Friday, 31 October 2008

Two Greats

Well, it's Vermeer's birthday today (1632), so why not? And it's also Keats's (1795) - an autumn baby - and it's autumn (and it's even being used on a commercial, read by the inevitable Roger McGough), so again, why not? It's easy to forget that a great poem - or a great painting - that we take for granted is indeed great.

Westfield and the Scourings

Yesterday, amid scenes of retail frenzy, a ghastly new shopping mall opened in Shepherd's Bush, of all places, as the splendidly named Harry Wallop reports. As a chap who deeply dislikes shopping and tries to buy everything online, I simply cannot understand what is going on here. When I was growing up, shopping consisted, reasonably enough, of going to the shops to buy something you needed or wanted, and that was that. When did shopping as a leisure activity, as an end in itself, come in? I think the answer is probably that it rode in on the first wave of Thatcherite prosperity in the 80s - and I fancy it was around that time that another incomprehensible phenomenon hit these shores: Halloween, hitherto unnoticed and uncelebrated by us Brits. Now it seems to get bigger and brasher with every year - why?
Shopping (in its modern sense) is often labelled a 'new religion', and there are certainly analogies to be drawn, especially when retail cathedrals like Westfield spring up and fill with worshippers. Perhaps what it comes to is this: that our glibly rationalist zeitgeist has hollowed out real religion to such an extent that all that remains are substitute observances (shopping, sport, celebrity worship, green faith) and the scourings - the ghosties and ghoulies of Halloween, the psychics and hauntings that are all over multichannel TV, and of course bloody Santa Claus. Don't get me started on that one...

Thursday, 30 October 2008

The Pound Problem

I just walked past a Blue Plaque to Ezra Pound (off Kensington Church Walk), and it's his birthday today - Happy 123rd, Ez - (and, as it happens, his deathday on Saturday). So it seems only fitting to say a word. But what word? Am I alone in finding it very difficult to get any kind of a grip on Pound, to decide whether he is a great writer or merely a great figure? Like Byron (another one I can't get a grip on, come to think), Pound 'was much in the habit of fancying that all the world was spinning on his pivot'. For some time he was right, at least inasmuch as modernism as we know it would have had a different birth without him - and poetry at least owes 'il miglior fabbro' a huge debt for his work on The Waste Land. And yet, when it comes to reading Pound, the experience is patchy in the extreme. Leaving aside the problems of his rebarbative persona (the adjective could almost have been made for him), for myself I find the Cantos largely impenetrable - are they really worth the trouble? - and even the shorter verse of his imagist years often seems faded and artificial. This, however, is beautiful, I think...
Any views?

Stubble 3

Well, it seems that edgy old BBC has mishandled this one so spectacularly that the story's still making headlines and they've even lost one of these two precious specimens of 'talent' (and, for the time being, have as good as lost the other). This time the old tactic of issuing anodyne statements, setting the bureaucratic mills grinding and waiting for it all to blow over haven't worked. The BBC assumption that the real problem is not with them but with the Public's silly benighted attitudes never fitted the case this time, and they should have dealt with it swiftly and decisively. Yes I know - 'swiftly and decisively' are words that don't belong in the same sentence, the same world, as BBC management. Now that they've allowed it to blow up into a colossal row, they have predictably drawn their wagons into a circle. Astonishingly (well it would be if this wasn't the BBC) no senior executive (with one minor exception) has given an interview anywhere in the media. The gaze of the sclerotic, hypertrophied, barely mobile BBC is, as ever, turned inward on itself. The controller of Radio 2 has let it be known that she'll resign if any of her production people are sacked. This can only mean that she thinks the Ross/Brand broadcast was acceptable - in which case it would be better if she did go. We should remind ourselves that what those two did was probably illegal, and the broadcasting of it was certainly a massive editorial misjudgment - and symptomatic, as the scale and duration of this row have demonstrated, of something very wrong, especially with the BBC but also with the whole of broadcasting.
Well, I've always said that no good would come of a BBC whose Director General sports stubble all over his face.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008


Here's a headline I never thought I'd see. Isn't it in the nature of rock reunion tours that they're pointless, apart from serving the obvious purpose of swelling the band's coffers? With rock music truly you never go through the same river twice - and equally truly the original river was the only one worth going through.

