Tuesday, 31 March 2009

The Clinching Plug

It's the 88p bathplug that really does it, isn't it? Well, that and claiming for both the fireplace and the coal to burn in it. Mind you, she did well getting her cooker connected for £15 - that must have been cash in hand...

A Darwinian Crunch?

I don't suppose this is an original insight (if insight it be), but I wonder
if - accepting, for the sake of argument, the Darwinian paradigm - the
current credit crunch-recession-depression fiasco wer'e living through, or
are about to, illustrates the fact (proposition rather) that not only can
human kind not bear very much reality, it cannot cope with much success, or
excess, or even achieving the ends of its various compelling drives. Could
it be that, programmed by scarcity and endless struggle and strife, we have
yet to learn how to cope, what to do, when we achieve a degree of security
and abundance and comfort - and that when we find ourselves living amid the kind of superabundance and unheard-of security and comfort that the 'developed world' (a Darwinian notion in itself) has achieved, the likelihood is that we'll go completely off the rails, the very drives and imperatives that got us there now herding us over the cliff, like so many Gadarene swine, and down to perdition? 'Adaptive' becomes destructive. Is this a factor at least in the cyclical collapses and depressions that seem to plague all advanced economies - that we simply don't know when or where to stop, that we have to keep pressing on until we hit the jagged rocks and are sunk and done for? I guess if I fully believed in the Darwinian paradigm, I might ask if and when human kind might adapt to cope with success and not turn it into catastrophe
- though surely the time scales involved in such calculations are too short for evolutionary processes to be involved. We might be wiser, I suspect, to turn away from Darwinism and consult wisdoms more ancient, yet more far-seeing, if we wish to be saved from ourselves - those wisdoms that tell us to rein ourselves in, to examine our hearts and souls, to stop and think and look around us, and consider what we are. If it's not too late.
Meanwhile, there's the racist argument. According to the South Americans, it was us blue-eyed gringos who got the world into this mess; and Sarko blames everything on the 'Anglo-Saxons' and is muttering about walking out on the London G20whateveritis jamboree. Zut alors!

Monday, 30 March 2009

Great Boots 2: Van Gogh

Van Gogh, eh? What is one to make of Vincent Van Gogh (born on this day in 1853)? Famously obscure and uncommercial in his day, famously mad and insortbale, now famouly popular, famously expensive, and the model for every would-be self-expressive wielder of a laden brush and a springy palette knife. His late work, so easily approximated, so loud and shrill in its effects, I now find hard to take - but as an adolescent, of course, I was besotted by the spectacle and by its dangerous psychotic edge (a taste we all lose, I think, if we have any contact with the unglamorous realities of psychosis). Certainly Van Gogh painted masterpieces in his Provencal years, and they survive, I think, their popularity and endless reproduction. But as I grow older, I prefer the quieter, less insistent works that he created before the sun and the psychosis got to him - even those muddy scenes of Dutch peasant life - and some of his drawings are wonderfully rewarding; he was undoubtedly a great draughtsman. The auction prices Van Gogh's canvases fetch now have long floated free from any notions of intrinsic value, but what does seem extraordinary is that works regarded barely a century ago as so challenging that they could hardly be looked at are now 'easy' default art for money-burners, and hang on a million suburban living room walls. Will it last? I suspect that, as with the French Impressionists (who have followed a similar trajectory), it will: Van Gogh is instantly identifiable, easily read (now), had obvious sock-in-the-eye appeal - and, on top of all that, he is, in the end, I think, a great artist.
The title of this post, by the way, refers back to this one.

Sunday, 29 March 2009

In the Busy Traffic's Boom...

