Saturday, 31 January 2009

Good Cheer in Dark Days

These are dark days - see Thought Experiments passim - so let us seek some good cheer.
Here are three wonders.
First, a glorious view across Venice to the snowy Dolomites (I'm glad Venice Daily Photo has stirred into life again, having given the impression that the old place had finally sunk beneath the lagoon).
Second, the breathtaking aerial spectacle of these starlings.
Third, simply because it's beautiful and the sounds they make together seem impossible - this...
Feeling better?

Friday, 30 January 2009

Sad News

This is sad news for some of us (if entirely incomprehensible to the rest). Test Match Special, when it is on form, is one of the glories of British broadcasting - even of British life - and for years Frindall did his indefatigable bit to make it so.

Reflections on the Laureateship

Wendy Cope is to be commended for ruling herself out of contention for Poet Laureate - but is she going a tad too far in calling for the post to be abolished? For myself, I'm all for preserving traditions, and the more crazy and pointless the better - they're an essential countperoint to the illusions and delusions of 'progress' and 'reason', and let's face it, we Brits are pretty damned good at crazy pointless tradition - or we always were. At the time, the appointment of Andrew Motion as Poet Laureate looked like either a masterstroke of crazy pointlessness - or a sign that the whole thing was now being played for laughs. The next step - if only he'd lived - would have been to appoint Harold Pinter...

What are they doing?
They're fucking getting married.
William and Kate.
Fucking getting married.
Fuck them.

Where was I? Oh I dunno - but let's keep the Laureateship, and best make it Simon Armitage. He'd do a decent job - and at least (unlike some we could name) he can write verse.

The Tears of Gordon

I'm sure there are more important things going on in the world, but the story - and image - I can't get out of my mind today is the one about Gordon Brown becoming tearful as he pleaded with recalcitrant MPs to back the Third Runway at Heathrow. The political aspect of it is well dealt with here - this business is indeed yet another instance of just how completely this government, derelict and adrift, has lost the plot and pretty much everything else. But Gordon crying? What would that look like? What would it mean? What kind of man would shed tears for so paltry and self-serving a reason? Is this inappropriate emotionalism the other side of Brown's autism? The questions are endless... But never mind: ' a spokesman' has dismissed the story as ' nonsense' - and spokesmen always speak the truth, don't they? Especially this government's spokesmen.

Thursday, 29 January 2009

News from Nowhere

Startling developments on this essential blog. It seems Gowing is living up to his name again (how we roared)...

Back to the Future 4

Yesterday I learnt that more train journeys are being made in Britain than at any time since demobilisation in the 1940s - this in an age when we were supposed to be whizzing around with jetpacks on our backs (I confidently await the return of steam). Today I learnt that the deer population is as high as it was 1,000 years ago - those outmoded relics of medieval times have more than adapted to the modern world. We've probably got more child drunks than at any time since the 19th century (and this kind of nonsense won't help). And we're very probably heading for literacy and numeracy levels around what they were before the State got involved in schools (tellingly, a functionally illiterate/innumerate young man interviewed on the radio this morning came out of school with 7 GCSEs to his name). All these things were supposed to be moving in the opposite direction, propelled by that great force of historical inevitability - Progress. If it's a force at all, it seems a strangely weak one. Atavism, as the great Marilynne remarks somewhere, is the strongest force in human culture.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Cello Scrotum - The Truth Is Out

On a lighter note, here's the story of a splendid hoax. It makes you wonder how many other medical 'stories' and 'research findings' that end up in the papers are also hoaxes.
I never thought I'd live to see the crosshead 'Scrotal flak'. I'm glad I did.

Updike - A Few Words

The more literary regions of the blogosphere will be - or already are - ablaze with talk of John Updike today, and rightly so. I have little to add, except to say that he gave me some of the great reading experiences of my life, for which I shall be always thankful. He was a prose stylist like no other, at once supremely delicate and utterly ruthless, with the sharpest , most curious eye of any fiction writer of the 20th century - an artist's eye. At his best (for me, in Marry Me, rather than the overblown, overpraised Couples), he wrote of the Great Subject of the novel - adulterous love - more vividly and truly than, again, any fiction writer of the 20th century. (Huw Edwards, bless him, on the BBC News summed up his subjects as 'divorce, sex and other aspects of American life'.) Of course he wrote too much - he couldn't help himself - and of course his later works were often iffy, but a good half dozen of the novels surely deserve to live - I'd go for three of the Rabbits (not Redux), Marry Me, A Month of Sundays and Roger's Version, for starters - and several dozen of the short stories. Enough, in my book, to mark him down as one of the 20th century's greats. RIP.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Olympic News

Yet more evidence - if any were needed - of the nature of the Olympic beast. Give it to North Korea, I say - as a gesture of international goodwill.

Return of the Wonder Drug

Yet more good news about the all-round wonder drug of our times - Aspirin. In addition to its sterling work in protecting us from heart trouble, dementia and assorted cancers, it has also been toiling away protecting our livers from the regular pastings some of us are inclined to inflict on them. (For myself, I also take Milk Thistle for the liver's sake.) Considering what a miracle drug Aspirin is, it's remarkably thin on the ground on the Painkiller shelves, which are invariably thronged with all manner of fancy variants on Ibuprofen and Paracetamol - which for some reason are seen as 'safer' than Aspirin, though Paracetamol is a real danger to the liver in high doses. Indeed, by a wonderful irony, Aspirin might in future be used to help the liver recover in cases of Paracetamol overdose. The one trouble with Aspirin, in the eyes of 'Big Pharma', is that there's no money in it.
Oh and there's more good news from the world of Research You Can Believe In - a University of California study apparently shows that, once you're into your 50s, you stand the best chance of not becoming immobilised through disability if you're a moderate drinker. No great surprise there - but get this: a heavy drinker stands a much better chance than an abstainer! Cheers!

