Saturday, 31 December 2011

The Year

It was the year of the Wedding - not that Kate and Wills affair (to which, owing to an unaccountable oversight, I wasn't invited) but this one. Technically it was not a wedding but a Blessing - and it certainly worked; first grandchild due in July! It was on the wedding morn that I saw my first swift of the year, the start of an unusually long swift summer, which lasted nearly to the end of August.
A poor butterfly summer though. After a glorious spring, the weather turned mostly dismal and inimical to my flying friends. But it began and ended well - and, thanks to one magical encounter, this year will live in my memory as the Year of the Emperor.
Patrick Barkham's The Butterfly Isles was among the pleasures of another good reading year, in the course of which I journeyed through Richard Holmes's The Age of Wonder, read one of the funniest books I've ever come across, marvelled again at John Williams, plunged into Richard Wilbur's poetry, read a strangely wonderful one-off, and- oh - much else...
Other highlights of the Nigeness year were the discovery of this wonder of the blogscape, the birth of a new prose form, and my long delayed discovery of the glories of Purcell. I look forward to hearing more and more Purcell in the new year - and I look forward to another year of blogging about this and that. To all who browse here I wish a very happy 2012 - or I would if that date hadn't been annexed by the London Olympiad junta. Happy New Year!

Friday, 30 December 2011

The Fate of a Humorist

'A half truth, like half a brick, is always more forcible as an argument than a whole one. It carries better.'
The wise words above - whose truth is daily demonstrated in the blogosphere - were written by Stephen Leacock, economist and humorous writer, born on this day in 1869. In his heyday, the 1910s and Twenties, Leacock was probably the most famous humorist in the world, and one of the most famous writers - indeed it was said that more people had heard of Leacock than had heard of Canada (the country of his birth). But who now has heard of him? It seems Leacock's humour - like most humour - was of the kind that doesn't long outlast its time.
Oddly, I discovered a relic of Leacock's fame while looking through the books left behind by my old English teacher (and friend and mentor) when he died. There was a copy of Leacock's Nonsense Novels, in an edition from the 1920s, already in its umpteenth printing. It was a notably handsome volume, with jolly illustrations (by John Kettelwell), so I took it, but I must confess I haven't even attempted to read it. As Groucho Marx (a Leacock admirer) once wrote to a man who had sent him an unsolicited volume: 'I laughed from the moment I picked it up to the moment I put it down. One day I'll read it.'

Thursday, 29 December 2011

'One large stage set...'

Among my most prized presents this Christmas were a bottle of 12-year-old Craigellachie (dangerously drinkable at 46%) and a book that I didn't even know existed - Edward Bawden's London (V&A Publishing, 2011). This handsome volume explores Bawden's life and work through his many depictions of London life and London locations. The life story throws up a few surprises - I didn't know, for example, that Bawden was on board the Laconia when it was torpedoed. Saved from drowning, he was adrift on an open boat for five days before being picked up by the Vichy cruiser La Gloire and interned in Morocco. The biggest surprise, though, was to learn that - far from being the genial, carefree, cheery character that his works suggest - Bawden (the product of a severely Methodistical upbringing) was a shy, socially awkward man who shunned company and preferred to shut himself away and work. His close friend Eric Ravilious - they met on their first day at the Royal College of Art and 'clicked' instantly - was the outgoing, gregarious one. It was as if Bawden somehow 'caught' Ravilious's good cheer and, unable to express it personally, expressed it in his art. He found his style early, and 'was to spend the next 66 years expanding and refining his technique, but never wavering in his belief that the world was one large stage set populated by slightly mad people whose antics continued to surprise not only himself but also the innocent birds, cats, ants and bees who had to share it with them'. So his very detachment from the world was also the source of his comic vision.
Beautifully produced and packed with good reproductions of linocuts, lithographs, engravings, drawings and much else, this is a book that every Bawden lover should seek out. It is also one of those volumes that you simply have to have in your hands (it even has pictorial boards, showing the Tower of London, under the dust jacket) - any electronic version would be a feeble simulacrum. Perhaps this is how the book (as codex) will survive in the age of the ebook - as a thing of beauty. Perhaps the coming of the electronic book will trigger a new golden age of book design... A pity the great Edward Bawden isn't still around to contribute to it.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

An Odd Winter

After the rigours of the pre-Christmas workstorm, it's really rather pleasant to return to the office after the festivities and enjoy the short lull between Christmas and the New Year. Part of the pleasure is in the relative quietness of London at this time - and especially the all but deserted commuter trains. I was enjoying the comfort of a quiet, roomy carriage as my train drew into Victoria this morning when, gazing out of the window as we neared the station, I saw - of all things - a row of sunflowers rising above a boundary wall in front of one of the less upmarket of the apartment blocks to the west of the line. And the sunflowers were in full bloom! I know the weather's been mild - but surely not that mild. And why hadn't I noticed them before? It is an odd winter, this one. A bumblebee flew past me on Boxing Day... Oh and yes, it was a very good Christmas - as I hope was yours.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Happy Christmas

This year's Nigeness Christmas card is this Adoration of the Shepherds - a very beautiful, very Venetian treatment of the subject, probably by Giorgione but quite possibly by Titian. It comes with very best wishes to all who browse here for a Happy Christmas. For myself, I've already had one very special present - the news that our first grandchild is due to come into the world next July...
There should be a Christmas thought from me on tomorrow's Dabbler.
Meanwhile, Merry Christmas, everyone!

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

The Wired Bookworld

Over on The Dabbler, the redoubtable Jon Hotten asks, in a comment, if I deliberately held off from buying Muriel Spark's Memento Mori online when I could easily have done so for 1p. In that particular case, I did indeed hold off. After so many years of finding the charity shop bookshelves groaning with every other Spark title (if I had a penny for every Girls of Slender Means or Far Cry From Kensington I'd seen, I would be on my way to being a rich man), I was becoming mildly obsessed with the curiously absent Memento Mori and determined to track it down in what is surely its natural habitat. Eventually I did. But would I bother denying myself the instant gratification of online purchase for any other titles, or is that the last? My quest, after all, began way back in the pre-Amazon, pre-AbeBooks dark ages...
This question feeds into my mixed - conflicted even - feelings about online book buying. I love the ease and convenience - and, usually, cheapness - of it, and yet I hate that it's taken all the excitement out of book searching. I know with a deadening certainty that there are very few titles indeed that I couldn't find and purchase online, sometimes with a little patience, but usually with no more than a few keystrokes. Where's the fun in that? Where's the pleasure of deferred gratification? The only game left in this wired bookworld is finding the book I want at a lower price than I could get it for online - and this can be done, even with the famous 1p books on Amazon, 1p usually translating as £2.76. However, saving the odd 77p is hardly a thrill worth pursuing with much enthusiasm. Another downer in all this is that charity shops now have expert valuers, so the chances of finding a real bargain are very slim. In the past I've picked up, for example, a mint-condition first of Dead Babies (in wraps) for 25p, and a first of Mervyn Peake's Hunting of the Snark for the same price, both from branches of Oxfam - those days will never come again. To find a real bargain nowadays, you can only hope for a bookseller - or a charity shop valuer - getting a price spectacularly wrong, or you can rummage at jumble sales, fairs, car boot sales and such places. But I seem to have changed the subject... So - would I ever again defer buying a book online for the sake of finding it in physical from? Probably not. But do I continue to scan the shelves and rummage for books wherever they are to be found? Of course I do. The thing about books is that you don't know what you want - what you need, what you must read - until you see it, and hear its call.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

The Chamber Idyll

And then I got to thinking about wood engraving, and in particular about this little beauty - little indeed; the original image is barely three inches by one and a half. It's The Chamber Idyll by Edward Calvert, and it's in Tate Britain, though I don't think it's on display at the moment. An exquisitely beautiful - and erotically charged - work, it's beautifully composed, atmospheric, packed with meaning and amazingly delicately engraved. And yet Calvert only had a few years' experience of wood engraving when he made it, in 1831, and it was apparently the last work he produced in this medium. Calvert was one of the Ancients, the disciples of William Blake who for a few magical years gathered around Samuel Palmer in Shoreham. Later, like Palmer himself, Calvert went into an artistic decline (though Palmer's imagination flared up again in his late etchings and watercolours). Calvert spent the rest of his long life painting competently in a kind of vapid classical style, and the engravings of his golden period remained unseen by the world. Then, ten years after his death, an edition of his wood and copper engravings was published by his son, who later donated The Chamber Idyll to the Tate. The British Museum also has some Calvert prints, but The Chamber Idyll is surely his masterpiece.

Monday, 19 December 2011


I've just noticed that I'm on The Dabbler, writing about Muriel Spark's Memento Mori.

The Great Successor

This Kim Jong-Un - aka the Great Successor - looks like a promising young fellow, full of pep and vigour and get-up-and-go. I like the cut of his jib. Of course we'll miss his old dad, but no doubt Kim Jong-Un will effortlessly acquire the superhuman powers that go with the job. Just now, though, the little fellow must be feeling a bit ronery...

