He is trying to update Keats’s
notion of “Negative Capability, that is
when a man is capable of being in uncertainties,
Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact
& reason — Coleridge, for instance, would let go
by a fine isolated verisimilitude
caught from the Penetralium of mystery,
from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge.”
When I heard the crows, like raven-geese, rending the dark,
filling the falling snow with wings,
I thought, for a moment,
they were speaking or singing.
Crows at the hour — Fitzgerald again — of the dark night
of the soul, Poe-like crows chasing back and forth
in a quandary or a quarrel, up and down the Gihon.
Then they disappeared, let me drift back into sleep
to find my hands holding my mother’s hands as if to help her
rise from the cold dead dream light of Vermont.
Stevens’s some twenty blackbirds differ only in their scale:
the beauty of inflections and innuendos,
shadows passing out of hearing, out of sight,
but no less present in the settled order. Thus the river’s moving,
the blackbird must be flying, two half-knowledges
or halves of one knowing. Those who love us who now live
in the air live in a loneliness we sometimes imagine.

I think he's good, and he's entirely new to me. Any observations? Can any of my American friends tell me more?

Isn't It Iconic?

'Iconic' is a notoriously abused and overused word, but it does have its uses, and a meaning.
Yesterday I caught Dennis Sewell on the radio talking about this book, which seems to lob a well-timed grenade into the overblown, quasi-religious celebrations attending this year's Darwin anniversaries, reminding his admirers of the poisonous political legacy of Darwinism. Sewell argued, on the radio, that Darwin has now become one of those towering figures who is wheeled in to explain anything and everything, just as Marx and Freud were before him (where are they now?). And I wondered how much of this might be down to the power of the icon - the strong unmistakable image of these men, all three bearded with impressive high foreheads and a look of immense and serious wisdom. Darwin's face (at least in his later years) is, I think, more than that, with its sad, slightly anxious, faraway look (and the simian beard that seems to point the truth of his theory). It is the most attractive of the three iconic faces, and I can't help but wonder how differently things might have gone if he'd looked like, say, Herbert Spencer or his kinsman Francis Galton. Do we need our great men to look the part, to have iconic features? Would Einstein have quite the place he does in our esteem and imagination if he'd looked like, say, Nils Bohr, rather than looking like a readymade icon of Genius, 20th-century style? I don't know - but I do know that there is only one great figure whose insights are indeed applicable to any and every situation of life - Shakespeare. Hang on - beard, domed forhead... Another icon.

Monday, 16 November 2009

A Fun Olympics

Yesterday, I unaccountably overlooked the 150th anniversary of the first modern revival of the Oympic Games - the 'Zappas Olympics' of 1859, financed by a wealthy businessman called Evangelis Zappas. The plan was to hold such events in the suitably renovated ancient Panathenaic stadium, but it wasn't ready, so Zappas made do with Loudovikou (now Koumoundourou) Square in Athens, where half the population of Athens joined an impressive array of dignitaries to watch a games firmly based on the ancient disciplines of running, jumping, discus and javelin throwing, wrestling and of course pole climbing (surely due for a revival?). The games were, just about, international, accepting entrants from the Greek state and the diaspora - provided they were 'ethnically Greek' - but the site was far from ideal, the weather was cold (it was November, after all), and most of the crowd couldn't really see anything. Entry was open to anyone who fancied a crack at the cash prizes, so all sorts pitched in, including (according to reports) a policeman who was supposed to be controlling the crowds, and a beggar who normally made his living pretending to be blind. Surely here we have a model of everything an Olympic Games should be. If only London 2012 would learn the lessons of 1859. It would be fun - but fun seems to be the last thing the organisers of modern Olympiads are after.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