Monday, 26 January 2009


Today is the birthday, the 204th, of the fitfully great painter and etcher Samuel Palmer - let him provide the picture. It is of ancient oaks at Lullingstone, near Shoreham in the Darenth valley - the Valley of Vision, where Palmer did his most extraordinary work. Poor Palmer suffered much - the loss of his daughter in childhood, and later of the son in whom he had reposed all his hopes, endless professional frustrations and thwarted projects, the tyranny of his father-in-law, the hugely successful painting machine John Linnell, the neuroses of his wife - and he ended his life in a depressing respectable mock-Gothic 'cottage' outside Redhill. I began a novel about him once, long ago - appropriately enough, in view of its subject, it came to nothing...
It's also the birthday of Mozart (1756) and Jerome Kern (1885) and that strange man known to posterity as Lewis Carroll (1832) - and of Hester Lynch Salusbury Thrale Piozzi (1741), known to posterity chiefly through her intimate friendship with Johnson - a friendship vehemently broken off by him when she married her Italian. Their relationship has been the subject of much speculation - was it masochistic? Did it have something to do with his fear of madness? Does it matter (even if we could know)? Beryl Bainbridge deals with it with due delicacy in her novel According To Queeney, which gives, I think, as true and living a picture of Hester Thrale as could reasonably be hoped for. How wonderful that Bainbridge and Penelope Fitzgerald (very different writers in so many ways) should both have switched, late in their careers, from writing out of their own lives to writing out of the material of history - and thereby found their real genius. Something which, sadly, Palmer by and large lost as his career went on - but for a blaze of sunset glory in his late etchings.

Safety and Ideals

In the course of his impressively downbeat, much analysed inaugural address, the new President said something which went down well at the time, but I sincerely hope he didn't mean. It was the sonorous statement 'We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals'. False it may be, but that choice has been forced on states with high ideals throughout history, and, in the face of a sufficiently real threat, safety invariably trumps ideals. Even Obama's mentor Abraham Lincoln enacted legislation that most definitely didn't square with the high ideals of the founding fathers (who themselves passed repressive legislation in the face of external threats to the young nation). In essence, the apparatus of rights on which a state is built is intended to work to the benefit of the citizens of that state, those who have bought into the project - it was surely never envisaged that it should be extended to those who refuse to buy in and/or who wish active harm to the state,to use that very apparatus of rights to work towards bringing down that state. The trick is, I think, to limit the modification or suspension of rights/ideals to what is essential for safety - but the choice has to be made.
I'm also worried about Obama's order that the CIA's 'secret' overseas centres be closed down. This is because, in the small hours the other night, I heard on the World Service an ex-CIA man arguing very plausibly (and passionately) that without such centres and the regrettable activities that go on in them we'll have a whole lot more terrorist atrocities. He cited information obtained by these dubious means from one terrorist bigshot, who had resisted conventional interrogation, that aborted a wave of attacks on half a dozen cities. Was he talking nonsense? Am I turning into a foaming-mouthed neo-neo-con, or what? Should we be worried?

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Nature Again

And another wonder of the suburban demiparadise... Yesterday, walking along the street intermittently scanning the skies and trees as I do - most of the interesting things around us are above street level - I saw a sun halo very much like the one above. A beautiful sight, which I stood and enjoyed for some while. As the sun was low in the sky, the whole circle wasn't apparent, but what there was (about 270 degrees) was like the palest and thinnest of rainbows, enclosing a disc of darker sky, with the pale sun at the centre. You don't have to be in the wilds of Canada (where that pic was taken) to see wonders of nature...

Broons, Burns, Birds

On the subject of Robert Burns, whose 250th birthday will no doubt be celebrated tonight with even more excesses of maudlin puffery than usual - I have nothing to say. His poetical appeal I don't think carries much beyond the borders of 'that land of Calvin, oat cakes and sulphur' (as the Rev Sidney Smith so pithily described it). However, the Big One has afforded Gordie Broon the opportunity to ride on the coat-tails of the greasy chancer Alex Salmond into true fame at last. What an amusing fellow he is...
But, as I say, I have no thoughts on Burns. Birds, not Burns, are my subject. They were singing lustily this morning, after a night of rain had thoroughly sodden the ground. The days are at last noticeably, if only slightly, lengthening, and the usual suspects - robins, great tits, goldfinches chiefly - were celebrating the fact with full-throated vocals as I made my way across the park to the station. Coming down to the river, I first saw the resident heron, in his usual dejected posture in midstream, and then, a little down river - something white... What? Yes, it was a Little Egret - last seen in my vicinity some time last year (and memorialised on Thought Experiments in a post that inspired one of Ian Russell's finest sallies). Now here was an egret again, as snowily beautiful as ever, but seeming smaller for having the heron so close - and looking very much as if it was considering taking up residence. I hope it does - it won't egret it.

