Monday, 31 December 2012

Happy New Year!

A very happy 2013 to all who browse here. May it be another year of wonders, great and small...

Looking Back at 2012

Well, what a year it's been... No, really - it has. Consider:
It was the year of the London Olympics, an event greeted here on Nigeness with, I must confess, something less than wholehearted enthusiasm - and which turned out to confound all the dismal predictions herein passim by being an unmitigated triumph. (The thing is, you see, I have to call one wrong every now and then to avoid attracting the attention of the authorities...)
And it was the year of the Diamond Jubilee. Who will ever forget the BBC's coverage of the great river pageant,  as comprehensive a shambles as has ever been seen on the nation's screens? The man in charge, one George Entwistle, was duly rewarded with the Director Generalship (after several hundred thousands of pounds had been spent on 'headhunters') and walked the plank after 56 days in office.
But let's talk about the weather. 2012 began with drought - and a glorious early spring - but by May had switched to rainy mode and has seldom relented since, ending up as the wettest year on record. The result was the worst butterfly summer I can remember, following hard on the heels of one of the best and earliest springs. But I enjoyed a few golden days on the Surrey hills and in the Derbyshire dales - and a magical encounter with a Valezina - and when the rain did ease off briefly in late summer, it turned out to be a prodigious year for Chalk-hill Blues, which I hadn't seen in such quantities since boyhood. And talking of magical encounters, this was the year of my very first meeting with that legendary rarity the Camberwell Beauty. Yes, it was in another country (where it is known as the Mourning Cloak and is surprisingly common), but it was still one of the butterfly experiences of a lifetime...
On the book front, much of my most enjoyable reading has been rereading, as usual, and it's not been a year of great discoveries. I've spent a while exploring the extraordinary life and work of Ivy Compton-Burnett, belatedly discovered Willa Cather and read my first collection of Alice Munro - I'll be back for more of both of them, I'm sure. Reading Byron Rogers's two classic biographies, of J.L. Carr and R.S. Thomas, gave me (and, I trust, blog readers) much harmless pleasure. And I finally read Rose Macaulay's The Towers of Trebizond and was not disappointed.
Among the various joys of a year blessed with an abundance of them were the golden spider silk cape in the V&A, and some glorious churches visited in Herefordshire and Norfolk. And, topping it all - this was the year I became a grandfather, with the birth of the auspiciously named Sam.
Even despite the Lost Summer, this was a vintage year.

Friday, 28 December 2012

A Sick Man Writes

Apologies for my unwontedly long absence from the Blog; I've been knocked out of action by what we doctors call a full-on stonking megabastard cold-flu type virus, from which I am only now beginning to recover. Mrs Nige had it first, and then, with perfect timing for the Festive Season, I succumbed last Saturday - and of course it's a proven scientific fact [citation needed] that we men are hit far harder by this kind of thing. Suffice to say that by Christmas Eve, simply thumbing a text message was a major challenge, and attempting anything on a computer keyboard not to be thought of - so I couldn't even manage my traditional Christmas Wishes to all followers of Nigeness. So, after the event, I hope you all had a great Christmas. With luck, I'll manage a New Year message - perhaps even a look back over the year. Meanwhile I shall concentrate on getting better...

Friday, 21 December 2012

Today's the Day

'Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.'
[Robert Frost]
And some say that the world will end in a mighty cosmic collision some time today, as predicted (hem hem) by the Mayans. Hundreds of hacks and a few dozen wackjobs have descended on the French village of Bugarach, where extraterrestrials will emerge from a nearby mountain (which doubles as a UFO launch pad) to save those humans who happen to be in the vicinity. So, the end population of planet Earth will consist of a miscellaneous collection of hacks, nutters and seriously disgruntled Pyrenean villagers. This might make an interesting sitcom (Only Fools and Journos?), but I can't help feeling it has something of an air of anticlimax about it.
Oh, and in case the Mayans turn out to to be right - Cheerio everybody, it's been a lot of fun.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Alma-Tad of the Royal Acad

I've written before about Lawrence Alma-Tadema,'the worst painter of the 19th century' (according to Ruskin, never one to mince his words). Sir Lawrence I should say, for the doughty fellow was knighted in 1899, joining the distinguished list of foreign-born artist to be so honoured - Rubens, Van Dyck, Kneller, etc. A celebratory banquet, attended by the giants of the artistic world, was duly laid on at the Royal Academy, and great was the rejoicing; the genial Alma-Tadema seems to have been as popular with his fellow artists as with the public. The proceedings became positively uproarious when a song, the Carmen Tademare - specially written by the dramatist, critic, gallery owner and impresario Joseph Comyns Carr, with music by George Henschel (also present) - was sung, with everyone joining in on the chorus with gusto:

'Who knows him well he best can tell
That a stouter friend hath no man
Than this lusty Knight who for our delight
Hath painted Greek and Roman.
Then here let every citizen
Who holds a brush or wields a pen
Drink deep as his Zuyder Zee
To Alma-Tad - of the Royal Acad -
Of the Royal Academee!'

Happy days!
Still reading Victorian Olympus then? you inquire wearily. I am. Although it's a short book, my reading time has been even shorter - but I shall be finishing it today and moving on...

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Olympics again

Over on The Dabbler, my piece on the Cotswold Olympics has been posted. For reasons of space, my prophetic words on the then forthcoming London Games - "the joyless hypertrophied big-money fascistic spectacle about to be inflicted on the unfortunate city of London" - have been omitted.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Piltdown: Giving the Scientists What They Wanted

When I was a boy I had an old encyclopaedia with an illustration of the reconstructed Piltdown Man skull in it, presented as the key 'missing link' in the transition from ape to man. On the centenary of this famous hoax, it's worth recalling that such a version of human evolution was the received scientific wisdom for four decades (though, to be fair, there were always doubters). It's a classic case of scientists persuading themselves, for scant reason, that X is the case, then seeking out proof that they are right. Many palaeontologists had convinced themselves that the brain led the way in human evolution, so they were looking for a big brain in an otherwise ape-like skull; and the British ones were determined that there must be major finds waiting to be discovered in Britain as they had been on the Continent. Indeed it would be only right and fitting, wouldn't it, if humanity had made its crucial evolutionary breakthrough in England's green and pleasant land, that the first humans were free-born Englishmen. In such a climate of belief, it was no wonder an ingenious hoaxer came along and gave the scientists what they wanted.
Who was the hoaxer? I like the idea that it might have been that man of many parts Pierre Teilhard de Chardin - philosopher, Jesuit priest, palaeontologist, hoaxer? However, Teilhard came to believe that there probably were no 'missing links' to be found, owing to what he charmingly called the 'suppression of the peduncles'. The big breakthroughs in evolution happened, he concluded, rather suddenly, thus appearing in the fossil record fully formed. Piltdown Man, then, was a redundant peduncle.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Stark Insensibility

'His tutor, Mr Jorden, fellow of Pembroke, was  not, it seems, a man of such abilities as we should conceive requisite for the instructor of Samuel Johnson, who gave me the following account of him. "He was a very worthy man, but a heavy man, and I did not profit much by his instructions. Indeed, I did not attend him much. The first day after I came to college, I waited on him, and then staid away four. On the sixth, Mr Jorden asked me why I had not attended? I answered, I had been sliding in Christ Church meadow: and this I said with as much nonchalance as I am now talking to you. I had no notion that I was wrong or irreverent to my Tutor." BOSWELL. "That, Sir, was great fortitude of mind." JOHNSON. "No, Sir, stark insensibility."'

If ever (heaven forbid) I were to write a memoir of my prolonged adolescence, it would be titled Stark Insensibility. A recent flurry of activity on the excellent Commonplace Blog got me looking back with an appalled shudder to those years. Last Friday, Dave Myers owned up to The Books I've Stolen - which got his readers queuing up to confess to their own book thefts. My mind reeled back to student days, when I could scan my book collection and know that fully a third of it had been stolen - from bookshops, from libraries, I don't think from any individuals (which is something, I suppose).
What was I up to? I guess it was partly the zeitgeist. Those were strange unsettled times (the turn of the Seventies) and, in some of the circles I moved in, theft - at least from more or less faceless institutions - was no big deal. There were those around who concurred with Prudhon's maxim, Property Is Theft. I wasn't really one of them, but I was more than stupid enough - and amoral enough - to disregard property rights when it suited me. I didn't even get a thrill from the risks I was running - or only from the most audacious feat of swiping; mostly it was just something I (and many others) did. And there is, undeniably, something different about stealing books - which is why so many people who would never dream of stealing anything else will pinch books without too many qualms. It's the form of theft that seems to come closest to the popular euphemism - 'liberating' property.
But here I am again, looking back aghast, and asking why the heck I did what I did. And the best answer is still Johnson's: Stark Insensibility.