The Left Brain and the Crisis in Nursing

One of the features of our times (don't you just hate it when a post begins like that? But bear with me...) is an increasing detachment from reality. It takes many forms - from the growth of pseudosciences like economics, sociology, evolutionary psychology and (God help us) 'management' to the increasing preference for virtual worlds over the real one and for isolation over society, the denial of the physical realities of life and especially death, an increasingly distant, sanitised relationship with nature, and so on and on - the list is endless. One of the manifestations of this flight from reality is all too apparent in the workplace, where a fixation on process and regulation has led to a climate in which, in ever more fields of activity, people are busier than ever, but the actual doing of the job, in the sense of the activity that is supposed to produce the desired outcome, is all but marginal. Nursing is a classic case, and one that can affect us in peculiarly painful, life and death ways. One hears all too often of wards where nurses spend all their time glued to computer screens or in meetings, leaving the actual business of what used to be known as nursing, i.e. looking after patients, to juniors, nursing assistants or short-term agency staff (and I've seen this for myself often enough to know it's not mere anecdotal grumbling). Basics such as cleaning, patients' hygiene and bed care, even feeding - let alone good manners or reassurance and solace - are neglected, while the business of 'nursing' goes on at a level that apparently has little or nothing to do with the actual hands-on care of the patient. And now there's a serious proposal to make nursing a 'graduate profession', thereby divorcing it even further from reality and paving the way for a future when no 'nurses' will actually nurse.
How have we come to this pass? The author of this interesting book suggests a neurological explanation: the left brain - detail-oriented and favouring mechanical systems over living organisms - has become increasingly dominant over the right, the hemisphere that, with its 'breadth, flexibility and generosity', has a better grasp of living reality in all its mess and mutability. Well, he may be right - though I'm inclined to doubt that it's a sufficient explanation - but if he is, that begs the question Why? Why this increasing left-brain dominance? Is there an evolutionary explanation? If there is, it would seem to be one of those evolutionary processes that is, somewhat paradoxically, driving us in the direction of self-destruction - and, in the workplace, away from the common sense and informal exercise of professional judgment that were by no means infallible but at least tended towards getting the job done.
By the way, can anyone answer this one? If you're left-handed, does that mean that your right hemisphere is dominant, and does it have the same nature as the right hemisphere in a right-handed person's brain? If we left-handers are indeed 'right-brained', then clearly it's time we took over the world...

Poor Martha

Rain, gales, thunder. A cheering postcard arrives from my dear cousin, the one I was recently reunited with after we absentmindedly lost touch with each other 15 or so years ago. Sent from the National Gallery, the postcard shows Velazquez's beautiful and mysterious Christ In The House Of Mary And Martha, one of that great gallery's greatest treasures (though not, I imagine, one of its most popular). My cousin - like most women, I fancy - has a soft spot for poor Martha, who busied herself with preparing food and wine while her sister sat at the feet of the visiting Jesus. This was work that someone had to do - why Martha, unaided? 'Distracted by her many tasks', Martha complains, perfectly reasonably: 'Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to help me.' To which Jesus, no doubt already enjoying the fruits of Martha's efforts, replies, 'Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.' Hmmm. This is not Jesus at his most sympathetic, and it's hard not to feel sorry for poor Martha after that withering retort. However, when their brother Lazarus dies and Jesus comes to raise him from the dead, it is Martha who walks out to meet him on the road, and strongly professes her faith in his powers and his divine nature, and it is to her that Jesus utters the words: 'I am the resurrection and the life...' Traditionally, Martha is seen as representing action (love of neighbour, good works) and Mary contemplation (faith and devotion). Which has precedence? Probably, in the end, action: as Jesus says, 'If a man love not his brother, whom he has seen, how shall he love God whom he has not seen?' And if a woman toil not in the kitchen, how shall anyone, son of God or not, be fed?