Friday, 23 January 2009


It took me a while to get round to it, but I've now read Marilynne Robinson's Home. In fact I finished it last night, and am now unable to get it out of my head. It was one of the most wonderful - but also strangest - reading experiences of my life. Frank Wilson (of Books Inq fame), who so often seems to be mon semblable, mon frere, surprised me by reviewing Home very coolly, and subsequently admitting that he only read to the end out of duty. So I embarked on the book with mixed expectations, and, for the first third or half of it, I found myself impresssed as ever by the sheer quality of Robinson's writing, sentence on sentence, paragraph on paragraph, but feeling strangely uninvolved, becalmed, even alienated. This endless succession of more or less similar days, with Glory cooking meals and weeping, looking on and musing, as the patriarch and the prodigal son dance their hobbled pavane of reconciliation and resentment - where was it all going? What was it, really, about?
It was at this point that - via (a beautiful irony) Frank Wilson - I found this brilliant essay (which also put in an appearance recently on Thought Experiments). With a clear-sightedness and genuine intelligent sympathy rarely encountered in book reviews, Keizer cuts to exactly what Home is about. Here was my clue - suddenly I got it. Home is no sequel or coda to Gilead - it is something more akin to an antitype. It could indeed (but for the quality of the writing) hardly be more different and, as Keizer says, it is a measure of Robinon's greatness that she could have written both books.
What she is doing, I now realise, in those long stretches of the novel where so little seems to happen is something like a watercolorist laying down washes, so that the achieved final colour shows through itself the glimmer of all that went before, back to the white ground. A result of all this careful and infinitely subtle work is that when, towards the end, events that are recognisably 'novelish' begin to happen, the effect is electric. I found myself gripped, enthralled and fighting back the tears as Home proceeded with what now seemed like urgency to its astonishing, heart-stopping end. It is, I am now convinced, a great book. My faith in Marilynne Robinson is restored and enhanced. Wonderfully.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Wrong Way Corrigan

It's the 102nd birthday of aviator extraordinaire Douglas 'Wrong Way' Corrigan. The story of his unauthorised transatlantic flight in 1938 is told very amusingly here. They don't make them like Corrigan any more...

Interesting Times

There is no doubting that we're living in interesting times just now. Big - mind-bogglingly big - things are happening all around us (and everything unavoidably is all around us in the multimedia, live-as-it-happens virtual world). This has its down side - and not only because most of what is happening (notably our money, perhaps our economy, going down the pan) is clearly bad. The mechanisms of news reporting and analysis are so geared that they cannot cope with Really Big Things That Are Really Happening, Yes Really - and nor, therefore, can we. We glaze over; our minds, faced with the prospect of processing such huge events, such unheard-of figures, close down. We can't take it in - and there's no way the media can shout any louder because their job is to shout uniformly loud about 'the news' even when nothing much is happening at all. Having inflated non-stories into headline-grabbers, there is no way for them to distinguish the Really Big Story, when Something Really Is Happening, from Business As Usual. It has all become a uniform blur, a ceaseless buzz; it all feels the same. They cannot cope, we cannot cope, there is no structure for this narrative...
The upside of all this is that at least it keeps those meaningless government 'initiatives' and such eyewash way down the running order. In less interesting times, that NHS 'rights and responsibilities' nonsense would no doubt have led the BBC news. To that limited extent, we must be grateful that BIg Things are happening, even if we have no way of understanding or assimilating them - or distinguishing them from the news machine's quotidian churn, its everyday blowing of bubbles.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Property News

I see Crow Cragg is up for sale (note to Bryan: The perfect holiday hideaway? Go on, you know you want it - think of the fun we could have...). The Withnail phenomenon is a curious thing - leaving aside the fact that Withnail & I is, for much of its length, one of the funniest British movies ever made. It's set in 1969, it came out in 1987, and nobody much noticed - perhaps because there could hardly be two more incompatible periods than the late 60s and the late 80s. As the man who sold the tractor ruefully remarks, 'There was nothing for 10 years but it has taken off. ' So it has, going into orbit some time in the 90s. The cult is huge, but Withnail seems certain to survive as much more than a cult movie - as a comedy classic. It also, incidentally, opens a wormhole in time back to the early years of Bryan and Nige - but that's another story...
Great caption - 'This pub is not in Penrith.'

Evolution and Taste

I do like this story - but what are we to make of it? Is this a snapshot of speciation, of 'evolution in action'? Perhaps it's an example of the development of taste driving evolution - after all, who, given the choice, wouldn't prefer to eat millipedes rather than dung? This might explain why we got less hairy as we evolved - it just looks better...

The Poetry Of The NHS

A day for rejoicing - the NHS has published a document spelling out 'rights and responsibilities' under the NHS Charter (what do you mean, you didn't know there was one?). Yes, yet another fautuous exercise in magical thinking - if it is written, it shall be so. This lot love to have everything in writing (which certainly keeps the lawyers in business), and if they're around much longer they'll surely send the country hurtling to perdition by coming up with a written Constitution... Anyway, defending the NHS document, cheeky chappie Alan Johnson (a joke, a song and a ward closure) said it contained 'the prose and poetry of the NHS'. Poetry of the NHS, eh? This calls for a competition (no prizes, no winners, of course). Here's a quick haiku to get the ball rolling...

In the waiting room.
I shall be here for ever.
The harsh light buzzes.

Over to you...

Tuesday, 20 January 2009


This auspicious day is also the birthday of the great George Burns, who was born in 1896 and for a long time looked as if he would never die. 'Acting is all about honesty,' he once said. 'If you can fake that, you've got it made.' He also remarked that 'Happiness is having a large, caring, tight-knit family in another city.' And 'It only takes one drink to get me drunk,' he said. 'The trouble is, I can never remember if it's the 13th or the 14th.' People as funny as Burns are rarely as decently human.

