Friday, 30 January 2015

Another Bryson Footnote

I've been dipping again in Bill Bryson's big brantub of miscellaneous knowledge, At Home: A Short[!] History of Private Life. Last night I found a splendid footnote relating to Edwin Chadwick, the Victorian social reformer who overhauled the Poor Laws and did much to improve public health by way of sanitation (as this note was appended to the chapter about bathrooms, it was unusually relevant). Chadwick's father James was something of a political revolutionary, an associate and supporter of Tom Paine. He also taught music and botany to the scientist-to-be John Dalton. His other son, Edwin's brother Henry, emigrated to America at the age of 12, went into sports writing and became the 'Father of Baseball', codifying the rules of the game and devising the box score (adapted from the cricket scorecard). Thus James Chadwick, an obscure figure in himself, was a living link between Tom Paine, modern atomic theory (via Dalton), modern sanitation, and the game of baseball. Bryson could actually have taken it back a generation to John Wesley, by way of James's father Andrew, a close friend of Wesley's. From Father of Methodism to Father of Baseball...

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

More than Enough

Last night's BBC News coverage of the 70th anniversary commemoration at Auschwitz was moving, despite rather than because of the best efforts of anchorman Huw 'Solid mahogany' Edwards and Fergal 'There will be tears' Keane. The images, and the words of the survivors and their families, were sufficient.
 As the Holocaust passes from living memory - and it won't be long now - so memory fades into Remembrance, with its tendency to ritualised sentimentality, easy attitudinising and airy platitudes. In the face of such horrors as the Shoah, plain words are surely best. Plain words precisely placed and weighted, as in this poem by Geoffrey Hill...

September Song

born 19.6.32—deported 24.9.42
Undesirable you may have been, untouchable   
you were not. Not forgotten   
or passed over at the proper time.

As estimated, you died. Things marched,   
sufficient, to that end.
Just so much Zyklon and leather, patented   
terror, so many routine cries.

(I have made
an elegy for myself it   
is true)

September fattens on vines. Roses   
flake from the wall. The smoke   
of harmless fires drifts to my eyes.

This is plenty. This is more than enough.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Turning the Clock Back

There was a time, not so long ago, when the railway station clock was a byword for accuracy and reliability - indeed, in the 19th century, it played a major part in spreading standard national time across a land where the time of day had hitherto been a rather approximate affair, decided locally. Every station had a conspicuous clock by which you could, back in those clockwork days, confidently set your watch. But now we live in an electronic age and, bizarrely, station clocks are very much less reliable than they were. Of the stations I use regularly, one has a clock that routinely runs about five minutes slow (no doubt causing a few missed trains), the other has a clock that, while still apparently working, has given up all pretence of telling the time. At my London terminus there are several electronic clocks, all of which seem to be running several minutes slow - while the old 'iconic' clockwork station clock nearly always has the right time.
 This seems very odd. You'd have thought that once you'd powered up an electronic clock it would run with precise accuracy until it lost power. You'd never have to adjust it, let alone wind it up, as we used to have to do in the clockwork days. But no - electronic timekeeping simply can't be relied on. Every mobile phone I've owned has gained time, and one - my alleged 'smart' phone - is now running more than 40 minutes fast after a couple of years in which I've left it to its own devices. Surely the very simplest thing a smartphone is called upon to do is to tell the time - but no, that seems to be asking too much, just as it seems to be asking too much of the new generation of station clocks. Once again we have seen the future - and it doesn't work.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