Signs of the Times

As a new Age of Auserity dawns, it seems only fitting that Fray Bentos is resuming production of the corned beef that made it famous. I do hope it will still come pressed into those finger-shredding tins with the impossible-to-turn keys. Soon, I predict, we'll be tucking into tasty and nutritious snoek, measuring out the powdered egg and swappping recipes for Woolton pie. Yes, happy days are here again. Britain can take it!

Money: Madness and Sadness

The money madness continues. It seems those shorting hedgies have got their fingers burned by trying to short Volkswagen just as the shares were about to soar. They could, according to the unsleeping Robert Peston, have lost £20 billion (yes, billion) - excuse me a moment while I staunch my hot tears...
For a touch of sanity, let's turn to Philip Larkin. Here he takes a cool look at money, wondering what it is and what it does. What sets the poem spinning - as so often with Larkin - is the sudden drastic shift of focus towards the end, as, in a kind of reverse zoom, he pulls far away from the ostensible subject and finds someting else altogether that is yet the essence of it. And it is indeed intensely sad.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

What Crows Do

Striding over the grass in Kensington Gardens just now, I came across an affecting tableau - a crow was pecking out the eyes of a dead grey 'squirrel'. Not the kind of thing you expect to see in a Royal Park, but hey that's what crows do (hence the species name Carrion Crow). It put me in mind of the old ballad...

Hot News

Despite my earlier prediction that the Dems would manage to snatch another electoral defeat from the jaws of victory, I'm now pretty sure Obama will win. Here's why. Any further analysis would be idle.

Time For A Sing-Song

Come on - all together now! One, two, three...

That 'Edgy' Old BBC Again

This depressingly predictable story simply goes to show what happens when middle-aged men, working in an ultra-supportive 'we are always right' culture (i.e. the BBC), try to be 'edgy' and thereby attract the attention of 'the kids'. It's not even surprising that the offending material seems to have been cleared editorially as OK to broadcast - entirely wrong, yes, but not surprising. Ross, who is old enough and professional enough to know better, has long been a loose cannon, and Brand is an under-talented, over-promoted twerp who was bound to cause serious trouble sooner or later. One thing we can be sure of it that neither of these merry pranksters will be sacked - they are both highly prized 'talent' - and the likelihood is that there will be, at most, one low-level firing and nobody higher up will fall on their sword. Nothing so far has ever penetrated the adamantine smugness of the BBC, and there's no reason to believe a little spot of bother like this will change things.
I wonder if, as recession grips and reality bites over the coming years, public behaviour will revert to something more like decency. It would be nice to think so - though of course it could go the other way...

Monday, 27 October 2008


As one who only a couple of weeks ago was TGVing through France, I read this and winced - and made a mental note not to try to retrieve the mobile if it ever happens to me...

It's Getting Serious...

Worrying news from America.

News from Cwmdonkin Drive

The 94th birthday of the great Welsh windbag, Dylan Thomas - and to mark the occasion, his childhood home has been restored and reopened as a time capsule holiday rental, presumably aimed at hard-core fans.
Talking about the project this morning, Geoff Haden described Thomas as 'the most famous poet Great Britain produced in the 20th century'. I suppose this might have been true when Dylan was at the height of his celebrity, seeming to be the very embodiment of The Poet, with his rackety ways, his boozing, his grand manner and chocolate-brown voice ('like water pouring into a vaseline bathtub,' to borrow a wholly un-Thomas-related phrase of Kenneth Koch's). His fame is less now, his critical stock lower, but his popular appeal seems to endure, while better poets (even better Welsh poets) of his generation are forgotten. Why is this? I fear because he still, to some ways of thinking, seems to embody The Poet. If you like your poetry laid on with a trowel, Dylan is your man - that windy bardic utterance, relentlessly sexed up with thick impasti of alliteration and assonance, stretched wildly out of shape by its eye-rolling, exalted urgency. The result is a great rich indigestible pudding, with everything thrown into the mix and stirred with vein-bursting frenzy. Dylan is, stylistically and in almost every other respect, the very opposite of Wales's other Thomas poets - Edward (half Welsh) and R.S. I know which I would sooner read, and happily neither has a cult - or a holiday let.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Sad News