Random Thoughts on the Great Day

There is no escaping the Great Inauguration, still less the blizzard of verbiage enveloping it. All seem agreed that it is, in many and various ways, a Good and a Great Thing - and who would disagreee? Apart, that is, from the supreme ruler of Iran, the Ayatollah Khameini, who snappily describes Obama as 'the hand of Satan in a new sleeve'. Never afraid of breaking with the consensus, those ayatollahs. Meanwhile, the rest of the world inclines towards the messianic in its assessment of the incoming Pres. The weight of expectation on his shoulders is obviously far too much for any mortal politician, but I hope there's a nugget of something in that optimistic view, and that at least Obama won't go from hero to zero as comprehensively and catastrophically as Blair did in the years following the rapture of May 97.
At another supposedly epoch-making inauguration - that of JFK - the aged poet Robert Frost, long declined into windbaggery, was wheeled out to declaim a new composition. It didn't go very well. Poets have no place on these occasions anyway (Clinton had Maya Angelou - has Obama got anyone lined up? I hope not. If he's on form, his prose will be enough, and more.) To see how an inauguration was done in the early days, catch next Saturday's episode of John Adams. In fact, catch it anyway - this HBO production is the best hitorical drama in years, and makes our homegrown efforts look infantile. Channel 4 is throwing it away in an afternoon slot - typical.
Meanwhile, let's enjoy today as best we can...

Monday, 19 January 2009

Today's Picture

Just because it's Cezanne's birthday - 170 today. And it's beautiful...

Today's Recipe

I've done many things on this blog, but so far I've never passed on a recipe. Well, my friends, a new age is dawning - Nige is doing just that!
I pass this recipe on for the simple reason that it is so improbable, both in ingredients and cooking method, that it seems it couldn't possibly work. It is also one of the best things you can do with a pheasant (or two), and as they're so cheap - even round here they're £4.50 a brace at the farmers' market - and so tasty, it's crazy not to make the most of them. This recipe results in a tender, succulent pheasant which has in effect made its own apple sauce, thickened with bread and flavoured with wine and brandy, thyme and bacon - delicious. I've got one in the oven now... Anyway, here's the recipe - you can skip the anecdotal stuff...
Try it - you won't be sorry!


I can't quite believe the Tories have been mad enough to do this. Having spent so much time assiduously 'decontaminating the brand', Cameron now, with this single gesture, recontaminates it. Clarke, the alleged 'big hitter', is indeed a popular figure - with the people with whom he is popular (including his media cheerleaders) - but he has zero appeal to a wider public, who are more likely to find him a fat, smug, arrogant embodiment of a particular form of Tory unpleasantness which the party was supposed to have abandoned. Not to mention the obvious and huge potential for trouble over Europe. At this rate, I fear Cameron might yet contrive to keep Broon in power. Lord help us all... I think I'd better go out for some fresh air and (I hope) happier inspiration.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Tony Hart

Last month it was Oliver Postgate. Now comes the sad news of the loss of another of the greats of the golden age of children's television - Tony Hart. A talented, inventive and exceptionally deft artist, capable of working fast on a large or small scale, he presented children's art programmes that were genuinely inspiring. Everything was pitched at exactly the right level - these were projects you could attempt and actually succeed with - and of course there was the added spur of The Gallery, in which the best of the pictures sent in by viewers were displayed. But what made it all so compelling and heartening was that Tony was so transparently a nice and decent man. Sadly, in his later years, he suffered the cruellest blow an artist can face - the loss of the use of his hands - but he had already done more in inspiring generations of children to get painting and drawing than anyone ever did before of ever will in the future. As with the great Postgate, we shall not see his like again.
Footnote: Some years ago, I was on an Italian bus, coming down into Positano, and as we reached the edge of town, there he was, striding along the pavement - Tony Hart. I was quite ridiculously cheered by the sight of him - but I suspect he had that effect on everybody, and that was part of his success. He spread a lot of happiness.

Saturday, 17 January 2009


In the garden the first snowdrop is in flower, with more to follow. Always a joyous sight. And it's sunny...

Hello Emmylou, Goodbye Heart...

I've been listening to Emmylou Harris's latest album, All I Intended To Be, and very fine it is - a Brian Ahern production, with terrific musicians, including the legendary Glen D. Hardin and dobro giant Mike Auldridge, and harmonies from the likes of the McGarrigles. Here's Emmylou back in 1995, singing one of the greatest (or rather, to judge by the out-of-sync visuals, singing something else altogether)...

Friday, 16 January 2009

There Is Probably No Driver

The Agnostic Bus continues to stir up trouble - though so far it's only been in a dotty English kind of way (come on, 'spokesmen for the Muslim community' - aren't you offended yet? What's wrong with you?). I like the quote from the bus driver: 'I felt I could not drive that bus, I told my managers and they said they hadn't got another bus and I thought I better go home, so I did.' Not exactly Old Testament stuff, is it? And then there's the sheer gall of the spokeswoman for the British Humbug (sorry, Humanist) Association: 'I have difficulty understanding why people with particular religious beliefs find the expression of a different sort of belief to be offensive.' That's rich, for an organisation entirely defined by its opposition to one particular sort of belief.

Watches - Less Is More

Watching Evan Davis on TV the other night, I noticed that his wrist was adorned with a mini-Martello tower of a watch - one of those big, thick, chunky, multifunction jobs that so many men seem to sport, bristling with buttons and knobs and covered with mysterious dials relating to heaven knows what obscure subdivisions of chronology. These things - however expensive and 'luxurious', whatever their claims to exquisite craftsmanship - are surely pretty ugly, aren't they, once they end up on someone's wrist? They're inelegant, out of scale and ostentatious. All a fellow needs for telling the time is a simple dial, as thin as possible, attached to the wrist. An adequate and elegant wristwatch can be had for little more than a tenner (mine's a Sekonda with Roman numerals and a second hand, ten years old and still going strong). Why do so many men encumber their wrists with protruberances of largely redundant chronometry? I suppose it's some kind of status thing - or maybe just the male appetite for gadgetry. No doubt there's an evolutionary explanation...

Carbon Emissions - Government Acts!

