Friday, 31 May 2013

Kissing Frogs

I've remarked before (en passant) on the woeful inadequacy of the French language in the verb department. They've got some fine nouns, their adjectives are second to none - but when it comes to verbs, you all too often have to go round the houses just to describe the simplest action (appuyer sur le bouton, faire sonner le telephone, etc). Even so, I was startled to learn today that they don't even have a simple verb for what we Brits call 'French kissing'. You'd have thought they at least had that one covered - but no, only now has a verb finally made it over the threshold of the sacred temple that is the French language. It is - wait for it... 'galocher'. Which sounds more like a high-pressure mouthwash, or something a dentist might do to you. As I said, they're just no good at verbs, the French.

Thursday, 30 May 2013

Yarts News

Regulars will know that I always relish Will Gompertz's BBC News reports about goings-on in the wonderful world of The Yarts. He is of course in Venice just now (lucky man) to report on the Biennale (not so lucky), and last night he told us about Britain's entry, an exhibit called English Magic by Jeremy Deller. Deller has seized the opportunity to 'get things off his chest', as he puts it - well to be sure and isn't that precisely what art is for? (Clue: No.) Deller seems strangely exercised by Range Rovers and Hen Harriers, so his main image is of a Hen Harrier carrying off a tiny Range Rover - this is called 'playing with scale' and is very clever. He thinks Prince Harry might have shot a couple of harriers but he's not sure - anyway he's angry. Deller also has a thing about rich people - or perhaps it's just Roman Abramovich, whose yacht (also tiny) he depicts being tossed aside by that scourge of the wealthy (hem hem) William Morris. This is all very fine and dandy, but is it ---? No,I'm not going to say it. Gompertz claims that English Magic makes Deller the 'artistic heir' to the Olympics Opening Ceremony. Well yes, his display seems to be equally moronic, but without the sheer crazed energy that somehow made the Olympics thing work (or at least made resistance futile).  
The Venice Biennale was once a way of showcasing a nation's best art - you know, paintings, sculpture, that sort of thing - but it is now an entirely incestuous art market event, not least because the organisers can't afford to pay for all those big installations, which can cost a fortune to set up. In the first postwar Biennale, in 1948, Britain exhibited sculptures by Henry Moore, works by Ben Nicholson and the less well-known modernist John Tunnard, and paintings by the hot and happening J.M.W. Turner. Enough said. If you really want to see Gompertz and Deller, here's a link. Enjoy!

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Funniest Woman in the World

Mustn't let the day go by without marking the birthday of Beatrice Lillie, born on this day in 1894 in Toronto. Beatrice who? you may well be asking - and with good reason. Though she had a huge reputation in her day, 'Bea' Lillie specialised in the most ephemeral and fast-dating forms of comedy: stage revue, comic songs, parodies and routines - and was not keen on making films. There's little in what footage of her survives to explain her reputation as the 'Funniest Woman in the World'. According to Sheridan Morley, her gift was for 'the arched eyebrow, the curled lip, the fluttering eyelid, the tilted chin, the ability to suggest, even in apparently innocent material, the possible double entendre.' I guess you had to be there.
Lillie was certainly a formidable professional. Her revue contracts invariably stipulated that she would not step onto the stage until at least half an hour into the show, to ensure maximum impact. Rather chillingly, when she received news of the death of her son as she was about to go on stage to entertain the troops, she insisted the show should not be cancelled: 'I'll cry tomorrow,' she declared. This was her only son - by Sir Robert Peel, 5th Baronet (in private life, she was Lady Peel). Beatrice remained married even after she took up with a fellow entertainer, John Philip Huck, some 30 years her junior. She succumbed to Alzheimer's and died at the age of 94, in 1989. Huck died of a heart attack barely 24 hours later.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Woodland News

I heard on the radio this morning that the Woodland Trust has been slipped a couple of million sovs to make a start on undoing some of the damage wrought on our British woodlands by the Forestry Commission's wholesale planting of conifers. Could this be the same Forestry Commission that last year became darlings of the nation and Britain's Favourite Quango, when perfectly sensible proposals to sell off some Forestry Commission land led to such howls of outrage from moist-eyed urban Middle Englanders, reared on Winnie the Pooh and the Teddy Bears' Picnic, that the government went into a screeching, gravel-spaying U-turn and abandoned the entire scheme? Why yes, I believe it is (and I believe I wrote about it at the time).

Picture of the Day

This beautiful image, captured at Abbotsbury swannery, is in many of the papers today.

Here's George Meredith, near the end of his great sonnet sequence, Modern Love...

