Monday, 29 February 2016

Leap Day

I know it's been a topsy-turvy winter/spring, but I was still taken aback the other day to see a patch of Cow Parsley in full flower - in February! The spring flowers have been all over the place, with many lulled into early blooming by an unseasonably mild December. Little in the way of real winter followed (down here in Surrey suburbia) until recent weeks, when we finally had a good run of single-figure daytime temperatures and overnight frosts - and Met men say there's more to come (so perhaps it's about to come to an end). This late taste of winter has certainly slowed down the premature onrush of spring - but it hasn't stopped the Cow Parsley.
Tomorrow it will be March and, by a simple metric, the first day of spring - first day, that is, of the three spring months. But the borderland between winter and spring is nothing if not porous, with the two seasons intermingling and coexisting in various ways. Sometimes spring surges into winter, other years the traces of a hard winter linger into spring. Edward Thomas describes such a lingering with his charactersitically acute eye for detail - an eye well adapted to the sharp revealing light of early spring...

But these things also are Spring’s—
On banks by the roadside the grass
Long-dead that is greyer now
Than all the Winter it was;

The shell of a little snail bleached
In the grass; chip of flint, and mite
Of chalk; and the small birds’ dung
In splashes of purest white:

All the white things a man mistakes
For earliest violets
Who seeks through Winter’s ruins
Something to pay Winter’s debts,

While the North blows, and starling flocks
By chattering on and on
Keep their spirits up in the mist,
And Spring’s here, Winter’s not gone.  

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Frank Kelly RIP

Sad to hear that the Irish actor Frank Kelly has died. He will always be remembered for his jaw-dropping portrayal of Father Jack, the foul-mouthed, cantankerous and wholly repellent alcoholic priest, in the classic sitcom Father Ted (a part he had mixed feelings about, but which he performed with absolute commitment).
 Kelly died exactly 18 years to the day after his co-star Dermot Morgan, who played Father Ted.
Here are the two of them in a scene in which Ted valiantly attempts to extend Jack's four-word vocabulary (drink, feck, arse, girls) ahead of a visit by a group of bishops. (In the event, Jack masters his new phrase and greatly impresses one of the bishops with his acute insight, while elsewhere the idiot priest Dougal unwittingly destroys the faith of another bishop...)

Saturday, 27 February 2016

A Night at the Theatre

On Thursday evening, I found myself in a theatre in a Buckinghamshire town watching a live relay from another theatre - the National in London - of their current production of As You Like It. I was not there from choice, a night at the theatre being a long way from my idea of fun. Still (I consoled myself), at least it wasn't that eighth circle of Hell known as the West End, and it might even be a good production; one must, I told myself as I downed a second pre-curtain snifter, keep an open mind. It is surely quite possible that a theatre director can do justice to Shakespeare, throw new light on his work, bring out subtleties of meaning and characterisation that might escape us text-readers. Let's give this National Theatre As You Like It a chance...
 Alas, my generous frame of mind dissolved with the first sight of the horrific, high-tech, dayglo-coloured, fantastically elaborate set. It was the image of a frantic, strip-lit modern office or call centre, with everyone not hammering away at a computer keyboard engaged in pointless scurrying to and fro (the supernumerary cast was huge - heaven knows what this production cost). And then there was a cleaner mopping the floor - a gormless young man who turned out to be Orlando, for yes, this was, despite all appearances, As You Like It by William Shakespeare.
 A little later, I removed my head from my hands to find the weedy Orlando engaged in a wrestling match with a huge black man, to the accompaniment of cheerleaders, flashing lights and thumping music. And so it went on. Virtually nothing we were shown bore any obvious relation to the lines being spoken, and the modern costumes and bizarre casting (much of it 'colour-blind') made it extremely difficult to work out who was who or what was going on.
 Maybe, I told myself with no great conviction, things will improve when they get to the Forest of Arden. Then, with an almighty crashing and bashing of metal on metal, the entire set was hauled up into the gods and left hanging down to the stage in a tangled mess (with some of the poor supernumeraries still at their posts, obliged to keep still and silent in the shadows). This, I realised, was to be the Forest of Arden, and there the rest of the action played laboriously out. At some point before the final act I retreated to the pub over the road for a much-needed double.
 This As You Like It was, it seemed to me, a classic case of the production entirely overwhelming the work - and even, perversely, rendering much of it incomprehensible. A comedy that demands a light touch and close attention to the words and their delivery has been crushed underfoot up by a director's rampaging ego. God knows it is not the first time this has happened to Shakespeare, and it won't be the last. But why apparently sane people pay good money to go and see it done to our greatest - the world's greatest - poet and dramatist I cannot understand. I can only put it down to the absurd prestige and kudos The Theatre - and Going to the Theatre - have in this country.
 Never mind - Shakespeare of course towers unscathed above everything that is done to his works and in his name. And even in this lamentable production there were a couple of performances I enjoyed - Patsy Ferran's Celia and Paul Chahidi's Jaques. Rosalind too was good, though the modern dress meant that she looked much the same as Ganymede and as herself - Orlando would merely have taken her for Rosalind with a new hairstyle. Thus, as in so many other ways, did the production make a nonsense of the play. I don't think I'll be beating a path to the West End any time soon.

