Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Making-Up Is Hard to Do...

Here at NigeCorp, my female colleagues often comment on the number of women to be seen on the Underground and on commuter trains sitting as if in front of their mirror at home and performing their elaborate, often lengthy make-up routines, quite oblivious of their surroundings. Being the kind of gals who wouldn't stoop to such vulgarity, they naturally disapprove of this conduct.
For myself, I find it mildly interesting - especially if it's well done - to see the transformation wrought by a good maquillage. And by Golly you need a steady hand to do it on a moving train... This morning on the Underground, I enjoyed a novel variant on the theme, as the young man sitting next to me set about applying his make-up - toner, mascara and a rather pungent hand cream - and a very good job he made of it. Nice to see a chap make an effort.
Meanwhile, the American basketball star Jason Collins has 'come out' as gay. All very laudable, and Obama and Clinton and co are rushing to praise him for his courage. His coming clean about his sexual orientation has been widely described as 'heroic'. Well maybe, but, as someone remarked drily in a tweet to the Today programme this morning: 'The bar for heroism seems to have been lowered since Normandy.' Quite. 

Monday, 29 April 2013

'... and a sense that the world was mad'

'He was born with a gift of laughter, and a sense that the world was mad.'
Not a bad line, is it, with its fine metrical lilt? Not verse but prose, it is in fact the opening sentence of Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini, born on this day in 1875. Sabatini, an Italian-English writer with a rather racy cosmopolitan background, was a prolific and very popular writer of colourful swashbuckling historical adventures, several of which were filmed, and remain in print to this day - notably The Sea Hawk, Captain Blood and the aforementioned Scaramouche, his first success and a huge international bestseller. His life had its share of sadness - his only son killed in a car accident, and his stepson in a plane crash on the day he received his RAF wings, flying in celebration over the parental home. But when Sabatini died in 1950, his widow had that line from Scaramouche engraved on his headstone. Not a bad epitaph, is it?

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Thin on the Ground?

Almost May, and here's a funny thing - I've yet to see a single Red Admiral. I've seen Commas galore, Peacocks galore, Brimstones galore (when the weather's relented and we've had some warm sun), and recently Orange Tips, Small Whites and Holly Blues - but still no Red Admiral. Normally it's my first or second sighting of the year, and the most frequent of the early (and late) fliers, but not this year. Even if I see one tomorrow, it will be the latest first sighting I can remember - and an unheard-of seventh on my list.
Is it just me, or are the Red Admirals unusually thin on the ground this spring?

IDS's Bright Idea

I see that Iain Duncan Smith is urging those of us who have spent decades forking a huge proportion of our hard-earned money straight into the ever more voracious and insatiable maw of the Exchequer and are now, in our 60s, finally getting a few quid back, to return any of said few quid we don't really need into the hands of the State. Here's a better idea: save it up until you happen upon a three-testicled sailor on shore leave and hand it over to him - he'll spend it more wisely than the State.

Essex Beauties

Well, the Essex walk was fine - not the Dengie Hundred, but the Five Parishes, a cluster of parish churches (and pubs) in rich rolling country near Dunmow. The stars were St Mary, Tilty (pictured), an extraordinary cut-and-shut job, with a simple Early English nave and a grand, wholly out-of-scale Decorated chancel with a huge, beautifully reticulated East window, glazed in clear glass, flooding the interior with light.  And St Mary, Little Easton, which looks unpromising and over-restored from the outside, but inside is a treasure house, with everything from medieval wall paintings to a jewelled Art Nouveau plaque by Alfred Gilbert in memory of Ellen Terry, by way of a grand set of monuments from the early 15th to the late 17th century, some ghastly stained glass in a memorial chapel to the American bombers stationed here during the war, and a brilliant, thoroughly unchurchy portrait bust (by Edward Boehm) of Frances, Countess of Warwick in her heyday as a stunner - not to mention various memorials of the parish's 'Rocking Reverend', Jack Filby, whose gravestone is fittingly carved with a guitar. And the last church on the walk, St Mary, Chickney, a modest but wonderfully atmospheric little church, with every angle of its structure slightly askew, standing remote from any village, amid deep rural silence - broken only by the occasional pop of a pigeon scarer, and the odd Stansted Airport plane.
  Once again, as after any of these walks, I am left marvelling at how much there is to see, how much of history and beauty and quietness survives in this over-populated, concreted, built-over land of ours - even hard by an international airport and a motorway.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Brilliance and Grace

