Tuesday, 30 September 2008

In 2000

Something happened on this day in 2000 - but what? According to the BBC, it was this. But according to Melanie Phillips, it was a case of this. If you read Phillips' piece, you might well wonder why the BBC baldly presents its account as historical fact, without any mention of any doubts ever having been raised. Legends are stronger than facts - and sadly, in this case, far deadlier.

Hoover Havoc

We've all heard stories of cleaners pulling a plug out of a socket so they can plug in the Hoover - and inadvertently closing down a computer network, a heart-lung machine, or Britain's nuclear defences or some such. Now it seems the terrible blaze that gutted the Cutty Sark was also down to a vacuum cleaner. Ban them, I say - I've never liked them, noisy brutes...


Well I am still reeling (and coughing and somewhat hungover) after the events of yesterday. I was down in Devon for the highly improbable reunion of four old friends, two of whom I had not seen for 35 years (nor had any contact with til a few months ago). The extraordinary thing was that, whereas time and life had wrought huge changes on three of us, making us in many ways barely recognisable as the people we once were, one of us - the one we were all visiting - had remained, beneath the ravages of time and booze and other ravagers, exactly the same person he always was, living exactly the same life in exactly the same surroundings (though he has carried on this life against Indian, French, Spanish, Afghan, Dutch etc backgrounds for years at a time). With few ties and even fewer possessions, he looks out on life with amused detachment, takes it as it comes, forms a community from whatever people are around him, and, eventually, moves on. He is probably the future (and of course he doesn't work).
In the midst of this epochal reunion, I had news of a birth (a girl, to a friend now living in France) and a death (my last surviving aunt, of whom I have very fond memories) - and, out there in the big world, civilisation ended. Typical - it would happen when I was down in Devon, wouldn't it...

Sunday, 28 September 2008

By the Way...

I'm going down to Devon for the day tomorrow. Normal blogging will, I trust, resume on Tuesday.

Punching Bronzino, Punching Coe

An amusing report on damage to works of art in our great galleries shows clearly enough who are the repeat offenders - staff, removal people and over-refreshed 'corporate clients'. Of the damage done by ordinary visitors, vomiting over a Carl Andre installation seems reasonable enough - even prodding a Barnett Newman - but it would be interesting to know what motivated someone to punch a Bronzino. Florentine mannerism can be pretty tiresome, but all the same...
What I'd like to know is this. If someone had barged into Little Lord Coe when he was running up and down in Tate Britain to launch the Kulturolympiad, and punched him to the ground, would they have been damaging a work of art? Or performing a public service? Or even creating another work of art, and a much more amusing one... The prospect of four years of 'culture' to soften us up for the horrors of 2012 is really too ghastly to contemplate. When I hear the words 'Cultural Olympics' I reach for my sick bag. Whoops - too late - there goes another Carl Andre...

Friday, 26 September 2008

Looking Forward to the Debate...

in best Onion style.

A New Direction in Russian-Venezuelan Relations

I was wondering (as you do) what our old pal Hugo Chavez was up to in Russia, on his second visit since July. Was the oil-rich demagogue furthering world peace by buying weapons off the Russkies with money he'd borrowed off them? No, it seems the purpose of his visit was to boost ties. See, he's already flogged one to the Russian guy - same colour too. Me, of course, I'm boosting cravats...

Questions of the Day

This sucker - is it going to go down? Answers, please, to George Bush.
Will going down on one knee to Nancy Pelosi help? Answers to Hank Paulson.
Is there a way out? Well yes, of course there is - become a teacher...
So the next wave of teachers will be motivated by nothing but the desire to escape the worst effects of the credit crunch by heading for the refuge of a safe job with a taxpayer-funded pension. I'm sure our schools - already, we are assured, the best ever - will become even better.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Public Service Announcement

Time to stock up on snow chains, thermal blankets, shovels and ice picks - the Met Office says we're in for a mild winter.

A Rallying Cry to Les Rosbifs

Disturbing news from France. Heaven forbid the French are going the way of the AngloSaxon snackers - the thought of so many decent restaurants closing down is grim indeed... We must all resolve to go to France at every opportunity, and once there eat in a restaurant at every opportunity, with aperitif, wine and even dessert, and leave a generous tip. I shall be leading the charge in a couple of weeks, when I'm heading for Avignon, DV (or do I mean TGV?).

One to Avoid?

