Thursday, 23 October 2014


Quotations have their uses. Without them, according to Wodehouse, any conversation between chaps would be nothing but an endless succession of 'What ho's. Oddly, these days, they are increasingly becoming an element of interior design, gracing the walls of pubs and restaurants. Pubs, that is, of the kind that feature living-room furniture and by-the-yard books, where a few quirky, perhaps 'thought-provoking' quotations on the wall represent another short cut to 'character' and 'charm', though their sourcing probably owes less to wide reading than to the quote troves of the internet.
 Now, it seems, it's spreading. Yesterday I noticed a florist's stall whose canopy was embellished with aptly floral quotations. One of them was this: 'To be overcome by the fragrance of flowers is a delectable form of defeat' - Beverley Nichols. The fey quotation is all too characteristic of Nichols in whimsical mood.
 I first came across the curious figure of Beverley Nichols in the course of my assiduous childhood reading of my mother's Woman's Own magazine. By this point in his career, Nichols was reduced to writing soppy stuff about, mostly, cats (there was even a Beverley Nichols Cat Calendar) - a sad plight for one whose literary career had begun with such golden promise. He published his first novel, Prelude, while still at Oxford (editor of Isis, president of the Union, etc), with two more, Patchwork and Self, swiftly following and establishing him as the bright rising star of the literary scene.
 A terrific charmer and networker, Nichols soon knew everybody, from the highest of high society to the wider world of literature and showbusiness, and was for years extravagantly praised by friends and critics alike (they were often one and the same). Well-paid journalism, successful stage plays and books galore followed (he totted up 60 and more in his writing career), and Nichols scored another massive success with Down the Garden Path (illustrated by his friend Rex Whistler) and its various sequels. However, after the war, he seems to have somehow run out of steam and/or gone out of fashion, and so began the descent to winsome jottings in women's magazines - though the books kept on coming, and he achieved one final blaze of glory (of a kind) in 1972 with Father Figure. In this startling book, he described how he killed his alcoholic and abusive father. Whimsical it wasn't.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

A Nasty Piece of Work

Born on this day in 1870 was that singularly nasty piece of work, Lord Alfred Douglas, Oscar Wilde's 'Bosie'. His appalling treatment of Wilde, both during and after their relationship, is notorious, and Wilde's tolerance of it must be put down, I suppose, to an extreme and tragic case of blind love or  amour fou. The literary landscape and the whole cultural life of England might have been very different had Oscar never met Bosie, had the scandal and the trial never happened...
 Douglas's excesses after the Wilde years (when he was happy to denounce Oscar as 'the greatest force for evil that has appeared in Europe during the last 350 years') are perhaps less well known. One astonishing example came in the course of his editorship of a magazine called Plain English, devoted largely to vicious anti-Jewish propaganda (blood libel, Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, etc). In its pages he accused Winston Churchill of falsely reporting that the British fleet had been defeated at Jutland. His motive, Douglas alleged, was to bring about a crash in British securities, enabling a cabal of Jewish financiers to buy them up cheaply. Churchill's reward was to be a houseful of furniture, to the value of £40,000. Happily, Lord Alfred was found guilty of libel on this occasion and sentenced to six months in prison. While there, he wrote his poetic testament, In Excelsis (cp De Profundis), but  was obliged to leave it behind when he was released. He claimed afterwards that his health had been ruined for life by sleeping on a prison bed without a mattress.
 When Douglas eventually died, in 1945 in Hove, his funeral was attended by only two people - one of whom, according to his son, was the actor Donald Sinden, who himself died last month. He was probably the last living link with the egregious Lord Alfred.

Monday, 20 October 2014


As the Dylan Thomas centenary year grinds on, it's good to see that some of his most characteristic works of the imagination - the bouncing cheques that littered his path through life - have come up for auction. If ever a cheque was destined to be returned by the bank, it was one signed 'Dylan Thomas'. A fine piece of Welsh canniness on the part of the landlord to keep these specimens back, rather than throw them away. He should have got him to sign a few beermats as well - or maybe he did...

Sunday, 19 October 2014

'Mischievous commonplaces'

'There is already an abundance, not to say superabundance of writers who are able to express in an effective manner the mischievous commonplaces which they have to say.'
That's John Stuart Mill, rebuffing a request for support from the gloriously named Neophyte Writers' Society [as quoted in The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters]. And if he was right then, he'd be even righter now when, in an age of mass media and open-access electronic media, we are afloat on an ever widening sea of inane verbiage and 'mischievous commonplaces'. In any age, only a tiny - and ever dwindling - portion of what is being written is far above the level of tosh, and virtually all, even of the most respectable and articulate of it, will be deservedly forgotten within a short space of time.
 Anyone who has spent much time in a large library with historic holding will have come to this realisation, as they discover shelf after shelf, stack after stack of works published by respectable houses, doubtless in a hopeful, even triumphant spirit, only to fall into more or less instant oblivion, to survive only in a few obscure warehouses of the past, unread and meaningless to all but the occasional scholarly specialist. And these are the relatively spare and worthy relics of the age of print. What an infinitely vaster field of dust and delusion is represented by the exponentially growing archive of the electronic age...
 Yes, there is no virtue - and perhaps much mischief - in encouraging people to write. The likelihood is that the few worthwhile writers will persevere regardless; we are better off without the rest. In particular, those who believe themselves to be writing poetry should be firmly disabused, as is regularly proved on various Radio 4 'poetry' programmes week after week.
 Meanwhile, of course, I carry on writing.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Picking Up Prints