If you haven't caught up with it yet, there is terribly sad news on this great blog. I'm sure all those who love David's wonderful creations, and who love the man that can be glimpsed behind them, will join me in sending our deepest and truest condolences...

Saturday, 25 October 2008

Daniel and Sam

From sheer inertia, I caught Jonathan Ross interviewing James Bond star Daniel Craig last night. Craig emitted about a dozen words in all, none of them of the slightest interest - no surprise there. But what did strike me was his growing resemblance to the character actor (and star of the children's TV series Orlando) Sam Kydd. That's him in the picture - or is it Craig?


It's Pablo Picasso's birthday - 127 today, and still up there around the top of the modern art pantheon. Personally, I have never since adolescence been a huge fan. There's an offputting stridency, a Spanish macho swagger, about so much of his work, and even the most besotted idoliser would have to admit that he spent too many years churning out bad and ugly stuff for money. A colossal talent put to some very dubious uses, it seems to me. The Picasso/Matisse exhibition that came to Tate Modern a few years ago made it, I thought, almost embarrassingly obvious who was the greater artist - though perhaps that is still a minority view...
Talking of birthdays, yesterday was Bill Wyman's. It was - brace yourselves - his 72nd. How old does that make you feel?

Friday, 24 October 2008

Beauty, Then...

My head is empty of new blogworthy ideas, but going round in it still is this poem. Yes, it's that man again - Edward Thomas. Did any poet more vividly express those states of disgruntlement, anger and dejection to which we are all prone (and Thomas more than most)? The way he launches into this one is like the shout of a man slamming the door and striding angrily off, he knows not where. Then the mood abruptly shifts as he glimpses his own absurdity. The wonderfully articulated image of the river ('Cross breezes cut the surface to a file') is the still centre of the poem, slowing and calming it, and making possible the closing flight, 'like a dove That slants unanswering to its home and love', as 'what yet lives in me' finds its peace. 'Beauty is there' indeed.

Thursday, 23 October 2008


It seems the Green might be fading already - here's an interesting development. A straw in the wind....

Songs of Love and Death

I seem to remember that one of my first walk-on parts on the Thought Experiments blog was as a man whose downtime was devoted to Schubert and Gram Parsons. A man could do a lot worse, though it was never quite the case - and is less so now, when I find myself spending more listening time exploring the endless wonders of Bach than anything else. However, I have just been listening again to Schubert's last sonata, the B flat, D960 - which, if I had to save one piece of piano music from the wreckage of civilisation, would probably be the one. Unlike the cleverclogs who write the liner notes, I have little technical knowledge of music, so my responses are almost entirely emotional (very emotional - music moves me to tears far more easily than any other art form). What I always feel in Schubert's later music is the ultimate pitch of tension between the unstoppable, song-like flow of melody - does any symphony contain more sheer melody than the Great C Major? - and a dark undertow that surely (if this is not too simplistically biographical) has everything to do with Schubert's impending death. It's there most dramatically in the extraordinarily violent crashing outburst of apparent despair that interrupts the Andantino of the A major sonata. In the B flat, that so simple melody of the first movement (Molto Moderato!) flows along in despite of the ominously persistent bass trills that keep stalling it, giving it pause. Then, by degrees, it is pulled into endless remote modulations that take it almost beyond music - but always back it comes, again and again, changed and yet the same, the unquenchable song.
Death is more present in Schubert's music than in any other I know - even at his jolliest, there seems to be a distance, a reserve, as if he is listening from outside the ballroom door, and the note of yearning (sehnsucht) is never far away. In this respect, Schubert and the death-haunted Gram Parsons are not such an unlikely pairing. Both, essentially, write songs of love and death. Parsons' last completed album, Return of the Grievous Angel, seems almost literally to chronicle a death foretold. But nothing so much as the music of Schubert embodies that line of Wallace Stevens: 'Death is the mother of beauty.'