The impending Rothko exhibition at Tate Modern (the world's worst gallery?) looks like being one to avoid. If ever there was an artist whose work is entirely inimical to the jostling crowds, hubbub, craning necks and sharp elbows of a blockbuster exhibition in a modern gallery, Rothko is that artist. Peaceful contemplation is essential, and that is hard to come by even in Tate Mod's Rothko Room, let alone in the melee of exhibition. It was so much better when those extraordinary paintings lived in the peace and quiet of the old Tate...
(By the way, don't you just love that caption under the picture...)

One Year On?

Exactly a year ago today, in another place, I posted this. I only mention it now because the other day I strolled along to the cemetery to see if a headstone had yet been put up. It had, and very fine and dignified it was - just his name and dates and the single word 'Schoolmaster'. But the funny thing is that, unless my eyes or mind were deceiving me, the date given for his death was the 26th September, i.e. tomorrow. It seems they somehow got it wrong. If so, I'm sure he'd have been amused. .

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Conference Report

And behold, the beast that dines on darkness and is fed, whose lifeblood is calamity and woe, rose to his feet refreshed, the dark blood of crisis coursing through his veins, and bellowed, 'I am Brown, devourer of darkness, conqueror of death. What kills you makes me strong. My dominion shall be without end. Look on my wife, ye mighty, and... no, hang on...' (Enter men with white coats and large syringes).

Sylvia and Ted and Edward

I hoiked a volume of Sylvia Plath from the bookshelf the other day, opened it at random and read this. Anguished confessional poetry not being, by and large, my cup of tea, I hadn't read Plath in a long time. But this one - though there's no mistaking the colour scheme - seems to me a very fine poem, compact, poised - tranced indeed - and under perfect control. It seems a shame that a poet capable of such things (and yes, on reflection, I have much more in the back of my mind) has become more of a cause than an artist, the life of the supposed feminist martyr having overtaken the work, admiration or detraction dependent on taking a view of how Ted Hughes treated her. Maybe, in the end, some at least of her poetry will prove strong enough to survive this futile dispute.
Anguished confessional poetry comes in many shapes and sizes. Consider this by Edward Thomas. That is raw anguish, a stark, bald statement painfully wrested from the gravitational pull of Georgianism. The means are pared down to the minimal, staccato and monosyllabic, and all is held in almost impossible tension by the taut structure of short-lined rhyming quatrains. It is breathtaking.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Name Your Poison

Like many, I suspect, I'm still recovering from the nauseating spectacle of weird Millie Band fawning all over weird Gordon Broon - students of body language will know exactly what to make of that display of 'I'm in charge' dominance in the form of fulsome affection. The two of them were horribly reminiscent of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness in their Chuckle Brothers phase. It this is really the best Labour has to offer - two entirely different but equally toxic brands of electoral poison - they are surely doomed. Meanwhile, we are told that there's a great resurgence of the Left (talking of electoral poison) and that the most popular quote around the conference is Boris Johnson's description of Cameron's 'broken society' notion as 'piffle'. Boris, the hero of Labour, eh?
And another thing - entirely unrelated to the above. Why is it that in every report on the inquest of the unfortunate Brazilian gunned down by the cops, his name is given every time in full, slowly and carefully enunciated, with presumably authentic Portuguese pronuniation. Can't he just be called by his surname? And why, come to that, is the inquest being held at the Oval cricket ground? I no longer understand anything.

Monday, 22 September 2008

A Commotion

I was in the garden just now when I heard a mighty commotion overhead. Thinking it was the usual herring gull melee, I looked up with little interest - and it turned out to be a pack of a dozen ring-necked parakeets harrying a sparrowhawk, chasing it clamorously and mith menaces out of the neighbourhood. It must be a pretty alarming experience for an English raptor, quietly going about its business, to be suddenly attacked by a gang of squawking, garish, big-beaked exotica - and those parakeets have an impressive turn of speed. The gang, still harrying vigorously, had disappeared from view in no time. It was something I'd never seen before, but I suspect I shall again...

Birds and Words

Sad, but not unexpected, news on the bird front. Those are all birds I remember from boyhood - not in the suburbs but on holidays. Corn bunting (and indeed reed bunting), grey partridge and cuckoo from stays in Lincolnshire (grandparents); turtle doves from Folkestone, believe it or not, where they thrived in the wooded cliffside gardens. I have seen or heard none of them in years now - though of course, as I've remarked many times before, many species that I rarely saw in those distant days have since become commonplace. There are always compensations.
Happily, this piece points the finger squarely at loss of habitat, only wheeling out our old friend 'climate change' towards the end. This is surely right, as anyone with eyes can attest - the face of the countryside, except where it has been consciously preserved or neglected, is very different now from what it was 40 or 50 years ago. It is the same thing - loss of habitat - that is hurting so many butterfly populations. That and appalling spring/summer weather...
It isn't only birds and butteflies that are endangered. In a transparent publicity stunt, Collins dictionaries have come up with a list of words that they say they intend to drop, while simultaneously launching a campaign to save them. Hmmm... There are, in fact, some fine and useful, if unfamiliar, words in that list. I'd save the lot, and cut back on the rash of worthless nonce words that disfigure every new edition of virtually every dictionary - attended by much brouhaha - only to disappear from the next edition.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Herbert and Chuck