Friday, 14 December 2012

Boots, Boots

These boots were made for gardening. They are the boots of Miss Gertrude Jekyll, eloquently painted in 1920 by the great William Nicholson. I was put in mind of them when I read about the national art collection - i.e. every publicly owned painting in the land - having been made available online. They're all there, and as some 80 per cent of them are normally hidden from public view in storage and office space, this is excellent news - the kind of thing that only the internet can do. The exercise has thrown up some interesting finds too - not least the identity of the artist with the largest number (by miles) of publicly owned paintings. Any guesses? Turner perhaps? No - it's Herbert Barnard John Everett (me neither), a maritime painter, who left a vast amount of his work to the National Maritime Museum. And the boots? The boots are the subject of this painting, which resides in the National Football Museum and is the work of one Doris Brand, of whom nothing is known. It's rather a fine painting - but who was she? And who, come to that, was Christopher?

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Waxwings in London!

This morning, the suburban demiparadise where I live was in full Winter Wonderland garb. Every twig and every leaf, every grass blade and strand of spider silk was rimed with white whiskery hoarfrost, to brilliant effect. The Beast from the East has moved back in, clamping its icy grip on the land. And moving in with it have been Waxwings - these spectacular winter visitors have been seen in London, busily stripping the rowan trees of berries. I've only once seen a Waxwing, and that was but a glimpse from a train - but I live in hope, especially this winter. Meanwhile mysteriously absent are the Redwings (and, come to that, Fieldfares) who normally sweep in with the first icy blast. There were dozens of them around in the demiparadise last winter, and the winter before that - the Hard One - they and the Fieldfares were everywhere. This year I've barely seen either. Has anyone else seen much of them this winter? Perhaps their absence could be a sign that the Beast from the East isn't all it's cracked up to be and we could soon be reverting to the familiar mild wet winter...
Meanwhile, there's a fine sun-warmed painting by John Linnell on The Dabbler, with a few words from me.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Watts on the Bat

As just now my weekday life consists almost entirely of working flat out and reading snatches of William Gaunt's Victorian Olympus (between intervals of sleep and stupor), I make no apologies for returning again to that fascinating volume. Yesterday I learned that one of G.F. Watts's first commissions was to illustrate a cricket book with a series of drawings showing the various positions adopted by the batsman. Yes, that G.F. Watts. It's an improbably down-to-earth start for a high-minded artist who seemed interested only in Abstractions and the Ideal, but so it was. Watts owed the commission to an early patron, a remarkable man called Nicholas Wanostrocht, who inherited the running of a school at the age of just 19 when his father died, but whose main interest was cricket. Fearing that his pupils' parents might take a dim view of his cricketing activities, he played under the name of Nicholas Felix, and became a stalwart of the great Kentish side of the mid-19th century (along with the gloriously named Fuller Pilch). His batting manual, Felix on the Bat, was published in 1845, with Watts's illustrations. Credited with the invention of the Catapulta bowling machine and India-rubber batting gloves, Felix was also a classicist, musician, linguist, writer, artist, you name it - another of those Victorian all-rounders. As he was at cricket, batting left-handed and bowling (underarm) slow left-arm orthodox. Oddly he ended up buried in Wimborne cemetery just yards from Montague Druitt, another cricketer and, posthumously, a Jack the Ripper suspect. Small world.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

'The age of each had its dangers...'

'The disparity of age might preclude, apart from the fact that Adelaide was married, the thought of love between them: and yet there was an affection, no less tender because disinterested. Obviously, she was pleased by the good looks, the talent of the young man - and he, on his side, adored her as an ideal being. The age of each had its dangers. A motherly sentiment on the one hand and a feeling of reverence on the other were not absolute safeguards against a warmer emotion, but it would be an idle speculation to pursue this thought, and irrelevant to their mutual recognition of a lofty and even abstract excellence...'
  Henry James surely? No, it's William Gaunt in Victorian Olympus (see below, 'Proudly and Furiously Bad..', 5th December). He's writing, with that Jamesian delicacy of discrimination, about the relationship between the young Frederic Leighton and Adelaide Sartoris, born into the Kemble acting dynasty, married to an art critic and amateur painter - and clearly very impressed by the young Leighton.
  Art historians don't write like that nowadays, more's the pity. Gaunt's approach - which would today be roundly condemned as fanciful and unscholarly - is unashamedly novelistic. He has a story to tell, and he has characters to bring to life, along with their various milieux - and he does it superbly well. His three studies of Victorian art movements - The Pre-Raphaelite Tragedy, The Aesthetic Adventure and Victorian Olympus - are irresistibly readable page turners. First published in the late Forties and early Fifties, they are out of print now, but seem to be available for 1p on Amazon, in paperback (an edition by Cardinal with covers that make them look like Seventies erotica).
 Not only do art historians not write like that; neither, I fancy, do artists. Here's Leighton writing to his mother ahead of the exhibition of his first major work, warning her to be indifferent to the 'scribbling of pamphleteers; the self-complacent oracularity of those pachidermata is rivalled only by their gross ignorance of the subject they bemaul.' But Leighton needn't have worried; the painting was a triumph. It was Cimabue's Celebrated Madonna Carried in Procession Through the Streets of Florence - which now hangs over the grand staircase of the National Gallery. And which I have written about elsewhere...

Friday, 7 December 2012

A Birthday Message from HMRC

My 63rd birthday (yep, me and Tom Waits both - spared for another year), and Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs mark the occasion by sending me a letter headed 'Are you affected by changes to Child Benefit?' My children, I should point out, are in their 30s, and one is living in New Zealand.
A series of questions follow, and if the answer is No (as it was, unsurprisingly, in my case), 'The changes explained in this letter will not affect you. Please ignore it.' It put me in mind of the famous notice saying only 'Do Not Throw Stones at This Notice'... A waste of tax-payers' money, for sure, but it has its up side: clearly 'they' don't know as much about us as we sometimes fear they do. In fact they appear to know nothing.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Corruption, Conspiracy, Cover-Up... Really?

In any league table of institutional corruption you'll find the Scandinavian countries - and our own - languishing way down in the relegation zone. And yet, if you were to judge these nations by their TV dramas, you'd conclude that they are riddled with corruption from top to bottom. The Killing, Borgen and The Bridge all involve high-level cover-ups, conspiracies and dirty deeds, while every episode of Wallander exposes a seething nest of vipers at the heart of every apparently tranquil community (or indeed family). As for British TV, it seems to be impossible any longer to make a thriller that hasn't got an almighty conspiracy and/or cover-up at the centre of it. Secret State was the latest of many, with The Town now doing the same trick on a small-town scale, and The Hour applying it to period drama. All is conspiracy and cover-up, despite the evidence all around us that those in High Places can barely run a tap, let alone an all-embracing conspiracy.
Why do we entertain these fantasies? Is it precisely because we know they don't reflect reality, that we're secure enough to indulge thrilling projections of evil at the core of society? Or are we exercising our uncommonly well-developed ethical sensitivities, warning ourselves of what is possible when the worm of corruption does start boring away at a society? Is it just the strange fascination (to some) of conspiracy theories? Or, wait a minute, maybe all these conspiracy thrillers actually reflect reality - after all, if cover-ups are successful no one will know, will they? And who compiles these corruption league tables anyway? Whose pocket are they in? Think on...

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

'Proudly and Furiously Bad...'

Rereading (after many years) William Gaunt's Victorian Olympus - the third volume of his wonderfully readable trilogy on Victorian art movements - I came across a name that was unfamiliar to me: Antoine Wiertz. When the young and prodigiously gifted Frederic Leighton was travelling around Europe, working with and learning from a range of artists whose talent he would soon eclipse, he visited the Brussels studio of Wiertz, an artist Gaunt describes as 'proudly and furiously bad'. This seems to be a fair judgment of a painter driven by paranoiac delusions of grandeur, who was convinced not only of his own genius but of his ability to reform society by means of his eloquent brush (the painting above, for example, Buried Too Soon, is a typically understated plea for cremation). As his themes grew larger - Greeks and Trojans Fighting for the Body of Patrocles,  The Fall of the Rebellious Angels -  so did his canvases. 20ft by 12ft was his kind of size, and he developed a new medium that enabled him to cover large areas fast with a flat matt finish (it involved mixing petrol in with colours and turpentine, and it hasn't lasted well). Lurching between classicism and lurid, not to say morbid romanticism, Wiertz's paintings became ever more grandiose, and his ambitions grew with them. Amazingly, he managed to persuade the Belgian government to build a dedicated museum to display in perpetuity all his works, which he donated to a not terribly grateful nation. Still more amazingly, the museum is still there - attracting an average of ten or so visitors a day - in a suburb of Brussels where it stands quite overshadowed by another ugly monument to delusional folly, the European Parliament complex. If I find myself in Brussels again, I must go and have a look. Meanwhile, if you can stand it, there are images of many of Wiertz's paintings here....

Tuesday, 4 December 2012


I see I'm celebrating Deanna Durbin (happy birthday!) over on The Dabbler...

Short and...

As ever at this time of year, a pre-Christmas workstorm is raging here at NigeCorp. Times like these call for something short and sweet on the blog - or perhaps, in this case, bittersweet... Sonnets certainly don't come much shorter, or more tightly packed, than Elizabeth Bishop's last, which was also the last poem she both started and completed. It was published shortly after her death in 1979.


Caught -- the bubble
in the spirit level,
a creature divided;
and the compass needle
wobbling and wavering,
Freed -- the broken
thermometer's mercury
running away;
and the rainbow-bird
from the narrow bevel
of the empty mirror,
flying wherever
it feels like, gay!