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

The Archers: It's Complicated

Well, it's a funny old world on Facebook, I must say. After years of manful resistance I've finally succumbed, and so far I'm rather enjoying it. The Dabbler is there now, of course, which is the main reason I took the plunge (or 'leap in the dark', as the pro-EU lot would put it).
Today The Dabbler named its three current worst programmes on Radio 4 as You and Yours (agreed, though I do love Winifred Robinson's voice), any sitcom with Lenny Henry in it (to which I would only add any programme at all with Lenny Henry in it) and, er, The Archers. Hmm.
There's always a lot of anti-Archers talk around (mostly from people who don't listen to it), but I think it misses the point. Hard-core listeners like me (it's been in my life for six decades) know perfectly well that a lot of what goes out on The Archers is bad, even very bad, excruciatingly, infuriatingly bad - but that only adds to our listening pleasure. If ever there was a classic love-hate relationship, it's that between The Archers and its serious listeners. We love it because we hate it; we hate it because we love it. It's complicated.
How many times have I vowed never to listen again? After Nigel Pargeter's rooftop plunge, for sure (Wendy Cope has never listened since), and after John Archer's equally unnecessary death, after Ruth Archer's preposterous fling with a cowman, the ludicrous disappearance of Matt, further back the all-Ambridge coach trip to London for Gay Pride, led by Mrs Antrobus (anyone remember that?)... The list is endless, and sometimes I do actually stop listening for a while. But I always come back.
The Archers, unlike any other 'soap' (the term doesn't really apply), has a deep, felt continuity - nothing is forgotten; the past is always present. However ludicrously and inconsistently characters and plotlines swerve around, the gravitational field of this deep continuity always hauls them back. In musical terms, the 'ground' is so strong and persistent that the melodic lines can go where they will. They will come back. And so will we.

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Douglas Slocombe RIP

The last living link with the golden age of Ealing Studios - the great cinematographer Douglas Slocombe - has died, at the age of 103. Slocombe worked on a string of notable post-Ealing films, from The Servant and The Italian Job to three Indiana Jones movies (and, along the way, Polanski's crazy The Fearless Vampire Killers) - but the work of his that he always remembered with most affection and pride was Kind Hearts and Coronets. I wish I'd remembered to mention his brilliant cinematography when I wrote about Kind Hearts a while back...