WE saw the swallows gathering in the sky,
And in the osier-isle we heard their noise.
We had not to look back on summer joys,
Or forward to a summer of bright dye;
But in the largeness of the evening earth
Our spirits grew as we went side by side.
The hour became her husband, and my bride.
Love that had robb’d us so, thus bless’d our dearth!
The pilgrims of the year wax’d very loud
In multitudinous chatterings, as the flood
Full brown came from the west, and like pale blood
Expanded to the upper crimson cloud.
Love, that had robb’d us of immortal things,
This little moment mercifully gave,
And still I see across the twilight wave
The swan sail with her young beneath her wings.


Over on The Dabbler, I'm writing about Benjamin Robert Haydon...

Monday, 27 May 2013

At Last

There's one good thing to be said for a cold wet late spring: when the weather does finally relent, the air warms, the sun comes out and we can emerge from shelter to see what's going on, what greets us is quite dazzlingly, stupefyingly wonderful. On Friday night, I staggered home in wind, rain and bone-chilling cold - but the next day came sunshine and a new world.  When everything has been held back this long, it all happens at once in a great burgeoning outburst of blossom and flower, leaf and scent - and I can't recall quite such a spectacular simultaneous display as we're getting this year. Hawthorn, horse chestnut, lilac and Queen Anne's Lace are all in flower together - just as in Larkin's Cut Grass - along with ox-eye daisies, rowan and whitebeam, wisteria and countless orchard trees and garden shrubs. And the fragrance... at times it's just the pleasurable side of overpowering. And the greenery, after all that rain, is so green... Amid all this abundance, the paucity of butterflies is saddening, though there are plenty of Orange Tips out and about to lift the spirits - and this morning, as I stepped out into the garden before setting off for NigeCorp HQ, a butterfly flew down from the kitchen roof and away into the next garden. I'm pretty sure it was my first Red Admiral of the year. At last!

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Five Years Old

I missed the date, but yesterday was this blog's fifth birthday. Five years! Back then, Eurovision was still fun (my first post), and some chap called Gordon Brown was prime minister - remember him? Five years on, I'm still delighted I took the plunge into the wide blog sea and started Nigeness. If reading it has given anyone as much pleasure as writing it has given me, then it's done its job. I wonder where we'll all be when the tenth anniversary rolls round... But now the sun is out, and I'm off to a favourite spot to look for butterflies.

Friday, 24 May 2013


The artist and writer Kathleen Hale - who was born on this day in 1898 - had the unusual distinction of living in three centuries: she died in 2000 at the grand old age of 101. Her 18 illustrated books chronicling the adventures of Orlando the Marmalade Cat are her legacy. The stories are perhaps nothing special, but the pictures are something else - zestful, witty, elegant, packed with detail and beautifully designed. Amazingly, she made her own lithographic plates for every one of them - 128 for each of the 18 Orlando volumes. And she managed all this work on top of family life, a busy social life and an extremely productive career as a painter, sculptor and poster-maker - it's a wonder she lived so long.  She left a disarmingly frank memoir called A Slender Reputation - and there's more about the Orlando books (and those great dust-jackets) here...
Hmm, the Frisky Housewife, eh?

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Not Hatred, Something Worse

'Blood on his hands, hatred in his eyes' shouts the headline on today's Daily Mail front page, over a picture of one of the two Islamist killers who butchered a soldier on the South circular road in Woolwich yesterday. A good headline, but belied by the picture - there's no hatred in his eyes; there's nothing at all, really. It looks like what psychologists call blunted affect. As far as this guy was concerned, as he stood there with a meat cleaver in his hand, talking calmly to a passerby, he'd just been doing a job, and was simply explaining the situation, as if he were apologising for a roadworks. That is the scary thing - though perhaps it should not surprise us. Most of the perpetrators of such horrific acts in history have no doubt gone about their work in just such a businesslike spirit.

Chelsea Weather

Rain and hail in London today, to say nothing of the icy wind - but then, we shouldn't be surprised; it is Chelsea week. There's something about the Chelsea Flower Show that seems to tempt fate, attracting just about every form of extreme weather known to man, short of waterspouts spinning in from the Thames. In 1935, snow carpeted the country in Chelsea week and exhibitors had to blast their plants with electric heaters to keep them alive. Downpours in 1971 caused flooding and brought down the roof of the commercial stand. In 2007 an unprecedentedly warm April brought flowering forward by a month, forcing exhibitors to refrigerate their plants, keep them in the dark or even bind them to stop them opening ahead of schedule. But the funniest year was 2006 when, taking the warmists seriously, Chelsea went big on drought gardens. All seemed set fair as the country enjoyed an unusually long dry spell - until Chelsea, when the heavens opened and torrential downpours swamped and all but swept away the drought gardens and everything else. As a waggish journalist remarked, 'All of Chelsea is a water feature this year.'
So what's a bit of rain, hail and unseasonal cold? Chelsea seems to be getting off lightly this year.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Save the Bastard Gumwood!