So, the government has decided to kickstart its bold campaign to cut carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050 by backing the proposed expansion of Heathrow, a plan that will fill the southern skies with another quarter of a million or so flying machines. Naturally I'm agin it - if only because the new flight paths would come uncomfortably close to the suburban demiparadise I call home - but I console myself with the high probability that it will never happen. We can be sure of legal and planning challenges galore - and, by the look of the villagers of Stimson, some serious civil disobedience - and the long, convoluted process will barely have begun by the time of the election, which Labour must surely lose. The third runway will, with any luck, go down with them.
On the matter of airports, Boris Johnson is surely right. Heathrow, being where it is, should never have been expanded into a 'hub' airport, and certainly shouldn't be enlarged any more. The obvious and best solution is a new airport out in the badlands of the Thames estuary, with a high-speed rail link to the city - but this too will never happen. Why? Because of that sinister organisation the RSPB and its friends in very high places (touches finger to side of nose and winks - They know who they are...).

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Normal Sadness

The dear old Daily Mail has dug out this story, which it has already run in various guises over the years (the paper also has a firm belief that stress and overwork are good for you ). This piece unfortunately conflates normal sadness and actual depression - but then, so does medical pratice, by medicating for the former. The source of the Mail piece is this influential book, originally published in 2007. It seems fundamentally sound in its argument that depression is generally overprescribed and overmedicated, and that normal sadness is probably good for us, however painful or tedious at the time. There is certainly ample evidence that the fight against sadness, and the attempt to evade actual clinical depression, can be a powerful spur to creativity and action. To the names of natural depressives cited in the piece - Churchill, Lincoln, Beethoven, Newton - could be added Samuel Johnson. One of the most admirable and touching aspects of his great life was his neverending struggle with his natural melancholy and the lethargy that went with it. His hard-won daily victory was a true triumph.
None of this, of course, is to argue against medicating the real thing - serious, disabling clinical depression. No one who has experienced this - or seen it in action - would easily mistake it for 'normal sadness'.

Opera? Musical?

The news that Armando Iannucci has written an opera (or, by some accounts, operetta) about cosmetic surgery in California prompts me to wonder (not for the first time) about the difference between an opera and a musical. Is opera these days anything more than a posh word for a musical? Why was it Jerry Springer: The Opera, not The Musical? I believe the traditional account has it that a musical is a story with songs thrown in, while an opera is a song with a story (and, if you're lucky, acting) thrown in. But does that still hold good? Are operas entirely sung these days, is the dialogue always spoken in musicals? It's hard to tell, but a lot of what I hear of musicals - which is, admittedly, as little as possible - sounds like recitative. Is it? Or is that up-and-down-a-few-notes stuff as close as composers like Sondheim - or whoever inflicted Les Mis on us - ever come to writing a tune? Why doesn't Sondheim call his stuff opera - you'd have thought if anyone did, it would be him? I don't know, and I'm happy to avoid both musical and opera, in their modern manifestations - especially if it involves going to the theatre - but at least with, say, Puccini, and with, say, Fred and Ginger or Rodgers and Hart, you knew where you were...

Jobs On The Line?

Poor Steve Jobs - he takes a bit of sick leave and Apple shares plunge. Is this rational? Heaven knows what would happen to NigeCorp (or Nigeness) if I did - I guess it would be all over, they'd be reduced to Corp and Ness. In fact, come to think, Apple could be reborn as Core...

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Those Bouncing Czechs

This, apparently, is my 400th post on this blog - well I never... I shall use it to celebrate the Czech presidency of the EU. They're a mischievous lot, the Czechs, and the latest manifestation of their prankish spirit is this work of art (of a kind), which is causing an unholy row. David Cerny, the prankster who took control of the project, says he wanted to find out if the EU could laugh at itself. Well now he knows (most likely he knew all along). I particularly like Cerny's sensitive treatment of Bulgaria, and that nation of humorists, Germany - and he seems to have thrown in a little Muslim-baiting with his Denmark creation... The Czech President seems to be a good egg too - Eurosceptic and climate change sceptic - just what Europe (and the world) needs. It's going to be an, um, interesting EU presidency

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

It's Here - Class War!

It's been a long time coming, but here it is - class war. Harriet Harman, who recently said something sensible (I forget what it was), has reverted to form big-time with her proposals for a 'new social order' - can anyone with any residual sense of history hear that phrase without a shudder? 'We want to do more than just provide escape routes out of poverty for a talented few,' she declares. 'We want to tackle the class divide.' I suppose that's just as well, as they've effectively closed down most such escape routes - hence their reverse progress on social mobility - so now it's time to unveil the real agenda, the 'new social order'. How delusional do you have to be to believe that social engineering of this kind - even if it was practicable - would benefit anyone?
(On the currently hot topic of social mobility, is no one going to mention the only demonstrably effective engine of social mobility in recent times (for all the shortcomings of the system of which it was a part) - the grammar school? Jim Naughtie on Radio 4 this morning almost hinted at it towards the end of a soft interview with the ghastly Liam Byrne, but couldn't quite bring himself to say the words. Social mobility won't resume until schools are reclaimed from the dead hands of the state and the local authority.)

Aga Not Green Shock

It seems George Monbiot, a man never short of saeva indignatio, has a new enemy in his sights - the Aga (and the 'cult' of Frank Furedi and co.). We all know that the whole 'green' business is built on middle-class feelgood humbuggery - but to try to pretend that the poor, disadvantaged etc are lined up at the Green barricades is surely stretching it. Like everybody else, they are simply protecting their interests - just as the middle classes are with their cheap flights and Agas (and all the other ways in which they tirelessly boost carbon levels, while droning on about 'green' issues). Step back a little and it's surely clear that whatever the British middle classes - or working classes, come to that - do or don't do, it ain't going to make the slightest difference to the inexorable rise of carbon emissions worldwide. It's vanity (in every sense) to think we're that important to the planet.
For another angle on Green humbuggery, here's a great little piece by Frank Wilson.