Friday, 13 November 2009

Haggard Weather

Gloom and incessant rain today - the kind of weather that puts me in mind of Squire Haggard's Journal, that minor near-classic of English humour, in which every day's entry begins with rain, gales, floods, hailstorms, hurricanoes or somesuch grim and extreme weather - but never sufficiently grim to deter the Squire from his vigorous wenching, carousing and persecution of tenants, foreigners, clerics, dissenters and anyone else who might cross him. The Journal used to appear in the fondly remembered Peter Simple column in the Telegraph, in which the extraordinary Michael Wharton was left to his own devices for nearly 50 years, creating a world of his own, peopled by the likes of Dr Spacely-Trellis, go-ahead Bishop of Bevindon, the psychoanalyst Dr Heinz Kiosk, Hampstead socialist Mrs Dutt-Pauker (not to mention her grandson, the precociously bearded Bert Brecht), underwater motorycling ace Trevor Dimwiddie, Jeremy Clarkson prototype J. Bonington Jagworth, and Julian Birdbath, 'last citizen of the Republic of Letters'. (Squire Haggard, though, was not one of Wharton's own, but contributed by Michael Green.) Newspapers - and newspaper writers - were very different creatures in those days, and humour of any kind is hard to find in their pages nowadays(apart from the brilliant cartoons of Matt, grandson of V.S. Pritchett)...
And now, by way of spreading a little cheer, I pass on the day's top story. I like that quote: 'If the cat wasn't dead, I'd have killed it by now.'

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Cravat Heroes, No 4: Roger Moore

All that talk of gents and cravats over at Bryan's place reminds me that it's high time I unleashed another Cravat Hero on the waiting world. Roger Moore began by modelling knitwear, and continued to model a variety of formal and leisure wear for many decades, under the guise of an acting career (a career that connoisseurs agree peaked with his Lord Brett Sinclair in The Persuaders, opposite Tony Curtis). In matters of the dramatic art, Moore was a rigorous minimalist and restricted his efforts to the raising and lowering of one eyebrow, clearly believing that 'less is more'. Alas, in his case, less was indeed less - or rather, less was (hem hem) Moore. Strangely, Moore - a natural cravat man if ever there was one - has not pulled his weight in this crucial field of neckwear, usually preferring the naked neck look with an open shirt (long past the point at which this ceased to be advisable on aesthetic grounds). However, it has always seemed as if a kind of Platonic cravat was somehow there, even in its physical absence, rather as an ectoplasmic moustache has always hovered over John Major's upper lip. I think, despite everything (including the questionable pairing of a cravat with a frilly shirt), Roger Moore is worthy of inclusion in the Cravat Heroes pantheon, while he is still, I believe, alive...

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Storm and Silence

Once again I'm in the thick of a NigeCorp workstorm - very tiresome, especially as it gets in the way of blogging, or indeed thinking, in any worthwhile sense. However, the storm did cease, briefly and impressively, at 11 o'clock this morning, as the office fell quiet, and all London outside it, as quiet as London ever gets. There is something uniquely deep and intense about a city silence, though it is nowhere near complete; there are always stray sounds and the inescapable background hum of traffic and aviation - but it has a terrific presence. It's a silence that doesn't just happen - it truly falls. If there can be such a thing, it's a resonant silence. And it's a fine thing that this Remembrance silence is still observed, in the midst of all the busyness of the world.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Brown and Country?

Heaven knows I loathe the excrescence Brown and all his works, but this neverending letter saga has me almost feeling sorry for him. Of course, as a non-human lifeform (a fact I spotted very early on in his leadership) he is massively maladroit when it comes to normal everyday human activities, such as smiling, kissing ladies' cheeks and bowing the head at Remembrance services - but what was he thinking of when he scrawled this 'letter' and allowed it to go out? What kind of state is he in? Is it any fit state to be out and about, let alone running the country? It is really (to be charitable) desperately sad, and I rather wish I'd never heard about it in the first place (we only did because The Sun chose to milk a grieving mother's rage). But never mind this particular letter - what does he think he's doing writing to soldiers' families? It's most definintely not him or any government they're fighting for - it is firstly their comrades in arms, and, more broadly, 'Queen and Country'. Not Brown and Country. The only official letters sent out should be from senior officers and (in a non-personalised form) the Queen. Meanwhile, we should continue to be duly thankful that casualties in this war are on such a small scale that a prime minister can even contemplate sending out individual letters. But, please, no more.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Hedy Stuff

