Monday, 31 August 2015

Peppa Pig and the Crisis of Masculinity

Bryan Appleyard recently wrote a fine piece on that pervasive cultural phenomenon of our times, the Hapless (not to say comprehensively incompetent and pathetic) Male - here's a link... Oddly he makes no mention of Peppa Pig - perhaps he's lucky enough never to have encountered the phenomenon.
 Peppa Pig, I should explain, is a hugely popular porcine - hugely popular, that is, with the nation's toddlers. The adventures of Peppa and her family - not to mention all the spin-off merchandise - are everywhere in the toddler's world, and the stories (crudely drawn and lazily written) appear to exert a mysterious fascination, bordering on addiction. My granddaughter - who, as I might have mentioned before, is the most adorable two-year-old on the planet - is, alas, a huge fan of Peppa Pig, and currently can't get enough of a compendium volume containing six stories of Peppa and her family. Heaven knows how many times I and her parents and grandmother have read her these stories - and how we have suffered in the process.
 But where, you might be asking, does the Hapless Male come in? He takes the form of Daddy Pig, a character whose ill-shaven face resembles a scrotum and who represents Hapless Masculinity in excelsis. This is a man - okay, boar - who would be hard pressed to (as the Australians say) find his bum with both hands. Everything he attempts results in epic failure and humiliation. When he takes the wheel of a car, he will instantly get lost and have to be helped out by Mummy Pig or any other (by definition omnicompetent) female who happens to be around. When the oil runs low, he will prove himself unable even to find the engine without the help of a passing woman - okay, sheep.
 On a visit to the funfair, Daddy Pig throws a wobbly when he reaches the top of the helter skelter and proves so shaky afterwards that he can't wield the hammer on the 'test your strength' set-up, so Mummy Pig takes over and instantly rings the bell and wins the prize. Yes, this sad sap doesn't even have physical strength or strong nerves, let alone mental competence or basic life skills. Only once does Daddy Pig demonstrate anything resembling a useful ability: this is in the last story in the volume, when he unexpectedly proves capable of diving to the bottom of the swimming pool to retrieve a lost item for a friend of Peppa's, who thanks him by kicking water into his uncomplaining imbecilic face.
 Happily the adorable granddaughter is also under the spell of Beatrix Potter and Shirley Hughes and Maurice Sendak and an ever growing range of benign literary influences, so it's unlikely Peppa Pig will have made any lasting impression. However, it's come to something, hasn't it, when such a blatantly sexist, emasculating version of family life passes without comment and is regarded as normal, healthy fare for very young minds?

Sunday, 30 August 2015


Let's have a little Sunday music again...
Glenn Gould's favourite composer was not, as you might expect, Bach, but the great Jacobean Orlando Gibbons: 'He is my favourite composer,' declared Gould, 'always has been. I can't think of anybody who represents the end of an era better than Orlando Gibbons does.' Having heard a recording of Gould playing Gibbons (Lord Salisbury's Pavan and Galliard) the other day, I thought I might post a link to more, but nearly all the footage seems to be barred to UK viewers. While I was searching, though, I came across this - a piano arrangement of a Vaughan Williams piece better known in its orchestral version: Hymn-Tune Prelude on Song 13 by Orlando Gibbons. I think it's rather lovely - enjoy (and enjoy the accompanying Peak District landscapes)...

Friday, 28 August 2015

Improved Pubs: Art Deco and Tudor Beams

I'm glad to see that English Heritage has just listed 20 pubs from the interwar period. Products of the 'improved pub' movement that aimed to shake off the Victorian image of pubs as unsavoury drinking dens, these interwar establishments were intended to be wholesome and cheering features of the community, aimed at attracting respectable family men, their wives and even families. They are, most conspicuously, magnificent flights of fantasy - mock-Tudor, mock-baronial, mock-Georgian, mock-rustic, mock-sophisticated - and in this they are very much in keeping with the spirit of the times, and the national character.
 The bald facts of history present the period following the Wall Street Crash as one of prolonged depression, unemployment, unrest and displacement - and yet its built heritage has come down to us as cheery, wholesome, and irremediably fantastic. As well as these fantasy pubs, there are fantasy factories and office buildings, whimsically pretending to be something else - and, above all, that vast acreage covered by mock-Tudor speculative housing, with its streets and avenues and crescents and 'drives', all lined with cosy three-bedroom semis clad in nailed-on 'half-timbering', where the Englishman could believe his (rented) family home was not only his castle but also his country cottage, complete with cottage garden. Domestic fantasy on this scale is, I think, a uniquely English phenomenon, a product of that cheerfully fantastic vein in the English character that is explored so brilliantly by Dickens and, after him, V.S. Pritchett. The pity is that so many of those jolly mock-Tudor semis have now been denatured by replacement windows and roofs and satellite dishes and, above all, by the removal of their front gardens to make parking space for the all-conquering car, whose intrusive presence everywhere has all but put paid to those interwar dreams of rus in urbe.
 But now I'm off to the pub - cheers!