Whether intentionally or not, this poem feels like a summing-up and a leavetaking. The first half is full of images of containment, tension and division, while the second half sings of release, freedom, vibrant colour, happiness, ending on the exclaimed 'gay!' - a hard-won gaiety, but  all the sweeter for that. And Bishop has turned the traditional sonnet division upside down here, breaking at line 6/7 rather than 8/9 - her sonnet is bottom-heavy, weighted in favour of gaiety and release, in the end weightless, flying free.

Monday, 3 December 2012

A Happy Anniversary

In the interest of spreading good cheer, here's an anniversary worth celebrating - on this day 85 years ago, the first Laurel and Hardy film was released. Putting Pants on Philip is not exactly a classic, and Stan and Ollie have not yet settled into their archetypal incarnations, but the chemistry is already amazing, and there are glimmers of the comic wonders to come. Ollie plays a well-dressed, well-set-up fellow who's deeply embarrassed by the arrival of his Scottish nephew, Philip, in a kilt. The young fellow must be taken to a tailor forthwith and kitted out with trousers. But getting him there will not be straightforward - not least because Philip can't resist the ladies, leaping into the air in a cartoonish manner at sight of one and setting off in hot pursuit. Stan chasing skirt, imagine! Not to mention Stan in his kilt prefiguring Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch... There's a taster of Putting Pants on Philip here (with a rather tiresome voice-over) and the whole film can be tracked down by the determined on YouTube.

Friday, 30 November 2012

To a T

This strange-looking T-shaped creature is a Plume Moth. Its wings are indeed plume-like, but at rest the Plume Moth rolls them up tight, like an umbrella, and holds them at right angle to its body, thus managing to look more like an arrangement of thin twigs or grass than a moth. Two of them - two perfect Ts - have taken up residence on the ceiling of my bathroom. In view of the time of year, and the cold, I had begun to think they were probably dead - but no, last night as I lay in my bath, I noticed they had completely changed their positions since I last saw them. They are still hanging on. One more day and they'll have made it into December...

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Clothar and the Disappearing Monkey

Wikipedia's list of historical anniversaries is an invaluable resource - the chronological inspiration for many a post on this blog, I must admit - but it has its little quirks. Browsing on it last night, I found that the very first entry in the Events section read '561 - king Clothar I dies at a monkey Compiegne...' Annoyingly, someone has since nipped in and removed the intriguing words 'a monkey'...
I looked up Clothar and found his entry disappointingly lacking in monkey action, but full of bloodshed. Clothar, King of the Franks, seems to have occupied most of his life in warfare and pillage, when not bumping off members of his own family, beginning with his brother Chlodomer's children and ending with his rebellious son Chram, whom he burnt to death with his wife and children in a cottage in Brittany, whither the unfortunate Chram had fled. Following this last deed, he travelled to Tours to pray forgiveness at the tomb of St Martin, before going on to die at a monkey Compiegne.
Shouty Waldemar Januszczak has a TV series on BBC4 at the moment called The Dark Ages: An Age of Light. The Dark Ages, he booms, were no such thing - they were 'AN AGE OF LIGHT!' Well, no doubt he has a point, but when you read about the likes of Clothar, you do get the impression there was rather a lot of dark around too.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Any Excuse for a Picture of Venice...

'The built environment can be more beautiful than nature,' declares Planning Minister Nick Boles, calling for more open land to be built over as a means of 'solving a housing problem'. He envisages 'beautiful' building that is sensitive to its locality - at which point one is tempted to suggest that he really ought to get out more. Are the developers currently blighting the land with what even Boles can see is 'ugly rubbish' suddenly going to be converted into enlightened and sensitive builders, creating houses that fit their setting and are pleasing to the eye? Even if they could - and most of them are architecturally illiterate - they would have to price such houses very high, which is hardly going to solve any housing problem.
 The built environment can indeed be more beautiful than nature - the city of Venice, for example, is surely one of the most beautiful things on the surface of the Earth. But a large part of that beauty is down to its setting in the lagoon, to sky and light and water (i.e. Nature), to buildings consciously created for beauty and grandeur - and built to last - and to centuries of history and human activity.
 Houses that live up to Nick Boles's ideal already exist, in choice parts of the country, solidly built with local materials, bedded into the landscape, each with its little plot of land - and these models of commodity, firmness and delight cost a fortune, because everyone wants them and they can't be reproduced. The likely future for the British landscape, if Boles gets his way, is that much more of it will disappear under the familiar extrasuburban sprawl of standardised Noddy Vernacular houses, poorly built, poky, clumsily detailed, placeless, historyless, owing nothing and contributing nothing to their setting. This might help to ease the housing shortage, but it will certainly do nothing to beautify the land.

Dabbler alert

I see my thoughts on that terrible terrible terrible man Frank Randle are on the super soaraway Dabbler today.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Kenneth Koch: Thank You

Kenneth Koch's Thank You and Other Poems is - like the Rolling Stones - fifty years old this year. My increasingly battered copy of the Evergreen Original paperback has been a cheering presence somewhere in my life for around forty of those years. At present it's in the bedside pile, a reliable spirit-lifter, containing some of the funniest, happiest serious verse I've ever come across.
 Koch's laudable aim in his poetry was to express 'the fullness and richness of life and the richness of possibility and excitement and happiness'. Along with his 'New York school' friends (notably Frank O'Hara and the early John Ashbery), Koch was in the business of blowing away ponderous introspection and replacing it with something fresh, playful, light-footed, exuberant and cosmopolitan, drawing inspiration from abstract expressionism, surrealism, music and pop art imagery. His long poem Fresh Air - read it here - is a kind of manifesto, though the word is far too solemn for such a piece of work.
 Here is a characteristic poem from the Thank You collection - one of my favourites - in which Koch dances nimbly between the comic and the lyrical...


One day the Nouns were clustered in the street.
An Adjective walked by, with her dark beauty.
The Nouns were struck, moved, changed.
The next day a Verb drove up, and created the Sentence.

Each Sentence says one thing—for example, “Although it was a dark rainy day when
        the Adjective walked by, I shall remember the pure and sweet expression on her face
        until the day I perish from the green, effective earth."
Or, “Will you please close the window, Andrew?”
Or, for example, “Thank you, the pink pot of flowers on the window sill has changed color
        recently to a light yellow, due to the heat from the boiler factory which exists nearby.”

In the springtime the Sentences and the Nouns lay silently on the grass.
A lonely Conjunction here and there would call, “And! But!”
But the Adjective did not emerge.

As the Adjective is lost in the sentence,
So I am lost in your eyes, ears, nose, and throat—
You have enchanted me with a single kiss
Which can never be undone
Until the destruction of language.


Here's something for fans of Liz Taylor and Richard Burton to look forward to. Clearly a very classy biopic is in prospect...

Monday, 26 November 2012

All Over Now

I've been idly working out how much I'd have had to be paid - cash, upfront - to get me to the O2 Arena to see the Rolling Stones 50th birthday gig. I reckon I'd have done it for two grand, maybe a bit less - probably around the kind of money some desperate fans shelled out for a ticket. Most of my price, I must admit, would have been to cover the multiple hassles of getting to and from Greenwich and into and out of the stadium, and to compensate for my deep-seated loathing of giant music venues (I once made the mistake of taking up the offer of free tickets for the Three Tenors at Wembley - suffice to say we were out of there long before the interval...).
The Rolling Stones might well be 'the greatest rock and roll band in the world', but they were that 40-plus years ago, at their peak, and they've done little since, apart from somehow staying together and making it to this big-money semicentennial. I used to love their albums up to (and probably not including) Exile on Main Street - but hey, that was then, when it was all new; this is now, when it's all over. However well the aged Stones perform - and by all accounts they were on good form - there's nothing new here; it can only be pastiche and repetition. Rock music of the golden age (early 60s to early 70s) is music that can't happen twice - and doesn't need to, as all the best of it is there to be revisited on vinyl or CD. It's that river you can't walk through twice. Isn't it?

Friday, 23 November 2012

Ash Dieback: The Key

I was enjoying a revivifying beer on the homeward train last night when I noticed, on the table at which I sat, a single ash key. It must have blown in through the window from a lineside tree. They're everywhere at the moment, these winged (or rather tailed) seeds of the ash tree, and large numbers of them will strike a root and a shoot and grow from sprig to sapling to mature tree - or will they? If the dire predictions of the effects of Ash Dieback disease are to be believed, we could be about to see the near-extinction of one of our most abundant and beautiful trees - a grim prospect...
Later that evening, on the radio, I caught the naturalist and writer Peter Marren talking about Ash Dieback, and he was very clear about how and why this disease reached our shore - as a product of our stupid craze for planting trees, especially so-called 'natives', in vast numbers, under the impression that this is self-evidently a Good Thing. It is not: tree planting can be more of a problem than a solution. As practised at present, it creates unhealthily dense plantations, not woodlands. And it inflates demand to the point where it can only be met by imported trees - which, in the natural course of things, are more than likely to bring pathogens into the country with them. Marren expands his argument in this piece.
I'm not sure the effects of Ash Dieback will be as severe in this country as they were in Denmark (90 percent loss). It may be that we have more resistant strains here, capable of withstanding the disease - we'll find out in the next year or two. But whatever happens, I do hope it will get all those involved to think hard about the wisdom of mass tree planting and, especially, of importing trees.

