Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Happy New Year!

The turn of the year. A time for looking back and giving thanks - see the eloquent post 'To Glorify Things Just Because That Are' on this great blog (December 28). My year was, abundantly, one of discoveries - among them Shirley Hazzard (this time last year I had not read her! It seems incredible...), William Maxwell, the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop, Rebecca Goldstein's extraordinary Betraying Spinoza, the late novels of Penelope Fitzgerald, the critical essays of V.S. Pritchett (The Essential Pritchett is surely one of the most richly rewarding single volumes of the 20th century). Then there has been much rereading and rediscovery - including the delight of finding The Leopard as great and as magical as I remembered it from my teenage years.
Other discoveries include, miscellaneously, the Musée Angladon in Avignon, the wide-skied beauty of Dutch Zeeland, Birdsong radio, the paintings of Robert Dukes, the Carmenere grape (and Menetou-Salon, and the Spanish aperitif Pacharan), the King of Shaves Azor (a mad new razor which has given me much simple pleasure) - and, of course, the joy of cravats. Along the way I've had, despite the grim summer, some wonderful butterfly experiences, including a thrilling encounter with a purple hairstreak in my own garden... And I was happily and amazingly reunited with two old friends I hadn't seen in more than 35 years. And, of course, this was the year in which I finally started my own blog. I have not for one moment regretted it.
More than enough to be thankful for there (along with health, loved ones and paid employment). What strikes me is how much of what I've enumerated has been related in some way or another to the great wide world of the web, and in particular to the circle of like-minded souls in the blogosphere who have sent me off in so many rewarding directions and, as a result, hugely enlarged my experience and enjoyment of life. Whatever may be said against blogging, in the right hands and minds it is hugely enriching (in a non-material sense, needless to say) and, in the best sense, educative. It is now for me an essential element in a vital life-enhancing, life-enlarging process of endless discovery and rediscovery. As I look back thankfully, I thank all you out there who have contributed so much to my year, and I hope you have found my thoughts and hints and recommendations as rewarding as I have found yours.
Oh and my Book of the Year is Me Cheeta. I think it was the only newly published book I read, actually...
A Happy New Year to all who read this!

Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Desert Island Book?

A curious thing happened on Desert Island Discs the other day. The guest was Baroness Haleh Afshar - I must confess I hadn't heard of her, but, as a Muslim feminist and enemy of the Iranian Ayatollahs' thugocracy, she had an interesting tale to tell. Come the end of the programme, she was invited to choose a book to take with her to the notional desert island, in addition to the Bible and Shakespeare that are, quite rightly, provided. When she opted for the Koran, she was told she couldn't have two religious texts. This seems harsh, even misguided, and I hadn't noticed this rule being applied before. You'd have thought in these multicultural, pluralist times, the BBC would be keen to encourage variety in this field - but apparently not...
I've really no idea which book I'd take myself (choosing those eight records is hard enough). It seems like an impossible choice. Has anyone out there got a Desert Island Book lined up for when the call comes? Remember - religious texts are not allowed. I don't make the rules...

'Fast losing its compassion'

Look here upon this story, and on this. Both demonstrate a radical cluelessness about what's wrong with the NHS and how it could be made better. Both in fact demonstrate how far that great bloated monster of an institution has drifted from its proper purpose and business (as have so many other institutions, but the NHS dwarfs them all) - and why is this? Precisely because of endless managerial interference, with the consequent bloating of a self-serving bureaucracy, the never-ending attempt to quantify and rank everything and to reduce it to boxes that can be ticked, targets that can appear to be met. The process itself, in all its ramifications, overwhelms everything - including what used to be meant by professionalism and judgment - and you end up with an NHS which is indeed 'fast losing its compassion' - along with its efficacy and its capacity to do the job it is supposed to do, which is to heal people or, failing that (and every bit as important) make them feel better. One looks back fondly to the old days when GPs understood that their job, as often as not, was to keep the patient entertained while nature effected a cure. Now their patients are in effect being invited to comment on the quality of the entertainment, in a singularly fautous exercise that certainly will not develop an Amazon-style market in the practice of medicine. How could it, as long as medicine is practised by real doctors in real geographical locations - unlike the online virtual market(non)place? 'Feedback' of the kind proposed merely encourages the permanently aggrieved (and idle) and makes no difference to anything - none in the right direction anyway. Still, it gives the scary Ben Bradshaw his moment in the limelight while things are quiet between Christmas and New Year.