This blog cannot let today go by without pausing to salute the geat Hedy Lamarr, born on this date in 1914. Described by Max Reinhardt as 'the most beautiful woman in Europe' (you can see his point), she gained early notoriety in a famous slice of arty porn, Ecstasy, prancing about in the altogether, skinny-dipping and assuming an orgasmic facial expression - achieved, she claimed, by the director pricking her in the bottom with a needle. Hmm... Her first marriage, to a fascistically inclined Austrian arms magnate, was not a howling success, but, in his determination to keep her out of mischief, he would take his young wife with him to technical meetings - where, with her sharp mathematical mind, she picked up a lot of useful information about military technology. This would come in handy later in her life, when she had fled her husband and headed for Hollywood, movies, more husbands and lovers - and the invention, in collaboration with the avant-garde composer George Antheil, of a Secret Communications System, which they patented in 1942. Apparently this was an invention far ahead of its time, having to rely on the primitive technololgy of a piano roll, but it was, according to those who know about such things, an early version of frequency hopping, and a precursor of spread spectrum communications technology, which, according to Wikipedia, is 'a key to modern wireless technology'. So there you are - what a dame! Brains and beauty too... Happy birthday, Hedy, wherever you are.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

One More for Remembrance

Here's a brilliantly perceptive, and moving, essay by Robert Macfarlane on Edward Thomas and the South Country - it went out last week on Radio 3. The second of the series, but the fourth item here: Haunting.

A Neglected Classic?

The Radio 4 programme Open Book has been in search of neglected classics, asking various writers to make their nominations, then throwing the list open to a public vote. Now they have a winner. Yes, The Snow Goose, the sentimental novella by Paul Gallico which was a huge hit with readers (and even some critics) in its day, has remained in print and extremely popular (especially in Britain) ever since, is widely read in schools, was made into a very successful TV movie, and even inspired an album by prog rock band Camel (true - it was called Music Inspired by The Snow Goose, a most unprogrocklike title). In what sense, then, is The Snow Goose a 'neglected classic'? It sticks out like a sore thumb from what is otherwise a rather interesting list - if only Rasselas had won! Or Esther Waters, or The Polyglots, or The Quest for Corvo, or... well, anything but The Snow Goose really.

Winter Bees

I've noticed in the past couple of years that bumblebees seem to be flying long after the end of summer and before the coming of spring. Now a research study (reported in today's Telegraph, but unavailable on their notoriously useless website) has found that many of our bumblebees are indeed giving up on hibernation and staying active through the winter months. Naturally the scientsts' first thought is that this is down to 'climate change' (as they like to call the Slight British Warming), but they acknowledge that other factors must be at work, since it is only in Britain that this overwintering is occurring. Perhaps our native bumbles are interbreeding with hardier foreign species, introduced to help with pollination in polytunnels - or, more likely, since winter flying is predominantly an urban/suburban phenomenon, it's down to our helpful planting of exotic winter-flowering shrubs (especially bee-friendly Mahonia) in our gardens. So, once again - as with, for example, the Large Blue and Heath Fritillary - man's activity proves to be a benign influence on nature.

One for Remembrance

A Private
by Edward Thomas

This ploughman dead in battle slept out of doors
Many a frozen night, and merrily
Answered staid drinkers, good bedmen, and all bores:
"At Mrs Greenland's Hawthorn Bush," said he,
"I slept." None knew which bush. Above the town,
Beyond `The Drover', a hundred spot the down
In Wiltshire. And where now at last he sleeps
More sound in France -that, too, he secret keeps.

Friday, 6 November 2009

What's Not To Like?