H. G. Wells is 142 today. I've always had a soft spot for him as one of the first writers I discovered a real hunger for. In my very early teens I read avidly all the science fantasies, the earlier novels (before didacticism set in and spoiled everything) and, with especial pleasure, the short stories. I still have the stout red volume of Wells's complete short stories that I was given (at my urgent request) one birthday. I don't know if I would enjoy him now as much as I did then - I rather doubt it - but on recent rereading The Invisible Man and The War of the Worlds came up as fresh and vividly imagined as ever. Nabokov, I seem to recall, was very keen too, especially on The Invisible Man....
As it happens, today is also the 96th birthday of the great animator Chuck Jones (or would be - he only made it to 89). I greatly prefer his animations to Disney's - which seems to be regarded as heresy in some quarters. Jones never gets cutesy and sentimental, and his cartoons just look better and move better. And of course, in addition to Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Wile E. Coyote and the rest of the immortals, Jones also created that 'Citizen Kane of animated film', One Froggy Evening. If anyone can spot a link between H.G. Wells and Chuck Jones with which to round off this post, I'd be most grateful - I'm darned if I can....

Who Are These People?

Here's a cheering story. An unscientific, but telling, survey of 40 randomly chosen people on the streets of Manchester by the Sunday Telegraph (I can't find the story online) , all of whom were shown photographs of the Labour cabinet and other political luminaries, found that only Gordon Brown was recognised by all, while David Milliband scored a meagre 13, Ed Balls a well deserved 4, and large numbers of these political colossi - including Andy Burnham, John Hutton, John Denham and Tessa Jowell - were recognised by nobody at all (despite, in several cases, their scarily bizarre features). One of the people questioned inisisted that these were just random photographs of strangers, while among the bolder guesses were Roger Daltrey (for John Denham) and Barry Humphries (for Paul Murphy)...
This will, of course, do nothing to deflate the massive self-importance of our political 'elite', but they might bear in mind that the next time one of them asks 'Do you know who I am?' the answer will almost certainly be 'No' - or perhaps 'That Roger Daltrey out of The Who?'

Saturday, 20 September 2008

A Shorter Sings

One of those nice short sellers who have been working tirelessly to save the economy from itself explained last night that he and his fellow shorters are 'like canaries in a coal mine'.
Except (he didn't add) that instead of keeling over and dying like canaries, they trouser the money and scarper. An important difference, I think.

Rail News

So now we know. As the Large Hadron Collider closes down for the weekend for engineering works, it's suddenly clear thar 'the greatest scientific experiment the world has ever known' is in fact a railway - it's a glorified Circle Line.
Anyone hear Appleyard on Today? He was good.

Friday, 19 September 2008

Tempus Edax Rerum

This new clock thing is mighty impressive in a slightly crazy way, going far beyond the normal functions of a clock - like, for example, telling the time. It also, it seems to me, has aa nightmarish edge, with that far from merry grasshopper chomping his way through time. Chronophage, though, is a great word...

Good Cheer

In my mission to spread good cheer around the blogosphere in these dark days, I must draw your attention to the fact that today is not only International Talk Like a Pirate Day (Why are we talking like pirates? Because we aaar), but also the 139th birthday of Ben Turpin. They don't make entertainers like that these days (which is probably just as well)...

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Near Death, Near the Ceiling

Here's an ingenious experiment - and a surprising one. By placing those pictures where only someone floating around near the ceiling could spot them, the boffins are entertaining the possibility that someone who is very obviously not floating around near the ceiling, but lying unconscious with eyes closed and brain non-functioning, might somehow be able to 'see' them. In other words, they are entertaining the possibility that the mind might not be local to the brain.
I'm relishing the possibility that they might get 'sightings' of those pictures. I believe it's possible, as there are records of 'hysterical' and hypnagogic conditions in which the sense of sight seems to come quite adrift from its optical location. It would be good, at least, to have a dent put in our idea of our selves as entities seated behind our eyes, looking out on the world - the equation, in other words, of mind with brain and brain with our whole selves.

Go Fourth And...