Monday, 29 December 2008

Harry and Randy

Over Christmas, I heard quite a lot of this album, which was definitely one of the best things the wildly wayward Harry Nilsson ever did - and, in effect, one of the best Randy Newman albums. Nilsson was blessed with a remarkable, even beautiful voice, and it does wonders for these early Newman songs (as the album did for Newman's profile). If you don't know it, it's well worth seeking out...

Harold and Eartha

Thanks, everybody, for your cheering Christmas messages. I am now back from my five-day silent tribute to the late Harold Pinter...
Harold Pinter... (the ... is a quote, of course) - was he half as good as he was cracked up to be? I've always suspected he might have owed his success to mastering a particular clever trick of suggesting everything, stating nothing, and using it to the hilt - to good theatrical effect, creating tension and menace galore. But really was there anything much there? His plays feel hollow and unsatisfactory - trivial even - compared to those of Beckett (from whom, clearly, Pinter learned a lot). Of course, when it comes to theatre (and, indeed, new 'literary' novels), critical standards are pretty indulgent, coloured by a conviction that theatre (like the 'literary' novel) is somehow a Good Thing - and helped along, in the case of theatre, by the determination of a paying audience to convince themselves they haven't wasted their money. In the hothouse atmosphere of the theatrical world, adulation - whether merited or not - thrives. As for Pinter's 'poetry' - had it been written by anyone else, it would surely never have been taken seriously for a moment, would it?
Eartha Kitt also died over Christmas. Here was a woman who had a remarkable life - outlined here. I remember she gave an extraordinarily emotional interview to Anthony Clare in his radio series In The Psychiatrist's Chair, in which she looked back over her traumatic early years and the frequent wrong turns and catastrophes of her later life. Was there, Clare asked the sobbing Eartha towards the end, one man she truly loved and could have been happy with? Yes, she replied, Arthur Lowe. For years afterwards, I cherished the image of a passionate affair between the feline, ultra-sexy Eartha and Captain Mainwaring - but alas, it turned out to be a Hollywood studio executive of the same name. Another illusion gone...

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Happy Christmas


Something tells me that I'm going to be sucked into the Yuletide maelstrom tomorrow, so I'll take this opportunity to wish all those who visit this blog a very happy Christmas. Thank you for all your interest and contributions and comments - keep 'em coming. It's been a rather good year, blogwise - a theme to which I intend to return before it's quite out... Meanwhile, God rest ye merry, one and all!

The Persistence of Twitter - and Questions about Donkeys

I'm not sure about this - it either demonstrates a heroic dedication to 'citizen journalism', or the peculiar kind of derangement that can grip you if you get involved with Twitter. Imagine if it had been Stephen Fry...
Meanwhile, this bizarre affair continues. Reading the guy's posts, you can see he wants to do some serious reporting about the state of things in Israel/Palestine - but every morning, as soon as he pops up on the Today programme, all they want to talk about is the fllippin' donkeys - how very English. You can hear the poor chap's frustration increasing with every report... But why is a supposedly serious news programme pulling this stunt in the first place, and presenting it as re-enacting a historical event - the journey of Joseph and a pregnant Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem? Most theologians (and all historians) agree that it never happened, but was shoehorned into Luke's gospel to bring the story into line with Jewish prophecy - the 'census' being an ahistorical device to explain the narrative. But even the sceptical Humphrys raises no questions - except about the donkey, of course...