Just back from a couple of days in God's Own County, viz Derbyshire - but before I went, I visited the Barocci exhibition at the National Gallery. It's an absolute stunner, and if you haven't seen it I'd suggest you catch it before it's gone (on May 19th) - there's unlikely to be another like it in our lifetimes: a major exhibition of works by an Italian Renaissance master with no obvious box-office appeal, of whom most people are barely aware.
  I only knew Federico Barocci for his Madonna with a Cat in the National Gallery - oversweet for my taste - and the rather lovely Nativity in the Prado (it's in the exhibition, and I was pleased to note that the Christ Child, most beautifully and naturalistically drawn, looks remarkably like my grandson, Frankly Adorable Sam). For me, then, this exhibition was a revelation. It's built around a dozen or so masterpieces from all points of his career - the greatest of them, perhaps, the stunning Last Supper from Urbino Cathedral -  but a large part of the pleasure of this exhibition is in the beautifully executed preparatory drawings, chalk studies and cartoons, through which you can follow Barocci's creative processes, and marvel at his quite breath-taking skills as draughtsman and colorist. Wandering among these pictures, it seems incomprehensible that such a master as Barocci should somehow have become an all put forgotten painter over here. That will surely change after this magnificent eye-opener.
  The Barocci exhibition - aptly titled Brilliance and Grace - is, sadly, housed in the basement of the Sainsbury Wing, with no natural light; this is not good, particularly for the larger altarpieces. But on the other hand, it's Not a Blockbuster - it's an exhibition on a manageable scale, from which you'll emerge (well, I emerged) elated and illuminated, rather than exhausted. Also, it doesn't seem to be attracting large numbers of visitors, so it's possible to enjoy the pictures in peace.
  And now I''m off again, on my way to a walk in Essex tomorrow...

Monday, 22 April 2013

A Mistitled Book

I think I mentioned recently that I was reading Rupert Sheldrake's The Science Delusion. I  finished this misnamed book last week - it's not a quick read, being quite densely packed ('full of matter,' as Johnson would say) and written in a dry, almost textbook-like style. I say misnamed because Sheldrake's book is in no way an attack on science as such - it is avowedly 'pro-science', but anti the dogmatic, authoritarian postures into which science is perpetually inclined to lock itself, perhaps never more so than at present. I imagine the publishers' marketing department came up with The Science Delusion in the hope of catching the backlash to Dawkins' The God Delusion (to which it is most definitely not a riposte, though the author takes a few well-merited potshots at Dawkins - who wouldn't?)
  In America, Sheldrake's book has the much more descriptive title, Science Set Free: 10 Paths to New Discovery. The ten paths are laid out systematically. They open out from a list of ten 'core beliefs that most scientists take for granted' - 'The Scientific Creed', Sheldrake calls is. Each of the ten beliefs - which amount to unspoken assumptions or unexamined dogma - is then inverted into a question in the ten chapters that follow, from 'Is Nature Mechanical?', 'Are the Laws of Nature Fixed?' and 'Is Matter Unconscious?' to 'Is Mechanistic Medicine the Only Kind that Really Works?' In each chapter, he proposes new lines of inquiry and cites strong evidence that they might be fruitfully pursued. He closes each chapter with a few cogent 'Questions for Materialists' and a Summary of the content. After the ten core chapters comes Illusions of Objectivity, an eye-opening account of how Science is actually done - research, funding, peer review, publication - and how the authoritarian dogmatic structure works against free inquiry and can positively encourage bad science, even fraud.
  The book aims to open up science, to stimulate it to question its assumptions and explore new avenues. It would better be called The Delusions of Science - the principal delusion being that it is firmly founded on certain unassailable truths that no longer need to be examined. Sheldrake's questioning leaves that edifice of certainty riddled with holes and looking more and more like the ossified outgrowth of an outmoded world view. His job, in this book, is not really to propose an alternative, but its outlines can be discerned clearly  enough - in crude summary, it's a model of reality conceived in terms of fields rather than particles (Sheldrake is best known for his Morphogenetic Field theory).
  I can't claim to have enjoyed The Science Delusion as a reading experience, but on the intellectual level it was an exhilarating journey of discovery, putting flesh on the bones of my own intuitions about the reductive dogmatism and closed-mindedness of scientism, and showing that, even within science, there are sound, mind-opening alternatives to this self-defeating stance. It left me firmly convinced that, in the end, there is really very little we can be firmly convinced about - and that, surely, is a good thing.
  Country Life, in a fine spray of Reviewers' Adjectives, describes The Science Delusion as 'refreshing, important and astounding' - and actually that's not far wrong. A shame we'll never see Sheldrake presenting a TV series and giving us a (refreshing, important and astounding) break from Brian 'Boy' Cox - and, of course, Dickie Dawkins.