This time last year, a poll was published that showed even Ming Campbell (remember him) had a higher popularity rating than David Cameron - though of course a much lower one than the all-conquering Gordon Brown, then bestriding the political world like a colossus. A year is a long time... But all is not lost - Prezza and the heavy mob (if you're feeling at all queasy, don't follow that link) have a plan to save Broon and Labour. (The Go Fourth slogan is not one of Prezza's slipups, by the way, but a tremendously witty play on words.) Big John was blustering away on the Today programme this morning - just like old times - and his analysis of the current crisis was typically incisive: It was 'caused by the global'. Of course it was.


I recently acquired, at a knockdown price (thanks, AbeBooks), a copy of Londoners, written by Maurice Gorham (author of the equally desirable The Local and Back to the Local) and illustrated by the great Edward Ardizzone. The illustrations - which are wonderful - are at least half the point of the book, but the text offers fascinating glimpses of London life in the 1950s and before (it was published in 1951). In his introduction, Gorham looks back over how the ways of Londoners changed between the wars and after the second spot of bother, observing, for example, that in the Thirties, 'even in the City you could see tweed' (if only that were still true), and, startlingly, noting a widespread abandonment of hats by both men and women before 1939. This is odd, as in my recollections of a Fifties childhood, men were invariably wearing hats or caps and the bareheaded look seemed slightly louche.
Now, with the brand spanking new model London taxis spontaneously combusting all around us, I'm put in mind of a Gorham anecdote from wartime, when you never knew where the next bomb was going to land. After his cab was rocked by an explosion too close for comfort, a London cabbie remarked: ''E'll do that once too often one of these days.' That's the spirit.

Too Big to Save?

So, as Lloyds TSB gobbles up HBOS, creating one huge megabank (which holds the greater part of the Nige pelf, such as it is), I have one simple observation.
If HBOS was too big to be allowed to go under, this one will be the same with bells on - which means it can basically do what it likes with a vast pool of money, regardless of the consequences. But here's the rub - it might also be too big to save. In which case LloydsTSBHBOS could bring down a huge chunk of the economy with it.
Sorry - no more apocalyptic thoughts from me today. Promise.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

On the Bright Side...

It's Hank Williams's birthday. He would have been 85 today. It still seems astonishing that he was only 29 when he died - he looked 20 years older, he seemed to have lived several lifetimes of heartache (and moments of happiness), and he left behind him a body of work as great and as unshakably classic as any in American popular music. Happy birthday, Hank, wherever you are...

Listening, Responding, Acting

This, probably, is what we should really be worrying about - especially as it's already too late to do much about it. Remember those Heath era power cuts when we were only allowed electricity for so many hours a day? That could well be where we're heading - and/or into hock with those nice obliging Russians...
Meanwhile, my local (Lib Dem ecofascist) council - one of the first in the land to introduce fortnightly collections of household rubbish (this was years ago), only to retreat in the face of furious protests - has now done it again. This year they tried to charge everyone for having their garden waste taken away (previously a 'free' service), charging £35 a year for a kind of green hessian shoulderbag to cram it into. Not surprisingly, there was almost no take-up of this generous offer, the local tips were soon jammed with cars loaded to the gunwales with garden waste, there were furious protests - and, yesterday, a jaunty green leaflet on my doormat informing me that the scheme had been withdrawn. And, of course, claiming the credit for 'Listening, Responding, Acting'.
Join the dots between these two stories, and what do you find? The EU setting ludicrous targets - for 'renewable energy' and for 'recycling' - our government obligingly falling in with their crazy plans, then discovering just how unworkable they are and what deep trouble they've landed us in. Still, it'll be good having my garden refuse taken away 'free' again.

One Week On...

As a man grows older (or indeed a woman) time is supposed to accelerate and start whizzing by at a rate of knots (eheu fugaces etc.), but personally I find the reverse happening. The nearer I draw to my narrow home, the slower are the footsteps of Time. Looking back, a week ago feels like a month, a month like half a year...
Consider this day last week. There we were, congratulating ourselves on having survived those CERN boffins' rash experiment and celebrating Artie Tripp's 64th. Now, one week on, we live in a changed world, it seems, with international finance apparently in meltdown and nobody capable of wresting their gaze from the ghastly spectacle. A week is a long time in... well, in just about anything these days. For myself, I assume a zen-like calm in the face of this particular meltdown, much as I used to do in my youth when in the front seat of a car beside a suicidally, homicidally crazy driver (there were plenty of them in those days). Relax, switch off, what else can you do? Last night the boss of HBOS was on the TV news, dressed in a spectacularly ill-fitting suit and shirt, unkempt, sweating and half-shaven, incompetence coming off him like heat, as he blustered and flustered his way ineffectually through a brief interview. This is worrying, I suppose (I'm a customer) - but it would probably be more worrying if the boss was a supersmooth, suave conman in an immaculate Savile Row suit. Either way - what can you do?
Meanwhile, somewhere under the Swiss-French border, those particles are still gathering speed, all unnoticed by the world... As the man said, not with a bang but a whimper.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008


Sorry - the return to NigeCorp and its attendant, all too familiar woes, after a week of freedom, has put me, temporarily, in a most un-blog-like frame of mind. Normal posting will be resumed soon, I'm sure...