Edsel Ford, the curiously named only son of Henry, and President of Ford Motor Company from 1919 to 1943, was born on this day in 1893. His posthumous fame (if that's the word) was assured when a new Ford bearing his name was launched with much hype and razzmatazz in 1957 - and flopped spectacularly. What went wrong? Examine the picture above and ask yourself, What's not to like?

Just Another Brick in the...

Twenty years ago, channeling the power of rock through his mighty anthem Looking For Freedom (Number One in Austria, Switzerland and West Germany), David Hasselhoff brought the Berlin Wall crashing down in ruins. (Okay, there may have been other factors - that's for historians to argue.) To mark the ocassion and seal his place in history, the Hoff performed Looking For Freedom atop what was left of the Berlin Wall, where he was greeted with delirious applause from a crowd numbering hundreds of thousands. Fast forward twenty years and the Irish midget who calls himself 'Bono' takes a break from his duties as international statesman and universal sage to blatantly steal Hasselhoff's thunder by fronting his side project U2 (World's Most Boring Band?) in a free concert at the Berlin Wall - a free concert tactfully hidden from the view of non-ticket holders by a socking great metal wall! That's the spirit, Bono! If only the Hoff had been there to scale that metal wall, guitar in hand, and belt out Walking To Freedom - that would have shown them... As Plato almost said, 'When the mode of the music changes, the walls of the city shake.'

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Any Excuse for a Venetian Painting

The Venetian painter Pietro Longhi was born on this day in 1701. His genre scenes have a charm all their own, with their muted tones, their quality of stillness, the oddly stiff figures, faces hidden or vaguely smiling, the mingled air of amiable comedy and quiet sadness (as in Domenico Tiepolo's Punchinello scenes). Longhi's pictures minutely catalogue the everyday activities (or inactivities) of a society fascinated by itself, turned in on itself, living through the long hedonistic afterglow of Venice's greatness (see Browning). Too accomplished a painter to be a naif, too good-humoured to be the 'Venetian Hogarth', Longhi is just Longhi. And that rhinoceros, by the way, is the celebrity rhino Clara, who had quite a life...

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Good Grief!

A while back, like everyone else, I signed the e-petition calling on Gord to resign. Now I've had a 'response' from Downing Street, consisting of a link to this. Nice of him to explain - if I'd only known he was 'completely focussed' on all those big important things, I wouldn't have signed in the first place. Time for a new petition begging him to stay?

Grimaldi 2: The Blues

What drew me to the Memoirs of Grimaldi was the discovery that he was at one time in his life passionately keen on butterflies - specifically, Dartford Blues. These are the most beautiful of all the blues, the ones we now call Adonis blues. Here's Grimaldi - a man who seems to have had the same phenomenal physical energy as Dickens himself - in June 1794:

'Being engaged nightly at Sadler's Wells, he was obliged to wait till he had finished his business upon the stage: then he returned home, had supper, and shortly after midnight started off to walk to Dartford, 15 miles from town. Here he arrived about five o'clock in the morning, and calling upon a friend of the name of Brooks, who lived in the neighbourhood, and who was already stirring, he rested, breakfasted, and sallied forth into the fields. His search was not very profitable, however, for after some hours he had only succeeded in bagging , or bottling, one Dartford Blue, with which he returned to his friend perfectly satisfied. At one o'clock he bade his friend good by, walked back to town, reached London by five, washed, took tea, and hurried to Sadler's Wells... On the same night, directly the pantomime was over, and supper over too, off he walked down to Dartford again, found the friend up again, took a hasty breakfast again, and resumed his search again. Meeting with better sport, and capturing no fewer than four dozen Dartford Blues, he hurried back to his friend's; set them... started off with the Dartford Blues in his pocket for London once more, reached home by four o'clock in the afternoon, washed, and took a hasty meal, then went to the theatre for the evening's performance.'

Incredibly, he was off to Dartford again that same night, and again on Sunday, when he had a whole day chasing the Dartford Blues, and was back in London in time for a 12 o'clock Monday morning rehearsal at Drury Lane.