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Only in Britain...

It's somehow reassuring that stories like this can still be found. The chocolate-coated camera is the killer detail...

A Bad Start

I arrive at NigeCorp this morning after a highly stressful two-hour journey (much of it spent going nowhere or sideways) with but one question on my mind: How is it that one idiot pulling the communication cord on one train can halt all trains on two lines in and out of London? Grrr...

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Apple Day

Never mind - it's Apple Day, an undoubted Good Thing and the brainchild of that other undoubted Good Thing, Common Ground. And as it happens I've just been eating an Early Windsor - a superb apple, if you can find it (Waitrose has some, if you're quick).


Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born on this day in 1772, at Ottery St Mary, Devon. Let's have Frost At Midnight. Beautiful...

Those Olympics Again...

As if the prospect of the London Olympics wasn't horrific enough already,
there's this related
. It seems there's every chance that the Olympic site could
be dominated by a mosque four times the size of our largest cathedral,
proclaiming to the watching world that Britain is now a Muslim country - and
one, furthermore, in the grip of a peculiarly nasty, misogynistic,
anti-Qufar version of Islam. Where's the money coming from to build this
monstrosity (could it, I wonder, be a country with the initials S----
A------? And I don't mean South Africa)? As well as being a symbol of (as
yet unreal, thank Allah) Islamic domination, it seems clear - even to a
bien-pensant C of E interfaith adviser - that this place would also
function as a breeding ground for terrorists. Why is this proposal being
considered at all? (A legacy of Ken, perhaps?)
In any sane society, Tablighi Jamaat would have been banned long ago. In Olympic Britain, though, it is London's greatest writer, Iain Sinclair, who has been banned - by Hackney council, from launching his latest book (Hackney: Rose Red Empire) in Hackney central library, for the heinous offence of publishing some disobliging remarks about the impact of the London Olympics on the neighbourhood.
This whole Olympic business stinks, and the stink is spreading...

Monday, 20 October 2008

Eurovision - Worrying News

As a long-term fan of the Eurovision Song Contest, I find the news that the Phantom of the Opera is going to make a serious attempt to win it thoroughly depressing. To attempt to win Eurovision is to misunderstand it entirely. To take it in any way seriously - as Wogan recently showed worrying signs of doing - is similarly to miss the point. As it happens, I addressed this matter in my very first post on this blog...

The Green Will Fade...

I haven't said much about this ongoing financial crisis, credit crunch, end of civilisation or whatever it is - enough ink has been wasted elsewhere - but I do have one observation. Emotionally and psychologically, if we're honest, it was a kind of relief, wasn't it? We knew the bubble had to burst, the house of cards must collapse and we must return to something more like reality. As long as it lasted, it felt good, but, at a deeper level, it felt wrong, even sinful, and we knew we were going to have to pay for it in the end. It was to ease our nagging consciences, I would contend, that we fell for the 'green' agenda, its easy and satisfying acts of atonement, its Mea Culpas - and the louder and more unreal the Mea Culpa the better (as in '80 Percent Ed's' recent excesses). Now, as the economic realities kick in and the pips begin to squeak, we're going to be in no mood for voluntary acts of self-punishment, however trivial - and still less for having our wallets drained in the name of 'green' virtue. We're paying for our sins now - or we shall be very soon - and we shan't be feeling the need to pay a 'green' excess. Indeeed, on a micro and a macro level, we shan't be able to afford it.
So I predict (with hope in my heart) a big turning away from the 'green' agenda - a fad of excessive affluence, if ever there was one, and a bubble in itself that must surely burst. When the lights start going out and the Russians have us in their vice-like g, we're not going to be fussy about how we get more power - nuclear, coal-fired, whatever - so long as we're generating it ourselves and we've got plenty of it. It might even happen that, over the coming years, the politicians will (rather than drop the scientific figleaf altogether) start paying attention to more sceptical scientists, outside the Gadarene consensus that has driven the green hysteria so far. Or maybe there I'm just dreaming...

