Monday, 15 September 2014

The Master

I've been reading The Master by Colm Toibin - a book I'd been vaguely meaning to read for some while. When I spotted it on the shelves of Britain's Best Bookshop (The Bookshop, Market Place, Wirksworth, Derbyshire), I took this as a sign that I should finally get round to it, and I'm not sorry I did. It's a fine example of a hybrid form that embodies biography in the form of a novel - an episodic one in this case, dipping into Henry James's life at various points, each of which also becomes a way into the past, explores the fascinating emotional cross-currents of James's family life, and often throws light on the inspiration of  his works. It's cleverly done (appropriately in the third person and past tense), Toibin catching the subtle modulations of the Jamesian tone very well, with scarcely a false note - indeed, as he acknowledges, the text is peppered with quotation from James's letters and other writings.
 It's a life famously short of incident, one that the Master chose to devote single-mindedly to his Art, but James's very withdrawal from life - especially from human intimacy - itself becomes the subject. There is something chilling, almost pathological, in the way in which 'Henry' repeatedly invites intimacy, then, if it is returned in too great a measure, recoils. We are left in no doubt of the human cost of this, particularly to two vulnerable women who made the mistake of getting too close, taking too much for granted. James's exquisite sensibility, it seems, could only cope with so much. He was more than capable of hardening his heart and turning his back, in the higher cause of his Art. And yet Toibin manages to make him a sympathetic character and to keep us, for most of the time, on his side.
 The novel at least feels as if it stays very close to the facts of James's life and state of mind (in as much as that can be known), and I'm sure it must be a more enjoyable read than any biography - though, having never read one, I may well be wrong. It has inspired me to read more of James's fiction - which I love in its shorter forms but have, to my shame, found all but unreadable in its later doorstop form. Time for another crack at The Wings of the Dove? Or perhaps I'll add that to my bulging portfolio of Retirement Projects...

Friday, 12 September 2014

Sinden, Lear

Dear old Donald Sinden, the fruity-voiced ultimate thespian, has died, just short of his 91st birthday. In his time, Sinden did the lot - stage, films, telly, talk shows, comedy, tragedy, Shakespeare... including, of course, Lear. When someone asked him about the problems of playing Lear, he replied, 'Well, it's a very long time till the first laugh.'
 Sinden probably had enough sense to realise that Lear is just too big for any mortal actor - though they all feel obliged to tackle it, these days in early middle age. Best not get too pompous about it. I remember Michael Gambon once assuring an interviewer that playing Lear was 'a piece of cake'. All you have to do, he confided, is 'stay down stage, shout, wave you arms a bit - and never take your eyes off the bloody Fool.' Wise words.

Thursday, 11 September 2014


The workstorm rages on, but here's a little retro fun to lift the spirits (sorry if you have to endure an ad before it starts).

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Sonnet Time

I am work-whelmed this week - but there's always time for a sonnet. Here's one by Philip Larkin, in the Italian form, with the turn, unusually, after the ninth rather than the eighth line. It proceeds steadily, building up a quiet, static scene from provincial life - a scene imbued with the seedy melancholy of a Sickert interior - until, at the very end, a sudden swerve of tone changes everything and delivers a very different kind of poem.

Friday Night at the Royal Station Hotel

Light spreads darkly downwards from the high
Clusters of lights over empty chairs
That face each other, coloured differently.
Through open doors, the dining-room declares
A larger loneliness of knives and glass
And silence laid like carpet.  A porter reads
An unsold evening paper.  Hours pass,
And all the salesmen have gone back to Leeds,
Leaving full ashtrays in the Conference Room.

In shoeless corridors, the lights burn.  How
Isolated, like a fort, it is --
The headed paper, made for writing home
(If home existed) letters of exile:  Now
Night comes on.  Waves fold behind villages.

There's a similar - and similarly effective - swerve towards the end of Larkin's Money.

And the Royal Station Hotel is now the Mercure Hull Royal Hotel, which, 'with its iconic status as one of the central landmarks of the city, offers the splendor of Victorian architecture with a dramatic, luxurious and modern twist in decor and style.' How delightful.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

When I Was Inorate

A new word swam into my ken last night. It will probably be swimming out of it again fairly soon, as it has little to commend it. The word is 'oracy', and according to Wikipedia it has been current among educationists since the Sixties. I heard it on the Radio 4 programme Word of Mouth, where someone - presumably an educationist - was saying what a fine thing it is. It represents the 'speaking and listening' element in education - the element that used to be quite a substantial component of the GCSE English exam. Since it was dropped, GCSE English grades have fallen markedly, suggesting that, as was suspected, it was not being 'robustly marked'.
 It was different in my day, when it was actually possible to fail Spoken English (which counted for 20 percent of an English Language GCE) - I know, because I managed to do so. I'm not quite sure how I did it; it probably happened because I didn't have a clue what was going on (as was often the case, and indeed still is). I certainly took against the examiner, couldn't understand why he was asking me such fatuous questions, and firmly dead-batted all his attempts to get the conversational ball rolling. That was probably what did for me - a fundamental lack of oracy. I was, indeed, inorate.

Monday, 8 September 2014

A Roller and a Forecast

It's not often you see a Rolls-Royce with a commercial logo on the side - in fact, for me, it was a first. But there it was, negotiating a narrow back street in Kensington - a big black Roller, highly polished and looking fresh from the showroom, with the words 'expensive  properties. com' emblazoned over the side doors. I wondered briefly if this was some kind of elaborate situationist satire, but no, it was serious, as indeed was the demeanour of the immaculately turned-out chap behind the wheel. This company with the refreshingly honest name does indeed exist, selling properties whose USP is that they are expensive, just that - not luxurious, desirable, beautiful, just expensive. Very, very expensive. Prices start at £5 million, if you're interested...

Meanwhile, as this Scottish referendum business promises to dominate the news for the next ten dreary days (and, heaven help us, way beyond), it's time for Old Nige to utter his forecast. I  predict that the Scots will vote narrowly to stay in the Union - so narrowly that the rest of the UK will be obliged to appease the Nats by giving them just about everything they wanted, but without the risks and responsibility that would have gone with independence. And Tory England will continue, for most of the time, to find itself lumbered with governments it didn't vote for, beginning with a Milliband 'victory'. Chin up, eh?

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Only in France

Here's an amusing story from France - booksellers are refusing to sell a runaway bestseller, and on principled grounds. Only in France... Indeed the whole story is an 'only in France' one - right through from the wildly improbable elevation of the plainly hopeless Hollande to the Presidency, the catastrophic reign that has seen his popularity plummet to levels almost impossible to measure, certainly way below ISIL - and, on top of that, the tumultuous (and even more improbable) love life, which truly does not bear thinking about, but has now been laid bare for all to read by the vengeful fury Valerie Trierweiler. Well, 'chapeau' to those booksellers, I guess - it's hard to imagine anyone publishing a bestseller so deplorable that British booksellers would refuse to stock it.