Much coverage of State of Nature, a wide-ranging new report on worrying declines in many of our wildlife species. On the radio this morning, they'd even wheeled out George Monbiot to advocate 'rewilding': we wicked humans should retreat from the land and leave it to Nature to restore it to a state of paradisal biodiversity. If only... There's been a good deal of (unplanned) 'rewilding' down my way, with good downland becoming overgrown with scrub, weed trees and invasive aliens, creating a near-sterile ecosystem of little or no use to most wildlife. Monbiot's remarks followed shortly after a report of how careful woodland management (by wicked humans) is helping to preserve the rare Pearl Bordered Fritillary - that's how it is done, not by allowing nature to create a sunless jungle.
  Thinking back over my own experience of wildlife in the semi-suburban patch I've known well for the past 50 years and more, I'd say that there has definitely been an overall loss in adundance and perhaps in the range of species. I'm not so sure about the latter because - to take a few examples - in my boyhood I would never have seen collared doves (then a rare vagrant) nor ring-necked parakeets (now noisily thriving), nor buzzards circling overhead (I'd only seen them in wild Wales). Jays and magpies were strictly country birds (and now they're everywhere) and woodpeckers were seldom seen. Herons were unheard-of, let alone kingfishers, cormorants and egrets, all of which I can see less than half a mile from my house. Even foxes - now fully urbanised - were then creatures of the countryside, as were the deer that are now becoming so abundant they're edging in on suburbia.
  On the butterfly front, of course, the overall picture is pretty dismal, and made more so by a run of cool, wet summers. But in my boyhood I would never have seen a speckled wood in the garden (now they're common) and would have counted myself  lucky to see an orange tip there, or a gatekeeper or even a meadow brown - and there are definitely more holly blues than there used to be. A few warm dry summers would improve the picture dramatically and reverse a lot of the decline.
  Meanwhile, you might be wondering why the Bastard Gumwood merits a mention in the State of Nature report - is it because St Helena is a UK Overseas Territory? Botanists from Kew, I gather, are out there desperately trying to get the sole surviving tree to pollinate itself. One wishes them luck, of course.  

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

One Way of Looking at Las Meninas

I was amused to read this account by our old friend Will Gompertz of a silly stunt by former Young British Artist Mat Collishaw. I'm not surprised it only 'made the situation worse'. Suppose you were going to the Prado to see Las Meninas for the first time, what would be the best way to clear your mind of all preconceptions and received opinions about the painting and encounter it as if it were newly made in the artist's studio? Would you (a) get yourself flown to Madrid and escorted to the painting blindfold, look at the painting for three minutes, and resume the blindfold for your return journey, or (b) just go to the Prado and look at the bloody thing like anyone else? I think your chances of a genuine encounter with Las Meninas might be better (and more conveniently) served by option (b). Especially as few paintings have quite such an overwhelming presence as Velazquez's endlessly enigmatic masterpiece. One thing no foreknowledge can prepare you for is its sheer size - it is vast (3.2m by 2.76m, to be precise), and, as Toby Ferris argued in a fine Dabbler piece yesterday, in paintings size matters. Like all great art, Las Meninas effortlessly transcends all that has been said, written and thought about it - it is just there, inexhaustible. And, incidentally, worth rather more than three minutes of anyone's time.

Over There

I see I'm writing about Samuel Beckett's Murphy over on The Dabbler... And why not?

Monday, 20 May 2013

It Was The Nightingale... Was It?