Waldemar's Renaissance, Kamal's clifftop

This startling image is of one of the figures from a breath-taking terracotta mourning group by Niccolo dell'Arca - the Compianto sul Cristo Morto in Santa Maria della Vita in Bologna. Astonishingly it might date from as early as 1460. This, anyway, was the date plumped for by Waldemar Januszczak in The Renaissance Unchained, which I caught on television (BBC4) last night.
 I always enjoy Waldemar's programmes, not least for his strong views and punchy (to put it mildly) delivery - and his new habit of stumping away from the camera, talking over his shoulder. He speaks entirely in italics and bold italics, with plentiful pauses for breath - 'I don't know about you. But when I look at Renaissance paintings. I like to know what I'm looking at.' Well, quite - and he sets about illuminating what we're looking at by focusing on the context, especially on theology and inconography, rather than on the aesthetics. What does this mean? rather than Isn't this lovely?
 After Piero della Francesca and Fra Angelico, Waldemar makes a change of direction. 'See that snow on top of that mountain?' he says, pointing to a distant mountain top. 'That's not snow at all. It's marble.' And so we're on to Michelangelo, but Waldemar wants to direct our attention to Pietro Torrigiano, the man who broke Michelangelo's nose, and who went on to introduce Renaissance sculpture to England (his posthumous portrait bust of Henry VII in Westminster Abbey is astonishing). Torrigiano, Januszczak contended, was underrated both in his own time and after because he didn't work in the noble medium of marble, but in lowly terracotta. As did Niccolo dell'Arca.
 Thank heavens we still have BBC4. Without it there wouldn't be much home-grown TV to watch.

Talking of television, also last night I caught a news report by that elegant fellow Kamal Ahmed on the subject of - well, you know the subject, it's the only subject just now: 'Europe'. He was standing, Brian Cox style, on top of one of the white cliffs of Dover, while a helicopter circled expensively overhead, filming him as he declaimed his lines. Why the location? Well, apparently the Channel is our border with continental Europe. Who knew?
There are four months of this referendum campaign to go. Four months. It really doesn't bear thinking about...

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Auden: Oxford and Martinis

To celebrate the birthday of W.H. Auden - born on this day in 1907, in York - here is a short (originally rather longer) poem about the place where his literary career began, and which remained part of his inner geography, for good and ill. These descriptive, or rather evocative, poems - of people as well as places - seem to me one of the best and most distinctive parts of Auden's huge output.


Nature invades: old rooks in each college garden
Still talk, like agile babies, the language of feeling;
By towers a river still runs coastward and will run,
  Stones in these towers are utterly
  Satisfied still with their weight.

Mineral and creature, so deeply in love with themselves
Their sin of accidie excludes all others,
Challenge our high-strung students with a careless beauty,
  Setting a single error
  Against their countless faults.

Outside, some factories, then a whole green country
Where a cigarette comforts the evil, a hymn the weak;
Where thousands fidget and poke and spend their money:
  Eros Paidagogos
  Weeps on his virginal bed.

And over the talkative city like any other
Weep the non-attached angels. Here too the knowledge of death
Is a consuming love, and the natural heart refuses
  The low unflattering voice
  That sleeps not till it find a hearing.

[Among Auden the man's more endearing characteristics was his devotion to the six o'clock martini. On one of the few occasions when Richard Wilbur met the older poet, the talk was of martinis:
'Auden had ordered a martini and I had ordered a martini, and we talked about martinis, and we discussed the fact that if you are devoted to martinis, it's very hard to get a good one away from home. I think that was the essence of our deep conversation, but it was heartfelt.'] Cheers!

Dabbler News

It's a sad day for the blogscape as news comes that The Dabbler is being mothballed, continuing to exist in other forms but not, alas, as a blog.
I'm sure we'll all miss it; in its prime it was a splendid blog, fizzing with life, and I always enjoyed writing for it. It's good to know the mighty archive lives on, accessible to all and full of great stuff (not least Mahlerman's incomparable music posts). Let's hope a dazzling Dabbler Redivivus will emerge in due course.
Meanwhile, fear not, I have no plans to mothball Nigeness.

Friday, 19 February 2016


'Relax,' said the night man.
'We are programmed to receive.
You can check out any time you like
But you never can leave.'

Can't think why these lines from Hotel California should be going round in my head as I listen to the news from Brussels...

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Roland Collins: Enjoy

Yesterday I dropped in on my favourite commercial gallery, Browse & Darby, to enjoy a retrospective exhibition of gouaches and drawings by Roland Collins. 'Enjoy' is the operative word; these are pictures that exude enjoyment - the direct sweet pleasures of colour, line and design. Think Eric Ravilious working in (opaque) gouache rather than (transparent) watercolour, with the linear vigour of Edward Bawden, and you have some idea of what a Roland Collins picture is like. Collins was born in 1918, fifteen years after Ravilious and Bawden, but worked in the same English landscape/townscape/seascape tradition, with a similar eye for the overlooked details - odd bits of old machinery and signage, fences and gates, fishing boats and old carts, irregularly shaped buildings, neglected corners of town and country and (in particular) quayside.