It's sad, reading these exploits, to realise how many of the creatures he loved he must have killed - his collection was said to number some 4,000 butterflies - but such wholesale slaughter was commonplace, even into the 20th century. Victorian collectors thought nothing of taking out entire colonies, even of such rarities as the Large Blue and Large Copper - careless alike of the single life and of the type, it seems. On the other hand, there's no mistaking Grimaldi's consuming passion for the Dartford Blue, and it seems not to have been purely a hunter's passion; he appreciated their beauty enough to try to recapture it in watercolour. In old age, he took a particular pleasure in recalling the places where he had chased them, and the summer days devoted to the pursuit. The active side of it all ended, though, when his house in Pentonville was burgled by a gang who, smashing into the closet that housed his collection and seeing no value in it, destroyed everything but one small box and some items of collecting kit - which Grimaldi gave away the next day to an acquaintance. He never again took up his net.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

A Scene from the Early Life of Grimaldi

One of the books my old English master gave me in the course of our 40-year friendship was a copy of the Memoirs of Grimaldi, edited by Boz - an early project of the indefatigable Dickens, who seems to have been called in by the publishers to prune and polish the work of the famous clown and of another editor. The early chapters are, as so often with memoirs, full of interest, with cheerful descriptions of young Joey's barely believable sufferings at the hands of his father - the dancer Joseph 'Iron Legs' Grimaldi - both on and off stage (Grimaldi senior was an enthusiastic flogger). Then there's the extraordinary tale of how the older Joseph, having overheard his young children innocently relishing the prospect of one day inheriting all the plate in the dining room, had himself laid out in the parlour and his two sons informed of his death.

'When Joe was brought into the dark room on so short a notice, his sensations were rather complicated, but they speedily resolved themselves into a firm persuasion that his father was not dead. A variety of causes led him to this conclusion, among which the most prominent were, his having recently seen his father in the best health; and... his observing, by looking closely at the sheet, that his deceased parent still breathed. With very little hesitation the boy perceived what line of conduct he ought to adopt, and at once bursting into a roar of the most distracted grief, flung himself upon the floor, and rolled about in a seeming transport of anguish.
John [Joey's brother], not having seen so much of public life as his brother, was not so cunning, and perceiving in his father's death nothing but a relief from flogging and books (for both of which he had a great dislike), and the immediate possession of all the plate in the dining room, indulging in various snatches of song and snapping his fingers, declared that he was very glad to hear it.
'O! you cruel boy,' said Joe, in a passion of tears, 'hadn't you any love for your dear father? Oh! what would I give to see him alive again!'
'Oh! never mind,' replied the brother; 'don't be such a fool as to cry; we can have the cuckoo-clock all to ourselves now.'
This was more than the deceased could bear. He jumped from the bier, opened the shutters, threw off the sheet, and attacked his younger son most unmercifully...'

So, fathers, if you wish to test the devotion of your children (and you're a sadistic psycho), you know what to do...

For Laika

Last night I read this poem by Zbigniew Herbert, commemorating the unfortunate Laika, the first living creature to be launched into space. This morning I woke to discover that it was on this day in 1957 that the poor mutt was sent to a certain, and almost certainly agonising, death (about which, of course, the Soviets lied). Laika has an honourable place in the tacky iconography of Soviet space exploration, and several grandiose sculpted monuments - but Herbert's sad bleak poem is her true memorial.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing

Last weekend I inadvertently caught on TV a performance by what was left of the BeeGees (a couple of weird old men doing bad karaoke) and a dreary, massively self-important documentary promoting (god help us) a Fleetwood Mac reunion, and I thought to myself, as usual, Why do they do it? Or rather, why do people flock to see acts who long ago lost their mojos, pay a small fortune to sit somewhere in the same huge arena as their idols? Perhaps they're somehow unable to move on musically, locked into the once exciting music of their youth and therefore loyal to the performers who made it, regardless of their decline into inept self-parody. Equating the performers with the music is the problem, I think. If you want to relive the excitement of a great band in its heyday, remind yourself of what it was all about, you'd be better off with a good tribute band, rather than the survivors themselves, as like as not merely going through the motions for the sake of their pension pots. Ah but a tribute band is not the 'real thing'. Isn't it? In the sense that it gives a more authentic idea of what a band could do at its best, I'd say it is closer to the 'real thing' than the dismal spectacle presented by the 'dead but don't known it' originators of the music. Or of course you could just stay at home with your vinyl...