Friday, 19 April 2013

'the hand that plants an acorn...'

Sad news about the ancient Pontfadog oak (pictured here in happier times) - 1,200 years old, and now brought down by Welsh weather at its wildest. The poor old thing is now lying on its side in a most undignified position - and it seems it could have been saved by a few preventive measures costing less than six grand. However, as no 'funding source' could be located, nothing happened. A shame they didn't think to have a whip round - or rather mount an appeal; it wouldn't have taken many tree lovers and/or proud Welsh patriots to save the Pontfadog oak.
Anyway, despite the tone of finality in most of the news reports, it often takes a lot more than just falling over to finish the life of a tree - look at what happened in those southern beechwoods flattened by the great storm of 1987; you'd hardly know anything had happened now. The Pontfadog oak could be given a trim and planted back upright, with whatever stays and props were needed to keep it that way, and the chances are it would surprise us yet. There's much more to a tree than what shows above ground.
It's said that in 1157, when the tree was a mere three and a half centuries old, the Welsh prince Owain Gwynedd rallied his troops under the  Pontfadog oak before the battle of Crogan. Which puts me in mind of these sententious lines of Ella Wheeler Wilcox (which I only know because, in one of his early poems, John Ashbery used them as the basis for a Calypso and Fugue):
'For the pleasures of the many
Can be ofttimes traced to one,
As the hand that plants an acorn
Shelters armies from the sun.'

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Friend of My Youth

I've read Alice Munro before - and written about her - so I know how good she is. But nothing of hers that I've read so far has hit me with quite the force of the title story of her collection Friend Of My Youth, which I read (and reread) yesterday. The impact reminded me of Delmore Schwartz's In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, with which indeed it has a certain amount in common - the painful, thwarted parent-child relationship, the dream element, the story within a story, even the resonant last sentence. Nabokov reckoned In Dreams to be the greatest short story of the 20th century...
You can apparently read Friend of My Youth here, with a bald and reductive introduction that gives little idea of its riches.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Comma PS

Holland Park was alive with Commas when I took a late lunchtime stroll there today. Well, not quite alive with them, but in the course of half an hour or so, I had a full half dozen Comma encounters. There was one beauty basking on ground-cover ivy just by my way in; another flew up from beside the path and settled to sun itself on the grassy verge; the, when I sat down on a bench to eat my sandwich, a Comma immediately flew down and settled briefly on the ground beside me, another - quite possibly the same - flew past (or rather round) gracefully, and another (or the same again) returned for a quick bask before I left; and finally, as I made my way out of the park, there was one more pathside basker. Still not a single Red Admiral or Tortoiseshell (or Holly Blue or Orange Tip), but so far this seems to be the Year of the Comma. I hope it doesn't too soon come to a full stop (arf arf).