Grappa and Humbugs

Well, I seem to have headed off the impending Christmas flu - a timely shot of grappa in the afternoon got my vital spirits flowing again (at least that's my theory, built on a solid foundation of post hoc ergo propter hoc).
This story did my vital spirits a bit of good this morning too. 'Do as I say, not as I do' has always been the watchword of this humbug-heavy regime - and it's especially good to see that wee Milliband Minor, that tireless promoter of carbon-cutting, planet-saving and all the rest of it, is among the biggest culprits. Humbugs, the lot of them - and the whole 'green agenda' will, I'm pretty sure, be flattened by the approaching juggernaut of the recession. Talking of which, I'm pretty sure I heard Peter Jay on the radio in the small hours explaining that the current definition of a recession - two successive quarters of 'negative growth' - originated in nothing more than a back-of-the-envelope botch, plucked out of the air by one of LBJ's advisers (rather like the government's notorious 'safe drinking' guidelines - though with grappa there are indeed guideliness: One is just right, Two is too many, Three is not enough...)

Monday, 22 December 2008

Solsticial

Sorry about the weekend silence - my home computer had disappeared under a mound of Christmas-related 'stuff' and, in the course of a trying weekend, I was unable to excavate it. Bryan has written eloquently enough about Pre-Christmas Claustrophobia, and the weekend before the Day is always, in my experience, when it hits its frenzied and insane peak. Every year I like Christmas less. Every year - recession or no recession - the consumerist feeding frenzy seems yet more deranged and deranging, leaving not a moment free for quiet or reflection, or even pleasure. By the time the Day arrives, most of us are too exhausted by it all to enjoy much about it (apart from the falling asleep bit) and it takes days to recover - by which time most of us are back at work. Somewhere along the way, a glimmer of truth and hope is provided by the religious observance of Christmas - a light shining in the consumerist darkness...
Of course, half the problem is that this is so absolutely the wrong time of year to be caught up in anything much more demanding than eating and falling asleep. It was the shortest day yesterday, and my vital spirits are at a solsticial low - indeed I suspect I'm nursing a seasonal flu. Never mind eh - here's a lovely, even consoling December poem by Geoffrey Hill:

For rain-sprigged yew trees, blockish as they guard
admonitory sparse berries, atrorubent
stone holt of darkness, no, of claustral light:

for late distortions lodged by first mistakes;
for all departing, as our selves, from time;
for random justice held with things half-known,

with restitution if things come to that.

Friday, 19 December 2008

Walking By on the Other Side?

Clearly Broon hasn't read my epoch-defining post, No We Can't. Ah well, that is forgivable - he's a busy man, what with all the world-saving and stuff - but I'm not sure this nauseating appropriation of the parable of the good Samaritan is in any way forgivable.

Leap Hour?

I don't like the sound of this one bit. All right, I probably won't be around in 600 years to experience the shock of a 'leap hour' - but what on earth are they up to? Can't they leave well alone? It looks to me like a cunning plan to decouple England from unviersal time - which, you'll note, will drift away in the direction of Paris. Wouldn't you know it? And, while we're at it, why should time be measured by oscillating caesium atoms, rather than the revolutions of the earth - that sounds suspiciously French to me too, like the ridiculous metric system...

Global Warming Update

As Britain experiences the coldest early winter weather in 30 years, the stoats are clearly trying to tell us something... I am often asked, How do you tell the difference between a stoat and a weasel? It's easy really - A weasel is weasely recognised, But a stoat is stoatally different. Got that?

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Saki

It's the 138th birthday of Hector Hugh Munro, that glorious one-off who wrote under the name of Saki. Here he is at his silkily elegant, clear-eyed, pitiless best.

Anybody Got a Good Title for This One?

I pass on this somewhat perplexing story (from London Metro) simply to beat The News Quiz to it:

'A festive display at a train station has aroused emotion - because it resembles a row of penises. Fabric candles were placed in windows at Settle station, but the 19th-century frames separated the flame, leaving only a phallic-shaped stump. The candle design had been simplified from last year to attract more members, said the North Yorkshire pensioner group that made them.'

One for Charlotte Green, I think...

