Tuesday, 19 September 2017

A Departure

I thought I'd take a break from the likes of Elizabeth Jenkins and Ivy Compton-Burnett and read something completely different - a crime novel. I'd come across something online about the American crime writer Donald E. Westlake and particularly liked the sound of his posthumously published The Comedy Is Over. I duly bought a copy, complete with garish dust jacket (which I promptly disposed of), and began to read...
 I was, of course, instantly hooked - Westlake really knows what he's doing (he's been described as 'the writer's writer's writer') and loses no time reeling the reader in.  The Comedy Is Over introduces us straight away to the character at the centre of the action - Koo Davis, a wise-cracking old-school comedian whose style and CV resemble Bob Hope's. The time is the late Seventies, and Davis is back on top after a career wobble when he found himself on the wrong side of public opinion over the Vietnam war. Now he has his own high-rating TV show - from the set of which he is suddenly, shockingly kidnapped.
 Koo's kidnappers are a bunch of sad but dangerous leftovers from the heady days of 'revolutionary' action, and they don't seem to realise that times have changed, leaving them behind - like Davis after Vietnam, but with no route to a comeback. Their inept attempt to secure the release of ten 'political prisoners' in return for Koo Davis ends in farce, and the gang become increasingly desperate, as does Koo's plight...
 Westlake draws us into Davis's ordeal by taking us into his head and by describing his situation so deftly that we're right there with him, in first one and then another California modernist 'safe house'. And he makes him likeable, despite his many human flaws - and funny, with his unstoppable flow of one-liners. Not many crime novels are as full of gags as this one. Nor, I think, are they likely to include a sex scene in which the male participant recites a passage from Pope's Essay on Man while in flagrante.
 I've got a feeling I might be reading more Westlake in future.

Monday, 18 September 2017


A few places ahead of us in the queue for the London-bound EuroStar was a familiar figure - none other than Frank Field, one of our most intelligent and honourable MPs (there aren't many of them - they should be treasured). He was conversing amiably with his travelling companion as we all shuffled along, clearing security and heading for the train...

  Later, at St Pancras, as I was making my way along one of those endless tiled corridors to the Victoria Line, I found myself behind a short, rotund superannuated hippy with an impressively dense tail of matted hair hanging from his nape and an unmistakably cannabinoid smell emanating from his baggy t-shirt. From his gait, I got the impression of a genial soul, still truckin' after all these years. As I overtook him, he called out: 'Hey, aren't you...? Oh no' [scrutinising my face] 'you're not.'
'No, I'm not,' I replied. 'Are you?'
'No,' he replied, chuckling by now, 'I'm not either.'
'I often wish I was,' I said as I picked up speed, and we bade each other a cheery farewell.
I liked him, He had something of The Fugs about him, or Fat Freddy of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. Quite took me back...

 Then, at Victoria, as I got off the Tube, there was Frank Field again, walking towards me. I gave him a conspiratorial smile, but I don't think he noticed.

And Back

Well, Maastricht was good - a fine town, with all the Dutch virtues in evidence, embodied in solid handsome architecture, clean and orderly streets and public spaces, a magnificent railway station (that's a corner of it above, early in the morning, with a woman playing Fur Elise on the piano), and decently dressed citizens riding about town on sit-up-and-beg bicycles. No Lycra, no cycle helmets, no racing bikes - that sort of thing is only to be seen in the countryside; urban cycling is just a natural extension of walking, with no hint of the ferocious competitiveness and aggression of cycling in London.
 As well as streets lined with good-looking, well-built houses of all periods - and surviving stretches of medieval walls and later defensive ramparts - Maastricht also has the wide river Meuse and two cathedral-sized churches of ancient origin, with imposing, castle-like westworks. Sadly, as so often in Catholic regions, the interiors fail to live up to the promise of the exterior, partly as a result of accretions of bad sculpture, bad painting and oversized bondieuseries of every description, and, in Holland, partly because of the activities of the Cuypers brothers, ubiquitous church restorers whose aim seems to have been to make every old building look as fresh and crisp as if it had been made yesterday. All rather regrettable.
 We got out of town - by train - and took a walk down the river valley (the Geul, a tributary of the Meuse), along almost too well-kept paths, through spick-and-span villages, sleepy pastures and green woodland just beginning to show its autumn colours. Along the way, we came across the enigmatic, rusting frame of what seemed to have been some kind of industrial building. A notice explained that this was the remnant of a Nazi slave labour enterprise, built into the limestone caves - a chilling reminder of the suffering endured, within living memory, by this so long fought-over land.

On the way back, we spent a few hours in Brussels, where the Grand Place was packed and noisy, with various hideous kinds of music being performed. After a mussel lunch in a decent bourgeois brasserie, we strolled awhile in what is now the Musée de l'Art Ancien, where a surprising number of paintings had been removed from the walls because of water damage (what happened?), but Breugel's Flight of Icarus remains in place, looking smaller, brighter and more freely painted than one might expect. The painting, of course, teaches a lesson...

Musée des Beaux Arts
(W.H. Auden)

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Off gallivanting again

I'm going to be in Holland (Maastricht and environs) for a few days, so there may be a hiatus...