This tradition, carrying on through the postwar decades regardless of artistic fashion, only began to be rediscovered in the early years of this century, and is now hugely popular - witness the runaway success of recent Ravilious exhibitions and the ubiquity of the Bawden style in graphic design, on everything from fabrics to greetings cards. Roland Collins, happily, lived long enough to benefit from this revival of interest. An exhibition of his work in 2012 at Mascalls Gallery in Kent was a big popular and critical success, and suddenly Collins found fame - at the age of 94! Happily he lived three more years - in good health and spirits - to enjoy it, dying last September at the age of 97.
 There are forty-odd gouaches and some early drawings (very accomplished, but dry compared to the paintings) in the Browse & Darby exhibition. Many of the best paintings are of corners of Whitstable, where Collins lived for many years, in a cottage in which, before the war, a young Brian Sewell and his mother had taken refuge when they had nowhere else to go (his father, the composer known as Peter Warlock, had, according to Sewell, abandoned his mother when she refused to abort him - but that's another, grimmer story). Sadly, there are no pictures of Dieppe in this Collins exhibition, though he painted and drew there every year, following in the footsteps of Walter Sickert. (There's one below, from another exhibition.)
 There really should be a bigger, wider-ranging retrospective of Collins' work in a major gallery - Dulwich would be a good fit. I'm sure it would be a success - what's not to like? His colours sing, his line is springy and sure, his eye for a picture is sharp and distinctive... Meanwhile, if you're interested, I'd urge you to get along to Browse & Darby on Cork Street (before the 26th) and give your eyes a treat. This is the kind of exhibition that you leave with a spring in your step and a song in your heart - the perfect antidote to a dreary London February. And afterwards you can stroll round the corner and admire the long-suffering queues outside the Royal Academy's latest blockbuster, Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse.

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

'Everything, and all at once'

Apologies for the blog silence - these past days have turned out busier than expected, and I don't even have another gem of Derbyshire church architecture to share with you. Next time perhaps...
 Today, I note, is the birthday of that fine poet Peter Porter, who would have been 86 today. He died less than six years ago, and seems in danger of being undeservedly forgotten, perhaps because he was urbane, allusively erudite, sometimes apparently frivolous, and prolific, making the writing of poetry seem easy. These are attributes that tend to work against a poet's posthumous reputation, at least in this country. What public there is for poetry here seems to prefer the overwrought and effortful - Dylan Thomas, Ted Hughes - or the unapologetically populist: Betjeman and lesser light versifiers. In the space between, little thrives in the shade of the simultaneously great and popular Larkin, and it's hard to believe that he is likely to have a successor any time soon. (Geoffrey Hill, our greatest living poet, will of course endure, but even in death will surely never be popular.)
 Porter, then. I've written about him before - for example, on his wonderful An Angel in Blythburgh Church and this poem inspired by a Renaissance portrait. He was a great friend of and influence on his fellow Australian Clive James, who wrote that Porter's poetry 'had everything, and all at once. It was classicism in terms of the modern age, and the modern age seen in terms of the whole of history. It was a world in itself, but intimately connected to the world we were living in: connected by bonds of slang, wit, form and rhythm.' Porter himself took as his watchword some lines of Auden's (another suspiciously prolific and urbane poet):

'Be subtle, various, ornamental, clever, 
And do not listen to those critics ever
Whose crude provincial gullets crave in books
Plain cooking made still plainer by plain cooks, 
As though the Muse preferred her half-wit sons; 
Good poets have a weakness for bad puns.' 

Here is  Porter in short (and serious) form, in a tight twelve-liner that deftly flips a bright image from Chagall over onto its dark side. It's seldom a good idea to trace straight lines from life to work, but Porter had plenty of experience of tragedy in his life, including his mother's sudden death when he was still a child, and his first wife's suicide. 'The bride is shrouded by her train' indeed...