Happy Birthday, English Literature

Arguably, English literature was born on this day in 1397, when Geoffrey Chaucer first recited The Canterbury Tales in the court of Richard II. Scholars also reckon that it was on this day ten years earlier that the pilgrims set out on their journey. It was certainly April -

Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(so priketh hem nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of engelond to caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke...

Now read on.

Bedford Park

Over on the super soaraway Dabbler, I review Bryan Appleyard's Bedford Park, which I have read on paper. Buy this book - sorry, ebook.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Science News

I do wish they'd stop, but I'm afraid they're at it again. This time, the poor saps in the brain scanners are having various kind of drinks sprayed into their mouths, and from their brains' reactions the scientists have concluded, world-shakingly, that the very taste of beer is enough to get the dopamine surging. Or, to put it another way, beer makes you feel happy.
Like many others, I'm sure, I' d been drinking beer for years in a desperate attempt to make myself unhappy. It never seemed to work - and now I know why. Thanks, scientists, for showing me where I was going wrong.

Monday, 15 April 2013


Yesterday was really warm - at last - though much of the warmth was blown in on a gusty South wind, giving a curious blustery seaside feel to the inland day. As things turned out, I didn't make it into the country, but I was rewarded anyway with the sight of more Brimstones flying, and, basking on ivy beside the path that leads to the railway station - a beautiful, velvety Comma, newly emerged from hibernation and so intent on soaking up the sun that it was still on the same leaf when I returned half an hour later. The Comma is, like the Peacock and many another butterfly, a fine example of protective patterning taken to such a pitch that it seems more like a form of art: the ragged edge perfectly rhyming a tattered leaf, the dark, subtly toned underside completing the illusion - and then the 'comma' itself, the little curl of silvery white, like light shining through a tiny tear in the leaf...
   Happily, the Comma is one British butterfly that has dramatically bucked the trend of long decline through the 20th and into the 21st century. It suffered its own decline - a steep one, cause unknown - in the 19th century, and by the 1920s was a scarce species, largely confined to the Welsh border country. Ever since the 1960s, however, the Comma has been staging a spectacular comeback, spreading across the whole of England and Wales, and recently into Scotland. Last year, I don't think I saw an early Comma - maybe it won't be such a dire butterfly year after all? Here's hoping.

The World Today

Another week begins, and as we survey the world scene, one question above all others is on everybody's mind - had she been alive at the appropriate time (and with rather more access to the outside world), would Anne Frank have been a Belieber? I'm not sure; I've got a feeling she might have been more of a One Direction girl. What do you think? Do let me know. Or, even better, don't.
  Meanwhile, here's a little thought experiment. Had a newspaper - rather than the BBC - used a student group (organised by a reporter's wife) as a human shield while they filmed secretly in one of the world's most dangerous countries, without full and informed consent from all involved - what would the BBC, Hacked Off, Leveson et al have had to say about it? Nothing good, I fancy - but then no newspaper would try to get away with such a stunt. I'm beginning to wonder if the BBC has an unconscious death wish...

Friday, 12 April 2013

Science - Cool!

Another Friday, another wildly exciting science story breaks on a startled world - and it's all about brains and MRI scanners again (is there any other kind of science story these days?).
Picture the scene when this amazing breakthrough was made...