'A Beautiful but Silent View'

I'm rereading, after many years, W.G. Hoskins' The Making of the English Landscape, first published in 1955, in many ways overtaken by later studies, but still the classic of its subject - and undoubtedly the best written. Hoskins is animated by a love and deep, intimate knowledge of certain local lanscapes - especially those of Devon and Cornwall, the Midlands and north Oxfordshire - and by nostalgia for the things he saw as being lost to 'the lunacy of the 20th century', with its 'foul and joyless towns' and its new roads, 'treeless and stinking of deisel oil, murderous with lorries'. In the Midland countryside, he hears 'the dull roar of a fast main-line train taking people from a dismal illiberal life in Birmingham to a dismal illiberal life in London'. A thoroughgoing reactionary (he was against, among other things, 'income-tax, hydrogen bombs and the relentless onward march of science'), Hoskins clearly believed that England lived through a kind of golden age, between about 1570 and 1770, when the long battle to clear and colonise the land was won, parliamentary enclosure and factory industrialisation were yet to come, and 'men lived in a place that had meaning and significance for them'. Well, maybe - and surely this is still true of some men in some places (I certainly feel it's true of me, rooted for half a century in this suburban demiparadise)...

Hoskins's great insight is that landscape can only be understood when viewed in four dimensions. Time is what gives it depth and brings it fully to life, and Hoskins sees that, in the end, 'Everything is older than we think' - a truth that all who look back on earlier ages, especially the more remote ones, would do well to bear in mind. Here is a passage, not from The Making of the English Landscape, but from a later essay, that sums up the rich rewards - the necessity even - of looking closely at a landscape and reading it, knowing it in all its historical depth:

'It is satisfying to sit upon a Saxon boundary bank that commands a view of perhaps three or four miles, no more, near enough for everything to be seen clearly, and to be able to give a name to every farm dotted about the fields, to every wood and lane, to know which of these farms is recorded in Domesday Book, and which came later in the great colonisation movement of the 13th century; to see on the opposite slopes, Georgian stucco shining in the afternoon sun, the house of some impoverished squire whose ancestors settled on that hillside in the time of king John and took their name from it; to know that behind one there lies the ancient estate of a long-vanished abbey where St Boniface had his earliest schooling, and that in front stretches the demesne farm of Anglo-Saxon and Norman kings; to be aware, if you like, that one is part of an immense unbroken stream that has flowed over this scene for more than a thousand years; but at any rate to look at every feature with exact knowledge, able to give a name to it and knowing how it got there, and not just to gaze uncomprehendingly at it as a beautiful but silent view.'

To read Hoskins is truly to have your eyes opened, and I'd urge anyone who hasn't got round to it to put him on your 'to read' list - or maybe your Christmas list(the Folio Society publishes a handsome edition, slipcase and all).

Sunday, 1 November 2009


There's only story that really matters today - this earth-shaking - nay cosmos-shaking - saga from the wonderful world of the Twitterati. Do we laugh or cry? We certainly - in my case - resolve never to go anywhere near Twitter. Meanwhile, I've had it with this blog - we're through - and it's all your fault, Dearieme (and Anonymous). I hereby retire from the blogscape.
No I don't. Only joshing ;-)