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Save the Parmigiano

In the midst of all this madness, it's good to know that the Italian government - and Italian shoplifters - have got their priorities right. And didn't Samuel Pepys himself, on the outbreak of the Great Fire of London, take care to bury his parmesan cheese in his garden? Wise man...

An NHS Doctor...

Talking of incompetent terrorists, the BBC radio news at 9pm last night began the story of the murderous scumbag who did his best to kill hundreds of innocent people in London and at Glasgow airport with the words, 'An NHS doctor, angry at the suffering caused by the Iraq War...' Unable quite to believe my ears, I wrote it down. By 10 o'clock, happily, it had been changed to something that more nearly reflected the truth.

No We Can't

What to do, oh what to do?
Well actually we haven't a clue...
It's becoming increasingly obvious that we live in an age of incompetence, where most people most of the time haven't a clue what they're doing. A glance at the headlines tells the story, or some of it - from the calamitous stupidity of the bankers and the total failure of the regulatory bodies to the state of childcare and education, law and order, public transport, government IT systems, casual 'losing' of data - it goes all the way down to the slack-jawed knuckle-walkers on every retail counter and at the end of every phone line... Why, even our homegrown terrorists are incompetent (thankfully) and our gangsters can't manage a shooting without taking out bystanders.
What is wrong with us? Various factors are at work, obviously, one of the main ones being the triumph of process over outcome - i.e. a fixation on how the job is done, while ignoring what it's supposed to do (this is of course encouraged on a grand scale by the pseudo-science of 'management' and by a culture of box-ticking). I think there might be a larger movement, too, a kind of evolution by atrophy. Perhaps when the going gets so ridiculously good as it has been for the developed world this past half century, skills and common sense wither away, as there is no pressing need for them - whatever we do, however stupidly we behave, we'll be all right. Well, that could soon be a thing of the past - as the recession bites, we might rediscover some basics, some of the solid realities of life that we have complacently shed along the way. We'll see...
Meanwhile, all together now (to the tune of Age of Aquarius) -
This is the dawning of the
Age of Incompetence...
Except it isn't - it's more like high noon.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

In A Nutshell...

They gave their money to Bernie,
And Bernie Madoff with it.

(Sorry - work-whelmed again at NigeCorp...)

Monday, 15 December 2008

The Lesson of the Rock Rat Kebab

I suppose an intermittent running theme of this blog is that the natural world is richer, stranger and more various than we know, or can ever know - but discovering a thousand new species (excluding the smaller invertebrates) in one small corner of the planet is pretty remarkable. There seem to be many such parts of the world which, as soon as a taxonomic eye is trained on them, start giving forth an abundance of hitherto unknown species. In what sense can science possibly claim to have an idea of how many species there are, and of how many are becoming or have become extinct? It's a distinctly anthropocentric business (what else could it be?) and surely bears little relation to the natural world as it is, in all its endless variety and abundance. In this latest story, I particularly like the rock rat thought to have been extinct for 11 million years, but well known to the locals as a delicacy to roast on a stick.

A Level Playing Field?

I saw a poster yesterday for ITV's coverage of the FA Cup. I think it deserves some kind of prize for fatuous would-be inspirational drivel. 'The FA Cup,' it thundered. 'Where All Men Are Equal.' Ah right, so that's why cup teams are open to all and chosen at random, and why every match ends in a draw. Let's all take our soccer togs along to Wembley and join in.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Strictly Predictable

I know what you're thinking - How come all three semifinalists on Strictly Come Dancing got through to the final? No dance-off, no elimination, just an emotion-packed 'All shall be winners' moment... Well, the reason was an entirely predictable outcome of a three-cornered semifinal - two couples tied, with a lead over the third that couldn't be overcome even by a 100 percent audience vote in favour of the third couple. Like so much else in life (credit crunch, financial meltdown, death, Brown's madness) - entirely predictable, yet no one saw it coming. Least of all the fabulously inept BBC, who must have known well before the announcement, but, left with five minutes and more to fill after the end of the programme, couldn't think of anything smarter to do than show the tiresome, self-contratulatory trails for its Christmas ouptut again, and again, and again, until it was like being turned on a spit in some exquisitely refined version of TV hell. It wasn't as if those trailers hadn't already been done to death and beyond. A few minutes with the potter's wheel would have seemed like bliss indeed...
Anyway, this cold, dank and foggy morning, just 20 yards or so along my road, I came eye to eye with a male blackcap (as in the picture) on an overhanging apple branch. It's always a thrill to see these quietly handsome birds, especially in winter. When I was a boy, they would very rarely overwinter, but now they stay in considerable numbers, adding a little extra dash of beauty to the winter scene. Global warming, they say - however perishing cold the winters get... Brrr.

