Wednesday, 2 September 2015

A Hampstead Jaunt

Yesterday I took a walk in that 'suburban Nirvana' (as Wilkie Collins called it), Hampstead Heath - a Nirvana that seems much more heavily wooded and overgrown than when it was a haunt of my misspent late youth. Our aim was to visit Kenwood to see the paintings, and we did at length emerge from the suburban jungle to the prospect of its dazzling white facade above a sweep of green and a fine lake. Sitting on a bench on the verandah at the side of the house was a familiar figure - Julian flippin' Barnes. That's Hampstead for you. His legs were crossed and he was earnestly scrutinising a folded page torn from a newspaper - probably doing his Sudoku...
 We left him unmolested, entered the house, and had just finished touring the upstairs rooms - portrait, portraits, more portraits - when suddenly the alarm started sounding, urgently and insistently, with an automated male voice ordering us repeatedly to leave the building by the nearest exit. This was all getting a tad surreal. Happily, after mustering outside the building, we were all allowed back within ten minutes or so, to be informed that it was only a drill. So we were able to linger long before Kenwood's astounding Rembrandt self-portrait. I'd forgotten that above this wonder hangs Sir Joshua Reynolds' lively self-portrait (in spectacles), and to its right a very fine Portrait of a Lady, thought to be another Rembrandt when it was bought but now known to be by Ferdinand Bol.
 The dim panelled interiors of the Spaniards Inn seemed little changed since John Keats drank there - and, according to the proprietors of the Spaniards Inn, wrote his Ode to a Nightingale in the gardens. By way of contrast, Jack Straw's Castle, the huge ramshackle pub where I laid the foundations for some of the most blinding hangovers of my life, is now spruced up, bland and blank - and the entire building is an up-market fitness centre. O tempora, o mores...

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Dabbler Redivivus

The first day of a new month (and national Random Acts of Kindness Day in New Zealand) and - rejoice! - The Dabbler is back in action, with the latest of Jonathan Law's fascinating Phantom Libraries.

Monday, 31 August 2015

Peppa Pig and the Crisis of Masculinity

Bryan Appleyard recently wrote a fine piece on that pervasive cultural phenomenon of our times, the Hapless (not to say comprehensively incompetent and pathetic) Male - here's a link... Oddly he makes no mention of Peppa Pig - perhaps he's lucky enough never to have encountered the phenomenon.
 Peppa Pig, I should explain, is a hugely popular porcine - hugely popular, that is, with the nation's toddlers. The adventures of Peppa and her family - not to mention all the spin-off merchandise - are everywhere in the toddler's world, and the stories (crudely drawn and lazily written) appear to exert a mysterious fascination, bordering on addiction. My granddaughter - who, as I might have mentioned before, is the most adorable two-year-old on the planet - is, alas, a huge fan of Peppa Pig, and currently can't get enough of a compendium volume containing six stories of Peppa and her family. Heaven knows how many times I and her parents and grandmother have read her these stories - and how we have suffered in the process.
 But where, you might be asking, does the Hapless Male come in? He takes the form of Daddy Pig, a character whose ill-shaven face resembles a scrotum and who represents Hapless Masculinity in excelsis. This is a man - okay, boar - who would be hard pressed to (as the Australians say) find his bum with both hands. Everything he attempts results in epic failure and humiliation. When he takes the wheel of a car, he will instantly get lost and have to be helped out by Mummy Pig or any other (by definition omnicompetent) female who happens to be around. When the oil runs low, he will prove himself unable even to find the engine without the help of a passing woman - okay, sheep.
 On a visit to the funfair, Daddy Pig throws a wobbly when he reaches the top of the helter skelter and proves so shaky afterwards that he can't wield the hammer on the 'test your strength' set-up, so Mummy Pig takes over and instantly rings the bell and wins the prize. Yes, this sad sap doesn't even have physical strength or strong nerves, let alone mental competence or basic life skills. Only once does Daddy Pig demonstrate anything resembling a useful ability: this is in the last story in the volume, when he unexpectedly proves capable of diving to the bottom of the swimming pool to retrieve a lost item for a friend of Peppa's, who thanks him by kicking water into his uncomplaining imbecilic face.
 Happily the adorable granddaughter is also under the spell of Beatrix Potter and Shirley Hughes and Maurice Sendak and an ever growing range of benign literary influences, so it's unlikely Peppa Pig will have made any lasting impression. However, it's come to something, hasn't it, when such a blatantly sexist, emasculating version of family life passes without comment and is regarded as normal, healthy fare for very young minds?

Sunday, 30 August 2015


Let's have a little Sunday music again...
Glenn Gould's favourite composer was not, as you might expect, Bach, but the great Jacobean Orlando Gibbons: 'He is my favourite composer,' declared Gould, 'always has been. I can't think of anybody who represents the end of an era better than Orlando Gibbons does.' Having heard a recording of Gould playing Gibbons (Lord Salisbury's Pavan and Galliard) the other day, I thought I might post a link to more, but nearly all the footage seems to be barred to UK viewers. While I was searching, though, I came across this - a piano arrangement of a Vaughan Williams piece better known in its orchestral version: Hymn-Tune Prelude on Song 13 by Orlando Gibbons. I think it's rather lovely - enjoy (and enjoy the accompanying Peak District landscapes)...