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Another Sagittarian

Today is the birthday of Paul Klee, born on this day in 1879. I find him one of the few great modern painters whose works (mostly) lift the heart, cheer the sprits, even raise a smile. His jaunty natural draughtsmanship, acute sense of pattern and brilliantly inventive use of colour are instantly attractive. He's lucky to be taken seriously in an age that tends to overvalue the appearance of seriousness and difficulty, and undervalue humour and the light touch. Klee might have died in the Kaiser War, having volunteered to fight on the German side. Happily his family pulled strings to keep him out of danger and he was put to work painting camouflage - even in war, painters have their uses!
Meanwhile, I have acquired a ferocious 'cold' on top of the WRSE (Work Related Seasonal Exhaustion). But I don't complain...

Friday, 16 December 2011

Admirable Frankness

Last night, after a Herbert Spencer of a day at work, I arrived at Victoria to discover that - per contra the high-tech indicator boards, and unremarked by whoever was manning the tannoy - the trains on my line were not running. I eventually escaped the growing throng by boarding a train heading in roughly the right direction, which proceeded southward at a stately snail's pace. After a while, the driver came on the intercom to apologise. Here we go, I thought, expecting one of the usual meaningless (non)explanatory formulas - but no. 'I don't know what's going on,' he continued with admirable frankness. 'No one's telling me anything. We seem to have got behind Miss Daisy's chauffeur.' I laughed, but no one else seemed to have noticed. Perhaps by that stage I was hallucinating.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Naked Amazement

The fiercest NigeCorp workstorm since records began has left me, in my unoccupied moments, capable of little but listening to music and reading the odd chapter of More Women Than Men, which is (but really shouldn't be) strangely soothing... Last night, I happened on this: John Martyn singing his beautiful song May You Never, with Danny Thompson on bass, Jerry Douglas on dobro, and Kathy Mattea pluckily trying to duet with the wayward Martyn. Her facial expressions are a picture - especially after the performance ends. Did you ever see such naked amazement on a musician's face?

Monday, 12 December 2011

Virtual Nige Takes a Walk

Although the corporeal Nige is toiling in the mighty engine rooms of NigeCorp HQ, I'm pleased to see that his virtual form is over on the Dabbler, walking the fields of Leicestershire. Corporeal Nige very much wishes that he was, too...

Sunday, 11 December 2011

'Ain't life grand when yer daft?'

The other day I found my mind turning to the Lancastrian comedian Frank Randle (it must be the overwork). I've been uneasily fascinated with this monster of comedy ever since reading King Twist: A Portrait of Frank Randle by - of all people - Jeff Nuttall, whose Bomb Culture was on every bookshelf in my student days. This clip from a recent BBC4 series, Rude Britannia, gives a flavour of Randle, a comic hugely famous in his day, who was to Blackpool what Elvis was to Las Vegas, though a lot less wholesome. It is hardly surprising that his fame did not outlive him - he was absolutely of his time and place and belonged to a particular phase in the history of impolite popular entertainment. And yet there is something so Dionysiac, so anarchic, so darkly clownish about him that he is bigger than that, almost archetypal. He represents, perhaps, a particular twist (King Twist) on the Shakespearean fool at his darkest and most unruly. Perhaps.
Randle, who seems to have spent much of his life drunk, was also brilliant at playing drunk scenes, so one was invariably included in the handful of low-budget feature films he made (in one of them, mind-bogglingly, he appeared with Diana Dors). The best of the drunk scenes involves Randle negotiating a grand staircase while barely able to stand - I couldn't find that one, but here's a taste of Randle in action, making good use of one of his catchphrases, 'Geroff mi foot!' Those were the days...

Saturday, 10 December 2011

An Unexpected Tag

Among the birthday gifts showered on me by a grateful nation last week was a bottle of champagne, to which was attached a small laminated plastic tag with the legend 'Remove before microwaving'. These mysterious tags turn up, it seems, on all manner of unlikely items - DVDs for one. I wonder if they are there for any other purpose than to be removed before you carelessly toss your bottle of champagne or DVD into the microwave. Once they are removed, is their work here done? Are they perhaps like the famous notice that says only 'Do not throw stones at this notice'?

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Born On This Day: Nige

In the eye of the raging workstorm, I achieve my 62nd birthday today - as does my exact coeval, dear old Tom Waits. Sadly, Edmundo Ros, having reached his 100th on this day last year, is no longer with us. Why does He always take the best ones first? (as the priest said at Father Jack's funeral, or something like it)...

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Dabbler alert

I see I've popped up on the Dabbler again, with a poet and two naturalists...

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Deanna, Kiri, Slava

Today is the 90th birthday of Deanna Durbin, singing film star of the 1930s and 40s. And she is still alive to enjoy it, somewhere in France, where she has lived quietly for decades since turning her back firmly on the biz we call show and marrying a French producer-director.
Durbin was huge in her day. Among her legion of fans was the young Anne Frank, who, living in hiding with her family in the Achterhuis, pasted a photo of Deanna Durbin to her bedroom wall, where it can still be seen... A more surprising Durbin devotee was the great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who said in an interview, 'She helped me in my discovery of myself. You have no idea of the smelly old movie houses I patronised to see Deanna Durbin. I tried to create the very best in my music, to try and recreate, to approach her purity.' And Durbin has another surprising musical legacy: the New Zealand nun Sister Mary Leo admired her style and technique so much that she trained all her charges to sing the Durbin way - among them, most famously, Kiri Te Kanawa.
How good was she? Well, here she is in full flow, at the age of just 17...
Pretty amazing, wasn't she?

Saturday, 3 December 2011

More Women than Men

The annual NigeCorp workstorm having swept furiously in, my time and energies have been distracted from more agreeable pastimes, including blogging. However, I am reading slowly (appropriately slowly) Ivy Compton-Burnett's More Women than Men, one of her less well-known titles, in a paperback edition from 1983, when it was republished by Allison & Busby (along with Elders and Betters). Written in 1933, More Women... is set, like all ICB's works, in an upper-middle-class late Victorian-Edwardian world that is all her own. Here she creates, as ever, an enclosed world of people at close quarters, seething - below the politest of surfaces - with tensions, vicious power struggles and murderous resentments. This time it is a girls' school, presided over by Mrs Josephine Napier, a woman easily taken for a paragon, but who is, as soon becomes apparent, a ruthless manipulator of all around her. However, a combination of circumstances might be about to loosen her iron grip on all around her...
What is most extraordinary about ICB is the way in which almost everything - the action, the characterisation and character development, sudden twists and revelations - is carried by dialogue alone. Her characters' ultra-civilised, razor-edged conversation teems with subtext and unspoken passions, is indeed a heavily mined battleground. It has to be read with care to discover, now gradually, now explosively, what is really going on. The author - at once absent and omniscient - never tells; she only shows. Or rather her characters show, with what they say.
Not all is dialogue, though; each character is introduced with a thumbnail sketch that seems at first old-fashioned and conventional, but is always barbed, askew, off-kilter. Here, from the first page, are - one after the other - Mrs Napier and another major character, Miss Luke:
'Josephine Napier, the head of a large girls' school in a prosperous English town, was a tall, spare woman of fifty-four, with greyish auburn hair, full hazel eyes, an impressive, high-featured, but simply modelled face, a conscious sincerity and simplicity of mien, rather surprisingly jewelled hands, and hair and dress arranged to set off rather than disguise experience.
Miss Theodora Luke, a mistress in her school, was an erect, pale woman of thirty-eight, with a simply straightforward and resolute face, smooth, coiled hair, grey eyes with a glance of interest and appreciation, and an oddity of dress displayed in the manner of the university woman of Victorian days, as the outward sign of the unsuspected inner truth.'
Or how about this, a little later?
'William Fane was a local lawyer... It was a need of his nature to feel self-esteem, and as he had no unusual quality but the power of sinking below his class, he esteemed himself for being a man and a potential husband; which human attributes were, to do him justice, less general than many he possessed.'
Indeed being a potential husband is an attribute not very general among the men in this novel. Homosexuality is taken for granted as a feature of the Compton-Burnett landscape, not worthy of remark - a relaxed attitude that has, strangely, made the author something of a heroine of 'Queer Studies'. Well, it helps to keep her name alive... But in her fictional world - in which everything up to and including murder is likely to pass unremarked - homosexuality is the least of what's going on.
I'm not yet halfway through More Women than Men, but already a couple of quiet bombshells have been detonated - by dialogue alone - and I'm sure there will be more. I read on, enthralled, appalled and hugely impressed by a most extraordinary literary talent. I should add that she is also, in her uniquely pungent way, very funny. However dark her materials, she is in the end - thank heavens - a comic writer.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Adopt Late, If At All...

Rather a good piece here on the many and various virtues of being a late adopter (and a mender) - and here's another, more sobering piece about the hidden cost of all this endless upgrading. Needless to say, I am a very tardy adopter myself (if I bother adopting at all - I certainly feel no urge to own a games console or a large-screen TV). For my listening pleasure when I'm on the move, I am happy to rely on a teaplate-sized CD Walkman and a chunky radio-cassette player, both of which earn me bemused or pitying looks on the train. I have my beloved MacBook of course, and a decent digital camera, but these were both bought for me, and I've yet to learn how to download, or upload or whatever it is, pictures from the camera (must get round to that). When it comes to mobile phones, I am more than satisfied with my 'design classic' Siemens A62 (which I got for, I think, £6.99 on eBay). Oddly - in a reversal of the normal state of affairs - my primitive machine now looks strangely small compared to a modern iPhone. Rather elegant, in fact...

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

'A life beyond the grave of contemporary reputation...'

