Friday, 3 July 2015

Among Middle England

Yesterday to the RHS Hampton Court Flower Show as guests of the excellent Macmillan Cancer Support charity - Uh-oh, I've morphed into Jeffrey Archer. Must be the heat... Fact is Mrs N had a couple of free tickets to the show, courtesy of Macmillan, for which we and our fellow guests had only to be crocodiled to the press tent and submit to a presentation, before being released into the Show. The tent was hot, but the presentation was fine (and there were a few Small Skippers darting about inside, looking for the exit). And then we were free to see what we could of the show.
 The Hampton Court Flower Show is Chelsea for Mr and (especially) Mrs Middle England - on a larger scale than Chelsea and in a stunning location, on the banks of the magnificent Long Water, but not quite a fixed point of The Season, don't you know. Which is fine by me; I always find it immensely heartening to see Middle England enjoying itself, in its quiet, amiable, unassuming way. Hampton Court is a showcase not only of flowers and gardens and all that goes with them but of that sturdy, enduring niceness that is peculiar to Middle England. Decency, fair play, emotional reticence, good manners, leaving others alone and hoping to be left alone in return - there is a great deal, a very great deal, to be said for these social virtues, and all were on display (though display's hardly the word) at Hampton Court. As was the fact that flowers - like dogs and the weather - are among the very few things that help Middle England over the formidable hurdle of talking to people they don't know: 'Where did you get that beautiful Hydrangea?' It's hard to believe there's much wrong with the country - with the world - when among these people (though, alas, one knows otherwise)...

 I see that this day was, in 1976, the hottest day of a famously hot and long-lasting summer - nudging 97 degrees. At Lord's the MCC, for the first time ever, allowed its members to remove their blazers - though not, of course, their ties. I wonder if Jeffrey was there.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Yogurt, Amateurs and Admirals

Well, as I've remarked before, this has so far been one extraordinarily busy retirement - busy not with Work as I used to know it but, infinitely more agreeably, with a ceaseless whirl of family and domestic activity - so much going on that it's all a bit of a blur and I scarcely know what day of the week it is. As anyone who has spent much time with babies and toddlers will know, it's a delightful but draining business, one of the side-effects of which is that the brain turns to yogurt - in my case, strained Greek yogurt, teetering on the brink of expulsion from the neurozone. Add to that the effects of the current stupefying heat and the result is a pretty lamentable state of affairs in the old cerebellum. Indeed I have more than once found myself barely capable of coherent speech; what comes out at the first attempt is a kind of half-formed incomprehensible burble.
 Yesterday, however, I was for a while out of the whirl and taking a short walk on Ashtead Common, in the hope of finding White Admirals, Silver-Washed Fritillaries and even, if luck was on my side, perhaps a Purple Emperor. As I drew near a particular spot where on many years I have seen early Silver-Washed Fritillaries, I saw that an elderly (well, older than me) couple were looking intently at the oak trees and the undergrowth of flowering bramble - surely in the hope of seeing butterflies.
 Usually the only people I see looking for butterflies - and I don't see many anywhere - are rather joyless grey men in grey anoraks with fancy binoculars and cameras. I avoid them. But here today were a couple of kindred spirits - amiable amateurs, happy to look and hope and enjoy. I gave voice and was understood at the first attempt. The husband told me they were hoping to see a Purple Emperor, having had that pleasure a couple of times in previous years. We all looked around us for a while, with no luck on any front - Emperor, Admiral or Frit - before they moved off, still looking. After a while I followed at a distance behind them, on a usually rewarding woodland path - but still with no luck.
 After a while I caught up with them. They too had not been lucky. We commiserated briefly with each other - had we come too early? - and admired the mighty veteran oaks in our view. They told me of some lectures they had been to about Wimbledon and other commons (from which the lecturer had sometimes absented himself to attend to his marital difficulties, leaving a video presentation in his place). We agreed that London is singularly lucky to have so many of these ancient oak-studded commons preserved around its periphery (thanks, very often, to the far-sighted philanthropy of the Corporation of London - those were the days...).
 After we had taken our leave of each other, I headed off on a wide loop back to the railway station - and was rewarded with the sight of first one, then two beautiful White Admirals, one gliding away into the woods, flickering in and out of vision, and the other briefly ahead of me on the path, then out of sight among the trees.


Max again on The Dabbler today - and Oscar...

Monday, 29 June 2015


Well, we can't let the birthday of Slim Pickens (1919) go unmarked. Born Louis Burton Lindley Jr, Slim adopted his stage name when he was a teenage rodeo rider - an activity of which his father strongly disapproved. When the manager of a rodeo told young Louis that there would be 'slim pickings' for him that day, he entered the competition as 'Slim Pickens' (and won himself $400). He was a rodeo rider for 20 years before his film career began, and he immediately became a ubiquitous support actor in westerns - one who could do his own horse-riding stunts. As the archetypal cowboy sidekick (with a Texan-Oklahoman drawl that belied his Californian origins), he appeared in countless horse operas and oaters - but he is chiefly remembered for two comic roles: in Stanley Kubrick's Dr Strangelove, as Major T.J. 'King' Kong, riding a falling atom bomb, whooping and waving his hat rodeo-style - and in Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles, literally breaking the fourth wall in this classic scene.  On close examination some might detect an element of political incorrectness in Brooks' portrayal of the French Mistake dance troupe and its director (the great Dom DeLuise)...