Interior. Laboratory. Night.
Two scientists - Scientist A and Scientist B - seated. Both are tired and bedraggled from a hard night of data-crunching and scan-reading. They stare silently into space. They seem troubled.
One speaks.
Scientists A: 'We're just going to have to face it... The data doesn't lie. We've checked and double checked. There's nothing wrong.'
Scientists B: 'I know' [he groans and takes a swig of coffee] ' and it's the same with the scans.'
A: 'Yes, all the evidence points one way, and one way only...'
B: 'You mean?'
A: [firmly] 'Yes, we must face it. Incredible as it may seem, these subjects actually enjoy...'
He falters and falls silent. Pulls himself together, resumes.
A: 'They enjoy hearing more of the kind of music they like.'
A stunned silence falls.
The scientists look at each other with a wild surmise.
Nothing will ever be the same again.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Francis Crick: 'Various stains'

Startling news from the auction room, where a letter penned by Francis Crick has sold for a staggering sum. I suppose these things are a kind of modern secular equivalent of medieval saints' relics. Also up for sale are Crick's Nobel medal, cheque and diploma, and one of his lab coats, with 'various stains on it'. 
In The Science Delusion (which I'm reading), Rupert Sheldrake recalls how, in 1963, he and a couple of other students were invited to a series of private meetings with Crick and his fellow genetic code-cracker Sydney Brenner in Brenner's Cambridge rooms. 'Both were ardent materialists,' Sheldrake writes, ' and Crick was a militant atheist. They explained that there were two major unsolved problems in biology: development and consciousness. They had not been solved because the people who worked on them were not molecular biologists - or very bright. Crick and Brenner were going to find the answers within ten years, or maybe twenty. Brenner would take developmental biology, and Crick consciousness.' Fifty years on, it seems they were a tad optimistic, especially about consciousness, which remains a profound mystery. 'There is still no proof,' says Sheldrake, 'that life and minds can be explained by physics alone' - as he proceeds to demonstrate in the course of his book.
The fierce strength of Crick's faith in materialism became clear at his funeral in 2004, when his son said of him that what motivated him all his life was not the desire to be famous, wealthy or popular, but 'to knock the final nail in the coffin of vitalism'. (That's the common-sense view that living organisms are actually alive, in ways that can't be explained exclusively in terms of physics and chemistry.) I suppose he must have died disappointed, poor chap.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Mike Hawthorn: Carnage

In the wildly unlikely event that he'd lived so long, the racing driver Mike Hawthorn would have been 84 today; in fact he died at the age of 29, in a hideous crash on the Guildford bypass, having just overtaken a pal who was driving a Mercedes 300SL (Hawthorn was in a souped-up Jag). Even if that hadn't happened, Hawthorn would probably have been dead of kidney failure within a few years (he was already one kidney down). I remember the newspaper reports of the crash - or at least the pictures of the wreckage - and a highly sanitised pictorial account of Hawthorn's life and career in, I think, the Eagle comic.
 The fatal crash was a fitting end for one of the stars of a sport that was then, back in the1950s - with death-trap cars, no medical back-up and no mandatory helmet or overalls - almost unbelievably dangerous, with a jaw-droppingly high death rate. Hawthorn - a dashing young man with wavy blond hair, who liked to wear a bow tie when driving - won the 1955 Le Mans 24-hour race, in which 83 spectators and a driver died when a disintegrating car hurtled into the crowd. Hawthorn seems to have caused the accident by braking suddenly in front of another driver, but he and his Jaguar team-mates refused to follow the Mercedes team in pulling out of the race, and Hawthorn went on to take the chequered flag.
 In 1958, Hawthorn joined with his friend Peter Collins in a bitter rivalry with the Italian driver Luigi Musso, which culminated in Musso being killed while in second place in the French Grand Prix. Hawthorn won, and shortly afterwards Musso's girlfriend saw him and Collins in the square outside the hotel where she too was staying, having a jolly kickabout with a beer can. Hawthorn went on to win that year's Formula One championship, despite having only this one win against Stirling Moss's four. Moss, ever the gentleman, seems to have been happy to help him on his way to the title. Having taken it, Hawthorn immediately retired. The death that year of his great friend Collins in the German Grand Prix had, apparently, affected him greatly.
 No driver has died in a Formula One Grand Prix since Ayrton Senna in 1994. We should be glad of that - and that the great Stirling Moss is still alive. He recently survived a fall down a lift shaft.  