I've remarked before on the ludicrously extravagant praises heaped on mediocre, so-what fiction by today's reviewers. However, one thing they rarely do is predict a long life and enduring high reputation for the books they're puffing. Perhaps they are held back by some residual sense of proportion, even honesty, as they must know that, even in good times, only a tiny proportion of fiction lasts - and, in times like ours... Well, it's hard to imagine anything much from the past 20 years of English fiction lasting long.
Things were different in the interwar years, where it was a commonplace of criticism to declare which books would stand the test of time and still be read by future generations - and reviewers were pretty bold about it. Here's Desmond MacCarthy on Logan Pearsall Smith's All Trivia:
'I agree with those reviewers who have predicted for it a life beyond the grave of contemporary reputation. It is the sort of bibelot that Father Time often keeps on the mantelpiece when he changes the furniture in the house...' [they don't write them like that any more]
And here's Robert Lynd on the same subject: 'Many good critics believe that this is one of the few books of our time that will still be read a generation hence.'
Another writer who attracted confident predictions of literary immortality was Ivy Compton-Burnett. Here's Norman Shrapnel in The Guardian:
'Of the two candidates for greatness among comic novelists of our time, Evelyn Waugh and Ivy Compton-Burnett, it is her prospect that looks the more secure...'
And here's David Holloway in the Telegraph: 'It is always dangerous to prophesy immortality for any writer, but it is certain that Dame Ivy Compton-Burnett's novels will be discussed a century hence.'
Dangerous indeed it is. Ivy Compton-Burnett's works are mostly out of print (scandalously), while Waugh posthumously thrives - as does the great comic novelist Shrapnel doesn't mention, P.G. Wodehouse. As for Logan Pearsall Smith - Father Time seems to have got out of the habit of keeping bibelots on the mantelpiece... Still, these were honest critics' assessments of writers' true worth - unlike so much that is written in the review columns these days.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen

I see that over on The Dabbler I'm offering some thoughts on dressing for the country. Commenters have adroitly switched the subject to cycling attire - long a national scandal and offence to the eye. Here's how to dress if you're riding a bicycle - exactly as if you're not riding a bicycle at all, just walking about being effortlessly stylish. Not a trace of Spandex or Lycra here, and not a single helmet. As so often, the Danes show us the way...

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Hilary Hahn

The startlingly young American violinist Hilary Hahn is 32 today. Her recording of the great Bach Chaconne is one that I listen to again and again, and it never palls. Here it is (and you can segue smoothly into part two if you're quick)... Thank you Hilary - and Happy Birthday!

Saturday, 26 November 2011

An Unfortunate Find

Having just finished Penelope Fitzgerald's superb joint biography, The Knox Brothers, I was browsing online seeking to find out a little more about Ronald Knox's own favourite of his books (though oddly unmentioned by PF), Enthusiasm - and so it was that I came across this extraordinary outpouring of bile, written when the poor man was barely cold in his grave. There's the true Xtian spirit if you like - and it would seem my friend the Galway Cyclops is not the only one with firm views on Masons (and, of course, 'their Jewish progenitors')...

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Birdsong and Heroes

Having been hit by a thoroughly unpleasant 'cold', I've been awake rather a lot lately in the small hours, and I find that the birds are singing more lustily than ever, kicking off around 2am and keeping going, with occasional pauses, till sunrise. It still seems very odd, but I suppose it will be taken for granted by future generations of town dwellers.
Meanwhile, after reading the obituary of the interesting poet Peter Reading, who died last week, I followed a link and found this altogether extraordinary chap. At a time when members of the armed forces are referred to generically as 'heroes', it's good to be reminded of the real thing. And read to the end for his prophetic words about 'Europe'...

Shakespeare Got There First

I was interested to see this - and to hear the good doctor on the radio early this morning... Was Shakespeare a 'pioneer of psychosomatic research'? Hardly. It's more that - as I've always maintained - all you need to know about being human, about our inward and outward lives, is contained in his works. If you needed to explain to an alien race looking on from some distant galaxy what human beings are, you could do no better than to refer them to those works, which tell far more than any science-based descriptions of us. Science - especially the dubious science of psychology - limps along behind Shakespeare, picking up scraps. He was there first, and he went in deeper than any psychologist.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Balls Gets Teary

In these lachrymose times, it seems that the defining question interviewers ask of Famous People is becoming 'What makes you cry?' Ed Balls is the latest to reveal to a startled world what tickles his tear ducts, and it seems that Balls, like most thugs, has a sentimental streak. The Sound of Music, he claims, makes him cry - as do those moments on Antiques Roadshow when the expert reveals that the unconsidered trifle bought for a song is in fact a treasure worth a king's ransom. Perhaps this explains the Balls-Brown approach to the nation's economy - all along they were convinced that one day something would turn up in the attic worth so much that they could pay off all those debts. Picture them falling into each other's arms, weeping with helpless joy...
There was a time when the defining question was 'What do you believe?' In her wonderful biography of The Knox Brothers, Penelope Fitzgerald recalls that in the Twenties, a time when the press had a great hunger for celebrities, 'another use for Famous People, so popular that it amounted to mania, was the collection of their opinions about God - 'What I Believe'. Everyone was asked, from Bertrand Russell to the excavators of Tutankhamun's tomb. Eddie [PF's journalist father] contributed to this in Punch by claiming to have interviewed Steve Donoghue, the champion jockey, and getting the reply: 'I have always been conscious, especially at the finish of a race, that Good and Evil are Relative Notions, and Sin is a Mere Negative', while Jack Hobbs is said to have smiled quietly at the scant interest his fellow batsmen took in eschatology...'

Monday, 21 November 2011

'Push, pull, squat, brace...'

I suppose it had to happen - there's a call for mandatory testing in PE (or, as it's inventively called here, 'physical literacy') in all schools. Hmm... In my experience, PE was less a 'subject' than a regime of physical pain and humiliation, overseen by chippy sadists with more or less repressed homosexual urges. My finest hour on the PE front came when, with a friend, I managed to duck under the radar and avoid PE classes for a whole term - no mean feat in a regimented, sport-fixated school. We passed our time agreeably in a nearby cafe, smoking, drinking tea and discussing the profounder meanings embedded in Bob Dylan's Blonde On Blonde - much healthier pursuits for a growing lad than all that 'push, pull, squat, brace, rotate, accelerate and change of direction'. Our absence was eventually noticed, and I was summoned to the deputy head's office for a telling-off, but as I peered through the fog of tobacco smoke and observed his impressively yellowed fingers, I could tell that his heart wasn't really in it...
If schools want to teach 'physical literacy', they should switch to Pilates and yoga.

Saturday, 19 November 2011


I think these chaps are rather amazing... Cahalen puts me in mind of The Band's Garth Hudson in the early days (miniaturised of course). And I love the affectionate rapport between them. Enjoy!

Friday, 18 November 2011

Non-hydrating Water

After long study, the finest minds of Europe have decreed that water is quite powerless against dehydration. It is only a matter of time before they declare that breathing is of no proven benefit to health. Or that the Euro has been a resounding success - no, hang on, they've already declared that one...

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Looking at Things the Kim Jong Il Way

I'm not quite sure why, but I find this pictorial blog very funny. Ever since Team America demonstrated his comedy potential, it's been hard to keep a straight face whenever the Dear Leader hoves into view (despite the fact that he is one of the world's prime murderous bastards). Back in the days when Kim Il Sung was the Dear Leader and I was a librarian, I used to enjoy the North Korean propaganda magazines that were sent, I believe, to every library in the land. Badly printed, written in often impenetrable 'English' and illustrated with grey photos of the Dear Leader amid rapturously smiling citizens, they looked forward confidently to the day when the rest of the world would come round to the North Korean way of creating an Earthly Paradise. Funny that never happened.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

The Toast Sandwich

The rediscovery of the toast sandwich - a slice of toast between two slices of bread - put me in mind of Woody Allen's chronicle of the Earl of Sandwich's painstaking discovery of the sandwich (written back in the days when he could be quite funny). I take up the story with the Earl's university days...