Monday, 15 September 2008

The Big Poem

I pass this on for two reasons: (a) It is very funny. (b) Doesn't that guy look uncannily like Ed Balls? Not that Broon's lot would ever fund such a visionary project...

Motion Blocked

Andrew Motion has been suffering from writer's block, he says. How could he tell? As a poet, he's been blocked his entire career.


As the Church of England issues an apology to Charles Darwin, it's hard to know whether to laugh or cry. More usefully, perhaps, we might apply the Lenin question, Who? Whom? Who is apologisingg here, and to whom? Apparently a self-appointed representative of the modern C of E is making the apology, with official sanction - not the persons who caused the alleged offence. This is very much 'on behalf of' those long dead people - and the apology is issued to a man 126 years dead, who apparently has no representatives to accept or reject the apology.
And what exactly is being apologised for? The statement is notably vague about this. Perhaps some ancestral memory of the clash between Thomas Huxley and 'Soapy Sam' Wilberforce is at work here - but, as many have made clear (e.g. A.N. Wilson in God's Funeral), that occasion has been mythologised until it barely resembles what actually occurred. It would be more appropriate, surely, for Punch magazine to issue an apology for all those unkind cartoons of Darwin as an ape. Punch no longer exists, of course - but in the crazy world of postdated apologies, that shouldn't make any difference at all.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

An Outbreak of Paganism in Carshalton

So there I was, walking along the high street, minding my own business, when I became aware of the sound of music - well, the banging of drums, the tootling of pipes and the squeezing of squeeze boxes - drawing near. I waited on a corner and into view hoved a walking haystack, followed by a procession dressed in various faux medieval and faux celtic motleys, with leaves in their hair. One character, stripped to the waist and painted, was prancing about making mischief, while the rest marched on with an apparent sense of purpose. Shaggy grey beards were, of course, de rigueur (at least for the men). Several of the processants were playing instruments, banging on things, and giving the occasional excited cry. Such shows of enthusiasm, as Hardy observes somewhere, are sure signs of a faked or resurrected tradition - observers of a genuine living tradition invariably evince total boredom. Whatever this 'tradition' was, it was a new one on me.
On closer inspection, the walking haystack appeared to be a walking oversized stook of corn, so presumably this was some kind of harvest home, celebrating the safe gathering in of the abundant corn from Carshalton's fields (hem hem). This was disappointing, as I had of course beeen hoping it was a local variant of the wicker man ceremony, and a huge pyre was waiting in Carshalton Park.
Anyway, as bemused onlookers scratched their heads, the procession made its way to the other side of the street, with the prancer prancing merrily about in the stalled traffic (in a fine display of forbrearance, nobody ran him over). Outside the motorbike shop, the Corn Man became stuck - to amusing effect - between a lamp post and a parked motorbike, and had to be maneouvred for several minutes to get him going again. The procession then passed on, who knows whither - I wasn't going to follow, as it was clear no human sacrifice was on offer.
I suppose this was an outbreak of respectable suburban 'paganism' - it's alarmingly popular, I gather, in the affluent suburbs, where the disaffected bourgeoisie like to kid themselves they are in touch with elemental forces. I remember the 'new' rector, back in the 90s when he arrived here, saying that he'd concluded he was among tree worshippers. It seems he had a point...

Saturday, 13 September 2008

A Cezanne

Sorry, this blog seems to be turning into an art gallery - but don't worry, it won't last. It's just that yesterday I went to see the Courtauld Cezannes, and I couldn't let that pass. One of the critics has described this exhibition as 'a condensed miracle of masterpieces' - and that is just what it is. All the Cezannes the Courtauld owns - the best collection in England - in one room, with some rarely seen drawings and watercolours, and a few letters, in Cezanne's dashing hand, thrown in. The letters include thoughts on art, and on old age, which the artist faces defiantly, determining to paint to the last. The captioning of the pictures is brief and to the point, usefully illuminating Cezanne's technique; the hang is pretty well perfect; the crowds are well below blockbuster levels; and there is time and peace to look properly at everything on show. With barely more than 20 pictures on display, this exhibition is, it seems to me, on precisely the scale at which proper attention is possible (as so few exhibitions, in these days of the corporate-sponsored blockbuster, are). For a concentrated aesthetic hit - a blast of pure painterly joy - there's nothing in London at present to match the Courtauld Cezannes.