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Thatcher: Her Life and Legacy

Ha- fooled you! Don't worry, I'm not going to add one iota to the tsunami of media coverage that has attended the death of Grantham's finest (superb parish church, St Wulfram's, Grantham - praised by Ruskin and Betjeman, among others. Ruskin was much impressed by its ballflower decoration). The Thatcher tsunami is a perfect example of what happens when a major figure dies a long-expected death, with all the obits written, the tributes, profiles and documentaries all in place and ready to roll - and, to complete the perfect storm, it's also a quiet news day, when the next biggest story seems to be about a police force investigating the tweets of a teenage girl it's now employing as some kind of 'youth tsar', whatever that is. But one or two other news items did manage to squeeze into the bulletins, and the one that caught my ear was this: the unnervingly human-like sound of Gelada baboons. Not unlike a lively session in the House of Commons, is it?

Monday, 8 April 2013

It Begins!

That cold East wind is blowing again today, the sky is dull and cloudy, and I'm back in my overcoat. But yesterday was a different story - sunny and bright, with real spring warmth in the air. The day before, I had seen - or rather glimpsed - my first butterfly of the year (a full six weeks later than my first of last year), flying away from me across the front gardens of my road, then quickly disappearing from view. From its dark aspect and flight pattern, I took it to be a Peacock - but my true first Peacock came yesterday, as I walked along a sunny track at Box Hill. There, beside the path, on the chalky ground outside the mouth of a rabbit hole, was a fine specimen basking at full spread. All that useless beauty (as Elvis Costello nearly puts it in one of his album titles). All that glory of colour and pattern, that excess of illusion - giant eyes, complete with artful dabs of reflected light... The Peacock, soaking in as much sunlight as it could, barely moved, except to turn every now and then to a sunnier angle. It was a splendid first encounter of the butterfly year - may there be many more, once this weather finally releases its chilling grip.
And then the Brimstones were flying - three or four before I left Box Hill, and half a dozen more from the train, butter yellow against the ivy-clad embankment trees. Aah, spring...

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Wilbur Again: 'Here something stubborn comes...'

Sunshine off and on today, strengthening the sense that soon a proper Spring will at last be under way. Here's something seasonal from the inexhaustible riches of Richard Wilbur's Collected Poems...

Seed Leaves

Here something stubborn comes,
Dislodging the earth crumbs
And making crusty rubble.
it comes up bending double,
And looks like a green staple.
It could be seedling maple,
Or artichoke, or bean.
That remains to be seen.
Forced to make choice of ends,
The stalk in time unbends,
Shakes off the seed-case, heaves
Aloft, and spreads two leaves
Which still display no sure
And special signature.
Toothless and fat, they keep
The oval form of sleep.
This plant would like to grow
And yet be embryo;
Increase, and yet escape
The doom of taking shape;
Be vaguely vast, and climb
To the tip end of time
With all of space to fill,
Like boundless Igdrasil
That has the stars for fruit.
But something at the root
More urgent that the urge
Bids two true leaves emerge;
And now the plant, resigned
To being self-defined
Before it can commerce
With the great universe,
Takes aim at all the sky
And starts to ramify.

I love the second stanza in particular - 'heaves aloft', 'the oval form of sleep'... By the way, Igdrasil (or Yggdrasil) is the immense ash tree that's central to Norse cosmology.
Seed Leaves is subtitled Homage To R.F. and the influence of Robert Frost is clear enough. Wilbur knew him as friend, mentor and source of encouragement when he was at Harvard graduate school on the GI Bill after the war (and, by happy chance, Wilbur's wife's great aunt had encouraged Frost when he was starting out as a poet). In an interview, Wilbur - who had (and might still have?) many of Frost's poems by heart - summed up his admiration, and his debt, thus:

'His poems always seemed to me to be a wonder and an inimitable model: I had no wish to ape his work, but it made me seek for a speaking voice, for meter and rhyme which worked as if by accident and for plain situations having overtones.'