Thursday, 22 November 2012


Following my recent musings on flashmob events (When the World Turns Over), my correspondent Susan in New York has pointed me the way of this wonderful video of an event in Buenos Aires. I pass it on to brighten this November day...

Lorenz Hart

On this day in 1943, the great lyricist Lorenz Hart died in New York City of pneumonia brought on by exposure after a drinking binge. This was just months after the death of his mother, with whom he had lived all his life.
Hart's lyrics are famous for their playful wit, wordplay and brilliant rhyming, but there's often an undertow of melancholy - and he could also write a straightforward, rapturous love song like With A Song In My Heart (written, like all his best, with Richard Rodgers). It's an overworked standard (the theme tune of Two Way Family Favourites, for heaven's sake!), but the delicate artistry of Ella Fitzgerald - here - brings out all its tender beauty...
Hart had no one in his life to whom he could sing such a song; he considered himself so repulsive that love was out of the question; he was a self-loathing, shame-racked gay, a lifelong depressive and a self-destructive alcoholic.
And he wrote that. 

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

RST Enjoys a Mitcham Cabbage

More than once I have written about the magical experience of finding myself among goldcrests - notably here. So I was especially delighted to find, towards the end of Byron Rogers' life of R.S. Thomas (I've just finished it - what a book!), that the poet too had this experience, and wrote of it (in a 1984 anthology, Britain: A World By Itself) far better than I ever could. On an October day, Thomas had come upon an isolated clump of bare trees, walking towards it so quietly that his approach had gone unnoticed. Stepping inside, he had, it seems, 'the one mystical experience of his life'...

'It was alive with goldcrests,' he writes. 'The air purred with their small wings. To look up was to see the twigs re-leafed with their small bodies. Everywhere their needle-sharp cries stitched at the silence. Was I invisible? Their seed-bright eyes regarded me from three feet off. Had I put forth an arm, they might have perched on it. I became a tree, part of that bare spinney where silently the light was splintered, and for a timeless moment the birds thronged me, filigreeing me with shadow, moving to an immemorial rhythm on their way south.
  Then suddenly they were gone, leaving other realities to return: the rustle of the making tide, the tick of the moisture, the blinking of the pool's eye as the air flicked it, and lastly myself. Where had I been? Who was I? What did it all mean? When it was happening, I was not. Now that the birds had gone, here I was once again...'

That is poet's prose, and when Thomas sticks to description it is quite wonderfully evocative - the purring air, the twigs re-leafed, those needle-sharp cries (and beaks), the seed-bright eyes, the tick of the moisture - but the more he takes off into speculation about the meaning of the experience (citing Coleridge on 'the primary Imagination' and 'the infinite I AM'), the less convincing he becomes. Never mind - he had his taste of eternity in that clump of trees, and no one has ever written more vividly about that heart-lifting experience of being among goldcrests.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

They Dance

It's all Peter's fault. His comment below yesterday's post got me thinking about dancing butterflies. Not that I hadn't already been thinking about butterflies. I'd been doing what I quite often do at this time of year, visualising a sunny, flowery downland slope, dotted with wild marjoram and knapweed, hawkweed and scabious, and butterflies dancing from flower to flower - there you go: dancing.They do dance - well, most of them. Some, like the Large White and Meadow Brown, do little more than flop around in the air, and one or two - such as the seldom seen Mountain Ringlet - barely bother to take flight at all. At the other end of the scale, the Skippers dart about at such speed, in straight lines and zigzags, that they can scarcely be said to dance. On the other hand, most of the Blues and Browns - and Marbled Whites (pictured) - of downland and meadows have a dainty dancing flight, especially when they're deciding where to touch down. But woodlands are home to the most graceful dancers, with the power swooping of the Silver-washed Fritillary and the more elegant gliding of my favourite, the White Admiral - not to mention the ever present Speckled Woods, dancing in and out of the dappled sunlight that their wings so perfectly mimic, or rising in pairs, fight-dancing in an ascending double helix. These are cheering summer images for the butterflyless months - and here are more dancing butterflies (foreigners alas, but some quite nearly resembling our own White Admiral). Enjoy.

Monday, 19 November 2012

When the World turns over

Something you don't often see at the public library...
This strange, joyful image is from Jordan Matter's Dancers Among Us, a book of quite amazing photographs of dancers doing what dancers do - but in wholly unexpected  everyday situations. It began with a male dancer dressed in full commuter uniform taking off and flying across a Times Square subway platform, and it soon grew into a phenomenon - there's lots more imagery, video footage etc here.
Dancers Among Us is closely related to the flash mob movement, where one reality suddenly erupts into another - as in this glorious food market Brindisi from Philadelphia. At such moments the world turns over and shows its joyful spontaneous side, reminding us of another reality that is always there, but for so much of the time lost in the busyness of everyday. And there are dancers among us everywhere - unconscious dancers, mostly very bad. As soon as you become aware of the way people move - as I am increasingly doing - you realise that there is a kind of dance going on around us all the time, on every city street. Mostly it is a dance of shuffle and slouch, but sometimes you catch someone moving beautifully, with real grace. There are dancers among us, but they are too few.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Running Over

What is wrong with this poem?

Why no! I never thought other than
That God is that great absence
In our lives, the empty silence
Within, the place where we go
Seeking, not in hope to
Arrive or find. He keeps the interstices
In our knowledge, the darkness
Between stars. His are the echoes
We follow, the footprints he has just
Left. We put our hands in
His side hoping to find
It warm. We look at people
And places as though he had looked
At them, too; but miss the reflection.

It's Via Negativa  by R.S. Thomas, and according to Donald Davie, enjambment is what's wrong with it - there's far too much of it. Enjambment is what happens when a phrase or sentence runs over the end of a line, instead of ending at the line-break. It's an essential tool in the poet's armoury, breaking the jog-trot tendency of regular metrical verse, throwing the emphasis onto unexpected words, and setting up a creative tension between syntax and structure. It is entirely apt that Via Negativa, a poem that is all about tension, should embody it in frequent enjambment. And when it's read aloud - or voiced in the head - it works perfectly.
R.S.'s namesake Edward, whose work often seethes with tension, was another  master of enjambment, especially (as with R.S.) in his later poems. Here he is, cranking up the tension, in Beauty...

What does it mean? Tired, angry, and ill at ease,
No man, woman, or child alive could please
Me now. And yet I almost dare to laugh
Because I sit and frame an epitaph--
"Here lies all that no one loved of him
And that loved no one." Then in a trice that whim
Has wearied. But, though I am like a river
At fall of evening when it seems that never
Has the sun lighted it or warmed it, while
Cross breezes cut the surface to a file,
This heart, some fraction of me, happily
Floats through a window even now to a tree
Down in the misting, dim-lit, quiet vale;
Not like a pewit that returns to wail
For something it has lost, but like a dove
That slants unanswering to its home and love.
There I find my rest, and through the dusk air
Flies what yet lives in me. Beauty is there.

And then there is Kay Ryan, enjamber extraordinaire...

Shark's Teeth

Everything contains some   
silence. Noise gets
its zest from the
small shark's-tooth
shaped fragments
of rest angled
in it. An hour   
of city holds maybe   
a minute of these   
remnants of a time   
when silence reigned,   
compact and dangerous   
as a shark. Sometimes   
a bit of a tail   
or fin can still   
be sensed in parks.

 What would Donald Davie have made of that?

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

'Happiness is the wrong word'

A 72-year longitudinal study has concluded that the key to a long and happy life is in close relationships with others - who'd have guessed! Friends and family are far more important factors than any inherited benefits, the scientists report.
 'The finding on happiness,' says the current director of the project (who sounded a happy fellow on the radio this morning), 'is that happiness is the wrong word. The right words for happiness are emotional intelligence, relationships, joy, connections and resilience...' Or, to put it another way, loving, giving, enjoying and enduring.
 Not for the first time, science 'discovers' what we have always known.