Sunday, 19 October 2008

The Greatness of Cheeta

Since I last wrote about the great Cheeta, Fate has placed a copy of his memoir Me Cheeta in my hands. From what I've read of it so far, it seems to me just about the most devastating critique of Hollywood any primate - human or non-human - ever wrote. I say 'human or non-human', but that's the point - in Cheeta's world the line between a bunch of Hollywood stars and a troop of apes is vanishingly fine. At home in both worlds, Cheeta brings a uniquely withering perspective to the movie business - though it 's not without tenderness, as he clearly loves the good guys (male and female) and loathes all the right people. It is also, of course, very funny and very scabrous - but Cheeta can write, I mean really write. Chapter 2, in which his jungle life ends - in carnage - and he falls into human hands, is genuinely moving. Here's a passage (Cary and Kirk are, of course, the dominant males of the troop). Cheeta has just seen his mother killed by Cary and his sidekick Spence, and they'll be coming for him next...

'I blundered through a maze into the lower canopy where I was hidden, and blundered on until I had to stop and rest in a little cradle of branches. After a while, there didn't seem to be much reason to go anywhere: Mama was my only home, and she would find me if she could. So I didn't move, except once to fetch some leaves when the cradle began to hurt. I breathed and slept and didn't grow hungry, and let the rain fall on me as it fell on everything else.
What happened to us, dearest humans, was nothing special. I suppose Cary must have staged a coup against old Kirk, and then against his two main rivals. But who cares? It was just politics. Sooner or later, every creature that lives in a forest has to learn that there's only the hierarchy and the alphadom and the constant dance of death. From the termites to the turacos to the marmosets and pythons, from the mongooses to the leopards and the apes, every one of of us, every second of the day, was simply trying to pass on its death to another. Even the bushpigs at their mother's teats, stealing milk from their brothers and sisters, and the trees and the grasses, too. Everything that lived, murdered. We were meant to be the best of all creatures, the paragon of the animals, and we were also mired in it. I watched the turacos around me stab the caterpillars and kept thinking there had to be something - one thing - that wasn't hostile to its bones. But everything was steeped in death: all creatures great and small.'

Saturday, 18 October 2008


I'm afraid the recent pictures of poor old John McCain with his tongue out put me in mind of this - Blake's The Ghost of a Flea...
St Luke's little summer is looking good out there. The remaining leaves on my sumac tree range from pale yellowish green through various shades of yellow, orange and pink to a full vibrant scarlet. Another beautiful autumn.

St Luke's Day

It's St Luke's Day, and it's time to put another picture on my blog. That's him painting the Virgin Mary, as envisaged by the great Rogier van der Weyden. Luke, I need hardly tell you, is the patron saint of painters, physicians, surgeons, notaries and cuckolds. His day is celebrated in York as Whip-Dog Day, when boys whip dogs through the streets - though I fancy that particular tradition might bave been quietly shelved. Happily, in southern England, we are enjoying 'St Luke's little summer', a spell of mild, dry weather around St Luke's Day. So I am going out to see how the garden is looking...

Friday, 17 October 2008

Ed and Chan

Predictably, but no less depressingly, yesterday's non-story of Ed's eager embrace of that meaningless 80 percent 'target' (see Supererogation Again, below) was the lead item on the BBC evening news, both on TV and (shamingly) on Radio.
Here's what I call a real news story.