Nutt, Strictly and Crooked Timber

The gloriously named Professor David Nutt is still stomping around in a big huff, having been rather amusingly sacked (it can't have been Brown - it's too witty). Grumbling on the radio yesterday, he gave a clear impression that he seriously believed the country (and no doubt the entire known universe) should be ruled by 'good science', i.e. the latest thinking of the scientists, based on the latest research, of whatever quality. This was not questioned, nor was it pointed out that the 'best scientific advice' tends to swing about like a weathercock in a banging gale. Apply 'good science' and nothing else to Professor Nutt's field of expertise and you'd end up with booze and fags classed as controlled drugs, the pubs closed and ciggies on prescription (at best). Perhaps this is what he wants - I rather suspect it is - but it is not what any government with any kind of democratic mandate could or would ever dream of enacting. Policy can never be dictated by scientific advice, and there is such a thing as democracy - as the distinguished judges on Strictly Come Dancing are dismayed to learn afresh with each new series. As the results of last night's 'viewers' vote' came in, forcing two of the best contestants into a dance-off, the judges' jaws hung, their heads were in their hands, they could not believe what they were seeing. Well, that's democracy for you - and meanwhile, as Bryan reminds us, 15 million humanoid lifeforms were choosing to watch The X Factor instead. As Kant remarked, 'Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.'

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Hello Emmylou, Goodbye Dear Departed

Listening to Emmylou Harris last night, my mind wandered back to the subject of secular funeral music. If you must have secular, this seems to me to fit the bill beautifully. Ostensibly it's about a dog (must have been some dog!), but it's a beautiful, universal song of loss and grief. As is her other classic, Boulder to Birmingham. Equally fitting for a funeral would be her lovely version of Beyond the Great Divide (on All I Intended to Be). There - three secular options, none of which would set the teeth on edge.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Busy Busy

Brit usefully divides the human race - or rather the working portion of it - into Tortoises and Hares. There are, of course, two kinds of people: those who divide the world into two kinds of people, and those who don't - but here's another useful division: People who get round to things and People who don't. There's a saying 'If you want a job done, ask a busy man' and it has a deal of truth in it. A busy person is, self-evidently, a person who gets round to doing things; an underoccupied person is one who doesn't. A busy person is also likely to be one who knows how to manage his time to fit into it as much as he can, and to get jobs out of the way with as much dispatch as possible. As I draw near my seventh decade (Lord, there's a thought) and life gets relentelssly busier rather than quieter, I find myself organising my time more and more - in order not to let it got to waste, and, mostly, in the interests of fitting in as many pleasurable activities (reading, walking, listening to music etc) as possible. I am the more busy that I may spend more time pleasurably and profitably 'idle'. On the other hand, if you want a job done, please don't ask me.

The Radio Age

More progress (ha!) on the retroprogressive front, with the latest radio listening figures showing that 45.7 million people listen every week - that's very nearly 90 percent of the population. Surely television, the shiny new medium, was supposed to sweep radio listening into the margins, a quaint survival in an age of wraparound visual entertainment. Well happily it hasn't worked out that way. The trouble with any form of visual entertainment is that it necessarily has a static source - whether TV or computer (mobile phones are really not an option) - and therefore requires rather a lot of focused attention. Radio, on the other hand, being nothing more than sounds in the air, can follow you anywhere, and you can get the minimal equipment you need in totally portable form. 'Perfect for today's busy lifestyle.' (In the early days of radio, it was, oddly, more like TV, in that the family would assemble round the only set in the house, essentially a large item of furniture, and focus their attention on it, even staring at it as if there was something to see. Hence the decorative fretboard over the speaker.) Radio listening is a wholly different experience from TV watching - more human, more intimate, more like being with another person. It has a stronger emotional hold than television, is more like 'company'. And, of course, there's an awful lot of good stuff on, especially on Radios 3 and 4 - both showing good increases in listeners in the latest figures. This very morning I was listening to Melvyn and co discussing Schopenhauer on Radio 4 (admittedly this would be followed in due course by Woman's Hour and You and Yours, but it's an imperfect world). This is the Radio Age - forward to the past!