Friday, 12 December 2008

Beddoes

I was pleased to come acoss this link on Frank Wilson's blog the other day. He had it from the indefatigable Dave Lull, and I now duly pass it on. Beddoes's poetry - in those stark, lightning-lit moments when it comes to life - is like nothing else in English verse. I'd have added a few more to Ashbery's selection - this, and this, and definitely this...

Don't Tell Cheeta

I hope news of this finding (dubious though it may be) doesn't reach Cheeta. As we learn from his utterly wonderful memoir, Me Cheeta, Hollywood's premier primate is touchingly convinced that mankind is on a mission to rescue the world's animals from the horrors and mortal perils of the wild and rehabilitate them into the safe and glorious human world. They can even benefit from the humans' great ongoing project, the War on Death - Cheets certainly seems to have done so, having outlived all other chimps by several decades.
I can't recommend Me Cheeta highly enough - it's the truest, funniest, most scabrously filthy Hollywoood memoir ever penned, a true ape's-eye view of the human monkeyhouse. And it is at times very moving. Cheeta's total, unquestioning love for Johnny Weissmuller permeates the whole book, and the scene of his final, unexpected reunion with the wreck that was once the most beautiful man in the world is almost unbearably moving. Put it on your Christmas list!

The Trouble With Democracy...

is that voters have a nasty habit of voting the wrong way. The Irish did it with the Lisbon 'Treaty", so the EU's going to make them vote again - and get it right this time. It's a move that, with any luck, will backfire spectacularly, such is the unpopularity of the current premier Brian Cowan, a man you'd hesitate to let into your house to fix the boiler (I'll spare you an image link, but he looks much like a side of condemned bacon). And then the good people of Sark went and voted in a way the Barclay brothers didn't like, so they're in a big huff and it looks as if they're going to close down all their businesses in Sark (i.e. Sark). I knew it was madness to break with the feudal tradition and make this rash experiment in democracy...

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Another Spreader of Happiness

Another notable English happiness-spreader died on this day in 1996 - Willie Rushton. He was one of those people who wear their talents - of which he had plenty, as his Wikipedia entry makes clear - lightly, and scatter them around prodigally, none too fussy about what they do with them (note the reference to Rushton's being a guest on 'countless TV shows of varying quality'). However, his work (it hardly seems a fitting word) on I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue lifted that show to heights of comic inspiration it might not have achieved without him in the line-up, and he has, rightly, never been replaced. Rushton also drew the superb illustrations for Auberon Waugh's Diary, the two published volumes of which amount to a masterpiece of sustained satirical comedy. So, in the end, he brought much solid and enduring mirth into the world - and anyone who does that deserves all the tributes going.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Penelope Fitzgerald

Recently, belatedly, I've been discovering the late novels of Penelope Fitzgerald - and dang they're good, as many of you will already know. Having read the last, The Blue Flower - an astonishing, haunting piece of work, quite unlike any other novel I've read - I moved on to the penultimate, The Gate Of Angels, which I finished last night. Again it seems sui generis - and again it is wonderfully short, with not a word wasted, and seems to live entirely in its time and place (in this case, Cambridge in 1912). It is also managed with wonderful technical aplomb, all the various strands of the story coming together in a final section that is vivid, exciting, moving and very very funny, and which finally accelerates to a quite breathtaking finish. What a read! I noticed on the cover that The Gate Of Angels was nominated for the Booker in 1990. So what won? A.S. Byatt's Possession. Hmm... Well of course it won - so much more Bookerabile (though Fitzgerald did win once, with Offshore) - but, as between Possession and The Gate Of Angels, I know which I'd sooner read, and reread...