Great Storm, Black Monday and Worse...

Uncharacteristically, I missed the anniversary of the Great Storm of '87 on Wednesday/Thursday. I remember it well - who in the Southeast doesn't? It's not often, in suburban Surrey, that you get up to find your road blocked with felled trees, your telephone and electricity gone, and great swathes of local woodland flattened as if by a massive explosion.
The Great Storm was followed, the Monday after, by the less well remembered - until, for obvious reasons, very recently - Great Crash. Black Monday saw the biggest ever single-day fall in share prices on the Stock Exchange. The two events might even have been related - with power down, many City types not making it to work on the Friday, leaving the place in the hands of juniors, and with 'stop loss' computers programmed to sell as prices fell below a fixed level... Yes, the weather gods might well have had a hand in that particular bout of market madness. It's always good to be reminded how powerless we puny humans really are when weather gets serious.
Now, 21 years on, the madness of the financial markets seems unresponsive to all treatments, and this is not good news. As Keynes sagely remarked, 'The markets can remain irrational for a lot longer than most people can remain solvent.'
Still, however bad it gets, we can count ourselves lucky we're not albinos in Tanzania. Here's a grisly story I came across by chance. It sometimes seems to me that the Enlightenment Project is not quite complete...

Thursday, 16 October 2008

My Conversation With Nabokov

The other night I dreamt that I was talking to Vladimir Nabokov. Actually it was more a matter of him talking to me - which he was doing in Russian-accented French, much of which was proving hard to understand. Sensing this, he inquired - in French - if I didn't habitually converse in French when at home. 'Pas totalement,' I replied, which seemed to amuse him slightly.
I remember no more, and have no idea what it can have meant. I'd sooner have been dreaming - as Nabokov did on a good night - of butterflies.

Supererogation Again

A while ago, I noted a work of otiose supererogation. Behold the sequel - 'Ed' Milliband, escapee from the Wallace & Gromit production line, has gone for it hook, line and sinker. What's more, the government will not 'row back'. Isn't that good to know? Going forward, there will be no rowing back.


A lovely word, I think. It doesn't apply - yet - to Gordon's magical system, whereby he throws our money at the banks and they carry on sulking and refusing to play ball. The word Brownismus apparently relates to the theories of a Dr Brown of Edinburgh, which - if Penelope Fitzgerald's The Blue Flower (an excellent novel) is to be believed - were popular in German intellectual circles in the 1790s. Dr Brown, according to Fitzgerald, 'held that to be alive was not a natural state, and to prevent immediate collapse the constitution must be held in perpetual balance by a series of stimuli, either jacking it up with alcohol or damping it down with opium'. He was wont to prove his point by delivering lectures with a glass of whisky in one hand and of laudanum in the other, sipping alternately from each. This strikes me as an excellent solution to the problem of existence. But who was this Dr Brown? Did he really exist? Or is he an inspired invention of Fitzgerald's? Any ideas?

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Why Not?

Just a quick thought - As the country is clearly going to be up to the oxters in the financial mire for the foreseeable future, wouldn't it be a grand idea to seize the opportunity to scrap the London Olympics? Athens could have it back, thereby putting its legacy of Olympic white elephants to good use, and returning the whole sorry business to the land of its birth.

Booker Sensation

Good Lord, that post yesterday was my 250th on Nigeness - how they build up...
Anyway, today startling news reaches me - a book set in India has won the Booker Prize! What are the chances? Actually, by my calculations, they're about 1 in 6 - and this one, judge Michael Portillo assures us, 'knocked his socks off', which must be some kind of commendation.
Why does India keep winning? I think the answer's quite simple: as a vast country, with a huge population and equally huge social divisions, in which the modern world collides endlessly with the ancient and traditional, and urban living with rural ways - a country in permanent upheaval and on on the cusp of a dangerous new modernity - it clearly resembles the dense fictional world of Dickens and Balzac, and thereby provides the most satisfying template for the big, broad, ambitious novel. The worn out, introverted mother country no longer offers any such exciting possibilities and is unlikely to come up with anything to knock anyone's socks off.
The best Indian novel I've read is one that never won the Booker (I think it was shortlisted?) - A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. And his Family Matters, though less ambitious in scope, is every bit as good.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

All That Was Mortal...