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Eltham: Art Deco and Moats

Yesterday, with the rain still falling, I paid a visit to Eltham Palace, a rare survival in Southeast London of a moated bishop's palace, made the more remarkable by the additions and modifications wrought by the Courtauld family in the 1930s.
The result is a bizarre amalgam, or cut-and-shut, of medieval solidity and Art Deco luxury. Being no fan of the Art Deco style, I wandered around these lavish interiors - recently refurbished - dreaming wistfully of what might have been, had a first-rate Arts and Crafts architect got to work on the restoration and adaptation of the palace.
 Eltham is an English Heritage property, and its presentation is directed firmly at 'engaging' the public, re-creating the experience of being a guest in the house, etc. Which would be fine (or at least ignorable) if they'd been a bit more diligent in the refurbishment of the interiors: there are some jarring touches, such as incongruously new taps in some of the bathrooms, and some odd choices of replacement textiles, rugs, etc. Little remains in the house of the Courtaulds' great art collection (and that little is mostly neither labelled nor mentioned in the guidebook), but there are two Veroneses skulking in the shadows - and one of them is in such dire need of cleaning that it's barely visible.
 Still, on the plus side, the medieval great hall is a wonderful survival, its mighty hammerbeam roof a marvel. We had a good view of it from the minstrels' gallery, while down below in the hall, excited children were whacking each other with rubber swords, egged on by a young would-be actor in medieval clothing - all very English Heritage... And the beautiful moat, the gardens, the setting of the house, the tout ensemble are all fine (though a contemporary critic of the 1930s building likened it to a strangely misplaced cigarette factory, and you can see his point). On a less rainy day, the whole experience would have been, I'm sure, very much more enjoyable.
 The same could also be said of the day's other attraction, a mile or so up the road, hard by the railway, the high-street shops and the A2 - Well Hall Pleasaunce, a fine garden, or series of gardens, dating back to medieval times. With formal layouts, a large walled garden, woodland and water, it's a delightful place for a stroll, though it would of course be a good deal more pleasaunt in dry and sunny weather. Well Hall Place - the tall 18th-century house where E. Nesbit lived - was sadly demolished in the 1930s, but the magnificent moat survives (and beside it a restored Tudor barn). It was in Well Hall Place that Nesbit wrote her greatest works, toiling away into the night to support her husband, the appalling Hubert Bland, their family, two of his by-blows and one of his mistresses. Still, she did find time for the occasional punt on the moat.


Monday, 24 August 2015


On a grim day of siling rain and livid skies, it's cheering to note that at least it's Max Beerbohm's birthday - 143 today. Somehow it's always cheering to think of Max - and of how many writers or artists can one say that? He seems to have been - at least in his prime - one of those endlessly likeable people who, in a quiet unshowy manner, make their surroundings and the people around them that bit brighter. This, certainly, is the personality that shines through his writings. The few who disliked him were just the sort of people you'd want to be disliked by: Ezra Pound caricatured him in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley -

'The sky-like limpid eyes,
The circular infant's face,
The stiffness from spats to collar
Never relaxing into grace;

The heavy memories of Horeb, Sinai and the forty years,
Showed only when the daylight fell
Level across the face
Of Brennbaum "The Impeccable".' 