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Looking Up

After a promising start, my butterfly year (and I don't think I'm alone in this, at least in the Southeast) turned seriously disappointing through the late spring and early summer months. I've never known a June with fewer butterflies - even Whites - on the wing, except when skies have been grey and rain siling down. No such weather this year - rather the Southeast has been unusually dry, with plenty of sunshine. However, there have been cold winds blowing stubbornly from the Northwest or Northeast for much of the time, so that it has seldom really warmed up. I guess then - I hope - that the low temperatures are sufficient explanation for the low numbers of butterflies around.
 However things finally seem to be looking up now, with winds from the warm South and a heatwave promised. After a glorious day yesterday, it was cloudy but fairly warm this morning when I took my regular stroll around our little local nature reserve - and was delighted to find the grassy places alive with freshly-emerged Ringlets, those sable beauties that (along with Meadow Browns - also present) are among the few butterflies happy to fly - or rather, in the Ringlets' case, dance - under cloudy skies. And that was not all: as I paused by the lake, a Painted Lady in all its glory flew down and settled on a reed, close enough to touch. I remember, across six decades, my father pointing out to me the extraordinary lapidary beauty of a perching Painted Lady's underwings... A little later, back in the present, it started to rain.

Friday, 26 June 2015

Sentence of the Day

[From Samuel Beckett's The Calmative, one of three nouvelles written around the same time as the Trilogy. A startled stranger asks our narrator, understandably, what is the matter with him...]

'I tried to look like one with whom that only is the matter which is native to him.'

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Max's Savonarola

I've been rereading Max Beerbohm's Seven Men and Two Others. It's a book I've quite often dipped into for a spot of elegantly written good cheer - the adjective 'delightful' could almost have been invented for Max, a great delighter in life and a great passer-on of delight. Seven Men being a collection of short stories, mostly about (imaginary) marginal literary figures of the 1890s, it's a natural for dipping into - but this time I read it right through. I'd forgotten just how funny the last story - 'Savonarola' Brown - is.
 Brown (whose actual Christian name was Ladbroke, taken from Ladbroke Crescent, where his parents lived) devoted his entire creative life (such as it was) to writing a verse drama about Savonarola - a subject chosen entirely for the metrical music of the name. Brown's research on Savonarola was limited to reading an encyclopaedia article on the Florentine firebrand - and far too many other verse dramas - and he kept his poetical labours very much to himself, making slow progress and offering only cryptic clues to what the finished work would be.
 At last Brown achieves four acts, but has no idea how his hero is to die. This rather takes Max (who is present in all these tales) aback. Surely, he insists, 'in a tragedy the catastrophe must be led up to, step by step. My dear Brown, the end of the hero must be logical and rational.'
 'I don't see that,' he said as we crossed Piccadilly Circus. 'In actual life it isn't so. What is there to prevent a motor-omnibus from knocking me over and killing me at this moment?'
 At that moment, by what has always seemed to me the strangest of coincidences, and just the sort of thing that playwrights ought to avoid...'
 Well, you can guess what happened next.
 And so Max inherits the manuscript of Savonarola, and decides to present it to the world in all its unfinished four-act glory, putting as generous a gloss on Brown's efforts as he can.
 It turns out to be a hilarious, quite mad melodrama revolving around the tempestuous relationship between the eponymous fire-breathing monk and the seductive Lucrezia Borgia. It's written in a scrupulously correct iambic pentameter that carries on, never missing a beat, through thick and thin, from exposition

 'Savonarola love-sick? Ha, ha, ha!
  Love-sick? He, love-sick? 'Tis a goodly jest!
  The confirm'd misogyn a ladies' man!
  Thou must have eaten of some strange red herb
  That takes the reason captive. I will swear
  Savonarola never yet hath seen
  A woman but he spurned her. Hist! He comes...'

to would-be emotional outpourings

 '..... Spurn'd am I? I am I.
 There was a time, Sir,  look to't! O damnation!
 What is't? Anon then! These my toys, my gauds,
 That in the cradle - aye, 't my mother's breast -
 I puled and lisp'd at, - 'Tis impossible,
 Tho', faith, 'tis not so, forasmuch as 'tis.
 And I a daughter of the Borgias! -
 Or so they told me. Liars! Flatterers!
 Currying lick-spoons! Where's the Hell of 't then?'

and walk-on appearances by the likes of Dante, Leonardo and Francis of Assisi

 '..... Hush, Sir! 'Tis my little sister
 The poisoner, right well-belov'd by all
 Whom she as yet hath spared. Hither she came
 Mounted upon another little sister of mine -
 A mare, caparison'd in goodly wise.
 She - I refer now to Lucrezia -
 Desireth to have word of thee anent
 Some matter that befrets her...'

The only character excused pentameter is the Fool, who talks in incomprehensible prose when not breaking into hey-nonny-nonny song - until he is fired and turns up again as a Gaoler:

 'Unfortunately I have been discharg'd
  For my betrayal of Lucrezia,
  So that I have to speak like other men -
  Decasyllabically, and with sense.'

'Remember, please, before you formulate your impressions,' pleads Max at the end, 'that saying of Brown's: "The thing must be judged as a whole."' In the absence of Brown's fifth act, Max attempts to provide one himself - one that will make sense of the previous four and bring them to a satisfying conclusion. Oddly, he fails.