Today I shall be at the funeral of the fondly remembered aunt I mentioned in a recent post (the last on my father's side - another small shuffle towards the front line). Only it won't really be a funeral, as there will be no religious (or even 'humanist') service and no body. That she has donated - as her husband did before her - to Science.
This, it seems to me, is rationally very laudable - there's a shortage of cadavers, and 'spare parts' can relieve a lot of suffering - and, at a deeper emotional level, disturbing. Like it or not - reasonable or not - we humans are deeply attached to the remains of our loved ones (and, even more irrationally, to our own). A glance at Homer - or the newspapers - confirms this. Even if we regard the body as no more than a temporary casing of the soul, even if we have no belief at all, even if we fully accept Cartesian dualism, the body still seems to be in some sense the person, and to that extent demands respectful treatment. I admire the strong-minded ethical rationalism of those who can dispose of their bodies in this altruistic way - and of the families who are happy with the arrangement - but I'm pretty sure that I never could, and would have difficulty accepting a close loved one doing so. Is this just self-indulgent squeamishness?

Monday, 13 October 2008

A Simpleton Writes...

Call me a simpleton, but here's something I don't understand about the 'credit crunch crisis'. How come, if nobody - no bank even - can raise any credit, the offers of loans and credit cards continue to pour through my letter box as if nothing had happened?

William Maxwell

While I was away, I discovered - or began to discover - William Maxwell.
This is one of those American writers whose reputation seems not to have
crosssed the Atlantic. He was little more than a name to me - but as the
name was quite often mentioned on Patrick Kurp's incomparable blog, I was already on the lookout for his works when I spotted Time Will Darken It on the shelves of a charity shop (one of the best £1 purchases I ever made). It was the Harvill paperback edition - I don't think Maxwell is in print with any English publisher - and the front cover is embellished with a rather beautiful early 20th-century portrait photo of a young woman. Time Will Darken It is a novel (published 1948) set in a small town in Illinois in 1912. I was gripped from the first paragraph (I think anyone would be - it's a very expert opening), though unsure at first quite what kind of book I was reading. Maxwell works in wonderfully subtle and indirect ways, under a surface that appears to be spelling everything out - right down to pointing the lessons of the action in pithy authorial homilies. He creates a small-town world and a cast of characters, who gradually reveal
themselves, until the principals - including a four-year-old girl, drawn with astonishing insight - become intensely, almost unbearably real. Character is indeed destiny in the world of this novel, a world where no good deed goes unpunished. The action follows the working out of the consequences of a well-meant act of hospitality by the central character, a young lawyer, who, to repay their kindness to his late father, invites his
Southern relatives to stay (without having first cleared it with his wife).
What at first plays like a mild social comedy is in truth laying the foundations for a kind of tragedy, which builds with horrible inevitability towards what is not quite a Hardyesque hecatomb or the comprehensive bleakness of a Richard Yates ending, but is not far short, and no less affecting. Time Will Darken It has a slow cumulative power that leaves you - well, left me - gasping. I think it is something very like a masterpiece. I
certainly intend to read more - even if I have to buy it from the other side of the Atlantic.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Harrowing Clods

And once again, as soon as I turn my back, civilisation comes to an end (honestly - do I have to do everything??) - though you wouldn't have known it in Zeeland or Avignon, or, I suspect, anywhere much else. Times like these always put me in mind of Hardy...