And Malcolm Muggeridge, who cordially loathed Beerbohm, also identified him as Jewish - and homosexual to boot. Max, to his regret, was not Jewish ('That my talent is rather like Jewish talent I admit readily... But, being in fact a Gentile, I am, in a small way, rather remarkable, and wish to remain so'), and his sexuality remains terra incognita, though his long marriage to the American actress Florence Kahn seems to have been happy enough, despite (or because of?) their sharply contrasting temperaments. What's more, he married again shortly before his death at the age of 83.
 As a young boy, Max attended a day school run by a Mr Wilkinson, who, Beerbohm later said, 'gave me my love of Latin and thereby enabled me to write English'. Indeed. If Latin were still taught routinely in schools, the standard of written English would surely be a good deal higher.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Met and Music

After weeks of notably wayward 'weather forecasts', it was good to hear this morning that the notorious Met Office has lost its BBC contract after 93 long years. This was clearly not the wish of the BBC but, for some crazy reason, the Corporation finds itself obliged these days to get the best value for the licence-payers' money. Let's hope the dumping of the Met Office ushers in an era of better, more accurate forecasting. Alas, it probably won't mean that we've seen the last of those 'personality' forecasters, as they'll be free to negotiate contracts with the new providers. So we can expect the insufferable Tomasz Schafernaker to come bouncing back...

Meanwhile, in the continuing absence of The Dabbler (though there are hopeful signs of life), let's have a little Sunday music.
 Like everybody [?], I devote a good deal of futile thought to my eight Desert Island Discs (you never know when you might find yourself stranded with nothing but a wind-up gramophone, your eight favourite platters, the Bible, Shakespeare and a book of your choice). The music list keeps changing - indeed never settles down to a final eight - but one piece I thought would be a permanent fixture was Vaughan Williams' Tallis Fantasia, music that is both intensely beautiful and intensely English. However, lately I've been drawn more and more to the equally beautiful, equally English Serenade to Music.
 This setting of a famous passage from Act V of The Merchant of Venice ('How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank...'), for orchestra, chorus and 16 soloists - four sopranos, four contraltos, four tenors, two baritones and two basses - is, for obvious reasons, less often performed and recorded than many of RVW's other masterpieces. It was composed as a tribute to Sir Henry Wood, who conducted the first performance, at the Royal Albert Hall on 5 October 1938. Sergei Rachmaninov, who had performed his Second Piano Concerto in the first half of the concert, settled in a box to enjoy the rest of the evening. At the end of the Serenade, he was found in tears, overcome by the beauty of the music. And no wonder.
 Wood also made the first recording of the piece, with the same soloists, and, rather wonderfully, we can still hear it today, just as Vaughan Williams intended it, and (allowing for sound quality) as Rachmaninov would have heard it. Follow this link (and be sure to turn off when the Serenade ends or you might find yourself confronted with the grinning visage of Alan Titchmarsh).

Friday, 21 August 2015

Oliver's Blues

On this day 60 years ago, the 33-year-old Philip Larkin was on his holidays and having a whale of a time (hem hem). Paying a reluctant return visit to his 'unsatisfactory' parental home in the 'unsatisfactory prime' of his life, he was idly playing jazz records in his 'unsatisfactory' room to pass the time. One of them - Joe 'King' Oliver's Riverside Blues - elicited a call of 'That was a pretty one' from his mother in the hall. From that unpromising soil the poem Reference Back sprang suddenly up - a poem that, like so many of Larkin's, climbs steadily in register as it nears its sharp uncomfortable nub, the pain and loss of time's passing.

That was a pretty one, I heard you call
From the unsatisfactory hall
To the unsatisfactory room where I
Played record after record, idly,
Wasting my time at home, that you
Looked so much forward to.
Oliver’s Riverside Blues, it was. And now
I shall, I suppose, always remember how
The flock of notes those antique negroes blew
Out of Chicago air into
A huge remembering pre-electric horn
The year after I was born
Three decades later made this sudden bridge
From your unsatisfactory age
To my unsatisfactory prime.
Truly, though our element is time,
We are not suited to the long perspectives
Open at each instant of our lives.
They link us to our losses: worse,
They show us what we have as it once was,
Blindingly undiminished, just as though
By acting differently, we could have kept it so.
This is the track Larkin was listening to  - the Creole Jazz Band in its prime, 'blindingly undiminished', with Louis Armstrong on second cornet and Johnny Dodds on clarinet. A pretty one indeed...
Fifteen years later, King Oliver died, a broke and broken man, in a rooming house in Savannah.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Stop the Dippy Superhighway!