A Chagall Postcard

Is this the nature of all truth,
The blazing cock, the bride aloof,
The E-string cutting like a tooth,
The night that crows?

The cock has seen the standing grain,
The bride is shrouded by her train,
The violin is strung with pain,
A cold wind blows.

From earth to sky the cry ascends,
What breaks will threaten where it mends,
Proud lovers end as pallid friends,
These feed on those.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Gallivanting Again

It's all go - I'm off to the (other) Earthly Paradise, Derbyshire, for a few days, then immediately after that to Chester for the funeral of my last remaining uncle, my late mother's brother.  I'll be packing some technology, so might manage a little light blogging along the way...

Monday, 8 February 2016

Two Writers Attend a Hanging

There was an interesting programme on Radio 4 this afternoon about Herman Melville's connections with England - in particular Liverpool, where he lived for a month in 1839, having set sail from New York as a cabin boy on a merchant ship. The programme was, unfortunately, presented by the Liverpool poet Paul Farley, whose hushed, awe-struck Scouse monotone - the epitome of the contemporary 'poetic' voice - is very trying on the ear. Still, he had mustered some interesting material - including the rather startling fact that both Melville and Charles Dickens were among the spectators at a public execution in London in 1849.
 I knew Dickens had something of a morbid fascination with public hangings, but it was a surprise to learn that Melville also attended this one - which was the first double hanging of a husband and wife since 1700. He and Dickens had been among a vast crowd of 30,000 attracted by this novelty, and by the lurid nature of the couple's crime. Frederick and Marie Manning - a shifty publican and a Swiss-born former lady's maid - had murdered a wealthy friend who was also Marie's lover, stolen what they could of his money, then double-crossed each other. A broadsheet account of their crimes reportedly sold something like two and a half million copies (and Dickens had Marie Manning in mind when he wrote the character of Hortense in Bleak House).
 Melville recorded in his diary that he and a companion paid half a crown each for a good rooftop view of the hanging. It was, he concluded, 'all in all, a most wonderful, horrible, & unspeakable scene'. Dickens, who was with his friend the illustrator John Leech and also secured a good viewpoint, expressed himself at much greater length in a forceful and highly indignant letter to The Times, describing and deploring the behaviour of the crowd in the most colourful terms, and calling for executions to be conducted in private rather than in public: 'I believe that a sight so inconceivably awful as the wickedness and levity of the immense crowd collected at that execution this morning could be imagined by no man, and could be presented in no heathen land under the sun,' etc, etc.
There was surely an element of humbug - or perhaps of disguising from himself his own guilty pleasure - in Dickens's indignation, but no doubt his letter played a part in the eventual abolition, nearly 20 years later, of public hangings. The fact that not one but two great novelists should have been present as paying spectators at a public hanging one November morning in 1849 should remind us that the past is indeed a foreign country.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Yarts Update

Opening my email inbox this morning, what should I find but a follow-up mail from 'Joel from Artsy', reaching out to me again! 'Hi Nige,' he writes. 'Just checking to see if you received my last email. We'd love to hear back from you!'
No, Joel - I really don't think you would...

Friday, 5 February 2016

Je Suis Circonflexe - et Nénuphar aussi

That Laputan institution the Académie Française has been at it again, with the usual chaotic results. The impending loss of the circumflex - that dinky little hat that is everyone's favourite (and can be helpful in translating into English, as it often denotes a missing 's') - is causing particular outrage, as well it might. Most of the other changes seem either pointless or mad. 'Ognon' for 'oignon' - what's that about? And one in particular seems rather sad - 'Nénuphar' (water lily), one of the most beautiful words in French, is to become 'Nénufar' for no good reason at all.
 'Nenuphar' is a word that has its place in English poetry - in Oscar Wilde's overwrought poem The Sphinx, a high water mark of Decadent verse:

      'Or did huge Apis from his car
           Leap down and lay before your feet
           Big blossoms of the honey-sweet
       And honey-coloured Nenuphar?'