Despite my tendency to wake early, I've missed most of the 5.58am broadcasts of Radio 4's Tweet of the Day (perhaps because Farming Today, the programme that precedes it, is the most reliably soporific thing on radio). But yesterday I caught the repeat broadcast of the nightingale Tweet, which featured one of the legendary recordings made by the cellist Beatrice Harrison in her Surrey garden, in which she duetted with the local nightingales. All very lovely - but, Attenborough (for it was he) remarked casually, 'there is a story' that the nightingale song might have been the work not of birds but of one Maude Gould, a talented  'whistler' or siffleuse. He made no further comment.
  This came as a bit of a shock, I must admit, though on reflection it seems unlikely that, with the primitive recording equipment then available, such perfect results would have been obtained, every time. The 'whistler' story comes up in Jeremy Mynott's Birdscapes: Birds in Our Imagination and Experience - a book I must read. Mynott's researches suggest that, live recording being what it was at the time, Maude Gould (stage name Madame Saberon) was indeed on stand-by in case of a nightingale no-show. In all probability, the setting-up of cumbersome recording equipment in Beatrice Harrison's garden scared off the nervous nightingales, and the first broadcast features Madame Saberon rather than Monsieur Rossignol. Whether La Harrison was in on it or not remains unknown, as does Maude Gould's role in later broadcasts. 'A very satisfactory state of uncertainty,' Manott concludes, 'in which to leave the topic of nightingales.'

Sunday, 19 May 2013

At the Barbers

I imagine David 'intensely relaxed' Cameron has his hair cut at Trumpers, but he'd be wise to pay a visit to my barbers once in a while. He'd get quite a shock. This amiable pair - brothers of Greek-Cypriot origin - have been plying their scissors in the same shop for 26 years. Both have retained a sometimes impenetrable 'Stavros' accent, but regard themselves as proudly English (not, if you please, 'British'), and their long years of observing the passing scene from their unchanging vantage point have firmly convinced them that their adopted country is going to hell in a handcart. But now, having long ago given up any hope of politicians doing anything about it, they've discovered what they take to be a real hope of reversing that hellbound handcart. I need hardly say that it's called UKIP, and its leader is Nigel Farage, whom they regard as one hell of a fellow. And it's not just the barbering brothers; it seems to be most, if not all of their clients. My barbershop soundings may not amount to much, but I do have a sense that UKIP really are going to stir things up - they are after all the only alternative to a three-party consensus on the Big Issue ('Europe') - and I can't help feeling that an eventual Tory-UKIP coalition would be more representative of how the nation thinks and feels than any other arrangement. Cameron would have to go, of course, but I'm sure he's very relaxed about that.

Friday, 17 May 2013

'The greatest curse brought down on us by technology...'

There are odd moments in Stefan Zweig's The World Of Yesterday when he could be writing about... the world of today. Consider this:
'The greatest curse brought down on us by technology is that it prevents us from escaping the present even for a brief time.'
And Zweig wrote that before the internet, before television, before the mobile phone, WiFi, the tablet and PC, rolling news, Twitter... How would he have coped in today's wired (or wireless) world? Could he have functioned in such a seething ocean of instantaneous information, misinformation, opinion and reaction? Well yes, he would probably have coped the way most of us do, by ensuring that we have at least some time cut off from it all, for our soul's (or our sanity's) sake. For myself, I barely glance at newspapers these days, saving most of my reading time for something more sustaining; I never go near Twitter or FaceBook, and make as little use of telephones (mobile or otherwise) as I can get away with; I walk as  much as I can, and without anything plugged into my ears; and I spend as much time as I can listening to music, surely the best refuge from a world of meaningless noise. It is possible, if only for short periods, to escape the present, even now.
  Zweig identifies another curious feature of News too - that those closest to where it is happening often have least awareness of it. Visiting Vienna for a few days in February 1934, he was quite unaware that Dollfuss was putting down a 'worker's revolution', storming municipal buildings with machine guns and artillery, and pursuing the rebels from street to street. Zweig knew nothing of this until he read about it in the foreign press, and when eager friends questioned him about it aferwards, he had to confess he knew no more of it than they did. And then, a few months later, Dollfuss was assassinated one day at 12 noon and Zweig was reading all about it in the London papers at 5.30pm. Telephoning Vienna at once, he found that no one there, even within a few streets of where it happened, knew any more than was known in London. 'In our days,' Zweig notes with some amazement, 'you may be ten streets away from the scene of events which will have wide repercussions, and yet know less about them than people thousands of kilometres away.' Such is News, such is the modern world.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Sandwich Matters

Lord, National Sandwich Week is upon us again, and nearly over! I hadn't realised, though perhaps some dim intuition was at work when I made myself two cheese sandwiches for my dinner last night (Jarlsberg, since you ask, with a little tomato chutney, on white, with plain crisps). The British Sandwich Association is, as ever, making much of National Sandwich Week, and another major sandwich record has been broken: read all about it here (and ask yourself why these people are dressed as if for a crime scene or a chemical spill).
  This is, by the British Sandwich Association's reckoning, the 251st anniversary year of the sandwich - i.e. of the first written reference to the snack named after John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, its supposed inventor. But the story begins even earlier, according to Woody Allen's chronicle of the Earl's agonised progress to his Eureka moment...