Here's a sorry tale from the Natural History Museum, where plans are afoot to bulldoze a superhighway through its beautiful Wildlife Garden to speed the punters towards Dippy the Diplodocus. You couldn't make it up...
 I enjoyed strolling round that garden - carefully laid out and developed over 20-plus years - on my last visit to the museum. (Indeed, I enjoyed it more than anything else, except the butterflies.) As the scientists point out, it's a unique habitat in central London, and home to some rare species (though the Jersey Tiger certainly isn't rare in London these days). It is also very beautiful, in a very English way. And yet the marketing types who seem to run the museum (and many others) these days want to sacrifice it to a Jurassic theme park and Dippy the feckin' Diplodocus. Let's hope Kensington & Chelsea council puts a stop to this nonsense right away.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Finished and Unfinished at the Courtauld

The Courtauld Gallery in Somerset House - its fine rooms radiating from one of London's great staircases - is always a joy to visit, and the more so now that I carry a National Art Pass and get in free. It's a gallery on a manageable scale, famously strong on French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, but with some very fine paintings from most periods (check out the exquisite Annunciation by Francesco Pesellino in the Medieval to Renaissance room). And the Courtauld always has an interesting temporary exhibition or two on the go. Yesterday I paid a visit to take a look at a couple of the current ones.
 Jonathan Richardson By Himself, in the drawings gallery, is a display of little-known self-portraits by the elder Jonathan Richardson, a big figure in the 18th-century art world as portraitist, theorist, collector and (rather weak) poet. Towards the end of his life, he became fascinated by self-portraiture, drawing himself in a range of poses, formal and informal, sometimes taking inspiration from other self-portraitists, especially Rembrandt. The drawings on show range from delicate images in graphite on vellum to larger chalk drawings (black, white, sometimes red) on paper. The best half dozen of them - large chalk drawings on rough blue paper - are quite extraordinary in their intense and unflinching self-examination, and surely deserve a place among the great English self-portraits. The rest are really little more than interesting background material - but those half dozen are alone worth the entrance money (if you've paid, that is).
 Unfinished is a more ambitious exhibition, though again it's a one-room affair. As the title suggests, it's a display of 'unfinished' paintings - either clearly unfinished (as in the star attraction, Perino del Vaga's Holy Family) or more debatably so (as with Manet's dashing Au Bal) or finished but regarded by a stunned art world as surely unfinished (as with Matisse's fauvist The Red Beach). All the paintings on show are from the Courtauld's own holdings, so I already knew most of them, but it was a good idea to bring them all together and use them to explore the 'unfinished' theme and the old, always important question of when a picture is finished.
 There is, to our modern eyes at least, a great charm in unfinished works.  Our current taste doesn't demand a high degree of finish and tends to prefer painters who show their workings and leave space for the imagination to fill in what is left suggested rather than fully worked out. But it's more than a matter of taste: the unfinished areas throw into relief the fully worked passages and emphasise their quality, while also casting light on the artist's working methods. Nowhere is this more spectacularly so than in the unfinished Rembrandt etching of The Artist Drawing from the Model, about a third of which is full worked, with the rest freely and lightly sketched in.
 Unfinished includes a ravishingly beautiful, very nearly finished Parmigianino Virgin and Child and a lovely Reclining Woman in a Landscape by Palma Vecchio, much of the background merely blocked in, the figure beautifully finished. There's also a Monet Vase of Flowers, which looks to me seriously overworked - less a case of not finishing the work as of not knowing when to stop. The Manet mentioned above (Au Bal) seems to have been regarded by the artist as 'finished' - he signed it, after all - and the same surely goes for Degas's extraordinary Woman at a Window, which must be one of the darkest contre-jour paintings ever executed. Degas allowed it to go on sale - and it was promptly snapped up by Walter Sickert, who treasured it as 'Degas's finest work'. It could almost, couldn't it, be a Sickert?