Friday, 5 April 2013

Science - Amazing!

I lost count of the number of times the word 'amazing' was used in reporting this story on the radio news this morning. Amazing? Really? As far as I can make out, these scientists - after much toiling over a hot MRI scanner and much stoicism on the part of their three volunteers (have you tried sleeping in a scanner?) - claim they can correlate particular patterns of brain activity with particular broad groups of images visualised in dreams, with (ahem) 60 per cent accuracy.
It seems to me this tells us less about dreams than about the hyperexcitable state of the BBC (and it is not alone) when reporting science stories. It's the 'Wow, amazing!' mode pioneered - indeed embodied - by the ever-amazed Professor Brian Cox, notably in his Wonders of Life. (Life is indeed amazing - but not, I would suggest, because it demonstrates the working-out of the 'laws' of physics.)
Scientism - the prevailing pseudo-religion of our time - is no longer content with just 'explaining' everything, it is now on a mission to make us feel good about it all, to provide spurious uplift. So the BBC's reporters, who most of the time take a pretty hard-headed (if irredeemably leftist) view of things, respond to the latest 'scientific breakthrough' with all the critical acumen of a bunch of stoned hippies, sitting around saying 'Wow, man - that's amazing!'
There was another fine example of BBC science reporting on the World Service the other day, when a report on the latest refurb of the Large Hadron Collider was summarised, in awe-struck tones, as 'incredibly complicated stuff that's going on'. Yes indeed. The same programme had also uncritically reported Obama's splashing of another  $100 million of taxpayers' money on brain research, with the usual promises about cures for Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, whatever. Remember how Clinton greeted the publication of the first draft of the human genome, 13 years ago? 'Without a doubt,' he proclaimed, while an admiring Tony Blair looked on, 'this is the most important, most wondrous map ever produced by mankind. It will revolutionise the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of most, if not all, human diseases... Human kind is on the verge of gaining immense, new power to heal.' Since when there has come a dawning recognition that the mapping of the genome seems to have told us remarkably little, except that, genetically, we're a lot less complicated than a rice plant. Amazing.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Peter Nichols: Still Feeling He's Behind

It was good to hear the playwright Peter Nichols, now 85, being interviewed on the radio this morning - and to learn that a new West End production of his Passion Play is under way. Nichols was deservedly successful for 15 years - quite a long run for a stage playwright - from A Day in the Death of Joe Egg to the ill-fated, much-slated Poppy - since when, as they say in Hollywood, he hasn't been able to get arrested. That is to say, no London productions of new plays, and much of his work simply turned down. Unlike most playwrights, he hasn't made the obvious move into screenwriting, but persisted in his craft, despite every setback. By his own admission, he hasn't 'managed his career well'; in particular, he feels himself something of a stranger in a strange land, a survivor of an age of modesty, when the form was to be self-deprecating about one's achievements; now everyone - no matter how tiny their talent - is fiercely self-promoting, proclaiming their own greatness, and, as often as not, being taken at their own valuation. This is a huge cultural shift that I've observed, somewhat aghast, in my own lifetime - in fact, in just a few decades of it, and it's one of the many reasons I'm glad not be young now: I'd be having to 'sell myself' (ghastly thought). The English - or certainly the younger among them - have been transformed from the modest, self-deprecating, stoical, emotionally restrained, instinctively polite race of a few decades ago into the polar opposite of all that. And one of the effects has been that those who, like Nichols, haven't given thought to self-promotion and 'managing' their careers, have tended to go to the wall. Let's hope the new production of Passion Play will lead to a wider revival of his work.
Meanwhile, I can recommend Nichols's very funny, gloriously titled autobiography, Feeling You're Behind - available, I note, for 1p on Amazon. Hurry hurry while stocks last... 