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

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Cotten: Too Much What?!

The great film actor Joseph Cotten was born on this day in 1905. Everybody has to start somewhere, and Cotten made his screen debut in a 1938 film called, ahem, Too Much Johnson. No - he did not, as many have, find his way to Hollywood via porn: Too Much Johnson was an Orson Welles production, a short film (now missing believed lost) that was intended to complement Welles's stage production of a William Gillette comedy of the same title. I can't help feeling that if there's ever another adaptation, it will come out under a different name...


The scientists have been making use of 'high-resolution computed tomography' to capture images of what's going on inside a chrysalis as it makes the astonishing transformation from caterpillar to butterfly. This rather beautiful slideshow takes you through the whole amazing process. Still more amazing perhaps is that memory persists through all this making and unmaking. How does that happen? Well, how does any of it? It's an everyday miracle. As Emily Dickinson succinctly put it:

THE BUTTERFLY’S assumption-gown,
In chrysoprase apartments hung,
This afternoon put on.

How condescending to descend,
And be of buttercups the friend
In a New England town!

The slideshow follows the metamorphosis of an Old World Swallowtail, and Dickinson's poem is probably about the Spicebush or Green-Clouded Swallowtail, whose startlingly arrayed caterpillar is pictured above.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013


I'm glad to see that Tate Britain has been rehung on strictly chronological lines. This - rather than the thematic approach that has held sway for too long - is so obviously the best way to hang a historical collection of national art. Schools and 'isms' are more often created by art critics and historians than by artists, and the 'themes' dreamt up by curators can be deeply unhelpful. When paintings are hung with other works of their time they speak for themselves, loud and clear - the more so, in the Tate's new hang, because the gallery has done away with those tiresome interpretative captions. Now we can look at the work itself, unmediated by commentary, and set in the context of its time. This will surely make for a much more rewarding, illuminating - and demanding - experience. It's a sign of our retroprogressive times too: the recently reopened Rijksmuseum is also hung chronologically, with furniture and objets d'art of each period enriching the context - perhaps Tate Britain could have a word with the V&A?  And perhaps something could be done about Tate Modern...

Fifty Shades - What to Do?

Worrying news today that charity shops are being bombarded with unwanted copies of Fifty Shades of Grey, the allegedly erotic megaselling  'bonkbuster', at such a rate that they simply cannot cope. As soon as they shift one copy, two more come in - and they can't even be recycled (apparently there's a problem with the glue). Surely, you're thinking, Fifty Shades is a book that repays endless rereading, constantly revealing new depths and resonances, a book that speaks anew to us at each stage of life's journey. Alas, it would seem this is not the case...
Something must be done before this fair land of ours disappears under mountains of unwanted bonkbusters. But what to do with them? How about compacting them into bricks and using them as a novel (geddit?) building material. If only on a small scale, they would surely be of use - we could have, as a starter project, fifty sheds of grey...
Any more ideas? We'd better come up with something before the wave of unwanted copies of Dan Brown's Inferno hits the charity shops next year.

Monday, 13 May 2013

The World of Yesterday

I'm reading Stefan Zweig's extraordinary memoir, The World of Yesterday (Pushkin Press). In recent years I've read several of his fine novellas and the novel Beware of Pity (about which I wrote here) - but The World of Yesterday is something quite different, a memoir that is also a portrait of an age, the age in which Europe moved from peace, security and wellbeing into the destructive horrors of two world wars. Zweig, born in Vienna in 1881, was to experience - to intensely experience - this terrible transformation in his own lifetime, losing almost everything along the way. The World of Yesterday was published in 1942, the year that Zweig and his wife, having been driven from their homeland by the coming of the Nazis and having lived a peripatetic life in Britain and America, died in a double suicide in Buenos Aires.
  The World of Yesterday is not a suicide note, but it bears powerful personal testimony to the shattering impact of the wars, and what came between them, in the most murderous century in human history. In 1942, the tide of war was actually turning against Hitler, but Zweig had probably concluded that, even if he was defeated, too much damage had been done for Europe ever to recover and be itself again. At least, dying when he did, he was never to know the full extent of what the Nazis and their allies had inflicted on his fellow Jews...
  But no, The World of Yesterday is not a suicide note. It is, for one thing, immensely readable and suffused with Zweig's large humanist (in the best sense) spirit. It begins with a vivid and richly detailed picture of what Zweig calls the Golden Age of Security, that world into which he was born, one that seemed permanent and endlessly promising, but was to be entirely lost when Europe stumbled into war in 1914. (He is, though, by no means uncritical of that lost world - particularly of its brutal and deadening education system and its extreme hypocrisy in sexual matters.)
 'I never considered myself important enough to feel tempted to tell others the story of my life,' writes Zweig. 'Much had to happen, far more in the shape of terrible events, disasters and trials than any other single generation has known, before I found the courage to embark on a book in which I feature as the main, or rather the central, character. Nothing is further from my mind than to bring myself to the fore...' And indeed this is the most self-effacing of memoirs - we don't even learn that Zweig is married until the second person singular suddenly appears. Zweig sees himself not as the subject, but as 'the presenter of a lecture illustrated by slides. The times provide the pictures...' And what pictures they are. There are unforgettable images here, particularly in the riveting chapter on The First Hours of the 1914 War - or, at the end of that war, crossing from Switzerland into a ruined Austria, while the last Emperor travels in the opposite direction, standing at the window of his train, 'a tall, grave man, looking for the last time at the mountains, the buildings and the people of his land'.
  Much of this rich book is given over to accounts of the literary, artistic - and political - milieu Zweig moved in, with pen portraits of many friends, some (like Rilke and James Joyce, who was not exactly a friend) still famous names, others forgotten. There are certainly passages that can be skipped (it's a big book, getting on for 500 pages), but the narrative gains momentum as it goes along and becomes ever more gripping. I've still got something over 100 pages to read, and I really don't want it to end - especially to end where it does.