I just picked up some prints from the chemist's - and realised, as I did so, how long it's been since I felt the particular excitement of handling a package of photographs I'd taken but hadn't seen. I guess it's one of those once familiar experiences that is dying out fast. In my case it only happened because we found ourselves in Nice without a camera or a decent mobile phone between us. When I spotted a single disposable camera - probably the only one in town (they're dying out too) - at the till of a minimarket  I snapped it up, and set about using it to create some kind of record of the short holiday.
 I handed the camera in at Boot's two days ago and, as it was Boot's, I knew that picking up the prints was unlikely to be straightforward. For many years this chain chemist seems to have operated a strategy of selecting counter staff for their skills in conversing among themselves, getting hopelessly confused, walking around looking puzzled and wandering off on mysterious errands, rather than for any till-related abilities.
 Two staff were on the photographic desk, each of them, predictably enough, caught up in some fantastically complex customer problem that looked likely to last for much of the afternoon. One of them, however, soon became free - well, freeish; she couldn't actually attend to me until she'd been given a number and punched it in to the till. This task having twice defeated her, her colleague came to her aid, the number was duly punched, and I handed in my collection slip, which was promptly scanned with a bar-code reader. After that, the assistant seemed quite at a loss and stared uncomprehendingly at the slip for some while before turning to the alphabetically arranged ranks of prints behind her. She began in the Ts - which, as my surname begins with an A, didn't seem such a great idea. I directed her attention towards the As, and, when I had explained the situation, she delved among them - with (you're probably ahead of me here) no success.
 Her colleague again came to her aid: the prints, she said, might be in the basket. The basket was in a storeroom behind the scenes, to which access could only be gained by punching a numerical code into a keypad. After several attempts at this, the assistant called for her colleague, who once again went to her aid. 'She's got a problem with numbers, that one,' she sighed good-humouredly. Both of them then disappeared into the storeroom for some while. Much to my surprise, when at length they emerged they had found my prints!
 As always, actually opening the exciting package and seeing the prints was a disappointment. Disposable cameras do have their limitations; indeed, they have little else.  

Thursday, 16 October 2014


It's time for a picture - and this one is by way of marking the birthday of the great Edward Ardizzone (born 1900, in Tonkin of all places, in what was then French Indo-China). Ever since I first came across his illustrations in childhood, I've loved Ardizzone's delicate, instantly recognisable style - a style that belongs as much to the 18th century (particularly Rowlandson) as to the 20th. Whatever his subject - and he was a prolific war artist, at home and abroad - there is a sense of good cheer and enjoyment of the world behind almost everything Ardizzone drew. He was a lover of rounded forms and rounded women, and a devotee of that great institution, the English public house. Some of his best informal work was done in the pubs of  Maida Vale, works full of keen enjoyment for every aspect of pub life (he was the perfect choice of illustrator for Maurice Gorham's The Local). The image above shows Home Guards at the Local - it's one of many Ardizzones at the Imperial War Museum. And isn't that Private Frazer ('We're all doomed!') leaning on the bar?

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Why Are We Here?

If (and it's a big if) I've learnt one thing in 40 years of marriage, it is that Mrs N must have her science documentaries, and while she watches them I must maintain silence and try to keep the incredulous snorts and head-shaking to a minimum (not easy). Last night it was ever-smiling, ever-awestruck moptop physicist Prof Brian Cox and his Human Universe, this week posing the question Why Are We Here? Quite rightly, Cox did not address this question (which is a religious/philosophical one if it's anything) but set about answering another one: How Come We Got Here? What chains of causality culminated in Us, here and now? 'The life of the Universe,' he declared at one point, 'is just like a game of cricket.'  I see - that would explain a lot...
 Soon he was edging back to his favourite subject, the one that seems to strike most awe into him, however many times he returns to it: those few basic Laws of physics and those Numbers (neither of which exist in themselves) that explain Everything.
 How did it all begin? Cox favours the theory of Inflation - 'eternal' Inflation, no less (eternal?) - which, as he explained it, seems to rely on the presence of some form of energy to set it in motion, i.e. yet again the Something from Nothing conundrum is sidestepped (energy is surely Something, and was Before). Inflation  necessarily implies the creation of a multitude ('infinite' no doubt) of Multiverses, each slightly different. We're the lucky ones - the Human Universe is the 'winning ticket' in the Multiverse lottery. It is also 'inevitable'. 'You are,' concludes Cox, 'because you have to be.' Or in other words (to the tune of Auld Lang Syne) 'We're here because we're here because we're here because we're here. We're here because.... etc, etc.'