Friday, 12 September 2008

A Sickert

Since this blog is now The Illustrated Nige, here's a Sickert that caught my eye the other day in Tate Britain. I think it must have been hung quite recently, as I'd never spotted it before. The reproduction here (to go by what's on my screen) is too blue. On the canvas, it's a stunning picture to see, with that off-centre composition, the masterly brushwork, and the bittersweet evocation of the indignity of old age still forlornly in thrall to the pleasures of youth. The Latin epigraph is from Ovid, its gist being that love, like war, is a young man's game. Sickert was 70 when he painted it. What a painter - and it's good to see his critical stock is steadily rising now.

What My Cravat Drinks

It looks as if my cravat is beginning to choose my drinks for me. Yesterday I found myself strangely attracted to the faded charm (and fine French artwork) of a bottle of Dubonnet. It is, I rediscover, a very fine aperitif - up there in the Camapri or Amaro class, but robust and Gallic - and Wikipedia is unduly harsh in comparing Dubonnet to Buckfast Tonic Wine, of all things, the preferred tipple of the Lanarkshire underclass (ten per cent of world production heads straight for that county). Dubonnet is not easily confused with the 'commotion lotion' or 'wreck the hoose juice' - it is a cravat drink, not a string vest drink. If it has fallen off your alcohol radar too, give it another try. You might well be pleasantly surprised.
(By the way, this is my first attempt to add an image to a post. Here's hoping it's worked...)

Thursday, 11 September 2008

A Great Englishman

I dropped in on the Foundling Museum in Bloomsbury today. One of London's less well known, it's been refurbished recently, so I was curious to see if it had improved from the rather uncommunicative building I'd toured 20-odd years ago. Happily it's been a sensitive and quietly effective job, the building now feels more alive - but not swarming with resting actors in frockcoats and mob caps, never fear - and the story of the Foundling Hospital is well told.
What a story it is. The Foundling Hospital was one of the greatest products of what Hogarth called 'the golden age of English philanthropy', i.e. the mid-18th century, when morality and self-interest flowed together in one beneficent (if narrow) stream. The Hospital's immediate purpose was to offer shelter, care and an education to children who would otherwise be abandoned. At that time, at least a thousand children a year (in a city of half a million souls) were abandoned in the street to die, or thrown on the rubbish dumps on the city margins. This situation so appalled the sea captain Thomas Coram, returning from America, that he resolved to do something about it. The Foundling Hospital was eventually, after many a setback, the result.
As well as being a home for children, the Hospital was an institution of high social tone, very popular with the aristocracy, and, remarkably, a centre for the arts, indeed London's first public art gallery. Handel was a major supporter, wrote an anthem for the Hospital and bequeathed it a fair copy of The Messiah. Concerts were held, and the children were trained in music (as at Vivaldi's La Pieta). Artists - not only English, but French and Italian - donated works. The result is that the Foundling Museum of today is a fascinating and quite unique art gallery, with works by Hogarth (of course), Gainsborough, Reynolds, Benjamin West, Richard Wilson, Roubiliac's great bust of Handel, etc. (Not to mention a dubious portrait confidently labelled 'William Shakespeare'.)
But the most touching and extraordinary exhibits are the unlabelled display cases of tokens left by desperate mothers with their babies as they handed them over to the care of the Hospital. Beads, trinkets, coins and half-coins, medallions, seals, labels, some inscribed, others blank - even, mystifyingly, a label from the neck of a bottle, reading 'Ale'...
Here is Hogarth's Captain Thomas Coram, one of the great English portraits - of a great English man.

Not Cricket

The vexed question of the origins of baseball has been further agitated by the discovery of a reference to the game in a diary of 1755 by a citizen of Guildford, the agreeable county town of Surrey. Guildford also has one of the oldest written references to cricket being played, in 1598. Both games, in their early forms, seem to have been for both sexes - see the telling reference in Northanger Abbey. But of course, like many another innocent pastime, they had to be taken over by the men, systematised with fabulously complicated rules, and given a multi-level competitive structure. Cricket became - in the Test match form of the game - a wonder of the (uncomprehending) world that far transcends mere sport. Baseball survives on this side of the Atlantic as a playground game for both sexes, rounders. In America it was pumped full of testosterone and self-importance and became the modern baseball game - basically rounders, but with the ball thrown so violently as to be all but unhittable, and with lots of burly men dashing around showing off. I can't help but feel that we Brits got the better of the deal. Baseball, when all's said and done, is not cricket.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Still Here - and Artie Is 64!