Friday, 10 May 2013

Donovan Day

Today is the 67th birthday of that titan of troubadours Donovan. Singer-songwriter, poet, mystic, visionary, man of letters, musical and psychedelic pioneer, Donovan was the most influential figure of his time, entirely changing the course of music history. Without him, the Beatles would have been just another beat band, California's Summer of Love would never have happened, jazz, psychedelia and world music would probably not exist, and no one would ever have heard of Jeff Beck or Bob Dylan.
You might recall the 1965 meeting between Dylan and Donovan captured in D.A. Pennebaker's film Don't Look Back. The director later recalled that
'Of course, when Donovan met him he was very excited and decided to play something for him. Dylan said he liked Catch The Wind, but Donovan said, I've written a new song I wanna play for you. So he played a song called My Darling Tangerine Eyes. And it was to the tune of Mr Tambourine Man! And Dylan was sitting there with this funny look on his face, listening to Mr Tambourine Man with these really weird words, trying to keep a straight face. Then Dylan says, Well, you know, that tune ... I have to admit that I haven't written all the tunes I'm credited with but that happens to be one that I did write! I'm sure Donovan never played the song again.'
Back in the Sixties, music fandom was intensely tribal, especially in the school playground but often in the music press as well - Cliff v Elvis, Beatles v Stones (even, briefly, Beatles v Dave Clark Five), and of course Dylan v Donovan, which now looks rather like Beatles v Dave Clark Five. But let's be fair, Donovan - at least in the years when he was managed by Mickie Most - did produce a string of agreeable, even classic, singles. These, and indeed his early albums, were part of the soundtrack of my misspent youth, though A Gift from a Flower to a Garden finished it for me (Dear Flower - Thanks but No Thanks). But then there was the strangely wonderful 'children's album' HMS Donovan, which I remember (with a blush) being played worryingly often in my rooms at university...
Oh dammit, Happy birthday Donovan!

Thursday, 9 May 2013

'He became a land.'

Among my bedside reading is a small book on A.E. Housman and A Shropshire Lad (which Housman originally titled The Poems of Terence Hearsay - good thing he was persuaded to change that). Reading the biographical chapter (a Wiki life will give you all the facts) led me back to W.H. Auden's luminous biographical sonnet. This gives you - or seems to - not the facts but the soul of Housman...

No one, not even Cambridge, was to blame
(Blame if you like the human situation):
Heart-injured in North London, he became
The Latin Scholar of his generation.

Deliberately he chose the dry-as-dust,
Kept tears like dirty postcards in a drawer;
Food was his public love, his private lust
Something to do with violence and the poor.

In savage foot-notes on unjust editions
He timidly attacked the life he led,
And put the money of his feelings on

The uncritical relations of the dead,
Where only geographical divisions
Parted the coarse hanged soldier from the don.

Auden pulled off the same brilliant trick with his elegiac sonnet on Edward Lear, another case of thwarted love and obsessive displacement...

Left by his friend to breakfast alone on the white
Italian shore, his Terrible Demon arose
Over his shoulder; he wept to himself in the night,
A dirty landscape-painter who hated his nose.