Monday, 17 August 2015

Two Villanelles

It's time for a poem - or two. Let's make them villanelles.
 The villanelle is a rigorous fixed verse form of five tercets and a quatrain following a strict pattern of rhymes and repeat rhymes. The poets of the 1890s used to enjoy writing fancy, essentially empty villanelles - thereby getting the form a generally bad reputation with the next generation. However, the villanelle was a form that never quite went away, and lived to thrive again - perhaps because its technical challenges are both demanding and liberating (from the limitations of direct, informal 'self-expression').
 Perhaps the best-known villanelle of the 20th century is Dylan Thomas's much (far too much) quoted Do Not Go Gentle... But there is also Elizabeth Bishop's One Art, a fine example of the punch a villanelle, in the right hands, can pack - and of how elegantly its challenges can be surmounted and disguised:

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practise losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster, 
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
And here's one, equally accomplished and potent, by the quietly great Donald Justice:
Villanelle at Sundown

Turn your head. Look. The light is turning yellow.
The river seems enriched thereby, not to say deepened.
Why this is, I'll never be able to tell you.

Or are Americans half in love with failure?
One used to say so, reading Fitzgerald, as it happened.
(That Viking Portable, all water spotted and yellow--

remember?) Or does mere distance lend a value
to things? --false, it may be, but the view is hardly cheapened.
Why this is, I'll never be able to tell you.

The smoke, those tiny cars, the whole urban millieu--
One can like anything diminishment has sharpened.
Our painter friend, Lang, might show the whole thing yellow

and not be much off. It's nuance that counts, not color--
As in some late James novel, saved up for the long weekend
and vivid with all the Master simply won't tell you.

How frail our generation has got, how sallow
and pinched with just surviving! We all go off the deep end
finally, gold beaten thinly out to yellow.
And why this is, I'll never be able to tell you. 

Helpfully, the Poetry Foundation website lists the subjects of Elizabeth Bishop's villanelle as 'Living, Disappointment and Failure' (and, as occasion for its use, 'Funeral' - not mine, thanks). No doubt Justice's could be similarly reduced (at the loss of almost everything it is) - and yet, how different it is in feeling from Bishop's work. Justice's acceptance of how things are and how they end is so deeply embedded in all his work, so easy and so natural - even within the tight confines of the villanelle. 'We all go off the deep end/ finally, gold beaten thinly out to yellow...'


Sunday, 16 August 2015


In the absence of the Dabbler (technical problems - it should be back up tomorrow) and Mahlerman, here's a piece of Sunday music, something I caught earlier on Radio 3. I had never heard of the Italian baroque composer Giovanni Felice Sances before, but found this rather beautiful...

Friday, 14 August 2015

Corbyn, Warbler, Buster

'With four weeks to go...'
That was the phrase, in a news bulletin, that jolted me out of my stupor. Yes, this Labour leadership election farce still has four weeks to run. What will Jez Corbyn's opponents be prophesying by then? Darkness across the face of the land? Crop failures, murrain, famine and flood? It's clear now that the rise of Corbyn was entirely predictable - after the General Election catastrophe, what else was Labour going to do but jerk itself back into a semblance of life with a shot of pure retro Leftism? A Corbyn victory will be followed in due course by most of the old guard peeling off, reaching out to the still more benighted Lib Dems and forming a grand centre-Left anti-Cameron alliance. They could call it the SDP, or the SDLP... Yes, it's back to the future again!

I hear there's a new 'app' called Warbler that claims to be able to identify birdsong. You just turn your phone to the sound and - hey presto - up comes the name of the bird responsible. They demonstrated it on the radio yesterday with a birdsong recording. Name that bird. Up came Warbler's answer: 68 percent Chaffinch, 51 percent Eurasian Tree Sparrow. It was a House Martin.

Radio 4's Film Programme is appealing for memories of Buster Keaton's tour of British music halls and theatres in 1951 - a tour that seems to be strangely underdocumented, even allowing for the fact that Keaton's star was not shining very bright at that stage in his career. Ten years later, though, he starred in a curious episode of The Twilight Zone - and that, happily, survives. You can watch it here...  It's a fun silent-movie hommage - not exactly classic Keaton, but it's still impossible to take your eyes off him, and there are odd flashes of the old genius. And what an athlete he still was - bear in mind that Keaton was 65 years old when he made this, and had devoted a good many of those years to the demon drink.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Bird of the Day