A feature of my Kentish walk (see below) that is already, I suspect, being discreetly edited out of my memory is that it involved twice crossing the M25 - once by footbridge, once by underpass. Crossing a motorway by pedestrian bridge is a strange experience, the very opposite of driving along one in a car. Cosily insulated within a quiet, smooth-running modern motor car, one has little sensation either of speed or of noise. Looking down from a bridge at the passing traffic, one is only too aware both of the relentless din of traffic and of the astonishing speed at which it hurtles past, each vehicle creating its own Dopler whoosh as it passes. The necessity of making two crossings meant that a portion of the route was walked within the extensive 'aural footprint' (as I suppose it is called) of the motorway. To the eye, all was glorious, convincingly 'unspoilt' countryside - but the ear told another story, the sad truth that we live in a car-dominated, car-connected, car-ravaged land. The insistent roar of the motorway was an unwelcome accompaniment, but it gave the walking a certain bittersweet edge, making the survival of such beautiful country so close to the ever-spreading suburbs seem even more precarious, and even more to be cherished.
Then, today, out for a local stroll, I was walking at speed along an always busy (yes, even on a Sunday) main road, hurrying to escape into the fine large park that adjoins it, when an extraordinary thing happened. Suddenly there was not a car to be seen in either direction (a couple of hundred yards each way) and an unaccustomed, friendly silence had fallen - the car-free silence, full enough of birdsong and sporadic human voices, that only a few decades ago would have been commonplace, but now, in such a place, seemed almost a miracle. It lasted maybe 20 seconds, and then the din of traffic - the din we no longer even notice - resumed its sorry sway.

Saturday, 28 March 2009


I was out walking yesterday - essentially the same walk as reported here, but in less sunny, more blowy weather, and in different, more numerous company (a loose but long-standing fraternity of walkers with interests in historic buildings and landscapes - the nearest thing to a group to which I, as a chronic non-joiner, can be said to 'belong'). The snowdrops are now gone, but in their place, in ancient woodland sites (and, in smaller clumps, on occasional hedgebanks) are glorious dark-green, white-starred carpets of Wood Anenomes. This is their moment of glory, before the leaf canopy blocks out the light and the windflowers retreat underground until the next time. To me the Wood Anenomes seem, in their simple understated way, among the most beautiful of all English flowers - and every year more so.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

The Stage of London Life

This is Edward Bawden's poster for Hyde Park, done in 1925. The original artwork (in watercolour) is in an excellent little exhibtion of London Transport posters at the London Transport Museum (the only drawback to which is that you have to pay for the entire London Transport Museum 'experience' in order to see the exhibition - oh and it ends on the last day of the month). Also on display is this lovely watercolour of Greenwich observatory by Eric Ravilious, which was rejected by LT on the grounds that, nice painting though it was, it wasn't going to get more people going to the observatory - which seems harsh...

Word of the Day: Colleague

Earlier today, the following announcement came over the tannoy at my local supermarket:
'Will all colleagues go to the colleague restaurant for the colleague huddle, which is happening now.'
What the...?

Whiffling Away

Another blowy day, and the crows are doing that flying sideways thing of theirs. It seems to be something you only ever see crows and rooks doing, and it's a reminder that, for all their ungainly gait and laborious take-off, once airborne they are no mean acrobats. In his fine account of the enchantment of corvids, Crow Country, Mark Cocker describes the aerobatic displays that flocks of rooks sometimes put on just before they settle down to roost - in particular, when they descend on the roost in 'a wild downward tumbling flight, performing a series of abrupt switchback twists and swerves'. Another observer, Edgar Harper, suggests that you can get a good idea of the effect by 'cutting an outline of a bird with outstretched wings in paper, and dropping it from a fairly good height'. It is rather like a stunt pilot deliberately stalling his engine and going into an apparently out-of-control descent to the ground. This maneouvre of the roosting rooks is known as 'whiffling'. What a perfect word. It should have more applications...