The legions of cruel inquisitive They
Were so many and big like dogs: he was upset
By Germans and boats; affection was miles away:
But guided by tears he successfully reached his Regret.

How prodigious the welcome was. Flowers took his hat
And bore him off to introduce him to the tongs;
The demon's false nose made the table laugh; a cat

Soon had him waltzing madly, let him squeeze her hand;
Words pushed him to the piano to sing comic songs;
And children swarmed to him like settlers. He became a land.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

The Sound of Summer

Eighty-seven today - and still very much in harness - is Sir David Attenborough. I've had my reservations about some of his recent work and utterances, but this is not the time to rehearse them. Attenborough has been our greatest TV naturalist (as well as, for a while, a remarkably creative TV exec) and can still turn out brilliant documentaries - his recent two-parter on Madagascar, for example, or Attenborough's Ark. His radio series of essays, Life Stories, was (literally) wonderful - and now he's back on Radio 4, presenting the first month of an epic project, Tweet of the Day. Each of these 90-second programmes showcases a fine recording of the song of a British bird, with Attenborough giving a thumbnail sketch of the species and its habits. It's no substitute for the much-missed Birdsong Radio, that endless dawn chorus that made for such restful nighttime listening - but it's a lovely thing to find if you happen to be awake at two minutes to 6 in the morning. Happily I caught this morning's Tweet: it was the thin aerial scream of swifts - the sound of summer!


Over on The Dabbler, I'm writing about Alice Munro (and here too)...

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Surprised by Joy

Punctual to the day, the swifts are back! Regular readers will know this is always a high point of the year on Nigeness. This year it took me by surprise, as I really had expected them to be later, after all the foul weather was had through April. But, while I was taking a quick turn in the garden this morning, I looked up and there they were - a pair, flying low and fast - and this brief encounter was all the more joyful for being unexpected. Summer has begun, the world is turning.
  The sudden spell of warm sunny weather over the last few days must have sped the swifts on their way. It's been quite glorious, and the butterflies have been making the most of it - Holly Blues, Orange Tips and Speckled Woods all flying in cheering abundance. Yesterday I took a trip into the Surrey Hills, hoping I might see a Green Hairstreak, perhaps Brown Argus and Small Copper too - but when I got to the familiar butterfly-friendly slopes, virtually nothing was flying. The grass was too long and lush for downland early fliers to thrive - a legacy of all those months of rain, I suppose. But the bluebell woods were at their dazzlingly beautiful, fragrant peak, with Wood Anemones still in flower, and Cuckoo Flowers among the Bluebells. Mrs N was impressed.
  But still no Red Admiral! If I see one now, it will be an unheard-of tenth on my species list. What is going on? I dreamt one last night, a beauty - but I guess that doesn't count...

Sunday, 5 May 2013

De La Mare, Gray, Sheldrake

It's not often you hear the name of the deeply unfashionable poet, storyteller, anthologist and man of letters Walter De La Mare invoked these days. But in a rather brilliant Point of View talk on Radio 4 this morning, John Gray used one of De La Mare's stories as the starting point for a pithy critique of the materialist view of reality.  Interestingly, although there is nothing the least bit kooky or New Age about Gray, his argument here is very much along the lines laid out in Rupert Sheldrake's The Science Delusion. There's a transcript of Gray's talk here. Enjoy...

Friday, 3 May 2013

The Camel-Sparrow

Today's vintage Dabbler contribution by Frank Key put me in mind of Marianne Moore's wonderful poem about the ostrich, He 'Digesteth Harde Yron'. This is not only a joyful and vivid evocation of the bird, but a celebration of the persistence of the past, of endurance, survival and resistance. It's worth bearing in mind that it was written in wartime (1941), when much that is most valuable in human civilisation was under imminent threat...

 Although the aepyornis
   or roc that lived in Madagascar, and
the moa are extinct,
the camel-sparrow, linked
   with them in size--the large sparrow
Xenophon saw walking by a stream--was and is
a symbol of justice.

   This bird watches his chicks with
   a maternal concentration-and he's
been mothering the eggs
at night six weeks--his legs
   their only weapon of defense.
He is swifter than a horse; he has a foot hard
as a hoof; the leopard

   is not more suspicious.  How
   could he, prized for plumes and eggs and young
used even as a riding-beast, respect men
   hiding actor-like in ostrich skins, with the right hand
making the neck move as if alive
and from a bag the left hand strewing grain, that ostriches

   might be decoyed and killed!  Yes, this is he
whose plume was anciently
the plume of justice; he
   whose comic duckling head on its
great neck revolves with compass-needle nervousness
when he stands guard,

   in S-like foragings as he is
   preening the down on his leaden-skinned back.
The egg piously shown
as Leda's very own
   from which Castor and Pollux hatched,
was an ostrich-egg.  And what could have been more fit
for the Chinese lawn it

   grazed on as a gift to an
   emperor who admired strange birds, than this
one, who builds his mud-made
nest in dust yet will wade
   in lake or sea till only the head shows.