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

A Visit to the Library

Yesterday my researches took me to my borough's 'award-winning' central library. It was, as ever, a bewildering experience: what had once been an easy to understand, easy to use library, with plenty of books arranged along conventional lines, is now a bizarre assemblage of largely unpeopled and unstaffed open spaces with gimmicky names - Page One, Media Too - and precious few books in evidence. Only on the upper levels of the building do things begin to get a little more recognisable - the children's library is little changed, and on the next level up is something that resembles the library as it was, complete with a (now apparently unstaffed) reference library. But even here there are large mysterious cubes bearing the names of primary colours and painted accordingly - are they intended as some kind of easy-to-understand classification system? If so, without an explanation of what the colours signify, they do not get us very far. Happily, on the shelves, the familiar Dewey decimal system still reigns supreme. And, happily, the library still has a handsome set of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, which was the object of my quest.
 Whenever I am in this library building, I take a look at a display case on one of the landings, which contains an open copy of the borough's printed Book of Remembrance. This lists the names and addresses of civilians killed by bombing during the Hitler war, their ages, and when and where they died. This chronicle of loss - often of entire families to one bomb - makes sad and sobering reading, and offers a salutary perspective on our present times. It seems almost inconceivable that, in living memory, ordinary people in a borough some miles from the centre of London went about their lives under relentless bombardment from the skies, knowing that each night could be their last. Against that, the perceived threats and dangers of our present world seem small beer indeed, and the self-obsessed psychobabble,  offence-seeking, virtue-signalling and grievance-mongering of our times look like the behaviour of thin-skinned moral infants who have never had real jeopardy and real calamity to deal with.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

The Test and the Encounter

I spent yesterday in a social whirl worthy (almost) of Jeffrey Archer in the heyday of his legendary blog. First I met Bryan A at Lord's, where we enjoyed 20 minutes of the morning session before the rain swept in. As it looked serious, we repaired to a café to ponder our next move - which was to head for the vicinity of Trafalgar Square. Having lunched at leisure, we strolled along to the National Portrait Gallery and had a look around their current exhibition, The Encounter: Drawings from Leonardo to Rembrandt, of which more below. As we emerged from the gallery, the weather was evidently clearing, so it was back to Lord's, where play had resumed. And so it was that - surrounded by a tiresome (but perfectly pleasant) gang of food-fighting, drink-spilling hoorays - we witnessed cricketing history when Jimmy Anderson clean-bowled the Windies' Kieran Powell to claim his 500th Test wicket. Something to tell the grandchildren - though they will neither care nor understand. Hey ho.
  But to The Encounter. It's a lovely little exhibition, just 48 portrait drawings and studies, ranging in date from the 15th to the 17th century and taking in such big names as Leonardo (a figure drawing), Dürer, Rembrandt (only a sheet of little figure studies, but fascinating to examine) and Hans Holbein the Younger. It's Holbein's portrait of John Godsalve [above] that greets you as you go in, and is arguably the star of the show. An unusually finished drawing in coloured chalks, ink and body colour with white heightening, it's beautifully executed, with all of Holbein's almost uncanny skill on show.
 Godsalve was a minor government official, a protégé of Thomas Cromwell and, some years after this portrait was drawn, Member of Parliament for Norwich. The portrait shows him as he was when Holbein first met him - a young man on the rise, meeting the artist's gaze with a look that is at once diffident and direct, anxious and sly, and surely speaks volumes about the precarious nature of life on the margins of the Tudor court. Holbein so valued this portrait that he kept it in his possession all his life, perhaps using it as an advertisement to show potential patrons what he was capable of. It's a stunning piece of work (on loan, like many others in the exhibition, from the Royal Collection).
  The poster boy for The Encounter is Giulio Pedrizzano, a lutensist, as portrayed by Annibale Carracci in a dashing little pen and ink drawing, fizzing with energy, that perfectly captures the intense, almost ferocious gaze of the sitter. Every bit as arresting and immediate as the Caracci, but much more highly finished, is a coloured drawing titled Middle-Aged Man with Curly Hair, attributed to Nicolas Lagneau, a 17th-century French artist better know for caricatures and grotesques.
His Middle-Aged Man [right] is no caricature, but a minutely detailed, closely observed study of the lived-in face of a man who stares out at the world with a kind of defiant resignation, and absolutely no illusions.
 Another gem attributed to a minor artist is a captivating drawing in black and red chalk, Young Girl Looking to Her Right [below], thought to be by Leendert van der Cooghen, an amateur painter active in Haarlem during the Dutch Golden Age. This drawing is executed with the utmost delicacy, and perfectly captures the youthful beauty - the 'bloom' - and the physical awkwardness of a girl poised between childhood and adulthood.
 The Encounter is on until 22 October, and I'd recommend it to anyone interested in the art of portrait drawing.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Buster, Stan and Ollie

I just saw this extraordinary photograph of Buster Keaton with Laurel and Hardy in the early Thirties; it was flashed on screen in the course of a documentary about Hal Roach. The picture is all too eloquent of Keaton's sad career slump. He looks like a man staring into the abyss, while Stan and Ollie look like, well, Stan and Ollie, living forever in the eternal sunshine of the spotless mind.