1736: Enters Cambridge University, at his parents' behest, to
pursue studies in rhetoric and metaphysics, but displays little
enthusiasm for either. In constant revolt against everything academic,
he is charged with stealing loaves of bread and performing unnatural
experiments with them. Accusations of heresy result in his expulsion.
1738: Disowned, he sets out for the Scandinavian countries, where
he spends three years in intensive research on cheese. He is much
taken with the many varieties of sardines he encounters and writes in
his notebook, "I am convinced that there is an enduring reality,
beyond anything man has yet attained, in the juxtaposition of
foodstuffs. Simplify, simplify." Upon his return to England, he meets
Nell Smallbore, a greengrocer's daughter, and they marry. She is to
teach him all he will ever know about lettuce.
1741: Living in the country on a small inheritance, he works day
and night, often skimping on meals to save money for food. His first
completed work — a slice of bread, a slice of bread on top of that, and a
slice of turkey on top of both — fails miserably. Bitterly disappointed,
he returns to his studio and begins again.
1745: After four years of frenzied labor, he is convinced he is on
the threshold of success. He exhibits before his peers two slices of
turkey with a slice of bread in the middle. His work is rejected by all
but David Hume, who senses the imminence of something great and
encourages him. Heartened by the philosopher's friendship, he
returns to work with renewed vigor.
1747: Destitute, he can no longer afford to work in roast beef or
turkey and switches to ham, which is cheaper.
1750: In the spring, he exhibits and demonstrates three consecu-
tive slices of ham stacked on one another; this arouses some interest,
mostly in intellectual circles, but the general public remains
unmoved. Three slices of bread on top of one another add to his
reputation, and while a mature style is not yet evident, he is sent for
by Voltaire.
1751: Journeys to France, where the dramatist-philosopher has
achieved some interesting results with bread and mayonnaise. The
two men become friendly and begin a correspondence that is to end
abruptly when Voltaire runs out of stamps.
1758: His growing acceptance by opinion-makers wins him a
commission by the Queen to fix "something special" for a luncheon
with the Spanish ambassador. He works day and night, tearing up
hundreds of blueprints, but finally—at 4:17 A.M., April 27, 1758 — he
creates a work consisting of several strips of ham enclosed, top and
bottom, by two slices of rye bread. In a burst of inspiration, he
garnishes the work with mustard. It is an immediate sensation, and
he is commissioned to prepare all Saturday luncheons for the
remainder of the year.
1760: He follows one success with another, creating "sandwiches,"
as they are called in his honor, out of roast beef, chicken, tongue, and
nearly every conceivable cold cut. Not content to repeat tried
formulas, he seeks out new ideas and devises the combination
sandwich, for which he receives the Order of the Garter.
1769: Living on a country estate, he is visited by the greatest men
of his century; Haydn, Kant, Rousseau and Ben Franklin stop at his
home, some enjoying his remarkable creations at table, others
ordering to go.
1778: Though aging physically he still strives for new forms and
writes in his diary, "I work long into the cold nights and am toasting
everything now in an effort to keep warm." Later that year, his open
hot roast-beef sandwich creates a scandal with its frankness.
1783: To celebrate his sixty-fifth birthday, he invents the
hamburger and tours the great capitals of the world personally,
making burgers at concert halls before large and appreciative
audiences. In Germany, Goethe suggests serving them on buns — an
idea that delights the Earl, and of the author of Faust he says, "This
Goethe, he is some fellow." The remark delights Goethe, although the
following year they break intellectually over the concept of rare,
medium and well done.
1790: At a retrospective exhibition of his works in London, he is
suddenly taken ill with chest pains and is thought to be dying, but
recovers sufficiently to supervise the construction of a hero sandwich
by a group of talented followers. Its unveiling in Italy causes a riot,
and it remains misunderstood by all but a few critics.
1792: He develops a genu varum, which he fails to treat in time,
and succumbs in his sleep. He is laid to rest in Westminster Abbey,
and thousands mourn his passing.
At his funeral, the great German poet Holderlin sums up his
achievements with undisguised reverence: "He freed mankind from
the hot lunch. We owe him so much."

The Knight of the Plastic Window

The 'home improvement' company called Anglian - plastic windows and so very much more - occasionally telephone me at home. It's surprising how often they happen to be in the area and on the lookout for homes in which to fit their plastic windows at a special reduced rate. Surprising, too, how often I fill in consumer surveys then clean forget all about having done so. If I allow the conversation to proceed, they will ask how many windows I would, in an ideal world, have replaced with plastic - one? Two? Three? Four? 'Sir/madam,' I reply, 'in an ideal world I would at this moment be reclining in the sun on a bed of wild thyme surrounded by nectaring blue butterflies...' Actually I don't of course - I've usually hung up with a polite 'Thank you' before they've so much as shown their hand. But now I understand Anglian's persistence. Anglian Home Improvements are 'on a home improvement crusade'. I saw one of their vans this morning (in the area again! What are the chances?) and there it was, proudly emblazoned on the side: 'Anglian Home Improvements. On a home improvement crusade.' This mission statement was illustrated by a large image of a vaguely medieval-looking warrior type on a warlike prancing steed. Needless to say, no Christian iconography was to be seen - no red cross on a white ground here, but a vague inverted V, white on blue. This blue knight is on a decidedly cross-free crusade. In an ideal world, indeed, it would be better called a 'fenestrade'. And so very much more.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011


Suppose that, back in 1948, you had to tell someone involved in the London Olympics that, the next time our capital city hosted the Games - comfortably within a lifetime - surface-to-air missiles would be deployed in the interest of Olympic security. If you managed to convince them that this was true (and it would be hard), they would surely conclude that, in the intervening 64 years, the Olympics in particular and the world in general had gone stark, staring mad. And they would be right.


You'll find me over on the Dabbler writing about a formative volume from my childhood...

Monday, 14 November 2011

A Knox and The Housman

I'm reading The Knox Brothers, Penelope Fitzgerald's affectionate biography of her father and his three brothers, all of them extraordinarily gifted men. It's a brilliant piece of work that brings its subjects vividly alive - beautifully written, of course, but also hugely entertaining. This passage, about her classicist uncle Dilwyn (Dilly) and A.E. Housman, who encountered each other at Cambridge, had me laughing out loud...

'Housman, too, could be allowed to understand English metre. The three-stress rhythm of Is My Team Ploughing affected Dilly so much that he bit right through the amber mouthpiece of his pipe, which was heard by those in the rooms below him to crash to the ground...
His Fellowship dissertation had been on the prose rhythms of Thucydides; his argument was said to be unacceptable but so clever that nobody could contradict it. Then he returned to Greek poetry. Mr Ian Cunningham, a recent editor of Herodas [Dilwyn's speciality], writes:
'He discovered, more or less simultaneously with one of the greatest, if not the greatest, modern classical scholars, U. von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, what is now known as the Wilamowitz-Knoxian bridge. This is a highly technical point of Greek metre. A bridge is a point in the verse where word-end is forbidden. This one relates to the iambic trimeter of the early period...'
To be remembered by a few because of a rule about a word that doesn't end in lines of poetry that scarcely anyone reads - if Dilly ever desired immortality, it would be of this kind. In Housman's words, all exact knowledge 'pushes back the frontiers of the dark' and consoles mankind for his discovery that 'he does not come from the high lineage he fancied nor will inherit the vast estate he looked for'.

I might be returning to this subject - The Knox Brothers, that is - not the Wilamowitz-Knoxian bridge.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

First and Last

After much cloud and rain during the week, the sun appeared today (at least here in the Southeast) is no uncertain fashion, blazing down from an enamel blue sky, generating an almost summerlike heat - in mid-November! Walking on Ashtead Common, I thought this warmth would probably have brought out the odd late butterfly, and so it proved. I hadn't been there long when a Red Admiral swept past, flying strongly into the sun's dazzle, where I lost him. Then, a little later, beside the path, flying about a bramble patch, I spotted a Brimstone. It was a female - the wings that beautiful greenish tint, rather than the sulphur yellow of the male - and she settled for some while on a bramble leaf, wings closed, trembling as if in a wind, though there was none. After several minutes, she took off again, pottering about the bramble patch, never quite settling, then finally weaving away into the woods. She was probably my last butterfly of the year (though you never know when you're going to encounter a Red Admiral). If so, a year that began with a Brimstone falling like an autumn leaf ends, fittingly, with a Brimstone rising from an autumn leaf and flying away...
Later, as I left the common, I saw - and heard- my first Fieldfares of the year. A party of half a dozen of these beautiful winter visitors were flying noisily from tree to tree - and wondering, no doubt, what has happened to the British weather.

Friday, 11 November 2011

William Matthews

Last night, opening Don Paterson's anthology 101 Sonnets at random, I came across this beauty, by William Matthews, an American poet I had never encountered before (he died in his 50s in 1997, having never been fashionable). This sonnet, loosely Miltonic, vividly evokes (for me anyway) that awful bleak loneliness of the adolescent male (the boy 'in molt'). It's simply, often monosyllabically worded, but exquisitely crafted, and towards the end the conversational tone rises into a higher register - 'for I knew none by name among that hazy company' could be Edward Thomas - bringing the sonnet to a strong, sad finish.

CHEAP SEATS, the Cincinnati Gardens, Professional Basketball, 1959

The less we paid, the more we climbed. Tendrils
of smoke lazed just as high and hung there, blue,
particulate, the opposite of dew.
We saw the whole court from up there. Few girls
had come, few wives, numerous boys in molt
like me. Our heroes leapt and surged and looped
and two night out of three, like us, they'd lose.
But 'like us' is wrong: we had no result
three nights out of three: so we had heroes.
And 'we' is wrong, for I knew none by name
among that hazy company unless
I brought her with me. This was loneliness
with noise, unlike the kind I had at home
with no clocks running down, and mirrors.

Intrigued by this, I dug out a couple more Matthews sonnets. Here's one taking a very different, disenchanted look back:


We talk about – what else? --- the old days.
It was time we complained about then:
“What’s your poison?” the barkeep would say,
and we all knew. Now we’re on the wagon,
which, these days, as then, doesn’t travel far.
How did the old joke go? “Driven to drink?
It’s only half a block. Why take the car?”
No way this was the road to hell – succinct,
unpaved, a scuffle of blurred dirt. We sat
like drowsy money in a bank, the mold
of interest growing on us, minus
some paltry fees, minus taxes, minus
the unexpected costs of growing old.
And then our ship came in, and we were it.