Monday, 12 January 2009

Tea Lights: A Warning

Just now I had occasion to open a box of tea light holders. Tea lights (for those not familiar with the term) are those stumpy, thin-wicked apologies for candles - about half an inch high and an inch in diameter - that cast a faint but agreeably warm supplementary light when dotted about a room. If you had a cocktail stick and a peanut handy, and a few hours to while away, you might eventually contrive to roast the one on the end of the other in a tea light's feeble, flickering flame. So, I opened the box, and I found, tucked in beside the tea light holders, a densely printed pamphlet in six European languages. It was headed 'Safety Advice' and began thus:
'DANGER OF LOSS OF LIFE AND ACCIDENT TO INFANTS AND CHILDREN! Never leave children unsupervised with the packaging material or the product. The packaging material presents a suffocation hazard and there is a risk of loss of life from burns. Children often understimate danger. Always keep the product out of reach of children.'
And to think that for much of my early childhood, my mother left me alone in a bedroom with (I shudder to recall it) a nightlight - a candle of similar dimnensions to, and every bit as hazardous as, the notorious tea light. Truly it is a wonder I survived...
Be careful out there.


As it's the 50th birthday of Motown... enjoy (an appropriate use of a much abused word, I think - see Thought Experiments today). Bob Dylan once called Smokey Robinson the 'greatest living poet' - not one of his more measured utterances, but you can see what he meant...

Saturday, 10 January 2009


Earlier on this bitter cold morning (thank you global warming), the trees and shrubs round here were a glorious sight. All the twiggy growth was silvered over with frost, while the trunks and branches were untouched. Wonderful frosty filigree effects, against the dark armature of the trees - especially striking on a group of tall, ivy-clad ashes - silver against the darkest green. I noticed that on the lower-growing plants the frost stood up in spiky whiskers all over, whereas on the trees it was a smooth and even sugaring. Both seemed prodigiously - and prodigally - beautiful, the more so for the commonplace suburban setting.
Meanwhile, redwings in the garden - and thrushes (song and mistle), blackbirds, sparrows, chaffinches, dunnocks, greenfinches, tits, wood pigeons, collared doves - and a pied woodpecker hammering away vigorously at a hanging lardball.

Be Sure to Wear...

Today's birthday boy is Scott McKenzie, protege and friend (for a while, like everyone else) of the great John Phillips, whose album Wolf King Of LA is, as I need hardly remind readers of this blog, a heartbreaking work of staggering genius (or is it a staggering work of heartbreaking genius?). Anyway, Scott is 70 today (I suspect the picture might be a tad out of date)and still remembered for the great Flower Power anthem, San Francisco (a Phillips creation, of course). Those of us of a certain age have only to hear the opening bars of that one to be instantly suffused with a potent mix of heady nostalgia and blush-making embarrassment.
A couple of years ago, I found The Voice of Scott McKenzie (12" vinyl, naturally) in a charity shop and snapped it up. Apart from the monumental San Franscisco, there are two good songs on it - Like an Old Time Movie and What's The Difference? A rather lovely voice though, and it's perhaps a pity that he didn't join the Mamas & the Papas - though it would surely have ended badly. Scott's still around - he's made the three score and ten and seems to have had a decent life - while John has gone, leaving a trail of destruction in his wake. And some great music.
Happy birthday, Scott.

Friday, 9 January 2009

Crazy Name, Crazy...

This morning, on the train, I was sitting opposite a woman who was reading a book called The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Dear God, I thought vaguely, is there no end to these whimsically titled middle-brow novels? And is there anything much more to them than their whimsical titles? Alexander McCall Smith has a lot to answer for - not to mention Louis de freakin' Berniere (Captain Corelli's Mandolin was a double whammy of surefire title and surefire author name - how could it fail?)...
I thought no more of the Guernsey L&PPPS. Until, just now, I discover that it is soon to be Radio 4's Book At Bedtime. This is, of course, absolutely no recommendation - most B At Bs are clunkers, and even the rare excursions into the past can't be trusted to deliver the goods (a dreadful John Galsworthy is under way at the moment). Anyway, I had a look on Amazon to find out more - though I'm not quite sure what I've found out. See for yourself here. What is one to make of a book likened by one admirer to Wodehouse, Helene Hanff, Sebastian Faulks and Mary Wesley. Not a lot, I suspect. I don't see the Guernsey L&PPPS elbowing its way onto my reading list any time soon. Meanwhile, work continues on my eagerly awaited novel, The Carshalton Cravat Tying and Owl Handling Society.

The Bulb Backlash (and the Enduring Mystery of Lush)