Here I am, back - more exhausted than refreshed (but recovering now) - from Zeeland and Avignon. Zeeland was wonderful, all vast expanses of land and water and huge skies, the far horizon punctuated only by massive church towers, visible for many miles - as is the astonishing Delta Project, which is indeed a wonder of the modern world.
Those Dutch skies hold an awful lot of rain, but we managed a couple of decent walks in the sunnier intervals. Waders and wildfowl everywhere - Oddie country - and sailing still a way of life for the amphibious natives. Even the youngsters: on a Saturday morning by the water, sailing lessons were under way, with half a dozen boats full of eager teenagers, male and female, launching. They seemed remarkably expert already - and, by British standards, startlingly well behaved (the equivalent scene in Blighty would have involved shrieking, swearing, horseplay and capsizings). But then the overwhelming impression of provincial Holland is of a kind of civilised, orderly, humane living that has long gone from British shores. The towns - Middelburg, Goes, Veere, Zierikzee (where we stayed)- are beautifully preserved, but alive and thriving, not set in antiquarian aspic. Bicycle riding is near universal - a sure sign of civilisation - public behaviour is impeccable, houses are beautifully maintained, the front doors of the town houses painted to a magnificent deep gloss, often with the family name written in gilt italics, the windows often uncurtained, the interiors and the life lived in them open to public view. No doubt there's an oppressive side to all this unruffled bourgeois living - but, as a visitor, God it looked good...
Talking of wonders, the 'Acropolis' of Avignon, with the Papal Palace, the Cathedral, the Petit Palais and the Rocher des Doms, must count among them - and I had the great good fortune to see it for the first time when it was bathed in evening sunlight, literally aglow, at the end of a day of glorious sun. Coming upon this unexpectedly was a truly breathtaking experience - almost up there with the first sight of St Mark's Square in Venice... Unfortunately, Avignon went on to demonstrate a rain-making ability beyond even Holland. For a whole day and the following morning (until the sun took over again), it bucketed down relentlessly, the streets and steps running with water, everyone scuttling about under umbrellas, but still getting soaked.
However, ther was an upside to this, as the downpour drove us into the Musee Angladon, which turned out to be a gem. The two galleries downstairs contain a small but superbly well chosen collection of French 19th and 20th century paintings - a stunning Cezanne still life, and a wonderful, subtle Manet of a (dead) rabbit, which the original collector, Jacques Doucet (that's him above), used to hang with his Chardins - and nobody noticed... And a Van Gogh of railway cars at Arles, a lovely simple Derain of a rose in a vase, three exquisite Degas sketches, a beautiful Modigliani (La Blouse Rose) - and, upstairs, one perfect Chardin (Coin d'Office) that survived Doucet's sale of most of his 18th-century pictures. A wonderful gallery - small enough to look closely and enjoy properly, without aesthetic burn-out. And mercifully dry.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Zeeland Here I Come

I'm going to be away from the blog world for a while. Tomorrow I'm off to Zeeland for a few days' walking (probably in sheeting rain and howling wind, I fear, but at least it's flat - and the towns, I am assured, are full of interest). Immediately after that, I'm off on another rail jaunt - down to Avignon. All of which means I shan't be online again til the weekend after next. I leave you with a little Pound...

Taking Leave of a Friend

Blue mountains to the north of the walls,
White river winding about them;
Here we must make separation
And go out through a thousand miles of dead grass.

Mind like a floating wide cloud,
Sunset like the parting of old acquaintances
Who bow over their clasped hands at a distance.
Our horses neigh to each others
as we are departing.

Hail Cheeta!

I've written before about Hollywood's premier primate (though Robin Williams runs him close on body hair), Cheeta. His tell-all autobiography, Me Cheeta, is out soon, and the good news is that it has made the longlist for the Guardian First Book award. That's one small step for a chimp,one giant leap for chimpkind. And the excerpt promises well... Cheeta seems to be the most accomplished ape since Thomas Love Peacock's Sir Orang Haut-Ton. I hope we hear more from Cheeta, despite his advanced years and full diary. He is tuly a Hollywood great.