England, My England

On Christmas Day in 1995, Channel 4's TV treat was a two and a half hour film about Purcell (how times change!). I didn't watch England, My England at the time and had all but forgotten its existence until my friend Susan in New York mentioned that she was watching it on DVD. And now I have done the same...
 England, My England is a film by Tony Palmer, who's always good with composers - but this is no straight biopic, not least because so extraordinarily little is known about Purcell's life; he is even more an 'invisible man' than our other greatest artist, Shakespeare. And England, My England is scripted by John Osborne (who died before he'd finished it; his friend Charles Wood completed it), so it is, as you'd expect, peppered with choleric state-of-the-nation rants. Osborne was determined to draw parallels between the lamentable state of the nation in the reign of Charles II and the lamentable state of the nation during the 'reign' of the Royal Court Theatre, and he sets up an ingenious narrative structure to give him scope to do so. Simon Callow plays an actor who is playing Charles II in a Royal Court production of Shaw's In Good King Charles's Golden Days, which is unsurprisingly bombing. The producer - played by Bill Kenwright as, essentially, himself - is threatening to close it down, but Callow suggests that they stage another play about the period, in fact about Purcell, and he'll write it himself...
 And so we're off. Now the action shifts between the mid-1960s, with Callow as the actor struggling to write his Purcell play, and the reign of Charles II, with Callow as the King, and Purcell - well, Purcell is still a boy and remains so for rather a long time, which is one of the problems. Another problem is that the 1960s Callow is a typical Osborne hero - an angry, ranting, ego-driven male with just enough charm to keep some long-suffering (and barely characterised) women in his thrall. It is when the action shifts to the Restoration era that the film begins to show what it might be - but scenes rarely have enough space to breathe and develop, and this is particularly frustrating when Purcell's music comes to the fore. Just when the thing seems to be coming to life, it's back to the dreary 1960s and Osborne/Callow's dreary polemics - there's even a scene of actor Callow taking part in the Grosvenor Square riots, for heaven's sake. There are some curiously cliched features too: when things are going well between actor Callow and his girlfriend they do a lot of painfully Sixties mock-chasing and prancing about, and, in the Restoration scenes, the characters are forever throwing sheets of paper in the air. Every time you see a character walk on with a sheaf of papers, you can bet your life that within minutes he'll be tossing them in the air like so much confetti.
  It might sound from what I've written so far that England, My England is a massive clunker - but the wonderful thing is that, in the end, it is not. The music and the visuals (as you'd expect with Tony Palmer) are always striking and cleverly interwoven, yielding enough beauty, however fleetingly, to keep you watching. And then things begin to look up when Purcell comes of age. He is played by Michael Ball, who for my money is a hugely talented and underrated performer; he certainly makes a very believable, very human Purcell, an essentially genial and life-loving man who suffers much and dies far too young. The film really comes to life in the last three quarters of an hour, beginning with the ascension of William and Mary - William characterised as a mute imbecile, Mary (played by the very beautiful young Rebecca Front) a vivacious bundle of fun, unable to contain her mirth - England, My England makes no pretence of being a reliable chronicle; it's more of an extravaganza. Now, carried along by the glorious music Purcell wrote for Mary, the film becomes by turns joyful and triumphant and, with Mary's death, intensely sad. At last it engages and involves, breaking free of its awkward structure and taking flight towards an intensely moving climax. It's a bumpy ride, but this odd and fascinating film gets there in the end. After it finished and I'd recovered, I was straight on to Amazon to buy more Purcell.

Friday, 23 January 2015


Here on Nigeness it's become something of a tradition to mark the birthday of the great Edouard Manet (born on this day in 1832), so here's another of his paintings. Called Le Repos, this is an affectionate portrait of his friend and fellow artist, the gifted Berthe Morisot - who persuaded Manet to take up plein air painting, with happy results. Morisot was also Manet's sister in law, being married to his brother Eugene until his death in 1895, which was shortly followed by Berthe's death, of pneumonia, contracted while nursing her daughter Julie. She was only 54, but even so she did better than Manet, who died in 1883 at just 51. But enough of death - enjoy the life and joyful free brushwork in Le Repose, a painting that lives quietly at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015


The latest survey of religious belief in Britain looks to be the usual muddle of the obvious, the mildly surprising and the probably meaningless. Here's a question: What does it mean to believe in God? In English, the construction 'believe in' has two distinct meanings. If I say I believe in democracy or free speech, I am not concurring in the existence of those things, but rather expressing a mental/moral/spiritual alignment, a solidarity, an aspiration. Whereas if I say I believe in fairies or the Loch Ness Monster, I am saying simply that I believe such things exist. It seems to me that to express belief in God is to use the word in the first of these meanings rather than the second. And this must have been even more the case in biblical times and antiquity, when the mere existence of God/ a god/ gods was taken for granted. When Jesus used the construction, 'Those who believe in me will live even though they die', he certainly didn't mean those who believed he existed - he was after all standing in front of them.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Bird Life

As I gaze blearily out of the kitchen window these cold twilit mornings, the early blackbird is always poking about hopefully on the lawn, waiting for the other birds to get busy on the hanging feeders and shower their largesse of flying nut, seed and suet fragments on the ground below. There, the other ground-feeders are soon as work too - the collared doves and wood pigeons, robins, dunnocks, the odd song thrush and jay, the occasional bold magpie or crow. Reliable visitors to the feeders are gangs of starlings and house sparrows, to-and-froing blue, great, coal and long-tailed tits - and, these days, raucous ring-necked parakeets. Quite often a pied woodpecker flies down to hammer away at the suet cake - and these past few days a sleek and handsome male blackcap has been an early visitor to the feeders.
 When I was a boy, blackcaps were regarded as summer visitors, but now large numbers of them manage to overwinter (I first saw a winter blackcap some 30 years ago and was astonished, but now I see them all the time). And that is not the only change in the garden bird population: I would never then have seen collared doves (a rare vagrant then, ubiquitous now), let alone those screeching parakeets; magpies, jays and crow were essentially country birds, not often to be seen in the garden; and long-tailed tits and woodpeckers were less common then than now. As for the losses, the most conspicuous has been the decline in finches - all but the happily thriving goldfinch. Nowadays even a greenfinch or a chaffinch in the garden is almost an event - and I can't remember when I last saw a garden bullfinch. But I am lucky that my particular locality has bucked the downward trend in house sparrow and starling populations... I suppose I've seen half a century and more of changes in garden bird life. What, I wonder, will be in the garden 50 years from now?