A Greek Lesson

I hope the government and all those concerned with the impending horror of the 2012 London Olympiad have taken note that a principal cause of Greece's descent into bankruptcy and, now, widespread rioting was the spending of billions on a prestige project with no intrinsic or lasting value - i.e. the 2004 Athens Olympics. It's not too late to hand it all back to China - or maybe North Korea, they could put on a good show...

Death Again

Here we go again - death's back, and causing an almighty fuss in some quarters. An obscure satellite pay channel no one had heard of screens what sounds like quite an interesting (in a grim kind of way) documentary about an 'assisted suicide' which happens to show the 'moment of death' - and all hell breaks loose. Some object that this glamorises euthanasia, and there might be something in that (though, without the row, no one would have seen the film), but that doesn't really epxlain the heat being generated. It would seem the 'moment of death' really is the ultimate taboo - a taboo endorsed and entrenched by standard hospital practice, which does its best to bar family from the deathbed. If you have the misfortune to die in hospital, you'll be in the company of a nurse you don't know who'll be addressing you by your Christian name (or someone else's) - great! Once you're safely dead, your family will be telephoned and told you're getting worse and they'd better come in...
So this strange taboo endures. Why? Because it is intensely private? So it is, but so is childbirth, which is routinely shown in all its gory glory even on daytime TV. So is sexual intercourse, which Channel 4 at least has no qualms about showing in lingering detail. So is invasive surgery, so is colonic irrigation - but let's not go there... What is it about 'the moment of death' that gives it such a powerful taboo status? Fifty years ago, it wouldn't have been shown on TV of course - any more than sex or childbirth would - but it was not in itself taboo, and most people expected at some point in their lives to be at the deathbed watching a loved one die. Now you can get through a life, and lose many loved ones, without once seeing death happening. And it seems that many of us (or them out there) want to keep it that way. Why?

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

A Musical Thought

Listening to Schubert (again) last night, it occurred to me that each generation - using the term very flexibly - has one great musical figure who seems to be THE composer, the nonpareil, the embodiment of ultimate musicality. When I was first finding out about music, this figure, glowering over the musical landscape, was undoubtedly Beethoven, who seemed impregnably ensconced at the musical summit. Then it seemed that his star faded slightly - enough for Mozart to take over the role of supreme musical genius (this might have had something to do with the theatrical nonsense of Amadeus - but was well merited). Now it's changed again and THE composer for our times seems to be Bach. Why is it, I wonder, that these changes occur - and does Bach's enthronement say something about our times? If so, it would seem to be something out of kilter with our supposed secularism, since Bach's music is surely about God - isn't it? And after Bach, who will be next?

Postgate and Grossmith, Spreading Happiness

Sad news today - the death of the great (and happily long-lived) Oliver Postgate, about whom I' ve posted before. He was surely one of the great creative forces in postwar England, his work (especially in collaboration with Peter Firmin) spreading innocent happiness and good cheer of a peculiarly English kind - as it will continue to do long after he is gone. Creations like Bagpuss, the Clangers and Noggin the Nog are true classics, and if Postgate hadn't worked in the doubly despised field of (a) television and (b) what's worse, children's television, he would surely have been more highly regarded and more widely honoured.
Today is also the birthday of George Grossmith (1847), co-creator of another enduring, happiness-spreading English classic - The Diary of a Nobody. Sadly, the Diary - available here in a delightful weblog version - is in hiatus till later in the month, while the Pooters wrestle with the Lupin problem...