As Bryan mentions in his blog, he and I did indeed enjoy a night of magic in London's swanky Kensington, where he tucked in to a hearty meal of three prawns and a pea, while I... No, he eats quite normally, despite being barely visible if standing at the wrong angle. What he doesn't mention is that I was wearing a cravate. At sight of it he fell strangley silent and appeared abstracted for some time. Heaven knows what he is planning...
Anyway Bryan and I and the rest of us are still here and must continue our amiable chuntering until the physicists make a proper job of ending it all.
Today Artie Tripp will be celebrating his 64th birthday. Who he? Perhaps this will refresh your memory. Tripp's, it seems to me, is one of the great CVs: classical percussionist, then both the Mothers of Invention AND Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band (while also finding time to back Tim Buckley and even the Smothers Brothers), then into that last refuge of the true genius - the insurance business - before finally discovering his true vocation: chiropractice (as practised in the freedom of Mississippi, where a chiropractor can walk tall, beyond the reach of the oppressive state of California). Magnificent - happy birthday, Artie!

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Stop Press

Not Bedford. Bedford is closed. Or rather the only conceivable reason for going there - the wonderful Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, with its Edward Bawden collection - is closed, til January next year. As my namesake Molesworth would say - chiz. More Bawden here...
By the way, if those CERN lads turn out to have got their calculations slightly wrong and it's all over as of tomorrow - Bye, everybody. It's been real. Or has it?

Damien Hirst - The End?

Good lord, it's my 200th post on this blog!
I've been thinking about Damien Hirst. It's not fun. Does his forthcoming mega-auction at Sothebys mean the end of the gallery? bellows Waldemar Januszczak here. Almost certainly not - but might it, with a bit of luck, mean the end of Damien Hirst? He looked decidedly nervous and unconvinced by his own schtick on TV last night. As well he might be. The Sothebys show illustrates with brutal clarity the decline of a once mildly interesting artist into a mass producer of kitsch, who happily talks of his various 'production lines'. And of money, with which he is obsessed to an almost Daliesque degree. Hirst grumbles about 'the Van Gogh thing' - the way the dealers get all the money, the artists none- which comes well from the seigneur of 30 or 40 (he's not sure) grand properties. He is determined to get yet more money by making 'the primary market more expensive', i.e. getting most money with the first sale - a tacit admission that his work has no lasting or increasing value. Unlike, say, art...
Anyway, here's hoping the Sothebys sale bombs and Hirst is left with egg (or formaldehyde and bits of shark) all over his face.
Me, I'm off to Bedford. Call it a lonely impulse of delight. I shall report back.

Monday, 8 September 2008


As it's his birthday, let's remember that little firecracker Alfred Jarry. Wikipedia's potted biography gets funnier as it goes on - the horizontally divided apartment is a lovely idea. In fact Jarry is probably more amusing and interesting to read about than to read - I don't see myself ever returning to the few works of his I read, years ago when I was young and impressionable. But such figures have their place, and (as the hoary cliche has it) the world would be duller without them. Besides, there's something about his (anti)system of 'Pataphysics that almost makes sense - 'the laws that govern exceptions and will explain the universe supplementary to this one' might well have a place in the crazy world of modern physics.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Scepticism Is Conservative

Clearly excited by Sarah Palin - aren't we all? - Bryan is on fire just now, but I'm going to take him up on this one. He suggests here that a true conservative would be bound to buy in to the anthropogenic global warming package, and that those of us who don't have been corrupted by those twin impostors, neoliberalism and noeconservatism. Well pardon me mister, but it seems to me that a position of scepticism (note, scepticism, not outright denial) is entirely consistent with a conservative outlook that is naturally suspicious of anything that approximates to a universal explanatory system , that is equally conscious of the limitations and the provisional nature of human knowledge , and that deeply mistrusts universalist, transnational 'solutions' that overlook the deep complexity and variety of human institutions (especially solutions that involve huge concentrations of state power and huge expenditure of other people's - i.e. our - money).
It is surely perfectly possible to respect the complexity of natural systems and to wish to minimise human disruption of them, without believing in the anthropogenic warming model (which is in itself an inevitably simplistic representation of an endlessly complex system). For myself, I can see a good deal of sense in many 'green' imperatives - and, as I've observed before, my 'carbon footprint' is a great deal smaller than that of most of the warmists I know. But I still think scepticism on the Big One is the sanest position -and, as it happens, a genuinely conservative one.

Oh No - Not Obesogens...