The Keep Calm Mystery

So now there's an album too - Keep Calm and Stay Cosy, 3 CDs of soft pop to calm you into festive catalepsy. I caught a TV ad for it last night, more than once.
What is it with the Keep Calm and Carry On phenomenon? What began a few years ago as a rediscovered, never issued propaganda poster from the Last Spot of Bother, designed to sustain morale if things got really hairy, has spread to encompass everything - stationery in all its forms, T-shirts, mobile phone covers, textiles, wallpaper, you name it. There's a book, a website, an online Keep Calm-o-matic on which all manner of variations on the theme can be forged (one of the better ones is illustrated here) - it's only a matter of time before there's a Keep Calm and Carry On theme park...
Why has this clunkily designed poster with its functional sanserif and flat Tudor crown become the popular design phenomenon de nos jours? Does it, as some have suggested, chime with the hard times we're supposedly living through, reminding us of the great British spirit of stoically muddling through? Or is it rather (as I suspect) an example of austerity chic, a product of easy rather than hard times?
The last time a 'look' take off on quite this all-engulfing scale was when The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady was published in the late 70s and its vapid watercolour style inspired a 'look' that gradually spread across the land. There were, I remember, various attempts to explain it, but none of them was convincing. These things just happen, and in time they fade away and are forgotten. All we can do is, er, keep calm and carry on.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Happy Birthday Hermione

Born on this day in 1906 was the redoubtable character actress, scene stealer and revue artiste Hermione Baddeley (sister of Angela, namesake and professional rival of Gingold), who has the distinction of having played the shortest role ever nominated for an Oscar - it was as Simone Signoret's best friend in Room at the Top, and it came in at just 2 minutes and 20 seconds. The star of that film, Laurence Harvey - her junior by 20-odd years - was one of Hermione's lovers, and there were two husbands. Her first marriage, to the Hon David Tennant, stalwart of Soho's notorious Gargoyle Club, got off to a shaky start when she turned up at the register office an hour late, by which time the registrar had gone missing. The happy couple moved in to a Wiltshire manor house, which soon became notorious for their wild parties. After divorcing Tennant - who remained the love of her life - Hermione married Captain J.H. 'Dozey' Willis, a decorated Dunkirk veteran, and again things got off to an inauspicious start when most of the wedding presents were stolen from the reception. The marriage didn't last long.
  An animal lover, Hermione Baddeley dedicated her autobiography - by all accounts a characteristic mix of industrial-scale name-dropping and disarming candour - to her dog.

Monday, 12 November 2012

On the Other Hand...

... yesterday - Remembrance Sunday - was a gloriously sunny autumn day, the sky cloudless and intensely blue, the sunlight sweet and mellow, the trees in all their golden coppery glory. I spent a long while sitting in a kind of natural bower, surrounded by purple dogwood under ash and birch, looking out over a small lake from which the sedge had not yet quite withered. Basking I was, in the first warm sunlight I'd felt on my face in weeks. It was still cool in the shade, but in the sun genuinely, warmingly warm - though, disappointingly, not quite warm enough to tempt any hibernating butterflies, even a Red Admiral, into a brief waking. Still, I was granted the sight (and sound) of a party of foraging goldcrests - which took me back to another occasion when these tiny, delightful birds appeared close at hand, an unlooked-for gift...

The Inevitable BBC Post - feel free to skip...

As it happened, in the hour before the hapless George Entwistle stepped out of Broadcasting House to announce his resignation as BBC Director General on Saturday night, Radio 4 had broadcast an edition of Archive On 4 devoted to the founding father and first DG of the BBC, Lord Reith. Thus was ninety years of BBC history neatly bookended by a giant and a pygmy.
 But the giant Reith was also a full-blown megalomaniac, who created the BBC in his own  megalomaniac image - and the megalomania survives in the institutional DNA of the Corporation. Having worked for a (mercifully) few years inside the BBC, I  must say that I have never encountered  an organisation with such delusions of grandeur, so unshakably convinced of its manifest destiny and its innate, self-evident superiority, despite all the human evidence to the contrary seated around its meeting tables (which is where most BBC staff seem to spend most of their time). Megalomaniac organisations are fine so long as they are dominated by personalities and talent, however maverick (some newspapers still fit this image), but the BBC has become over the years an organisation so dominated by structures, by faceless management, navel-gazing  and endless bureaucratic procedures that it rewards mediocrity - hence the rise of Entwistle to the top - while stifling originality and creativity. And of course it continues to pat itself on the back - insisting that it is still has the public's 'trust', whatever that means - even as it falls apart. Clearly the BBC is in need of a radical shake-up; incredibly, those who appointed him thought Entwistle, the 'insider's insider', was just the man to do the job. Only the BBC could delude itself on quite such an epic scale.

Friday, 9 November 2012


Another triumph for European Union diplomacy - after a mere 21 years, the Banana Wars are over. Roll on that joint European foreign policy, I say...

Reflections on the Book Trade

Will fewer books be sold this Christmas than last? I doubt it. Whatever inroads are made by electronic publishing, the book as gift will surely always survive ('I've downloaded the new Jamie into your Kindle' doesn't have quite the festive ring, does it?). More broadly, the book as desirable object will also surely survive. In fact I have high hopes that the ebook revolution - which at present has the big publishers circling the wagons and merging into ever larger conglomerates - could be good news for those of us who love actual books, those board-and-paper objects of desire. There is already some evidence that book design and production standards are improving - books are looking more attractive than they did a decade or two ago, and they're better made. Of course this isn't necessarily so at the mass-appeal blockbuster (or, increasingly, bonkbuster) end of the market - but that is precisely the area of the trade that best lends itself to electronic publishing. Why heft that 500-page airport doorstop around with you, when you could have it and any number of others all stored in one palm-sized gizmo? The ebook could take care of the book trade's heavy lifting - not just the blockbusters and bonkbusters but also all those pumped-up, over-length 'literary' or 'serious' novels - leaving the publishers of paper-and-board books to concentrate on more elegant productions.
  I hope that all this upheaval might even result in a revival of the small book in all its forms - the novella, the little collection of short stories, the slim volume of verse, the long essay. The logic of the time is surely with small books. Just as the mighty Victorian three-decker was the perfect book form for an age of leisurely reading with few distractions, so the short book would surely suit our busy, media-saturated times better than the now standard 300-400 page novel (at least a third of which is likely to be padding anyway). If we must have big long books, let them migrate to their natural home on the ereader, and let those of us who love actual books have them better made, better designed - and smaller.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Sabellianism: Always Good for a Laugh

More on R.S. Thomas's sense of humour (see below: 'A cheese box...'). Byron Rogers reports that only one Punch cartoon ever made Thomas laugh out loud. In it, a parson is delivering a sermon to a blank-faced congregation. 'Now, I know what you're thinking,' he says confidentially. 'You're thinking that I'm being guilty of Sabellianism.'
  Thomas once told a friend that the Church only kept him on because he was capable of explaining such things as Sabellianism. It's a third-century heresy based on the eminently sensible notion that God does not have three distinct persons but three modes or aspects in which we mortals perceive Him. I doubt a gag like that would get past any cartoon editor these days, even on the Church Times.
  Does the incoming Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Selby, have a view on Sabellianism, I wonder?

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Soaking Up the Rays

One of the more endearing habits of pigeons - and frankly there aren't that many to choose from - is sunbathing. Every morning I see them lined up on sunny roof slopes and in the higher branches of sun-facing trees, breasts to the sunlight, soaking up the rays. Mostly it's Wood Pigeons, rather than our feral 'flying rats', who sunbathe, and they appear to be the only birds to make such a habit of it. Indeed they seem to seek the sun almost as much as butterflies (or German tourists) do. I hope they (the pigeons, that is, not the German tourists) soon discover that they can get a bit of extra warmth from the solar panels that disfigure so many roofs these days - a scattering of basking pigeons would greatly improve their looks.
 The pigeons - and all of us - have certainly been in need of warming sun in these recent weeks of cold, rain, frost and fog. How different it all is from this time last year, when a November heatwave gifted me my last Brimstone of the year on November 13th. That won't be happening this time.

Trebizond Again

Over on The Dabbler, I'm writing about The Towers of Trebizond and Rose Macaulay. I should add that the account of the heroine's attempt to learn Turkish and its unexpected consequences is one of the funniest things I have ever read.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

'I could be at home watching television.'

'Stop, stop, stop! It doesn't work and you don't work. It is not good enough. I could be at home watching television.' Thus the booming tones of theatrical legend Sir Peter Hall from a seat in the stalls of the Vaudeville Theatre towards the end of a performance of what is by most accounts a pretty dire new production of Uncle Vanya. Sadly he then spoiled the effect of this blast of plain speaking by apologising profusely, hosing the cast with adulation, and describing the production and all involved in it as absolutely lovely, super and wonderful. He had, he explained, been 'briefly disorientated' on waking up after having nodded off - which in itself suggests that he was rather less than enthralled by what was going on on stage. Could it be that his brief disorientation led him to blurt out the truth - a thing that is not done in theatrical circles.

The Inevitable Subject

So, here we are again - the US Election. We know it's an historic occasion because BBC TV News have sent their solid-wood anchorman Huw Edwards over there to sit in that nice studio with a view of the White House and do the links to the various correspondents who are already over there, mostly in Ohio. While he was Stateside, Huw also got his Who Do You Think You Are? moment when he discovered some very distant relations living in a small town somewhere (I think I was nodding off by then). Meanwhile, Radio 4's Today has Jim Naughtie over there, filing those self-consciously lyrical reports that always come over as bad pastiches of Alistair Cooke. Ah well - it will soon (or fairly soon) be over...
This time four years ago, I wrote 'Heaven knows what kind of president Obama will make - I just hope he doesn't turn out to be, beneath the glamour and the eloquence, Jimmy Carter mark 2. I hope he gets off to a better start than Bill Clinton did. And I hope above all that the psychos of Al Qaeda don't decide to test his mettle early on with one of their trademark atrocities. For now, let's look on the bright side,and rejoice that America has yet again proved that, in the final analysis, it's a resoundingly Good Thing.'
Well, America is still, I believe, a resoundingly Good Thing, and Al Qaeda didn't strike early on, but 'Jimmy Carter mark 2' doesn't seem too wide of the mark. By the time of his inauguration, Obama already looked stricken, as if he'd just received really bad news, and it hasn't really got much better. The hugely attractive, charismatic candidate became a strange, emotionally detached and largely ineffectual figure. He doesn't deserve to win - in fact, for his handling of the Libyan embassy siege, he probably deserves to be impeached - but the chances are that the formidable Democrat machine will inch him over the winning line. We'll see, eventually...
Also four years ago, I mentioned that the excellent Laurence Rees's latest TV series, WWII: Behind Closed Doors - a superb account of Stalin's making and breaking of alliances in the course of the war - was coming soon. As it happens, he's got another, equally superb series, The Dark Charisma of Adolf Hitler, starting next week on BBC2. Don't miss it.