Yesterday I bought what seemed to be the last ten 60watt light bulbs (incandescent , bayonet fitting) in Kensington. Panic buying has cleared the shelves as the implications of the EU's insane forced switch to 'low energy' bulbs - eagerly complied with by our green-mad government - become apparent. Supermarkets are no longer restocking with 100W or 75W bulbs - a 'phasing out' ahead of their complete withdrawal in September. The 60W bulb will be next in the firing line, then 40W and so on downwards. So naturally, as the prospect of a future without proper lighting in our homes draws nearer, rational people are buying up all the bulbs they can get and stockpiling them (my ten are, I assure you, only the beginning - I look forward to having a shedful of the incandescent beauties by the time the ban kicks in fully). By doing so we resisters are of course being thoroughly green by helping to put off the environmental catastrophe that will be unleashed when people have to dispose of all those mercury-rich 'low energy' bulbs. I shan't rehearse all the other arguments against these ludicrous pseudo-bulbs - suffice to say the government was crazy to comply with this EU nonsense, and most of the population will, happily, thwart it anyway with their personal bulb mountains.
Another thing that seems to be disappearing from the shelves is soap - as in actual bars of soap. There used to be shelves of the stuff in any decent supermarket or chemist's (or even Boots) - but now there is little choice and the vast majority of what's on offer is in liquid form, in plastic dispenser bottles. How very ungreen - and how very unlike real soap. Meanwhile, mystifyingly and nauseatingly, Lush - the chain of shops flogging garishly coloured, foul-smelling hunks of soap in bizarre shapes and sizes - continues to thrive. I live in hope that one of the beneficial side effects of the recession will be the collapse of Lush.
And, in the longer term, the collapse of the entire edifice of dangerous nonsense known as the 'green agenda'. Recycling is, it seems, already in collapse, as all the stuff we carefully separate out of our rubbish by council diktat (via the EU again, of course) is now piling up promiscuously in expensively rented warehouses. What's going to happen if it continues piling up for a few more months? It will be interesting to see...

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Greeks Invent Pubs

An interesting piece here. Making due allowance for archaeologists' habit of drawing large conclusions from scant evidence (and taking absence of evidence for evidence of absence), it does seem plausible enough that the ancient Greeks drank not in tavernas but in, literally, public houses. Why not? The idea of 'home' as an entirely private place is of pretty recent origin. However, if erotic decor is the sign of a brothel, then the whole of Pompeii must have been one huge knocking shop. Maybe it was? 'We've got just 48 hours to find out...'

They're Closing In...

Both Bryan and I have from time to time used our blogs to alert the nation to the inexorable advance of the Big Birds. Well, they haven't gone away, you know... Last week I was somewhat taken aback to see, perched incongruously at the top of a tree in a local park, a pair of cormorants. This morning, I spotted another one sitting on the roof of an office block nearby. Clearly the cormorants are closing in - and presumably they have, like the ubiquitous herring gulls, given up fishing, headed inland and taken to living off the vast quantities of scavengable refuse we humans throw about everywhere. We have only ourselves to blame...

The Mythopeoic Nineties

There's a programme coming up on Radio 4 in which Gyles Brandreth (titter ye not - he's actually very bright) explores the sources of inspiration, and the social and artistic connections, of five writers who were active in London in the 1880s and 1890s, all of whom created fictional characters so hauntingly memorable that they have something of the power of myth about them (hence the programme's rather silly title, Five Meet to Make Up Myths). The authors he considers are Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson, Oscar Wilde, J.M. Barrie and Bram Stoker. To that list of myth makers of the period could be added H.G. Wells, Kipling and Rider Haggard, at least. Even Henry James and Conrad came as near to myth-making as they ever did in the 1890s, with The Turn of the Screw and Heart of Darkness. My question is, what was it about that period that made it such uniquely fertile ground for fictional archetypes and (near) myths? I guess it was a period of supreme confidence in storytelling, but that is not a sufficient explanation. Was it something to do with the contents of the subconscious forcing themselves to the surface (and, in Vienna, being 'scientificallly' codified)? Whatever it was, it gave rise to a quite extraordinary crop of characters and scenarios that have long outlived their origins and inhabit a realm far removed from the common run of fictional creations: Sherlock Holmes, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Dorian Grey, Peter Pan, Dracula... And there is a darkness (and a doubleness?) about all of them.
Any thoughts?

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

On Reading

It's no great surprise to learn that reading standards among 14-year-old boys are
slipping. State education has, by and large, made an awful hash of teaching children to read at all, let alone to read to a level appropriate for their age. Now that state schools are beginning to return (reluctantly) to the widely reviled system of phonics, things might look up a bit, but the fact remains that parents who leave it to the state to teach their children to read are taking a gamble. Do it yourself and you'll find it remarkably easy - leave it to school and it can turn into an uphill struggle. Almost any child who is read to as part of the natural order of his/her everyday life will, from natural curiosity, be open to the idea of learning to do it him/herself, and can be quite easily taught, without pressure, using some version of simple phonics. Both my own children (one boy, one girl) were reading fluently before they went to school - and they certainly hadn't been hothoused (they'd never have stood for it). Familiarity with the pleasure of books made them keen to learn. And reading with your children does so much more than offer a route to literacy - it strengthens the parent-child bond by giving what is truly 'quality time' and focused attention to the child, and, with luck, it lays the best foundation for education of all kinds - even, with luck, for a lifelong habit of reading for pleasure. It is far too important to be left to the state. What Paul Goodman says (in Growing Up Absurd) of speaking is demonstrably true of reading: 'If children went to school from the day they were born in order to be taught how to speak, a good percentage of the population would be unable to do so, or would stutter.' Well, the state doesn't yet make children go to school from birth - no doubt they'd like to - but the evidence for this particular failure of state education is all around.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Darwin and the Pink 'Un

This pink iguana is in the news - a timely discovery to coincide with the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Darwin, who in his explorations of the Galapagos managed to miss the pink 'un. I've been listening to Radio 4's In Our Time series on Darwin (running daily, 9am and 9.30pm) and it's been quite illuminating. I didn't know until today that Darwin paid no attention to those vari-beaked finches that are the poster birds of natural selection. He left most of the bird-shooting-and-packing side of things (shooting being of course the only way to obtain specimens to study) to his manservant, as Darwin had limited expertise in ornithology and was primarily interested in the rocks. However, the local species of mockingbirds - more noticeable than the finches - and the even more noticeable giant tortoises (which Darwin was happy to eat) got him thinking... The rest is history - and it will be all over the BBC like a rash all this year (it's also the sesquicentenary of the publication of Origin of Species), but so far it's been good.