Friday, 28 August 2015

Improved Pubs: Art Deco and Tudor Beams

I'm glad to see that English Heritage has just listed 20 pubs from the interwar period. Products of the 'improved pub' movement that aimed to shake off the Victorian image of pubs as unsavoury drinking dens, these interwar establishments were intended to be wholesome and cheering features of the community, aimed at attracting respectable family men, their wives and even families. They are, most conspicuously, magnificent flights of fantasy - mock-Tudor, mock-baronial, mock-Georgian, mock-rustic, mock-sophisticated - and in this they are very much in keeping with the spirit of the times, and the national character.
 The bald facts of history present the period following the Wall Street Crash as one of prolonged depression, unemployment, unrest and displacement - and yet its built heritage has come down to us as cheery, wholesome, and irremediably fantastic. As well as these fantasy pubs, there are fantasy factories and office buildings, whimsically pretending to be something else - and, above all, that vast acreage covered by mock-Tudor speculative housing, with its streets and avenues and crescents and 'drives', all lined with cosy three-bedroom semis clad in nailed-on 'half-timbering', where the Englishman could believe his (rented) family home was not only his castle but also his country cottage, complete with cottage garden. Domestic fantasy on this scale is, I think, a uniquely English phenomenon, a product of that cheerfully fantastic vein in the English character that is explored so brilliantly by Dickens and, after him, V.S. Pritchett. The pity is that so many of those jolly mock-Tudor semis have now been denatured by replacement windows and roofs and satellite dishes and, above all, by the removal of their front gardens to make parking space for the all-conquering car, whose intrusive presence everywhere has all but put paid to those interwar dreams of rus in urbe.
 But now I'm off to the pub - cheers!

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Eltham: Art Deco and Moats

Yesterday, with the rain still falling, I paid a visit to Eltham Palace, a rare survival in Southeast London of a moated bishop's palace, made the more remarkable by the additions and modifications wrought by the Courtauld family in the 1930s.
The result is a bizarre amalgam, or cut-and-shut, of medieval solidity and Art Deco luxury. Being no fan of the Art Deco style, I wandered around these lavish interiors - recently refurbished - dreaming wistfully of what might have been, had a first-rate Arts and Crafts architect got to work on the restoration and adaptation of the palace.
 Eltham is an English Heritage property, and its presentation is directed firmly at 'engaging' the public, re-creating the experience of being a guest in the house, etc. Which would be fine (or at least ignorable) if they'd been a bit more diligent in the refurbishment of the interiors: there are some jarring touches, such as incongruously new taps in some of the bathrooms, and some odd choices of replacement textiles, rugs, etc. Little remains in the house of the Courtaulds' great art collection (and that little is mostly neither labelled nor mentioned in the guidebook), but there are two Veroneses skulking in the shadows - and one of them is in such dire need of cleaning that it's barely visible.
 Still, on the plus side, the medieval great hall is a wonderful survival, its mighty hammerbeam roof a marvel. We had a good view of it from the minstrels' gallery, while down below in the hall, excited children were whacking each other with rubber swords, egged on by a young would-be actor in medieval clothing - all very English Heritage... And the beautiful moat, the gardens, the setting of the house, the tout ensemble are all fine (though a contemporary critic of the 1930s building likened it to a strangely misplaced cigarette factory, and you can see his point). On a less rainy day, the whole experience would have been, I'm sure, very much more enjoyable.
 The same could also be said of the day's other attraction, a mile or so up the road, hard by the railway, the high-street shops and the A2 - Well Hall Pleasaunce, a fine garden, or series of gardens, dating back to medieval times. With formal layouts, a large walled garden, woodland and water, it's a delightful place for a stroll, though it would of course be a good deal more pleasaunt in dry and sunny weather. Well Hall Place - the tall 18th-century house where E. Nesbit lived - was sadly demolished in the 1930s, but the magnificent moat survives (and beside it a restored Tudor barn). It was in Well Hall Place that Nesbit wrote her greatest works, toiling away into the night to support her husband, the appalling Hubert Bland, their family, two of his by-blows and one of his mistresses. Still, she did find time for the occasional punt on the moat.


Monday, 24 August 2015


On a grim day of siling rain and livid skies, it's cheering to note that at least it's Max Beerbohm's birthday - 143 today. Somehow it's always cheering to think of Max - and of how many writers or artists can one say that? He seems to have been - at least in his prime - one of those endlessly likeable people who, in a quiet unshowy manner, make their surroundings and the people around them that bit brighter. This, certainly, is the personality that shines through his writings. The few who disliked him were just the sort of people you'd want to be disliked by: Ezra Pound caricatured him in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley -

'The sky-like limpid eyes,
The circular infant's face,
The stiffness from spats to collar
Never relaxing into grace;

The heavy memories of Horeb, Sinai and the forty years,
Showed only when the daylight fell
Level across the face
Of Brennbaum "The Impeccable".' 

And Malcolm Muggeridge, who cordially loathed Beerbohm, also identified him as Jewish - and homosexual to boot. Max, to his regret, was not Jewish ('That my talent is rather like Jewish talent I admit readily... But, being in fact a Gentile, I am, in a small way, rather remarkable, and wish to remain so'), and his sexuality remains terra incognita, though his long marriage to the American actress Florence Kahn seems to have been happy enough, despite (or because of?) their sharply contrasting temperaments. What's more, he married again shortly before his death at the age of 83.
 As a young boy, Max attended a day school run by a Mr Wilkinson, who, Beerbohm later said, 'gave me my love of Latin and thereby enabled me to write English'. Indeed. If Latin were still taught routinely in schools, the standard of written English would surely be a good deal higher.