Monday, 5 November 2012

'A cheese box containing a puffin's beak...'

It's not often a biography has me laughing out loud - let alone in the Introduction. But so it was with Byron Rogers' The Man Who Went Into the West: The Life of R.S. Thomas, which I began the other day. The Introduction ends with Rogers discovering that all that survived by way of a personal inventory of the lives of the late poet and his artist wife was contained in four supermarket bags. A list of the contents of one bag follows, beginning with
'The skull of a hare. An envelope from L.Garvin, Honey Merchants, containing grey mullet scales. A cheese box containing a puffin's beak, together with a Windsor & Newton leaflet containing advice on the control of moth damage to paint brushes. An envelope containing snow bunting feathers. A list of mills from Merionethshire. An envelope containing bits of silver foil ('from Aunt Ethel')...
and so it goes on, through 'A book of telephone numbers - containing none. An exercise book containing a hair prescription from a Dr Ferguson of Bromsgrove...' to 'Large photo. Sheep in a slate pen' to 'Various brown envelopes (empty). Envelope containing a single dead prawn.
That,' declares Rogers, 'was when I decided to write his biography.'
  Who wouldn't?
  Even the captions to the photographs are funny. A picture of the poet as a baby depicts 'His first, and possibly most successful, attempt at a smile.' Thomas appears behind his young son in another picture, his back turned, bent grimly over a scythe. 'R.S.' notes Rogers 'brooded much on grass and the bluntness of scythes.' Of course he did.
  If it seems strange that such an austere and forbidding figure as Thomas should be the subject of such a laugh-packed biography, bear in mind that a BBC arts correspondent told Rogers that he'd only met three genuinely funny men in his life - Lenny Bruce, Ken Dodd and... R.S. Thomas.
 Thomas the man emerges from Rogers' account as a great comic figure - and it's not all unintentional. There was a lot of play-acting and of bone-dry, pitch-black comedy in Thomas's carefully cultivated persona - and a lot of absurdity in his posturing, which Rogers brings out beautifully. The result is a hugely revealing portrait of a man who did his level best to conceal, mystify and mislead - not least in his 'autobiographical' writings - and a very very funny book. I'm not half way through yet and it has already made me laugh aloud - often on public transport - a dozen times or more. What more could you ask?

Friday, 2 November 2012


With the gloriously named national emergency committee, Cobra, holding a meeting on the threat of ash dieback disease to our native trees, it's clear that it's being taken very seriously. I hope this will prove to be another case of needless panic and of underestimating the ability of trees to look after themselves and bounce back from whatever disasters come their way. However, we are told that 90 per cent of Denmark's ashes are dead, and that is worrying.
 The question I've been asking ever since this story broke is why on earth anyone would bother importing a self-sewing weed tree that is hugely abundant and will come sprouting up virtually anywhere. The explanation is here: unbelievably it is cheaper either to import trees, or to export seedlings to be grown on abroad then reimport them - in both cases labelling them 'native' or 'British' - than it is to grow ash trees here. How can this be? Truly it's a mad world.


Here's a picture to celebrate the birthday (in 1699) of the great French painter Chardin. This one - one of several versions of The Young Schoolmistress - is in the National Gallery, as is one I wrote about earlier. The Young Schoolmistress is painted with exquisite brushwork and typical mastery of the effects of light on surfaces, and it has that quality of absorbing stillness that characterises all of Chardin's best work. It is touching without being sentimental, and gains new poignancy when you reflect that the artist lost two daughters in infancy. He must have loved children, I think, to be able to paint them so well. 'Who said one paints with colors?' he once remarked. 'One employs colours, but one paints with feeling.'

Thursday, 1 November 2012

The Strange Case of the Editor and the Talking Mongoose

So there I was, reading - for reasons that now escape me - the Wikipedia entry on the defunct BBC magazine The Listener, when I stumbled on something that made me rub my eyes in disbelief. I quote:
'The first editor, Richard S. Lambert, left in 1939 after successfully suing Sir Cecil Levita for slander over allegations that he was unfit for his job because of his credulity in believing in Gef, the talking mongoose.'
 Gef, the taking mongoose? Some kind of Wiki joke surely... But no. Gef was, in his day, something of a celebrity, a very well known talking mongoose indeed (though there was some debate over whether or not he was technically a mongoose - he didn't seem too sure himself). Gef - about whom Lambert had indeed co-authored a book with his ghost hunter pal Harry Price - lived with a family called the Irvings in a farmhouse known as Cashen's Gap near the hamlet of Dalby on the Isle of Man.
 The Irvings first became aware of his presence when they started hearing mysterious sounds as of a rat scratching, or a ferret spitting, or a dog growling, or a baby gurgling. Gef (pronounced Jeff) soon resolved the mystery by announcing himself as a mongoose, born in New Delhi in 1852 - in his own words, 'an extra extra clever mongoose'. He was, according to the only member of the family to get a proper look at him, about the size of a small rat, with yellowish fur and a large bushy tail. But Gef himself declared 'I am a freak. I have hands and I have feet, and if you saw me you'd faint, you'd be petrified, mummified, turned into stone or a pillar of salt!'
 Gef liked to joke around with the Irvings - once taking it too far by pretending to be poisoned. He obligingly spied on the neighbours and reported back, and made himself useful about the house. The Irvings rewarded him with biscuits, chocolates and bananas, served up on a saucer suspended from the ceiling. The friendly mongoose even joined the family on their trips to market, chattering away merrily from the far side of the hedgerows.
 Unsurprisingly, the story of Gef attracted the attention of the press and of psychic investigators, who flocked to the island. No very firm conclusions were reached as to what exactly Gef was, and his fame faded with the coming of the war. When the Irvings had to sell the farm in 1945, they found that Gef had somewhat depressed its market value. The farmer to whom they eventually sold was an unsentimental soul who claimed to have shot Gef, but the body he displayed was black and white and nothing like a mongoose.
 I should add that I had a distant female relative living on the Isle of Man around this time who used to have all her housework done, when she was out, by the helpful 'little people' in return for milk and the odd titbit. I rather fancy the Isle of Man is that kind of place. Or was.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Birthday Boy

They'll be dancing in the streets of Euroopeland today as a grateful people celebrate the birthday of the popular and charismatic Herman Von Rumpoy, President of the European Council. By sheer force of personality, the larger than life Von Rumpoy has cut through the sclerotic consensualism of the EC and bulldozed it into one tough decision after another. The power of his oratory has become legendary, thanks to such stirring utterances as his unforgettable 'We are in the early stages of a recovery and at this time it is important not to weaken burgeoning confidence and to lay the foundations of a sustainable recovery. Most important is to keep the direction. That will also provide stability and support.' The flamboyant Von Rumpoy - affectionately nicknamed Rumpy Pumpy - says he will be celebrating his birthday quietly at home, but knowing his reputation in the loucher nightclubs of Brussels, this seems unlikely. Go for it, Herman - it's your birthday! Europeland salutes you.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Reasons to Be Cheerful. 4

There was a beautiful green cricket in the bathroom this morning - a small one, I think a short-winged conehead, a species that's been doing very well lately. She's been around a few days, moving from wall to wall. I know she's only waiting around to die, and yet I always find the sight of a cricket ridiculously cheering. Perhaps I was exposed to too much Jiminy Cricket at an impressionable age. Or maybe it's the association with summer grass and sunshine. Emily Dickinson clearly loved crickets...

My Cricket
Farther in summer than the birds,
Pathetic from the grass,
A minor nation celebrates
Its unobtrusive mass.

No ordinance is seen,
So gradual the grace,
A pensive custom it becomes,
Enlarging loneliness.

Antiquest felt at noon
When August, burning low,
Calls forth this spectral canticle,
Repose to typify.

Remit as yet no grace,
No furrow on the glow,
Yet a druidic difference
Enhances nature now.

Or there is this, perhaps more apt to the time of year:

'Twas later when the summer went
Than when the cricket came,
And yet we knew that gentle clock
Meant nought but going home.