And here's one that will surely resonate with anyone whose working life is spent in an office:


Drab bickering, the empire dead and tax
reports alive, paperwork, erasure,
the grime on the philodendron leaves
since who tends everybody’s plant?
It’s the triumph of habit over appetite,
like comparing the stars to diamonds.
We make copies. We send out for food. Food
arrives. We have spats and tizzies and huffs.
Isn’t it great being grown up, having
a job? We get our work done more or less
and go home. How was it today? we’re asked
and don’t know what to say. It’s like wet soot,
like us, like what we feel: stuck on itself,
as, from here, starlight seems stuck to its star.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Review Alert

Over on The Dabbler, I review the new Clive James book.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Spare That Tree

'Please Don't Burn Me' said the notice tagged on to the tree (in fact, on to a whole row of trees) on Kensington High Street. Being a tender-hearted fellow unable to resist such an eloquent appeal for mercy, I set aside my flame thrower and read on. The notices are products of a campaign called, with admirable directness, Stop Burning Our Trees - and it's come not a moment too soon. How often have you stepped out in the morning with a song in your heart, only to find a blackened stump where once a proud tree stood in all its leafy glory? It seems they're burning our trees to fuel power stations (boo) instead of making tables (hurrah) which would 'lock up' carbon. So it would presumably be okay to make all our trees into tables - hmmm... In point of fact, wood is used very little in power generation, its burning generates 50-80 per cent less carbon dioxide than fossil fuels, and - what all these 'save our trees' campaigns always overlook - trees are an endlessly renewable resource. Still, hats off to SBOT for staying the hand of the Royal Borough, whose officials were no doubt on the point of torching its rather fine street trees without a second thought.

Is It a Fence?

I was delighted to discover that the world of fencing (as in enclosing, not thrusting and parrying) has been giving The X Factor a run for its money. Here, chosen from literally, er, tens of entries, is the winner of the competition that's set the fencing world ablaze - Fence Factor. It is a very fine piece of work, but I have to ask - is it a fence? It seems to achieve its effect, paradoxically, by a studied absence of fence. Playing subtle perceptual games with our expectations of opacity and transparency, it is perhaps inviting us to supply an ideal, a platonic fence, a fence of the mind. In this sense, its very evasion of fenceness achieves a kind of ultimate fenceness...
I recommend a look through the gallery of ten finalists too. They may not be much, but I'd sooner look at any one of them that look for one minute at The X Factor.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Byng's Bit of Cake

Just now I was reading about Douglas ('Bawdy but British') Byng - pantomime dame, camp cabaret act and master of the saucy comic song - when I discovered that he had composed his own epitaph. Finding himself living out his declining years in an Actors' Charitable Trust home, he wrote these lines, which I think show a fine spirit:
'So here you are, old Douglas, a derelict at last.
Before your eyes what visions rise of your vermillion past.
Mad revelry beneath the stars, hot clasping by the lake.
You need not sigh, you can't deny, you've had your bit of cake.'

The Man Who Was Thursday

I don't know why I had never got round to reading G.K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday - or, come to that, The Napoleon of Notting Hill. I've now repaired the first omission - and great fun it has been. Subtitled 'A Nightmare' and generally classed as a 'metaphysical thriller', The Man Who Was Thursday seems at first to be an unusually high-spirited, but recognisable, Edwardian adventure story about a chap becoming a detective and infiltrating a dangerous circle of anarchists. But the chap is more poet than policeman, and it isn't long before things get rather too strange for any kind of conventional thriller. From the very beginning - in the suburb of Saffron Park, 'on the sunset side of London, as red and ragged as a cloud of sunset' - the lighting effects are superbly lurid and dramatic, not quite of this world, indeed more like 'A Nightmare'. But it's a very jolly kind of nightmare, full of comic moments and sharp wit, and building up to an all-action climax (or pre-climax) built around an epic chase (Chesterton has a Kiplingesque relish for vigorous, even violent action - as well as, of course, food and drink).
It's hard to say much about the story without spoiling the fun for those who have not yet read it, or irking those who have. It is a book full of wise and wonderful observations and paradoxes, firmly on the side of Life, the real life of real humans, and savagely against inhuman - and godless - Ideas. And it is often very funny. Here's a passage that brilliantly ridicules what is wrong with a certain way of thinking - a way of thinking still all too prevalent among today's terrorists. An anarchist has got up to address the meeting:
'Comrades,' he began, as sharp as a pistol-shot, 'our meeting tonight is important, though it need not be long. This branch has always had the honour of electing Thursdays for the Central European Council. We have elected many and splendid Thursdays. We all lament the sad decease of the heroic worker who occupied the post until last week. As you know, his services to the cause were considerable. He organised the great dynamite coup of Brighton, which, under happier circumstances, ought to have killed everybody on the pier. As you also know, his death was as self-denying as his life, for he died through his faith in a hygienic mixture of chalk and water as a substitute for milk, which beverage he regarded as barbaric, and as involving cruelty to the cow. Cruelty, or anything approaching to cruelty, revolted him always...'
GKC himself described The Man Who Was Thursday as 'a very melodramatic sort of moonshine', adding that it was 'intended to describe the world of wild doubt and despair which the pessimists were generally describing at that date; with just a gleam of hope in some double meaning of the doubt, which even the pessimists felt in some fitful fashion'. No doubt both are true - but it is also the most tremendous fun.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Over at The Dabbler...

I'm on about blurb adjective inflation. It's a big, boiling post, vital, intense, unsettling and searingly honest.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Roll Over, Beethoven

I received my musical education, such as it was, in an atmosphere of Beethoven Worship. The prevailing view was that the German Romantic composers represented the summit of musical creativity, that the symphony was the supreme musical form, and that Beethoven, the great symphonist, reigned as the God of Music. Around his throne were ranged the lesser genii, most of them stars of the same Germanic firmament. Italian, French - and especially English - music were rated considerably lower, and 'early music' was strictly for cranks. In my tender years I plunged headlong into the Beethoven symphonies (and the piano sonatas) and indeed became so obsessed with the great Ludwig that for some time I scarcely looked beyond his mighty oeuvre. Schubert and Purcell I knew only for a handful of charming songs, and Bach for a few popular gems. Now, all these years later, Schubert is one of the composers I love the most (and it's his 9th symphony that I'd have as my single Desert Island Disc), Bach is another, and Purcell, I suspect, is well on his way to becoming a third. It has taken me many years to get to Purcell, but now, finally, I am beginning to explore his music - and finding beauty and wonder at every turn. Was ever an English composer so prodigiously gifted? Did anyone ever put English words to music so exquisitely, so beautifully? (How about this? Or this?) And the songs are just a part of his enormous body of work (though he died at just 36) - I have so much more to explore... It took me far too long, but I am so glad that at last I am beginning to discover the greatness of our own Purcell.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Tulip Tree

Just now, between rain showers, I was admiring the avenue of Tulip Trees in Kensington Gardens, now at the peak of its autumn glory, the colours of the leaves ranging from late green, through bright yellow and gold, all the way to a rich russet bronze. A very fine tree is the Tulip Tree, shapely and good-looking in all seasons - and, as if its beautiful foliage weren't enough, it also flowers abundantly, with the large, yellow-green tulip-shaped blossoms that give the tree its name. But what's most wonderful is that the shape of the leaf, by a rare piece of morphic rhyming, also resembles the outline of... a tulip.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011


... these pictures from the Ghosts Of Gone Birds exhibition that's on in Shoreditch - artists' visions of extinct birds. Some of them are lovely, I think - and some very funny (and some both).

100 Per Cent

From the train window I caught sight of a poster. It portrayed a chap in, I suppose, early middle age sitting at a desk looking important but approachable. A chap best described as one of life's smug gits. The legend ran thus: 'I ask my team for 100 per cent. If they give me more, that's good too.' I've no idea what it was advertising - perhaps a course in elementary arithmetic? But I thought what a wheeze it would be to get a copy and put it up over my Nigecorp desk. Then I thought, no, on the whole I'd prefer to see out my working life with my limbs still attached to my body...

Tuesday, 1 November 2011


Sadly the suburban demiparadise I call home was in the news yesterday, for the worst of reasons - featuring in a report on vandalised war memorials.
A couple of weeks ago, the fine plain memorial that overlooks the ponds was stripped of the bronze plaques naming our war dead, prised out and taken for scrap (and probably worth no more than £50). Much can be said about the downward path from demystification to ethical relativism to moral nihilism - but what could more eloquently symbolise a culture where nothing is sacred than a vandalised war memorial? The depth of pain and outrage such an act inflicts on a community is beyond calculation - and sadly, in this case, the stripping of the brass was not the first act of desecration. Last year the York stone paving from around the memorial was laboriously jemmied up and carted away. Happily a local firm replaced the stones free of charge - an act demonstrating that, of course, all is not lost. Not yet. The brass will probably have to be replaced with stone plaques (of not too valuable stone) - just as, all over the country, churches are now obliged to replace the stolen lead on their roofs with something less attractive to passing scumbags. We must not despair.

Monday, 31 October 2011


This 'cashless society' lark is developing into one of life's minor, but intense, irritations. Popping into one of those little M&S take-away outlets this lunchtime, I was expecting to be in and out in no time with my sandwich - but no! Every single person ahead of me paid with plastic - and none of them was buying anything more than a single sandwich. Even the fastest card machine is a whole lot slower than a simple cash handover, and the cumulative effect is to slow things down dramatically. Who are these people that they don't carry a couple of quid in cash on them? (I didn't recognise any of them as members of the royal family.) And why do retailers allow card payments for the paltriest sums, thereby ensuring slower service for all? Ah progress, progress...