Monday, 8 December 2008

A Fish Sorely Misused

Yesterday I saw one of these. At first I took it for some kind of car thing (I don't understand cars), but 'Darwin' seemed an unlikely indicator of superior speed and sexiness. It was a while (the car was parked) before I twigged - it is, literally, a badge of faith, the Darwinist version of those slightly queasy-making fish badges some evangelical Christians put on their cars. Since when was Darwinism - or any other scientific theory - a faith to live by, like any other, like Christianity? I suppose the answer is, since militant atheists contrived to polarise the whole Science-Faith issue (if it really is an issue) into an increasingly strident, stupid and irrelevant shouting match between narrowly literal Creationists and closed-minded Darwinists.
And then, by way of further proof of what has happened, there's this...
It really does seem increasingly irrelevant, all this - a self-gratifying diversion for those who flatter themselves that they're the thinking classes - while the zeitgeist, shaped by recession, hard times and a growing sense of threat, is already, I suspect, beginning to turn to, rather than away from, Christianity. But that's a big subject for a less work-whelmed day...

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Birthday Boy(s)

It's my birthday today - me and old Tom Waits: same day, same year, somewhat divergent destinies... As is now traditional, I am spending the day slogging away at NigeCorp - with too few of my fellow toilers to organise an oxroast - but I don't complain. It's a beautiful crisp morning - blue skies and sparkling frost; I'll be taking a brisk walk at lunchtime - and I'll be celebrating this evening en famille. Meanwhile the gifts, cards and greetings roll in - though yet again that bastard Tom's forgotten. Typical...

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Big O RIP

Twenty years ago today, Roy Orbison died - I remember the jolt of seeing the news on a placard. Orbison truly was (in Cohen's phrase) 'born with the gift of a golden voice', one of extraordinary range and versatility and with a unique sweetness of tone. Elvis called him 'the greatest singer I've ever heard', and it would be fair to include him among the greatest of the century (in popular music). Here's a spine-tingling reminder...
And here's an intriguing clip in which a shadeless Roy talks boots - hope you're watching, Bryan...

Friday, 5 December 2008

Ghost Libraries

As a one-time librarian, I was tickled by this tale of municipal skulduggery. Note the use of that unlovely phrase 'cultural information hub' - all too descriptive of the modern public library. The 'showpiece' central library of the borough where I live seems now to consist of vast open spaces with big coloured blocks bearing vague words, where once bookshelves used to be. Only the reference library survives - thank heavens - in a recognisably library-like form, with quantities of actual books on actual shelves. I was a reference librarian myself, in another life, and found it a thoroughly agreeable occupation, not least because most library users hadn't worked out we were there, lurking inaccesibly at the top of a rather labyrinthine Victorian building. As a result I was free to pursue my other interests and occupations largely undisturbed. Happy days...

Tempora mutantur

This is sad news, if hardly unexpected. As I remarked at the time, the Great Man seemed unhappy last year, even showing signs of taking the whole thing seriously - so clearly it was time to move on. Eurovision will be very different with the twinkly, giggly, hyperfluent Norton providing the commentary. Wogan's comments were always few and far between, perfectly timed to make the silences between them eloquent - hard to see Norton managing that trick. His turns of phrase were pleasingly archaic (not, needless to say, in the arch, self-advertising Russell Brand way) and he made telling use of understatement - again not Norton's forte. Ah well, times change - and Royaume Unie seems to have been suckered into trying to win next time, with a Lloyd-Webber-led Surge. It won't work - and watching the proceedings will, I fear, no longer have its obscure but potent charm.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Celebrations

As the annual work tsunami engulfs NigeCorp - hence my recent sparse blogging - it is of course time for the Office Party. It was last night. The Office Party, sadly, is never in keeping with the grand tradition of NigeCorp celebrations - oxroast, choral singing, orations, downing of bumpers of claret, no heeltaps - but this year the arrangements had apparently been hijacked by the provisional wing of GirlieCorp. As a result, we found ourselves descending ankle-breaking steps into a basement bar that my old friend Cheever pithily described as 'the inside of the White Rabbit's womb'. 'Yes,' I concurred, surveying the decor, 'with a nasty case of fibroids.' All done in shades of beige and cream, with worryingly bedlike, wipe-clean seating and bizarre gestures at Christmas decoration, it looked like a cut-price Winter Wonderland crossed with a swingers' club. And the 'music' - all drum machine, thumping bass and moaning - fitted perfectly, while inedible canapés and sickly, mud-brown cocktails completed the picture. I managed to procure wine (in special easy-spill glasses) but did not, needless to say, stay long. Long enough, though, to feel a little frail this morning - mostly, I think, from lack of food.
Never mind, here are two causes for celebration - Jonathan the tortoise, bless him - and the dear old EU. Having announced that it would 'lead the world' in the matter of carbon-cutting, it has proceeded to lead the world in failing to reach an agreement. I am sure this is a lead the world will indeed follow, if only because, once the thrill of setting impossible targets has faded, it will realise it actually has no choice.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Banks in Bad Company