 'Twas sooner when the cricket went
Than when the winter came,
Yet that pathetic pendulum
Keeps esoteric time.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Reading Fast and Slow

I see there are quite a few appreciative reviews of A Lost Lady out there in the blogscape - and rightly so. Many of them speak of reading the book at a sitting, or even, in one case, in an hour. Well, it's only 160 pages, but I can't imagine quite how it could be read - properly read - at such a pace. That kind of speed reading is fine for workaday formulaic prose - or indeed for the wodges of verbal Polyfilla that pad out many a contemporary novel - but for writing as subtle and sinuous, as delicately nuanced as Willa Cather's, surely it is not enough. For myself, when I'm reading really good - or just demanding - prose, I habitually sound it in my head as I read, like reading aloud but silently. I think prose of real quality has to be sounded. But what do I know? The rest of the world, it seems, careers through books at a terrifying speed. Take Andrew Marr, who has just published a big History of the World (to go with his all but unwatchable TV series). Marr claims to have read 2,000 books in the process of researching his own. This surely is a very loose use of the word 'read'. Think about it - if he managed two a week, in among his many other activities (which include much reading for other purposes), that would be 20 years of reading. Hmmm...
Anyway, I see I'm on The Dabbler today, praising an American sonneteer.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

A Lost Lady

I've just finished reading A Lost Lady by Willa Cather, an apparently slight novel of some 160 pages that achieves the kind of depth and makes the kind of impact you'd expect from something twice the length. It's the story of a beautiful and fascinating woman, married to a much older man - a retired railway pioneer - and living in a small town in Nebraska. She is first presented to us through the adoring eyes of a boy, Niel Herbert, who swiftly falls in love with her - and no wonder. Marian Forrester is deftly and vividly brought to life, with all her entrancing ways - but, as we soon discover, there are hidden depths to Mrs Forrester, there is much that we don't know. She is as vulnerable as she is seductive, as weak as she is strong, as faithless as she is steadfast.  A Lost Lady delivers shock after shock beneath its apparently tranquil surface, not all of them related to its heroine.
As well as being the portrait of a lady, the novel is also a picture of changing times, as the old ways of the pioneering days, based on honour and trust and mutuality, die away in the face of ruthless amoral commercialism (embodied in the book by the aptly named 'Poison' Ivy, a memorably vile young man).  Marian Forrester seems to be herself a victim of this process after her husband dies, but this is a woman who never stays a victim for long.  Young Niel, who observes her through increasingly disapproving eyes as his idealism turns to priggishness, never has the true measure of her...
Willa Cather manages the story with quiet but exquisite skill, never missing a word, a fragment of dialogue, a gesture or look that might illuminate the action and reveal character. We don't, happily, see everything through Niel Herbert's eyes; other viewpoints are deployed, including the author's own. All of this is put to the single overriding purpose of giving us Marian Forrester in the round and as if alive. It succeeds brilliantly, and movingly. It is - like the portrait of the heroine in My Antonia - written with that rare quality among novelists: love.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Another Brook

One of the things I love about blogging is how it so often leads to unexpected connections and happy discoveries. In her comment below my 'Otherwhere' post, Susan from NYC - having expressed surprise at my schoolboy reading of Frost (not unusual I think - he's a kind of honorary English poet over here, and I believe his Selected Poems was a GCE set book) and asked about Emily Dickinson (no, never read at school, discovered much later) - asks if Edward Thomas ever wrote about a brook. I couldn't think of anything off hand, so had a browse - and here's what I found (in Last Poems): 

The Brook

Seated once by a brook, watching a child
Chiefly that paddled, I was thus beguiled.
Mellow the blackbird sang and sharp the thrush
Not far off in the oak and hazel brush,
Unseen. There was a scent like honeycomb
From mugwort dull. And down upon the dome
Of the stone the cart-horse kicks against so oft
A butterfly alighted. From aloft
He took the heat of the sun, and from below.
On the hot stone he perched contented so,
As if never a cart would pass again
That way; as if I were the last of men
And he the first of insects to have earth
And sun together and to know their worth.
I was divided between him and the gleam,
The motion, and the voices, of the stream,
The waters running frizzled over gravel,
That never vanish and for ever travel.
A grey flycatcher silent on a fence
And I sat as if we had been there since
The horseman and the horse lying beneath
The fir-tree-covered barrow on the heath,
The horseman and the horse with silver shoes,
Galloped the downs last. All that I could lose
I lost. And then the child’s voice raised the dead.
“No one’s been here before” was what she said
And what I felt, yet never should have found
A word for, while I gathered sight and sound.

Well, that's quite a poem, isn't it? After getting off to a rather clunky start, it picks up as soon as that butterfly lands on the sun-heated stone and warms himself, from aloft and from below, and Thomas watches him (I wonder what kind he was). 'Frizzled' for water running over gravel is just the word - pure Thomas. And then the shift of perspective, the swoop back into the deep past, and that terse, unexpected 'All that I could lose I lost' - and the call back to life from the voice of the child in the brook. 'No one's been here before.'
And I might never have come across this poem if it wasn't for Susan from NYC.

Thursday, 25 October 2012


On the Today programme this morning, Iain Duncan Smith inadvertently used the lovely word 'otherwhere' in the course of answering a question. He instantly corrected himself, which was a shame.
'Otherwhere' is a word I've liked ever since first coming across it, as a schoolboy, in Robert Frost's beautiful poem Hyla Brook -

By June our brook's run out of song and speed.
Sought for much after that, it will be found
Either to have gone groping underground
(And taken with it all the Hyla breed
That shouted in the mist a month ago,
Like ghost of sleigh-bells in a ghost of snow)--
Or flourished and come up in jewel-weed,
Weak foliage that is blown upon and bent
Even against the way its waters went.
Its bed is left a faded paper sheet
Of dead leaves stuck together by the heat--
A brook to none but who remember long.
This as it will be seen is other far
Than with brooks taken otherwhere in song.
We love the things we love for what they are.

Paxo vs Maxo

I hear that suave fellow Jeremy Paxman has stunned the viewing nation by presenting Newnight without a tie - and, to make matters worse, with not one but two shirt buttons undone. Apparently he's long been chafing against wearing a necktie. 'It has always been an utterly useless part of the male wardrobe,' booms Paxo. 'But now, it seems to me, the only people who wear the things daily are male politicians, the male reporters who interview them – and dodgy estate agents.' 
 Hmm, if he really believes that, he clearly doesn't get out much - but leaving that aside, what about his objection that the tie is 'utterly useless'? So are lapels, of course, which no longer serve any practical function. Perhaps Paxo will be switching to a Beatle suit next? It wouldn't do much for his authority but it would give us all a laugh, and it would be one more 'utterly useless' item dispensed with.
 The fact is, as Paxo surely knows, that clothes carry a freight of meanings, adding up to a message - often a very nuanced on - about who we are. That's why we have fashion: the fashion industry is semiology in action, creating and decoding tiny meanings (Barbey d'Aurevilly described dandyism as 'une maniere de vivre composee entierement des nuances'). If David Cameron were to appear on, say, Newsnight, in a tight pink tee-shirt, tartan braces and PVC trousers, his dress alone would say more than anything that came out of his mouth (and it wouldn't exactly be nuanced).
 Paxman is of course taking a deliberately bluff, utilitarian view of male dress. In these reductionist terms, everything we wear is 'entirely useless', except in maintaining a comfortable body temperature and protecting our flesh. As well as carrying meanings and messages, the uses of dress are also aesthetic. As Max Beerbhom puts it in his essay on Beau Brummell, 'So to clothe the body that its fineness be revealed and its meanness veiled has been the aesthetic aim of all costume.' Indeed, and this is where the well chosen tie plays its part, completing the effect of the suit, adding an elegant vertical and a splash of harmonious colour, and (mark well, Paxo) veiling the meanness of the ageing male throat. I have a suggestion for Paxman: if you hate ties so much, why not do the sensible thing and switch to a cravat? The nation would love you for it.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Uggie Tells All

I see Uggie, the delightful Jack Russell who starred in The Artist, will be appearing at Waterstone's on Kensington High St next week. Yes, he's written his autobiography - and he's not the only celebrity dog to have done so recently. Indeed Uggie: My Story will be going snout to snout with the unforgivably titled Pudsey: My Autobidography, in which the dancing dog who won Britain's Got Talent looks back over his life. Uggie's book seems a more attractive proposition:
'I was born an Aquarian in February 2002, to Jack Russell parents,' recalls Uggie. 'According to an astrology channel I watched with my fellow couch potato Gordo (an American bulldog), those born under the sign of the water carrier are intelligent seekers of life’s mysteries, whose quest is to be unique. We are loyal, honest, inventive, and original. On the downside, Aquarians can sometimes be exhibitionists.
I qualify on all counts.
I can recall very little about my puppyhood. I think I met my father once when he came to sniff dispassionately at me and my sprawling siblings. All that I remember of my mother was that she was gentle and nurturing; the smell of warm milk would forever remind me of her. Sadly I was plucked from her teat early on and sold to the first stranger to pick me out from the litter...'
Not bad, but perhaps not as charmingly insouciant as 'Eddie', the Frasier Jack Russell, in his My Life As A Dog, by Moose (2000):
'Acting, I soon discovered, is all about less, not more. My big break came just six months after I started training, when I simply stared at Kelsey Grammer. Yup, just a long hard stare, and I got the job. Don't ask me why, but they all fell about laughing. From then on, I found acting was a walk in the park, or a stroll round the set! Occasionally, I would have to lick one of the actors, but I would do it only if they put sardine oil on first...'
But of course no animal autobiography can hold a candle to that classic tale of a chimp's love for mankind in general and Johnny Weissmuller in particular, Me Cheeta. I have written of this masterpiece before, e.g. here and here...
Much though I love Uggie, I fear he's not half the writer Cheeta was.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Pearl and Zane