This little charmer is the Night Parrot, the latest 'extinct' bird to be found alive and well and quietly going about its business in the wild. Discovered in 1845 and barely seen again until a couple of carcasses turned up in the Queensland Outback in 1990 and 2006, the Night Parrot has been described as the 'holy grail' of birdwatching. Indeed, when a naturalist claimed to have seen one alive in 2013, it was hailed as 'the birdwatching equivalent of finding Elvis flipping burgers in an outback roadhouse'. Well, he may not be Elvis, but he (or she - they don't know, but have called him/her Pedro) has been found now, examined, identified and fitted with an electronic tag - which has since fallen off.
 Even the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker - of which I've written before - seems not be extinct, to judge by recent reports of sightings. But the saddest/funniest story of a bird back from 'extinction' is that of Worcester's Buttonquail, an obscure Philippines rarity long thought to have died out altogether. A specimen was filmed unknowingly in 2009 by a documentary crew reporting on life in the mountains of Luzon. Watching the finished film, a local ornithologist was stunned to realise that the bird was a Worcester's Buttonquail. But by then it was too late - the unhappy quail had been taken to market, sold for the equivalent of 10p, and eaten.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Piper's Dark Materials

Tate Britain has put a huge archive of John Piper photographs - all black and white, all topographical, many of them related to the artist's work on the Shell Guides - online, and is even asking for help in identifying some of them (and in acquiring images of what the locations look like now).  The collection makes for fascinating browsing, and contains many arresting images - like this one from the Surrey archive. Piper's photographs, however functional, are composed with a painter's eye, and the register is, unsurprisingly, dark ('Not very lucky with the weather, were you, Mr Piper?' as the King remarked at a Piper exhibition). Indeed, many of these wonderful photographs would probably be rejected in this era of bright, pin-sharp images. A shame darkness is now so undervalued.

Blyton Born

Born on this day in 1897 was Enid Blyton, who became (and even remains) one of the most popular, biggest-selling children's writers who ever lived. She was born in an apartment above a shop on Lordship Lane, East Dulwich, a stone's throw from the Victorian public library where I, back in the Seventies and Eighties, worked as a reference librarian.
 By then, the name of Blyton had become a hissing and a byword; her books were not to be found on the shelves of the children's library, and the London Borough of Southwark (within which Dulwich falls) - a borough otherwise very diligent in celebrating its famous residents or natives - had quite erased Blyton and her birthplace from its collective memory and archives. I was glad to see, then, that there is now a Blue Plaque on that undistinguished building on Lordship Lane. It even bears the name of the London Borough of Southwark, albeit with the ambiguous (disowning?) 'Voted by the People' below. Southwark's Blue Plaque to Sam Wanamaker bears the same legend. The man who got the reconstructed Globe Theatre built was regarded by the council, during my Southwark years, as a right royal pain in the butt.

Monday, 10 August 2015

Butterfly Day

A glorious sunny day yesterday, so naturally I headed for the butterfly-haunted Surrey hills, in hope that the Chalkhill Blues would be flying. I was not disappointed: these pale beauties (as a child I used to think the chalk of the hills had given them their colour) were flying in their hundreds, maybe thousands - almost what you might call, at risk of causing offence, a swarm. No, more a liberal spangling of the grasslands and flowery verges with flying, nectaring, sparring and basking Chalkhills. Several times I saw Chalkhill Blues and Brimstones together feeding on Wild Pea flowers, something I'd never seen before - I wouldn't have thought the Chalkhill's proboscis was long enough to reach the pea flower's nectar... No Adonis Blues this time - perhaps a little early - but a memorable highlight: looking down from the path to check out a low-growing Buddleia at a little distance, I spotted something quite large and showy working its way round a flowerhead. It was hidden for some while, but then it reappeared and, after a short while, flew off - and I realised it was a slightly faded Dark Green Fritillary, the spectacular, strong-flying downland frit, and the first I've seen in several years. The high point of a fine butterfly day.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Dylan's Boots

Quite late last night, seeking something soothing to fall asleep to, I switched the radio to 4 Extra - and was immediately wide awake. Who was this, fingerpicking away? As soon as the voice came in, there was no question - Bob Dylan, and he was singing Boots Of Spanish Leather, a track from The Times They Are A-Changing' that I hadn't listened to in years - and God it was good. It's easy to forget just how astonishing, how electrifying the young Dylan was, even at his most 'traditional'... The programme I was listening to, it turned out, was called Alan Parker's 59 Minutes Of Truth, Alan Parker being a leftie 'Urban Warrior' alter ego of the comedian Simon Munnery. Urban warrior or not, he knew just what to say after Boots Of Spanish Leather ended: 'Bob Dylan... Boots Of Spanish Leather... Yeah.'