I know that this is a subject that should really be left to Richard & Judy's diet expert, that whip-thin exemplar of low-carb virtue - but here's the latest on the 'Obesity Epidemic'. You and I might have thought, in our simple-minded way, that it was down to too many people sitting around in overheated homes, doing nothing but stuffing themselves with junk food, washed down with sweet drinks. Tsk tsk how heartless of us. Make way for the new kids on the lardy block, the 'obesogens' - evil chemicals that might yet make helpless lardbuckets of us all (or at least offer us another handy copout). As I have asked many a time before - does anyone seriously believe this stuff? Clearly, as they say, further research is needed (coughs politely, holds out begging bowl). Meanwhile, what should really concern us is the factoid right at the bottom of the report - people are swelling up like balloons and joining the ever-growing ranks of the obese as a result of... giving up smoking! It's an obesity timebomb I tell you.

Friday, 5 September 2008

A Poem

For no particular reason, I pass on this beautiful, sad and simple poem about how one day becomes the next (or fails to). Here...

A Scorched Guitar

This seems a high price for a scorched guitar (one careless user). By my calculations, this makes 150 Hendrix guitars equivalent to one top-rank Titian. More to the point, for the price of one such guitar, you could buy up a gallery full of a really good, but unfashionable British painter - which seems a rather better idea to me, but then if iconic guitars are your thing... The world, it seems, is full of elderly teenagers.

Me In a Nutshell

It may be September, but the silly season is still with us, as this handsome piece of 'research' demonstrates. Its findings are, note, both 'significant' and 'surprising'.
Checking off my musical tastes against the character traits listed, I learn that I have high self esteem and low self esteem, am creative, introvert and outgoing, at ease, gentle and not gentle, hard-working and not hard-working. I'd say that was me in a nutshell.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Bat-Ears and the Sexy Librarian

Our old friend, the bat-eared, big-bellied bruiser, Charles Clarke - in our student days, Bryan and I used to laugh and throw orange peel at him - is at it again, stirring up a little storm in the stained, chipped Labour teacup. Here are the facts: There is no one to replace Brown who is any less unpopular; Any replacement would necessitate an election, which Labour would lose; Nothing will happen.
How tired, ugly, tawdry and boring it all seems against the wondrous spectacle of American electoral politics - especially now the extraordinary Sarah Palin has swung into action. Whoever put McCain up to this, it was (imho) a genius appointment. Here is a human being from Somewhere Else, someone who really does look like Change, even Change You Can Believe In (and who might well mop up quite a few aggrieved Clintonistas into the bargain). Of course it could all go hideously wrong, and the Dems might yet land a killer punch, but it's looking even harder for them to win now. And let's face it, chaps, she's a bit hot, isn't she, in that sexy librarian way ('Why Miss Palin, I never realised...') - or is that just me?

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Beyond Any Tale...

I've been reading a volume of Chekhov short stories - one of these books, in fact - which contains the longest of them all, My Life. This I had never read before. Needless to say, it is a masterpiece, sharp-eyed and honest in that unique Chekhovian way, with moments of joy balanced by an ample, lucid sense of the absurdity and randomness of life, its 'weirdness and vulgarity' (as Stanislavsky put it). It is also, at times, very - and very darkly - funny. Unusually for a Chekhov story, it is in the first person, and, though it certainly isn't any kind of autobiography, it touches on many of Chekhov's preoccupations and those of his time. Despite the first person, most of the time the narrator seems to have only a hazy and imperfect idea of who he is, what is happening to him, and how he can communicate any of it to anyone else. As so often, the great and wise V.S. Pritchett captures the essence of this: 'What Chekhov saw in our failure to communicate was something positive and precious: the private silence in which we live, and which enables us to endure our own solitude. We live, as his characters do, beyond any tale we happen to enact.' Perhaps that is why Chekhov is always and essentially comic. Anyway, if you haven't read My Life, do.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Really Bad Titles

If you haven't come across this wonderful radio comedy, seek it out - I think it's on digital BBC7 at present, and will surely be back on Radio 4. Ed Reardon is Grub Street's grubbiest, seediest and most desperate hack (his name and that of his friend Jaz Milvane are adapted from characters in George Gissing's New Grub Street), and one of the most vividly ghastly comedy creations of recent years.. But the detail I want to draw attention to is the name of his sole successful novel, Who Would Fardels Bear? This strikes me as the perfect Really Bad Title. There must surely be competitors out there in the world of real books - they may even be Really Bad Titles attached to Really Good Books... An old favourite of mine is an Alan Paton title (which I've never read) - Too Late The Phalarope. Any more?