Talking of names (as we were a couple of posts back), I was delighted to learn that Zane Grey, the tough-nut writer of pulp westerns - who died, very rich and famous, on this day in 1939 - was christened Pearl. He soon dropped this unmanly handlle in favour of his second name, a much better fit with his style and personality.
 Grey seems to have devoted his boyhood to violent brawling, fishing and getting beaten by his father, who encouraged his literary efforts by tearing his first finished story into shreds and giving him a sound thrashing. No wonder young Zane grew up with a troubled, tempestuous nature, prone all his life to depression. He was also - though this was perhaps unrelated to his early experiences - notably prone to sexual dalliance. As he frankly warned his future wife, 'I love to be free. The ordinary man is satisfied with a moderate income, a home, wife, children and all that... But I am a million miles from being that kind of man and no amount of trying will ever do any good... I shall never lose the spirit of my interest in women.' She married him anyway, accepting his tomcat ways, raising his children, managing his career and editing his work to such good effect that this inept, much-rejected would-be writer (and failed dentist and minor-league baseball player) soon achieved worldwide fame and became one of the first millionaire authors.
 So now, when your young son proudly hands you his first literary effort, you know what to do.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Silver Lining

The confidently predicted heatwave that was to embrace the Southeast this week has manifested itself in a weekend of cloud, gloom, drizzle and rain, followed by what looks set to be a day of cloud, gloom, mist and fog. I'm finding it hard to remember when I last saw the sun.
However, such dank weather has its compensations,at least for those who - like Geoffrey Hill - appreciate the beauty of raindrops caught on twigs and branches, radiating on a tiny scale
'that all-gathering general English light,
in which each separate bead of drizzle
at its own thorn-tip
stands as revelation.'
On a still smaller scale are the droplets of rain and dew caught in spiderwebs, bringing out their delicate structural beauty. As well as the vertically suspended webs of garden spiders and the like - miracles of design and construction - there are the swathes of gossamer draped all over the grass and lower bushes like so much tacky Halloween spray web, but glimmering with subtle dewy light. In this weather and at this time of year, we become aware of how many spiders we are sharing the earth with - and how greatly they can beautify it.
And now it's time to stock up on sun lotion - an Arctic cold snap is predicted for the end of the week.

Friday, 19 October 2012

The Rev Tollemache: Naming Names

In the records of the more or less illustrious dead, there are many who are remembered for only one thing - but there can be few whose sole claim to posthumous fame is the extravagantly bizarre naming of their children...
The Rev Ralph William Lyonel Tollemache, born on this day in 1826, was a well-connected Lincolnshire clergyman whose career was remarkable only for a brush with bankruptcy, the result of a dispute with his first wife's trustees. The year after that wife died, Tollemache was discharged from bankruptcy and, after a decent interval, he married Dora Cleopatra Maria Lorenza de Orellana, the daughter of an officer in the Spanish army, and launched on a new career of fathering a second brood of children and giving them increasingly elaborate and preposterous names. He also, somewhere along the way, decided to double his own surname, becoming Tollemache-Tollemache. Here's the list of the unfortunate second brood's monikers:

1. Dora Viola G.I.[?] de Orellana Plantagenet.
2. Mabel Helmingham Ethel Huntingtower Beatrice Blazonberrie Evangeline Vise de Lou de Orellana Plantagenet Toedmag Saxon.
3. Lyonesse Matilda Dora Ida Agnes Ernestine Curson Paulet Wilbraham Joyce Eugenie Bentley Saxonia Dysart Plantagenet.
4. Lyulph Ydwallo Odin Nestor Egbert Lyonel Toedmag Hugh Erchenwyne Saxon Esa Cromwell Orma Nevill Dysart Plantagenet.
5. Lyona Decima Veroica Esyth Undine Cyssa Hylda Rowena Adela Thyra Ursuala Ysabel Blanche Lelias Dysart Plantagenet.
6. Leo Quintus Tollemache-Tollemache de Orellana Plantagenet.
7. Lyonella Fredegunda Cuthberga Ethelswytha Ideth Ysabel Grace Monica de Orellana Plantagenet.
8. Leone Sextus Denys Oswolf Fraudifilius Tollemache-Tollemache de Orellana Plantagenet.
9. Lyonetta Edith Regina Valentine Myra Polwarth Avelina Phillipa Violantha de Orellana Plantagenet.
10. Lyunulph Cospatrick Bruce Berkeley Jermyn Tullibardine Petersham de Orellana Dysart Plantagenet. 
11. Fred.
Okay - I made that last one up.
And now I need to lie down...

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Firsts: Sign of Madness?

Although I've picked up a few along the way - mostly from charity shops, fetes and suchlike, back in more innocent times - I've never really seen the point of modern first editions. Why on earth are they worth so much? And why is condition so ridiculously important? Take this collection, expected to fetch a cool million at auction. They're worth that much because their owner has never touched them - to handle them, let alone (heaven forbid) read them, would knock hundreds or thousands off their 'value'. But in what does that value reside? Purely, is seems, in their primacy and their untouched condition. It's nothing to do with the beauty (or, often, otherwise) of their appearance - a later printing of a modern first would be identical but for a different number on the reverse of the title page and yet would be worth a tiny fraction of the value of the 'true first'.
I can understand the appeal of collecting well made small-press books, and pre-Victorian books - these are things of beauty in themselves, hand-made and a joy to handle; indeed (gentle) handling is positively good for leather bindings, helping to prevent them from drying out. But a book that doesn't look like anything much, is entirely machine-made, of pretty poor quality, won't last, and that you can't even handle - what is the point of that? Surely this form of collecting is a kind of madness. 

Croatia's Gift to the World

World Cravat Day brings this important announcement from the Academia Cravatica. Note in particular the wise concluding words of Marijan Busic BA (and try to avoid pointing out that that's a tie, rather than a cravat, that they've tied around the arena. They order this matter differently in Croatia.)

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Strange Muzak

I've written before about the shock of first coming across Like A Rolling Stone playing as shopping music in my local supermarket. Since then, it seems to have gone onto every retail outlet's playlist and has faded into the sonic background of everyday life. But occasionally piped music can still spring a surprise. The other day I was in a branch of the Camden Food Company (not in Camden, a place I avoid) when I became aware of something playing quietly but insistently in the background. It sounded familiar... Was it...? Surely not? Oh yes it was - it was this haunting and rather beautiful song.
 Well, it's always a pleasure to come across an old friend, in whatever strange circumstances - but I had never imagined I'd hear that one piped out as retail muzak. Has anyone out there had a similar experience?

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Bake Off: Rest and Cake

With the viewing nation eagerly looking forward to tonight's final of The Great British Bake Off, even the Today programme devoted an item to it. As this is going to be an all-male final, Today chose to talk about men and baking, asking why the men had shone in this amateur baking contest, apparently beating the women at their own game. The answer's clear enough, and applies equally to all forms of cooking: while women do far more of it than men and are generally better at it, they mostly lack the testosterone-fuelled drive to excel, compete and win*, the drive that leads to male domination of most fields of activity 'at the highest level'. What is more interesting about Bake Off is that it has been such a massive, wholly unexpected hit. After all, it's only a baking contest - on the face of it the kind of thing that would be more at home in the afternoon schedules than prime time.
  I think the key to its success has been its relaxed attitude, its refusal to take itself too seriously. Unlike just about every other contest on TV, there's no ratcheting up of tension to ludicrous levels, there are no teary emotional back stories, the 'narrative' and the 'jeopardy' are touched in lightly, everybody is unfailingly polite and nice to everyone else, and the presentation by Mel and Sue is jokey and affectionately subversive. The result is a relaxing, but not soporific, show that proceeds at a gentle pace, with a gentle tone, and leaves you feeling that the world isn't such a bad place - especially when it's full of such amazing cakes. Like much of the most successful television - and unlike so much of what is offered - it is, to use Ronald Firbank's favourite term of commendation, 'restful'. We all need rest. Also cake.

* Needless to say, this characterisation of masculinity does not apply to me or, I imagine, most readers of this blog.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Motorway Meg and Mog

Having recently enjoyed an afternoon at a motorway service station, I was delighted to discover, from this obituary of the writer Helen Nicoll who sadly died last week, that the classic Meg and Mog books were conceived over long sessions at Membury Services on the M4 with her brilliant illustrator Jan Pienkowski.
As well as Meg and Mog, the formidable Miss Nicoll also gifted the world Cover to Cover audio books, which were not only impeccable complete readings but invariably perfect matches of reader and text. I enjoyed many of them back in the days of the cassette player, and in some cases - the Trollopes, for example - I actually found them preferable to reading the books. The BBC bought Cover to Cover in 2000 - since when the archive seems to have disappeared, though retroprogressive delvers might still find some of the cassettes online.