Lance Sieveking

On this day in 1972, Lance Sieveking died. This brief outline gives some idea of his remarkable life and works - getting ever more remarkable as you read on. I particularly like the quote from Val Gielgud - clearly Sieveking was gifted and impossible, a common enough combination. He was one of many such men involved in the early BBC - men with a maverick quality and a strong individuality, often laced with eccentricity - the kind of people you need in a fledgling organisation (a fledgling medium) that is feeling its way towards what it can do. Such men (and they were nearly all men) gave the BBC a distinctive flavour that lasted into the 1950s - it is beautifully evoked in Penelope Fitzgerald's Human Voices, set in a wartime Broadcasting House. Now, of course, the BBC would never dream of employing any of them - nor, I imagine, would they wish to work for what the BBC now is.

'Hi Sue...'

An interesting piece here about the perils of having your works as set texts on the ever dumber Eng Lit syllabus (not that there's anything dumb about Susan Hill's writings - she's very good - but surely not canonical?). Though Hill is creditably fair-minded here, it's hard not to detect a lamentable state of affairs in the classroom - and indeed the staffroom. If the teachers of Eng Lit know very little about it and care less, what hope is there? You can't help feeling that if it wasn't for the independent schools - and the invincible intelligence and drive of a minority of state pupils - higher education in England would be in a state of collapse. Perhaps it is, but no one dares admit it...

Monday, 5 January 2009

On Morris Dancing

As a dyed-in-the-wool reactionary and confirmed laudator temporis acti, I ought to be saddened by the news that morris dancing could die out in 20 years' time. But I am not. Morris dancing as we know it - i.e. men in strange rustic motley (and, usually, beards and glasses) prancing about and hitting sticks together - is less than a century old. The real thing all but died of natural causes in the 19th century - until Cecil Sharp and his band of tweedy folk enthusiasts came along and managed to revive the moribund morris. Ever since the formation of the Morris Circle in the 1930s, it has attracted a certain type of man - one who, typically, combines 'Hail fellow well met' heartiness and 'Landlord a pint of your finest foaming ale' cod-archaism with an anal obsession with detail and procedure, and a total lack of embarrassment or shame. Young people are right not to wish to join in, though I suspect morris dancing will indeed survive among a strange and dwindling band of middle-aged enthusiasts for far more than 20 years, continuing periodically to inflict itself on punters trying to have a quiet drink outside a country pub.

'To dwell in a mean street...'

'The danger with which we are faced is... that the greater part of the educated men and women of the nation will necessarily grow up in ignorance of the foundations on which European society is built.' That's from the findings of a government report on the position of Classics in the education system in... 1918. Ninety years on, that minatory vision has, it seems, come to pass. Classics in any solid form has all but disappeared from state education, and in all manner of other ways, ignorance of the foundations is being positively encouraged. See, for example, this.
That government report of 1918 is cited in Laurence Binyon's eloquent introduction to a remarkable volume published just before the Second World War - The Bible Designed to be Read as Literature. Binyon argues for the necessity of overcoming the fetishising of Scripture, freeing the Bible from its obtusely unhelpful, even unreadable presentation, and re-presenting it as the collection of richly various texts it is. He is particularly good on Hebrew poetry - how it places man in the larger life of the natural and spiritual world, tracing the harmonies and correspondence between these worlds in a language that follows the rhythms of thought as well as of sound. But he ends by again picking up the theme of the loss of the past: 'We are witnessing today a break with the past, the mental and spiritual past of the race; we can see the gap growing. Will it be completed? Or will some profounder instinct of self-preservation produce a recoil and turn the race back to recover the riches of its inheritance?... Come what may... it is certain that to forgo the opportunity, accessible to all, of frequenting this surpassing literature of the Bible, with its grandeur and abundance... is as if one should resolve of set choice to be poor in the midst of plenty and to dwell in a mean street.'
Well, we now live in a country where most young people have only the sketchiest knowledge of the Bible and have probably never voluntarily read a word of it. For vast swathes of the population, the 'gap' has indeed been completed and the streets are mean...
To end on a positive note - as well as being helpfully and readably presented (the text taken mostly from the glorious Authorised Version, sometimes from the more accurate Revised Standard), The Bible Designed to be Read as Literature is a notably beautiful book, handsomely designed and printed in the superb Gill Perpetua font. If you have only one Bible in the house, this should be the one.

Friday, 2 January 2009

The Stunned Silence

Is it just me - or just this unconscionably long (uniquely British, I suspect) Christmas-New Year break - or is there a kind of stunned, concussed hush in the air? The government - i.e. scary Ben Bradshaw, who seems to be the only functioning minister just now - is still keeping us entertained with such transparent nonsense as this (and by the time he was holding forth on the Today programme, BB had elided '90 per cent overweight or obese' into the even more ludicrous '90 per cent obese' - and he was sticking to it). But the commentariat, normally so active at this time of year, are looking back aghast, rather than peering confidently into the future as they used to do at the drop of a cheque. And no wonder - 2008 was the year that the utter futlity of 'expert' prediction, or - in the finance field - 'expert' anything at all was demonstrated about as graphically and comprehensively as it could have been. As I've remarked before, the banking meltdown was entirely predictable and yet no one (at least among the big beasts, the Men Who Know, who are taken notice of) had the slightest inkling that it was coming. Who among the 'expert' commentariat would dare to look ahead now to the coming year? Especially as the one thing we can be fairly sure of is that it will not be a lot of fun...
Never mind - I' ve been listening to a CD of Bach violin concertos that my son gave me for Christmas (including the glorious double concerto). Whatever happens in the world, Bach will still be there, and people will still be turning to him for sanity, beauty, solace and joy. There - that's my prediction, for the new year, and every year.