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Sweet Mediocrity

One of the functions of our national church is to keep us amused, to add to the gaiety of the nation - and on that score, it's been doing a great job lately by making such a complete horlicks of dealing with the 'Occupy London' protest outside St Paul's. Heaven knows what will happen next - the proposed Ring of Prayer sounds like fun - but no doubt the situation will continue to be managed with the professionalism and finesse (hem hem) we've come to expect from the dear old C of E. For myself, I'm happy to live in a country where the church is so well-meaningly hopeless, so shambolic, so paralysed by its internal contradictions and a fatal impulse to niceness; it expresses something rather attractive in the national character, and is greatly preferable to the alternative. Imagine a briskly efficient, sure-footed, ruthlessly effective national church - a horrible thought, and most unEnglish. We should surely cherish what George Herbert called 'the sweet mediocrity of our native church'.

Friday, 28 October 2011


The Venetian artist known as Canaletto was born on this day in 1697. His beautiful early painting, A Stonemason's Yard (above) is one of the lesser delights of the National Gallery. But for myself - speaking as an ardent lover of Venice - I find most of his later, more developed view paintings oddly unexpressive of what is so magically different about that city; Canaletto - unlike the bolder, freer Guardi - could be painting anywhere. Indeed the Canaletto style proved equally applicable to London and other English scenes when he came over here (having long been popular with English milords and Grand Tourists). It wasn't so much that he made London look like Venice, or Venice look like London - more that he made everywhere look like a Canaletto painting. During his English years his style became so tired and mechanical that the connoisseur George Vertue accused him of being an impostor. So poor Canaletto had to stage public painting demonstrations to prove that he was indeed Canaletto. He had come a long way from the Stonemason's Yard.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Too Boring and Complicated

Today the Eurozone leaders seem to have fooled the markets into thinking they've cracked it this time, so let's hope things quieten down on the crisis front for a while now. In all the vast sea of media coverage and comment that has spread like an oilslick around this slow-motion catastrophe, one piece - which I came across yesterday - stands out in its refreshing candour. He's right, but I don't suppose it will stop the commentariat continuing to mystify and stupefy us on a grand scale until the whole ghastly business finally unravels.

I Am Not A Number! Hang On, Maybe I Am...

Thanks to this fine little timewaster, I now 'know' that I was the 2,518,495,377th person on Earth when I was born, and the 75,635,268,976th person to have lived 'since history began'. Thank you, BBC - and thank you too for the wonderful report on last night's TV news in which a very excited man revealed, with the aid of the snazziest CGI graphics, effects and holograms, that the UN reckons the world population is about to hit seven billion, and by the end of the century (cue 3-D graph) could hit 16 billion - though, on the other hand (cue another 3-D graph), it could fall to six billion. At which point the studio began to fill with computer-generated 'people' and my will to live drained quietly away...

Wednesday, 26 October 2011


Talking of death, I'm at it again in The Dabbler.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

RIP The Indestructible Cat

Sadly, I have to report that Scruffy, the Indestructible Cat, who earlier this year staged a miraculous comeback from presumed death, is no more. Last weekend her epilepsy worsened, with a succession of terrible fits (nightmarish to witness, but from which she bounced back with admirable aplomb) against which her medication proved powerless. We were forced to take the hard decision and take her to the vet for that last injection. She had a happy, mercifully fit-free, last morning in the sun - it was the very end of the great Indian Summer - and a wonderfully peaceful end.
I warned her the last time I wrote her obit, that I wasn't going to do it again - so I shall simply 'reprint' it here:

'Scruffy - a name initially apt but quite inappropriate for the sleek svelte creature she became - was a small black cat with a ludicrously long tail. She made her first appearance in our lives 10 or 11 years ago, yowling piteously from the side return of our then house. How she got there we never knew, but she was clearly hungry, distressed and very frightened of all human contact. After a while desperation drove her to take food from us, but she was still extremely wary, and remained very highly strung long after we took her in, taking fright at the slightest thing and dashing away to her hiding places. The vet reckoned she was already three or four years old, and had clearly been someone's pet, before presumably being abandoned.

When, a few years later, we moved house to our present home, this proved altogether too traumatic an upheaval for Scruffy, who took off for several days, before being spotted, bedraggled and forlorn, hanging around the old house. My son and I managed to cajole her into a carrying box and took her, yowling and protesting, to her new home, where she spent the next few days mostly cowering in the cupboard under the stairs. However, as she got to know the new house, she became at last a much more relaxed cat. With a smaller garden to patrol, no enemies among the local cats, and a house full of cosy nooks and corners, she began to give every appearance of contentment - and to be much more relaxing company. She was also good comedy value, with her strange outbursts of kittenish skittering and her way of mistiming a jump onto a chair arm or a lap and being left dangling by one paw - she never quite mastered the art of retracting her claws. She and I would have many fine conversations, though admittedly I supplied all the words...

And now she has gone, and how we miss her... Every time I walk into the kitchen, I instinctively glance towards that octagonal window, still half expecting to see her familiar shape on the sill. I think I hear her plaintive miaow or the faint tinkle of her bell or the soft thud as she jumps down from basking on a warm radiator shelf. Or I fancy I glimpse her just on the edge of sight. In the morning she is no longer there waiting at the top of the stairs when I get up, stretching herself for a good long head-to-tail stroke from me, before skittering down the stairs ahead, with breakfast on her mind...'

It was written in an infinitely sadder context, but Jon Silkin's line perfectly describes the sense of loss: 'Something has ceased to come along with me.'

Sun and Rain

Earlier today, I was munching a thoughtful sandwich in the shelter of a cherry tree while a few spots of rain fell unthreateningly and the sun fitfully shone. As I stood to brush the crumbs from my coat and go on my way, I spotted a tiny bird, unconcernedly foraging in the near branches, an arm's length from me - a goldcrest! Something very like this happened to me two years ago, to similar cheering effect. What followed completed the sense of something special having happened. The rain strengthened, and simultaneously the sun came fully out. Suddenly, for a moment, every passer-by was smiling, taking pleasure in the fine rain and sunlight and the prospect of a rainbow - and there it was, low and flat, just above the roofline. And then it really started raining...

'Quite an Accomplished Baker'

I found this item - which came to me via Frank Wilson and Dave Lull - strangely cheering. There's something about the image of Emily Dickinson in an apron working up a healthy glow as she gets to work on her cake mixture (no food processors then) while the oven heats up... I wonder which other great writers might have made good bakers - apart, of course, from Mr Kipling with his exceedingly good cakes. My cousin suggests Emily Bronte - 'given the right ingredients'. Charlotte too was probably a safe pair of hands in the kitchen. I doubt George Eliot could bake a cake...

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Augustus: Depth of Field

Having read and raved about John Williams's Stoner and Butcher's Crossing - the latter of which has haunted me and grown in my imagination ever since I finished it - I couldn't resist the opportunity to read the third of his acknowledged novels (a fourth he more or less disowned), Augustus. This is a 'historical novel' in much the same way that Stoner is a 'campus novel' and Butcher's Crossing a 'western' - i.e. it is something greater, stranger and vastly more accomplished than the run of its genre. And it is, of course, quite unlike Stoner or Butcher's Crossing - to the point where you'd hardly know it was by the same author (an author one of whose gifts is to remain resolutely absent from his works).
Augustus tells the story of the life and reign of Octavius, the unpromising youth who became Augustus, the first Emperor of Rome. A rich, complex picture of Octavius and his world is built up, mosaic-style, by Williams's deft use of (fictional) letters, memoranda, personal writings and official communications. Some of these - and this is the key to the depth of field that gives Augustus its special quality - are contemporaneous, while others look back over years, decades even. The writers range from unfamiliar (and invented) figures all the way to the great names of Augustan Rome, including Virgil, Ovid and Horace. Williams's gift for clear-eyed characterisation, for imaginatively entering into his creations, keeps a wide range of characters and their often conflicted motives fully alive and individuated across the stretch of a sweeping historical narrative. This is a tremendous achievement - I can't recall another historical novel with so many voices issuing from so many convincingly realised characters, great and small.
Octavius himself, by contrast, comes to life largely in the accounts of others - he is the observed of all observers. We share the initial bewilderment of those around him as they are forced to acknowledge an extraordinary, almost superhuman force of character in the withdrawn, apparently negligible youth who initially crosses their path. Eventually he is the hub around which the world revolves, a brilliantly intelligent manipulator, an expert thwarter of conspiracies, a man capable of the utmost ruthlessness if it is called for. The exalted position of Emperor and the power and responsibility that go with it seem to hollow him out as a man, and we learn more of him from his actions than from his own testimony - until, in one sustained and moving final passage that (all but) closes the book, the dying Augustus speaks at length in his own voice, looking back over his life and all it has demanded of him, and finding at last a kind of rest.
If the book has a flaw, it is (I think) that we get rather too much of Julia's account of her life - Julia, Augustus's beloved daughter whom he banished into exile for reasons of state. Her voice I found the least compelling and the least convincing in the book - as if Williams hadn't quite managed to inhabit her, to feel what it was like to be Julia. Maybe that's just a personal reaction on my part... Anyway it does little or nothing to detract from Augustus's stature as a historical novel of quite extraordinary skill, depth and imaginative power.