 . . . . . . .

   Six hundred ostrich-brains served
   at one banquet, the ostrich-plume-tipped tent
and desert spear, jewel-
gorgeous ugly egg-shell
   goblets, eight pairs of ostriches
in harness, dramatize a meaning
always missed by the externalist.

   The power of the visible
   is the invisible; as even where
no tree of freedom grows,
so-called brute courage knows.
   Heroism is exhausting, yet
it contradicts a greed that did not wisely spare
the harmless solitaire

   or great auk in its grandeur;
   unsolicitude having swallowed up
all giant birds but an alert gargantuan
   little-winged, magnificently speedy running-bird.
This one remaining rebel
is the sparrow-camel.

Thursday, 2 May 2013


Too early this morning, before I was properly awake, I became aware of the voice of an American lady on the radio - I now know her to be Marlene Zuk, author of a book called Paleofantasy: you can read about it here. She was discussing her ideas with the ubiquitous Steve Jones, who seemed to broadly agree with her view that we've really gone crazy on the savannah phase in our prehistory, using it to explain - or justify - everything about the way we are now (Jones called it 'the universal alibi'). Zuk spoke tellingly of our fantasy of a 'fall from grace' after the Edenic savannah times when all was well and we were healthy and happy, with none of today's ills to plague us. Yet more spilt religion masquerading as science, though she didn't use that phrase.
  I suppose it's an attractive myth, helped by the fact that the savannah habitat survives to this day and seems rather agreeable, so long as you dodge the predators (or hunt them to extinction) - and of course it was the home of that African woman, 'Eve', who was, we are told, the ancestor of us all... For myself, I've always had a soft spot for the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis, with its restful imagery of families lounging around lakeside, opening the odd clam from time to time. But for those of us who were impressionable lads in 1966, no paleofantasy will ever top Raquel Welch in a fur bikini, battling with dinosaurs - though the scientific accuracy of this has, I believe, been questioned by some sticklers.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

May Day

Earlier today, in the sunshine in Holland Park, the Orange Tips - always one of the cheeriest sights of spring - were flying, one of them with a feisty Small White in relentless pursuit. And I spotted a busy Holly Blue hurrying past, and a graceful Comma - but still, amazingly, no Red Admiral, and it's May now! May Day indeed - I was going to celebrate by smashing capitalism and annihilating the hated boss class, but then I thought, Nah, I'll go and look at the butterflies in Holland Park...

Lost in Dorking - and Elsewhere

Reading a piece about underused railway stations - nominally 'open', but only to keep a line in service - I was happy to see that the second least frequented station in the land (after Teesside Airport - well worth the trip, I'm sure) is in my own neck of the woods: it's Dorking West, through which in the year 2012 a total of 16 passengers passed.
 I once had myself dropped at Dorking West, having seen a Station sign: 'I'll make my way home from here,' I cheerily assured my lift, assuming that this was a real station. I was soon disabused, and found myself wandering at length, hopelessly lost, through the Dorking Badlands (I'd no idea Dorking had such things) until I finally made it to Dorking Proper.
  I once had a similar chastening experience in Ghent, having taken the train from Bruges ('Ay Marieke Marieke, je t'aimais tant Entre les tours de Bruges et Gand...'). I was armed with a map showing the route from the station into town - but alas, the route I had mapped out was not from the main station but a second station in some remote corner of the city (perhaps a goods station). By dutifully following this route, I therefore steered straight into the Ghent Badlands - considerably more extensive than Dorking's - where we wandered hopelessly for what seemed much like an eternity, before at last finding a way into the centre of town. Mrs Nige, as you may imagine, was highly impressed.
  The mystery remains of how anyone with eyes to see could miss the route into the centre of town from Ghent's main station - but this is the man who managed to visit Tournai (again by train) and somehow miss the main square with all its cafes and restaurants and end up eating in a back-street pizzeria in the middle of nowhere. Once again Mrs N was much impressed. On a later visit to Tournai, I was able to work out how this particular feat had been accomplished - by a remarkable combination of bad luck and looking in the wrong direction at certain key moments. At least I didn't manage to miss the cathedral (though it was, of course, closed).