Wilde owed the rhyme to his young friend and admirer Robert Sherard, who suggested it when Oscar told him of his struggle to find a suitable 'ar' rhyme for this particular quatrain of The Sphinx. Sherard was touchingly proud of his contribution, writing that 'On the day when I had found 'nenuphar' for the wanting rhyme, I was made as proud by his thanks as though I had achieved great things in literature.' Which he never did; Sherard's chief claim to fame is that he was the first biographer of Oscar Wilde (The Story of an Unhappy Friendship, privately printed in 1902) - a subject to which he frequently returned. But he was also 'the man who thought of Nenuphar'.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Dru Drury Day

It's time for an anniversary, and today's is that of the pioneering English entomologist Dru Dury, born on this day in 1725. (A shame he wasn't a Doctor, then he'd have been Dr Dru Drury.) The illustration above, by the great Moses Harris, is from Drury's 'Opus entomologicus splendissimus', Illustrations of Natural History.
 Drury, a successful and wealthy goldsmith (and father of 17) with a royal warrant and a shop on the Strand, spent much of his spare time amassing and describing a huge collection of insects from around the world, including more than 2,000 species of Lepidoptera alone - this at a time when there were thought to be no more than 20,000 insect species in total. It is said that when the Danish entomologist Fabricius visited England, he inspected Drury's collection with 'as much glee as a lover of wine does the sight of his wine cellar well stocked with full casks and bottles'.
 As well as paying others to collect specimens for him from around the world - issuing precise instructions and paying a standard rate - Drury enjoyed collecting for himself, mostly in Middlesex and the still rural suburbs of north London, but with excursions into Surrey, Sussex, Kent and Epping Forest. His diaries speak of 'Swallowtails very plentiful' around Warnham in Surrey, and 'Black Veind white Butterfly [now extinct] plentiful and fine' in Epping Forest. A reminder of the wealth of butterfly life in England in the 18th century - a wealth that lasted well into the 20th century.
 Drury died at the ripe old age of 79 and was buried at St Martin's-in-the-Fields. When his mighty insect collection was sold a couple of years later, it fetched barely £600 - less than a sixth of what he spent on it. Ah well, it was never about the money...

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Back to the Yarts

Oh, the things one comes home to - some very welcome, like the early spring flowers in the garden, and one's own bed; some tiresome, like the News, and a mighty heap of post, including six apparently identical letters from HM Revenue & Customs telling me my Tax Code for the year. And, in my inbox, an email titled 'reaching out about' and emanating from one 'Joel from Artsy'. Suspecting a prank, I opened it, and discovered it was, alas, entirely serious.
 'Artsy' is an arts website dedicated to publicising the contemporary Yarts in all their glory, and 'Joel' claims that, 'while researching Zaha Hadid', he had come across my page. What page? His link led me to Nigeness for July 2008, in which month I presciently announced the death of Labour, but did not, as far as I can see, make any mention of Zaha Hadid. Indeed, I believe the only time I've mentioned the Camilla Batmanghelidjh of architecture (as Malty calls her) was in a recent post about a visit to Haddon Hall, where 'all was as I remembered it, apart from a bizarre object plonked in the middle of one of the rooms. Clad in a grubby, hideously coloured textile (a kind of Seventies mustard yellow) and resembling a disassembled delta-wing aircraft, this was, I learnt, a sofa designed by Zaha Hadid. How anyone would contrive to sit on it I have no idea; why anyone would buy it and put it on display, still less.' 
No wonder Joel felt the urge to 'reach out' to me, drawing my attention to Artsy's very wonderful Zaha Hadid page, and urging me to 'spread the word' about it. Consider it spread, Joel.
 And now, thanks to the News, I learn that Zaha Hadid has won the RIBA's Gold Medal. And that the 'pop artist' known as Kaws has been allowed to inflict a number of his gigantic and disgusting 'sculptures' on the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Will Gompertz seemed delighted, but then he always does. Hey ho - life goes on...


Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Waking to Pym

I return from the Antipodes, wake after an epic 13-hour sleep (where am I? What time of day is this? What season? etc) and find that my review of Barbara Pym's Quartet in Autumn is on The Dabbler...