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Different Class

A 'major new study' has made a laudable attempt to revive something of the lost richness of the English class system. Once among the glories of our national life, this endlessly complex and subtle system (or rather organism) gave us all our best comedies and most of our best fiction, while also proving a remarkably effective engine - and index - of social mobility, both upward and downward. ('Was he born,' inquires Lady Bracknell of Jack Worthing's father, 'into what the radical papers call the purple of commerce, or did he rise through the ranks of the aristocracy?'). It also gave us something other than the weather to talk - and even think - about.
In recent times, the 'system' has been grossly oversimplified into Upper, Lower and Middle - though in fact the only class distinctions that retain much vitality are those between the various levels of the middle class (the upper and lower classes - both hedonistically inclined, fond of animals, booze and fags - are distinguishable only by their outward trappings). The new 'major study' adds four more classifications, but alas they're no fun at all - and, what's more, they don't work. Or at least the related Class Calculator doesn't. I answered the questions honestly and was told that I belonged to the Technical Middle Class, that I work in research, science and technical fields, and enjoy going to the gym and using social media, e.g. FaceBook and Twitter. Not one word of which is true. Try it yourself and see how you get on...

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Meades on the Beeb

This piece by Jonathan Meades on the BBC - the corporation that allows him to create the occasional programme, so long as it's only shown on digital BBC4 - is, I think, worth passing on. Needless to say, I agree strongly with its thrust. And I was interested to learn that Anthony Burgess was among those who saw Jimmy Savile for what he was - and expressed his conclusion in no uncertain terms.

The Last of the Knuts

A lovely Google doodle today to celebrate Maria Sybilla Merian - but also born on this day, in 1891, was Jack Buchanan, one of the great comic actors and song and dance men of his time, and, to quote no less an authority than The Times, 'the last of the knuts'. The what? you might well ask. Perhaps you never heard the music-hall song Gilbert the Filbert...

'I am known round Town as a fearful blood
For I come straight down from the dear old flood
And I know who's who, and I know what's what
And between the two I'm a trifle hot
For I set the tone as you may suppose
For I stand alone when it comes to clothes
And as for gals just ask my pals
Why everybody knows.
Chorus: I'm Gilbert the Filbert the Knut with a K
The pride of Piccadilly the blasé roué
Oh Hades, the ladies, who leave their wooden huts
For Gilbert the Filbert, the Colonel of the Knuts.'

A 'knut', then, we can take to be a raffish, well connected and debonair chap-about-town, perhaps not entirely safe in taxis. And this was certainly the image Jack Buchanan happily projected in the countless now forgotten musical comedies through which he drifted in his elegant, languid way. He also made a few Hollywood movies and, late in his career, starred with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charise in The Band Wagon (1953), the film by which he is still best remembered (if remembered he be). Here he is holding his own (no one could do more) with Fred Astaire in I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan. Bear in mind when watching it that Buchanan has severe spinal arthritis - what a trouper!
  Buchanan, unlike many in showbusiness, was notably generous with his money, even investing some in John Logie Baird's mechanical television. Whenever one of his shows was running on Grand National Day he would cancel the day's performances and take everybody, cast and crew, to Aintree, feeding and watering them lavishly, and even giving them each a fiver to place a bet or two.
  Buchanan was married twice, and one of his many affairs was with the actress Coral Browne, whose visit to the exiled Soviet spy Guy Burgess in Moscow was the subject of Alan Bennett's An Englishman Abroad. Miss Browne mentioned to Burgess that she had 'nearly married' Jack Buchanan. Among the very few mementoes of his earlier life that Burgess had managed to keep was a 78rpm recording of Buchanan singing Who? He played it repeatedly throughout Coral Browne's visit. 
  Jack Buchanan also sang the definitive version of Everything Stops For Tea. Note the reference to Schubert in the last verse - probably not historically sound...