Friday, 21 October 2011


Just to alert my regulars - it seems the End of the World (an event delayed from May 21) will take place today, so I hope your affairs are in order. It's been fun...
Of course there's an outside chance it might not happen. Apocalypse fanciers will need no reminding that tomorrow, October 22, is the anniversary of the Great Disappointment, when in 1844 Jesus Christ rather discourteously missed an appointment with William Miller and his followers. Wikipedia tells the sorry tale here. Today, I suspect, will be at most the Mild Disappointment.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

The Joy of Pylons

One of the incidental pleasures of hurtling through France on a TGV is the sight of all those fine pylons marching past. They are so various, so charming, so French, so unlike our own unvarying, sternly utilitarian pylons. The French style in the picture, with its suggestion of a feline or Flookish face sweetly snoozing, is a favourite, and it's often complemented by a much more masculine, broad-shouldered model, suggestive of a muscle-man holding weights in either hand. No such fun with our British pylons - but now, it seems, we're going to get some new designs. A competition has been under way, and the winning entry, a Danish design, is really rather elegant - an army of those marching across the landscape would not offend the eye. However, I don't like the look of the Totem design that is also under consideration - it smacks of the notorious perforated Olympic torch...

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

First-Person Bookers

On last night's BBC News, our old friend Will Gompertz - ever the dangerous outsider, a man living on the edge, playing by his own rules - reported from the black-tie Booker Prize dinner in his trademark open-to-the-chest shirt and jeans (let's hope he'd been thrown out and was standing in the street). He brought us the shock news (hem hem) that Julian Barnes had won, at the fourth attempt, with The Sense of an Ending, a work described by the chair of the judges, Dame Stella Rimington, as 'a beautifully written book that speaks to humankind in the 21st century'. Martin Amis was unavailable for comment... Our Will delivered his usual string of consensual banalities, and played us a dispiriting clip of Barnes reading from his masterwork - but Gompertz's report included one interesting tidbit: all six of this year's Booker finalists were written in the first person. Why is it that today's novelists are so helplessly attracted to the first-person mode? Is it that they daren't risk the distancing effect (however slight) of the third person? Do they believe it is more 'vivid'? Is it a publisher's fad? Or is it just that, for a writer of limited imaginative powers, the first person is just, well, easier?

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Most Relaxing?

They say it's the 'most relaxing music ever' - which seems a large claim. Having heard some of it on the radio last night, I suspect they might be blurring the fine line between 'relaxing' and 'stupefyingly boring' (as in, for example, Enya - number 4 in the Top Ten at the end of that piece). The definition of 'relaxing' here is narrowly physiological, based on heart rate, brain activity (or inactivity), etc - and of course no account is taken of musical merit. Great music that could be classified as 'relaxing' is relaxing in a far more profound way, relaxing our grip on the things of this world and easing us into a weightless realm of fictive beauty, where nothing holds us but the music. Something, perhaps, like this...

Monday, 17 October 2011

Over There

I see I've turned up again in Dabbler Country, via the Piccadilly Line.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Perhaps College Isn't for Everyone

The young till jockey in my local supermarket - nice chap, hard-working, obliging - was chatting to a customer as he scanned her purchases. He was telling her he was getting nowhere looking for another job - applications not even acknowledged etc, a familiar story - and that he was thinking of going to college. As she worked at the local college (or university or whatever it is these days, I lose touch), she suggested helpfully that, next time she came in, she'd give him a prospectus. He thanked her and she went on her way. A moment later, he turned to his colleague at the next till. 'What was all that about?' he inquired. 'What's a prospectus?'

A Surprising Comparison

It was a second visit to Nimes, and the place seemed even more wonderful than last time (the unbroken autumn sun helped). With its extraordinary Roman remains and 18th-century waterworks, fascinating ancienne ville, fine restaurants and beautiful shady terraced gardens rich in bird life, butterflies and red squirrels, surely Nimes is one of France's most delightful small cities. Not, it seems, to all. In one of those fine restaurants, we got talking to a young local couple dining at the next table (their English was good) and the young fellow couldn't speak too highly of London, which he'd visited just once, flying in via Luton airport. London, he declared, was the finest city on earth - he absolutely loved it. But what of Nimes? we protested - Isn't this a wonderful city? Nimes? he replied, as if surprised at the suggestion. Oh no, he declared, Nimes is like Luton.

Monday, 10 October 2011


I'm back from Normandy, but only to turn on a sixpence and head off again, this time to Nimes, by rail - we leave early tomorrow. I see that another of my Oxfam book finds lives again on The Dabbler - maybe something else will pop up while I'm off in the sunny (I hope) South...
As ever, the trip to Normandy was a reminder of how large, various and variously wonderful the country is - also, this time, of how much has survived the most appalling bouts of destruction, both self-inflicted (internal wars and the bloody Revolution) and external (two hideously destructive world wars). I had never visited Caen before, and was amazed how much more there was of the old town than I'd imagined. I'd thought there'd be nothing left after all those bombs but the cathedral and a few scattered remnants, but no - the castle and its outer defences are still monumentally present, along with large numbers of fine churches of one kind and another, and great tracts of the ancienne ville. Still more amazing is Falaise, site of the some of the most ferocious fighting and relentless bombardment of the last War: though much of the centre is rebuilt (rather well, if a little blandly), the indestructible castle where William the Bastard was born still looms hugely over the town, where the two grandest churches survive, along with many other old buildings and great stretches of the massive town walls.
Then there was Sees (there should be an acute accent on that first e) - a gem of a town, seemingly quite untouched by the general destruction and largely undiscovered by tourists. The Abbey is utterly beautiful, rather like a small-scale Amiens in its purity of line... We also visited the 'Norman Alps', as they're half-seriously called - the Alpes Mancelles - taking a look around Saint Ceneri-le-Gerei (acute on first e), an achingly picturesque riverside village much frequented in its day by painters and poets, with a wall-painted medieval church (disfigured, when we visited, by a truly terrible display of modern 'art') and the saint's little hermitage chapel, where he slept on a thoroughly unsuitable lump of stone...
But enough - I'm off again. Au revoir, amis!

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Et maintenant...

- or rather in the unthinkably small hours of tomorrow morning - I am off to Normandy for a few days of walking, conviviality and flaneuring around. A bientot, mes amis!

From the Tabard Inn to the long looked for 'American Novel'

So there I was (again) browsing the bookshelves of the Oxfam shop when my eye was caught by a rather handsome binding and the enigmatic title D'Ri and I, 1812. This was clearly not the date of the book, so I opened it to find out more, and was immediately arrested by the delightful bookplate - the Tabard Inn Library - and the owner's name written on the flyleaf with an address in Bedford Park (the west London garden suburb). Aha, I thought - so the Tabard Inn in Bedford Park (which I visited recently) had a lending library. How very Bedford Park... I was of course quite wrong, for this Tabard Inn Library ('With all the Red Tape on the Box') was 'under the business management of The Booklovers' Library', whose office address was given as 1030 Chestnut St, Philadelphia (in this - and in not having an accession number - my bookplate differs from the one pictured).
Intrigued, I looked up the Tabard Inn Library online and found this account of the enterprise. What's more, Tabard Inn revolving bookcases are, it seems, very collectible antiques. And no connection whatsoever with Bedford Park. Besides, the Tabard on the bookplate is clearly the Southwark inn from which Chaucer's pilgrims set off...
As for the book, it's subtitled 'A Tale of Daring Deeds in the Second War with the British, being the Memoirs of Colonel Ramon Bell, U.S.A', by Irving Bacheller, published by Lothrop of Boston in 1901, with sepia illustrations all too characteristic of the period and genre by F.C. Yohn. I must confess I had not heard of Irving Bacheller, but - as his Wikipedia entry makes clear - he was a considerable figure in newspaper publishing and journalism (particularly instrumental in the success of Stephen Crane), as well as a very popular novelist. D'Ri and I is 'a tale of adventurous and rugged pioneers', a stirring heady mix of riproaring action, straightforward jollity and easygoing romance. Bacheller even finds space for this saucy roundelay - a kissing game - which he prints complete with melody:
'Oh, happy is th' miller who lives by himself!
As th' wheel goes round, he gathers in 'is wealth,
One hand on the hopper and the other on the bag;
As the wheel goes round, he cries out "Grab!"
Oh, ain't you a little ashamed o' this,
Oh, ain't you a little ashamed o' this,
Oh, ain't you a little ashamed o' this -
To stay all night for one sweet kiss?
Oh,' etc.
D'Ri, by the way, is the nickname of Darius, a rugged pioneer if ever there was one. He is companion, friend and mentor to the young Ramon, and speaks in a picturesque accent, which (in the manner of the time) is laboriously transliterated, to tiresome effect. D'Ri and I is the follow-up to Bacheller's biggest success, Eben Holden. This one is advertised in the endpapers of D'Ri and I: 'The most American of recent novels, it has indeed been hailed as the long looked for "American Novel".' Eat your heart out, Jonathan Frantzen, Don DeLillo - Bacheller got there first.