Saturday, 8 August 2015

An Auditory Church and Other Curiosities

Back from a couple of days in Derbyshire, where, among other things, I visited one of the oddest - and smallest - churches I have ever seen: All Saints, Dale Abbey. We very nearly didn't see it, as this strange building - part church, part stone-and-timber house - was firmly locked when we arrived. What to do? The obvious answer was to climb up into the woods above the church and take a look at the surprisingly well preserved Hermit's Cave, where a 12th-century baker, under instructions from Above, set up home, hewing out three chambers in which to live and worship, conveniently close to the Abbey - long since gone, leaving only scattered remnants, including one mighty arch standing alone in a field.
 Returning to the church, we found that by happy chance it had been opened for a group of visitors from Canada with ancestral connections to the parish. So it was that we were able to step into the tiny - 26ft by 25ft - interior, crammed with box pews right up to the altar (such as it is), over which a drunkenly leaning pulpit looms. And above all this, space has somehow been found for a gallery. All Saints is, on its tiny scale, the 'auditory church' triumphant, where preaching is at least as important as liturgy, and all must sit and listen. However, the principle was somewhat undermined during the period when the building that contains the church was the Blue Bell Inn and, according to tradition, bored congregants could slip out through an adjoining door for a spot of refreshment during the sermon. The church is a glorious jumble, with an overwhelmingly 17th-century feel, but, surprisingly, some fragments of medieval wall paintings survive - notably a fine Visitation, dated to the late 13th century.
 Then there was Duffield - the church of St Alkmund (an unusual dedication), a handsome, if much restored, 14th-century (and earlier) building, with a spacious interior, fine furnishings and ample evidence of the prosperity of the parish. The highlight here was a quite extraordinary wall monument to himself erected by a local land-owner, Anthony Bradshaw, in 1600, its large inscribed tablets separated by a frieze depicting, in incised images, Bradshaw, his two wives and his 20 children: four sons and, in two tiers of eight, his 16 daughters. Each is identified by initials (though they look all but identical), and below is an ingenious acrostic verse on Anthony Bradshaw's name. He died some 14 years later, having fathered yet three more children, bringing his tally to 23.
 In the nearby Duffield Millennium Meadow - grassland, woods and wetland where the Ecclesbourne meets the beautiful Derwent - butterflies were flying among knapweed, meadowsweet, thistles and ragwort in happy abundance: gatekeepers, whites, skippers and faded meadow browns, tortoiseshells, commas, peacocks and red admirals. And yesterday morning, in Wirksworth, came a sudden flypast of half a dozen loud and lively swifts.
 As for Wirksworth's incomparable bookshop (The Bookshop), this time it yielded me Mr Fortune's Maggot by Sylvia Townsend Warner - an author who has been recommended to me so often I feel I must now give her a try - and Charlotte Mew and Her Friends by Penelope Fitzgerald, an author whose every word I would happily read, writing about a poet I have never read.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Marinara Ontology

Here, from the BBC News website (where would we be without it?), is an account of a bracing encounter with a curious ontological conundrum - a pizza that can indeed be made, if the right ingredients are put together, but doesn't exist. My sympathies are entirely with the pizzaiola, and I only wish UK baristas would follow her example and insist that, by the same principle, there is no such thing as an Americano with milk. Instead of which, an order for an Americano is invariably met with 'Do you want milk with that?' No - because such a drink does not exist.