A headline on the BBC news caught my ear this morning. Proposed legislation in today's Queen's Speech will be 'targeting banks, binge drinkers and benefit cheats'. Who would have thought, just a year ago, that bankers would find themselves rubbing shoulders with boozers and fraudsters as government 'targets' - the whirligig of time... But the most worrying target has been kept half-hidden - once again it's the recalcitrant citizenry, guilty until proved innocent. Police powers to stop, without any pretext, anyone who has 'entered the country' and demand proof of their identity is as unmistakable a step towards a police state as there could be. I hope it is blown out of the water at the first opportunity. There's a good piece on the ID card business in Standpoint, which gives reason to hope that the whole dubiously legal edifice could yet be brought crashing down. Let's hope so.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Obama-Clinton Coe-Ovett

Watching Barack Obama introducing his 'dear friend' Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State took me back to that memorable scene at the 1980 Olympics when Steve Ovett, victorious in the 800 metres, held out his hand to Sebastian Coe. Clive James, if memory serves, described Coe's reaction to having to shake that hand as being like a man who's been asked if he'd mind holding this dog turd for a minute. Little Lord Coe, that charming man and true Corinthian, is now of course presiding over the mounting horror that is the London 2012 Olympiad.

News from Nowhere

Why is this preposterous fantasy being indulged? Ah I know - because we're still at the feelgood, aspirational stage and politicians like that. When, in a few years, fuel bills are soaring by 25 per cent and more, the lights are going out, industries are closing down, and great tracts of the country have been given over to useless wind turbines (doubly useless because by then there'll be no capacity to back them up), reality might finally bite - and people might finally get very angry at having been sold such delusional nonsense. All these absurd, wholly unworkable projections should be scrapped forthwith, Lord Turner should be taken to a discreet clinic, and we should get down to building more nuclear - and coal-fired (recognising that carbon capture is another delusion) - power stations. There is, as someone used to say, no alternative.

Baseline TV

Call it shameless plagiarism if you like - I prefer to think of it as (hem hem) creatively developing a good idea. The good idea is Bryan's Baseline Movie and Baseline Book - and my question is: What about your Baseline TV programme? For me (and Bryan I suspect) it's Frasier every time - when nothing will quite do, nothing else will do. Quite apart from being the greatest sitcom ever made, it manages to be at once smart and sharp and cosy and comforting - exactly what one needs for a Baseline TV programme. But there must be others? Over to you...

Monday, 1 December 2008

The Hallelujah Factor

I'm still reeling from the news that the X Factor Christmas single is going to be Hallelujah. It seems that Leonard Cohen's strange and beautiful song, which he spent a year wrestling with and was never entirely sure about, has - thanks to over-exposure and endless cover versions - not only entered the mainstream (making Simon Cowell yet more money along the way) but become all-purpose musical shorthand for any kind of vague spiritual yearning. It's the melody that does it - the fourth, the fith, the minor fall. If only Len had stayed within his usual, shall was say, limited melodic horizons, the song would have been safe - but alas it seems he's inadvertently gifed the world with... a new Imagine, to be lazily reached for every time a little effort-free, content-free spiritual uplift seems called for . Well, I suppose there's some consolation in the fact that it's an infinitely better song than Imagine - and presumably, if Len's on any kind of royalties deal, his coffers will be swelling nicely and he need never tour again. Hallelujah!