Laughing on the Train

Yesterday I was in my spiritual second home, the Derbyshire dales, where my cousin and I spent the afternoon enjoying the most spectacularly picturesque of them all - Dovedale (where we were greeted on arrival by a fine Red Admiral, posing to advantage on a sycamore leaf -but enough of Admirals)... On the train on the way back, I noticed a chap sitting diagonally opposite me on the other side of the gangway reading a book. Every few paragraphs, it seemed, he would be overcome by helpless laughter, rocking with delighted mirth. He wasn't guffawing or braying embarrassingly, just hugely enjoying himself. That must be one funny book, I thought, idly glancing across from time to time. What could it be, this riproaring ribtickler? A Wodehouse perhaps, even a Tom Sharpe?... And then I caught sight of the title: it was Anne Tyler's The Amateur Marriage. Now, this is a very fine novel - I wrote about it here - but a riproaring ribtickler it is not, by any stretch. I fear the chap on the train probably belongs to that class of eccentrics I used to come across in my reference library days, who would take down, say, the Port of London Tide Tables from the shelf and read them closely with every sign of enjoyment, laughing merrily at who knows what 'jokes' visible only to them.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Admirals Again

Is it an Indian summer? Strictly not - indeed it's too early to qualify even as St Luke's Little Summer - but whatever it is, the heat continues, the skies are still blue and perfectly cloudless and the sun shines down on us here in the South of England. After the dismal summer it is more than welcome, and especially so to those of us who love our butterflies and thought we had probably seen our last of the year (bar the odd flushed hibernator) back in the grey cold of mid-September. Speckled Woods - which seem to thrive whatever the English summer throws at them - are still flying, and yesterday I saw (as well as Small and Large Whites) a bright Brimstone and a couple of passing Peacocks. But once again the stars of this Indian (or not) summer are the Red Admirals - and not tired, tattered, end-of-season specimens, but fine, fresh ones, full of energy. Yesterday on Ashtead Common, one was careering around an oak tree as if he were a Purple Emperor defending his tree. Then later, at the very point of my leaving the common to head home, right beside the gate, a fine Red Admiral suddenly flew up from the path and landed on my calf, perching on my trousering (beige cotton, since you ask) and unfurling his proboscis to taste a speck of something that seemed to be to his fancy. This beautiful close-up lasted for some minutes, until the Admiral tired of it, flew off in a small quick circuit, then landed back on the path at my feet, where I watched him for several minutes more. It was almost a replay of my Purple Emperor encounter, on the same common back in June, and it would have seemed fitting if this was my last butterfly of the season. But it wasn't - as I got off the train, there, charging around at speed, in and out of the station shop, was another beautiful indomitable bright Red Admiral.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

I Agree with Tony

Having been disappointed by Tony Judt's Ill Fares the Land, I've been reading The Memory Chalet, which definitely didn't disappoint. It's an extraordinary collection of essays and memories - elegant, sharp-witted, warm, often funny and/or poignant - written in the last months of his life and suffused with the awareness that his life was ending. Happily, in this volume, Judt rarely strays into politics, but there is one occasion when he does and - for a wonder - writes not like a leftist but like a true conservative. This is when he - a state-educated grammar school boy who got into King's College Cambridge - considers the present state of the education system:
'Intent upon destroying the selective state schools that afforded my generation a first-rate education at public expense, politicians have foisted upon the state sector a system of enforced downward uniformity. The result, predicted from the outset, was that the selective private schools have flourished. Desperate parents pay substantial fees to exempt their children from dysfunctional state schools; universities are under inordinate pressure to admit underqualified candidates from the latter and have lowered their admission standards accordingly... Today, when the British government mandates that 50 per cent of high school graduates should attend university, the gap separating the quality of education received by the privately schooled minority from that of everyone else is greater than at any time since the 1940s... Meanwhile, we now have more private school graduates in the British cabinet than for decades past - and the first old Etonian prime minister since 1964. Perhaps we should have stuck with meritocracy.'
Indeed. And we also have entirely predictable news stories such as today's latest on university admissions. And, in the absence of the grammar schools, social mobility has all but ground to a halt. I was also a state-educated grammar school boy who got into King's (Judt's essay on 'bedders' rang some painful bells, though my habits were so irregular I rarely saw mine), and I can only say that, when it comes to education, I agree with Tony.

Out of the night...

I see I've popped up again on the Dabbler with Invictus...

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Born on This Day...

... in 1935, the distinctively featured actor Ronald Lacey, most famous now for having played the Nazi villain Toht in Raiders of the Lost Ark, a more villainous version of Herr Flick in 'Allo 'Allo (and no I'm not posting anything about David Croft , the sitcom genius who died yesterday - the press and web are full of well deserved tributes). Scanning Lacey's Wikipedia entry, I came across this remarkable sentence: 'He was known for his generosity and warmth to fans but equally known in the London theatre scene for his smoking and drinking habits.' Drinking habits I can understand - but smoking habits? What did he do? Smoke three at a time? Shove them up his nostrils? Blow smoke rings out of his ears? I'm intrigued...

Tuesday, 27 September 2011


Coffee is surely one of the great blessings - or consolations, according to point of view - of life. It smells good, it tastes good - and, by golly, it does you good. Not so long ago coffee used to get a decidedly negative press, but nowadays the good news just keeps on coming - here's the latest. And note, these findings show that it's not all about caffeine, it's about coffee; other caffeine sources did not yield similar results. It was always a mistake to equate coffee with caffeine - coffee is no more caffeine than wine is alcohol. Drinking a cup of good coffee is nothing like taking caffeine; still less is drinking a glass of decent wine anything like knocking back a slug of alcohol. Coffee and wine are fantastically complex substances with very deep roots in human culture and husbandry, and their effects border on the magical. The same goes for tea and whisky, and quite possibly tobacco (though the bad news there rather outweighs the good).
I knew coffee was the drink for me when I first smelt the real thing - is there anything to touch the smell of freshly ground coffee? My father used to make filter coffee from time to time, even grinding the beans himself - pretty damned exotic in those days - but alas, most of the time, like most of my generation, I was obliged to drink the instant version, usually as a 'milky drink' (ugh). In my late teens I discovered the heady delight of espresso and never looked back... I also knew that beer was the drink for me when I first smelt the hoppy head on my father's Double Diamond - but that is another story.

Monday, 26 September 2011

News from the Infinite Monkey Cage

I've just stumbled on this story - and really don't know what to say, except that the world of science seems more and more to resemble Swift's Academy of Laputa.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

'A dark Vanessa...'

A morning of glorious mellow sun - Indian summer! At Box Hill abundant crops of berries, hips and haws, and the first leaves turning - and a few butterflies still flying: several Speckled Woods still full of vim and vigour, floppy Large Whites, a couple of lazy Meadow Browns, and - in a brilliant set piece - three Red Admirals all basking in the same corner of a sunny bramble patch, each half a dozen leaves away from the next, all bright and fresh and startlingly beautiful. They never disappoint...
The Red Admiral is 'Nabokov's butterfly', the one that turns up most often and most recognisably in his works. It has, or so he claimed, a special resonance for Russians, who once called it the Butterfly of Doom, because it was particularly abundant across Russia in 1881, the year Tsar Alexander II was assassinated - and the figures '1881' can be read across the spread underwings. Take a close look at the picture - can you make out the '81' that would match the '18' on the other underwing? Look among the patterns in the lower half of the lower wing. It takes a bit of wishful thinking, but it's just about there, quite large, the curved '1' more obvious than the smaller '8'...
The Red Admiral flies unforgettably into the final lines of Nabokov's/ John Shade's Pale Fire, a poem haunted by Vanessa Atalanta. John Shade, unknowingly about to die, notices that
'A dark Vanessa with a crimson band
Wheels in the low sun, settles on the sand
And shows its ink-blue wingtips flecked with white...'
For John Shade it was indeed the Butterfly of Doom.

Friday, 23 September 2011

'Too awful to think about'

While the Large Hadron Collider boffins scratch their pointy heads over the Big Doughnut's failure to deliver a Higgs Boson, a related experiment at CERN seems to have overturned Einstein's special theory of relativity. This is causing shock and dismay among physicists, which is all to the good. Maybe we're on the verge of a paradigm shift, maybe we're not (do I look as if I care?). Nobody understood relativity, let alone internalised it, so let's hope the next model of the universe is something a whole lot simpler. Malty's Egg Timer would fit the bill - or maybe something involving giant turtles..

'You again!'

Ah, Indian summer weather at last...
So there I was, sitting on a bench in Holland Park, minding my own business and basking in the glorious autumn son, when a fellow went rolling past in an electric wheelchair. En passant he turned his head and fixed me with a malevolent glare. 'You again!' he snarled, 'I'm always seein' yer.' Am I that much of a fixture of the Holland Park scene? I don't think so. I smiled cheerily in acknowledgment and bade him good day.
One or two Speckled Woods were still flying.

Thursday, 22 September 2011


My lepidopteral low spirits (see below) were wonderfully lifted earlier today. I was walking past Kensington Town Hall in the sun when I caught a glimpse of blue in the shrubbery, approached closer, and found that it was a female Holly Blue in tip-top condition, feeding happily on the flowers of a False Castor Oil Plant (Fatsia Japonica), which do rather resemble those of one of the Holly Blue's favourite food plants, ivy. This was a beautiful and cheering sight, the more so for being unexpected. It seems very late for a Holly Blue, so I live in renewed hope of seeing more butterflies before this year is over...