Monday, 3 August 2015

Drinking with Kingsley Amis

A signed Kingsely Amis first edition for £7? Naturally, when I spotted it on the shelves of a local charity shop, I wasn't going to let that go. Not a first-rank Amis, for sure - nor even second-rank - but a slim volume titled Every Day Drinking, nicely illustrated by Merrily Harpur, with a fine Marc caricature of the great man on the cover and, on the title page, a commendably legible, sober signature: Kingsley Amis.
 Every Day Drinking is a compilation of Amis's newspaper columns on drink and drinking - which is fine by Kingsley: 'Being paid twice for the same basic work is always agreeable, and in my case not as frequent as I should like. More than that, you have the chance of correcting your mistakes of fact and style[...] and righting the wrongs done you by the copy editor and printer[...] It would be nice if everybody who saw the newspaper columns were to buy and read this book, but no, and all over the place some people will continue to think that I think that 'anymore' and 'forever' are single words and[...] that 'alright in it's way' is all right in some way or other.' (Odd that the book's title commits the same error in reverse: Every Day Drinking might describe how Kingsley spent his time, but does not denote the subject of the book - Everyday Drinking, i.e. quotidian imbibing. Also, by the way, 'forever' as a single word is quite correct if used to mean 'all the time' rather than 'for all time'.)
 Amis makes no bones about his limitations as an expert: he's a beer and spirits man - gin and malts his staples - not a wine buff (though he has useful tips on how to pass yourself off as one). These pieces date from the early Eighties - a time when decent beer had returned to English pubs but decent wine was hard to find, fads and novelty drinks abounded, and serious drinking was to a large extent a matter of getting the best drinkable hit for the least outlay. Hence the popularity - not least with Amis - of all kinds of potent mixed drinks, for many of which Kingsley provides recipes, some of them jaw-dropping. Take (or rather don't) the Swagger Sling - one bottle champagne, one bottle claret, one glass brandy, one glass Grand Marnier, lemon and sugar. Chilled, no ice. 'Calculated to put young ladies completely at their ease,' says Amis. Or how about Evelyn Waugh's idea of a nice light shandy? 'Put into a silver tankard, or failing that a pint glass, some ice cubes, one or two double gins according to mood, and a bottle of Guinness. Fill up with ginger beer.' Or not.
 The decline of the English pub is a theme that crops up early, and Amis vigorously expresses his loathing of piped music, trendy decor, useless staff and - horror of horrors - Space Invaders machines (themselves the subject of an early work by young Martin). Kingsley's prejudices and, er, strong opinions are, as you'd expect, well to the fore and provide a large part of the entertainment, but these columns are also quite informative about a range of drinks you might never have heard of (and are unlikely ever to want to try). Amis is a big fan of a dangerous potion I remember all too well - Carlsberg Special Brew: 'a wonderful drink,' he declares, 'but after a certain amount of it you do tend to fall over.' He recommends diluting it half and half with regular Carlsberg; this mixture, drunk from a silver tankard, 'produces as much goodwill as anything I know'.
 Sometimes Amis flirts with objectivity, as in a piece on Rioja wines: 'Regular readers of this column will know,' he writes, 'that I have my likes and dislikes, even my weaknesses and prejudices. Nevertheless I always try to be scrupulously objective. As in the present case. Everything I've said here to the advantage of Rioja wines is true and verifiable. Now comes the moment for me to state my own opinion of them, which is that they are quite vile.'
 What will he make of grappa (one of my own favourites), I wondered? My curiosity was soon satisfied: 'Not to take a glass of grappa after an Italian meal strikes me as the grossest folly.' Well, quite.
 This book is great fun for anyone with an interest in drink and/or Kingsley and his views on a subject with which he had, as he puts it, a 'close personal involvement' over many years. Also available, I gather, is Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis, a single volume that brings together what might be called Amis's Booze Trilogy: On Drink, Every Day Drinking and How's Your Glass?
 Time for a drink, I think...

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Favourite Insect, First Frits

I see there's a poll to find Britain's Favourite Insect - and it looks rather more interesting and unpredictable than the recent 'quest' for Britain's Favourite Bird (the robin, inevitably). The insect shortlist is well chosen (from a vast field), and it's hard to spot the winner: probably not shield bug, bee fly or ant, more likely ladybird, bumble bee or, indeed, tortoiseshell butterfly. No prizes for guessing where my vote would go.
 Meanwhile, I'm happy to report that yesterday, on a warm but overcast afternoon on Bookham Common, I saw my first silver-washed fritillaries of the year. Most were flying along the margins of the rides at speed, as is their way, but the first I saw was nectaring quietly on a clump of burdock and was in no hurry to move, continuing to feed, an arm's length from me, for several minutes before at length flying off into the trees.