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Traces of Travel

The upside of having a poor memory for books - often recalling no more than an aura, a characteristic glow - is that rereading can be as fresh a pleasure as a first reading. An instance: I know that 20 years ago or more, I read Eothen: Traces of Travel Brought Home from the East, by A.W. Kinglake, but, coming across it again recently, I realised how very little I remembered of it, so I'm reading it again(?) as a bedside book - and sure enough, it's coming up as good as new. It's an extraordinary piece of work, springy, youthful, vivid, disorganised, spontaneous - the very antithesis of everything you'd associate with the label 'Victorian travel book'. Here's the opening paragraph:
'At Semlin I still was encompassed by the scenes and the sounds of familiar life; the din of a busy world still vexed and cheered me; the unveiled faces of women still shone in the light of day. Yet, whenever I chose to look southward, I saw the Ottoman's fortress - austere, and darkly impending high over the vale of the Danube - historic Belgrade. I had come, as it were, to the end of this wheel-going Europe, and now my eyes would see the splendour and havoc of the East.'
That could almost be Patrick Leigh Fermor (whom I hadn't read when I first read Eothen). Who could fail to read on after such an opening? It soon becomes apparent that Kinglake is going to write only about what catches his interest, and through all these changing scenes is to maintain the cool, amused detachment of the English gentleman, even (or especially) when in mortal danger. Contemporary readers looking for the kind of historical, topographical and ehtnographic baggage that weigh down so much travel writing of the period would have been disappointed - or pleased; the book was very popular and sold extremely well. Here's another chapter opening:
'Beyrout on its land-side is hemmed in by mountains. There dwell the Druses. Often enough I saw the ghostly images of the women with their exalted horns stalking through the streets; and I saw, too, in travelling, the affrighted groups of mountaineers as they fled before me, under the fear that my troop might be a company of Income-tax commissioners, or a press-gang enforcing the conscription for Mehemet Ali; but nearly all my knowledge of the people, except in regard to their mere costume and outward appearance, is drawn from books and despatches. To these last I have the hounour to refer you.'
At which he takes off to make the acquaintance of the near-legendary Lady Hester Stanhope at the desert convent where she had set up her court. This is one of the most memorable (even to me) chapters of the book, and I am about to come to another, 'Cairo and The Plague', in which our hero lingers insouciantly in the city while the plague rages all around him. I'm looking forward to reading that - as if for the first time.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Sickert In Venice

At the risk of turning this blog into a rolling review of the London art scene, I must report that the exhibition Sickert In Venice at the Dulwich Picture Gallery is an absolute corker - if you can get there and haven't yet done so, I'd urge you not to miss it (you've got till the end of May, so plenty of time). Of course a trip to this particular gallery is always a joy, if only for the unique and wonderful architecture and the gems of the permanent collection (notably, for me anyway, the Rembrandts). But the Sickert exhibition is perfect for the setting, being small and perfectly formed, and yet encompassing the essence of Sickert - for the argument of the exhibition is that it was Venice, rather than London, that made Sickert the artist he was. It was in a succession of long stays in 'the loveliest city in the world' (as he aptly described it) in the 1890s and 1900s that all the key elements of his mature style and subject matter were formed. Venice - where, on his first long visit, in a dejected state and with his life and career stalled, he consciously set about remaking himself - was the source, the inspiration and the key to his artistic development. The case is persuasively made in a series of paintings (divided into Views and Vistas, Nocturnes and Portraits and Figures) of the light and dark, the inside and outside, the grand sights and backwaters of Venice that are in themselves a subtle and serious delight to the eye. What a painter - what an exhibition! Oh and the book that goes with it is excellent too.


.. it's William Morris's birthday (b 1834) - and because it's such a brilliant and funny caricature - here are Topsy (Morris) and Ned (Burne Jones) settled in the settle at Red Lion Square, as envisaged long after by Max Beerbohm.

Monday, 23 March 2009

The Richter Portraits

I've been to have a look at the Gerhard Richter portraits at the National Portrait Gallery. As far as I'm aware, these are the first Richters I've seen, but I shall certainly be taking an interest from now on. As any fule kno (well, any fule who read the art reviews), these portraits are painted from photographs - or rather they are photographic images transformed into paintings (while yet remaining recognisably photographic in origin). Richter, who frankly sounds like rather a dry stick, regards the photograph as being, because of its mechanical origins, 'the most perfecft picture'. The photographs he uses for his portraits are sometimes of family members or people he knows, sometimes of famous people, often of entirely anonymous individuals. 'I don't think the painter need either know or see the sitter,' he says. ' A portrait must not express anything of the sitter's soul, essence or character.' An unusual approach to portraiture, to say the least.
Seen in reproduction, these portraits look like photographs - blurry, streaky, out-of-focus, but definitely photographs. However, the originals are unmistakably paintings. They are transformed in recognisably painterly ways - the blurring, for example, is used in part to remove distracting detail and concentrate attention on what matters, and it is recognisably the work of a dry brush. The parts of the images - even the black and white ones - that are in focus are often notated with a degree of painterly gusto. And as Richter moves into colour, the painterly qualities become more apparent, and the dark, sinister undertones of some of the earlier works fall away. There's an extraordinary, richly coloured oil on wood of his daughter Betty, at ten years old, that hardly has any sign of a photographic origin, and suggests the rapt scrutiny of love rather than the objective camera lens (or maybe that's a sentimental reading).
Later portraits such as the Vermeeresque The Reader or Betty (above), the same daughter 11 years later, are, when seen close to, quite fabulously painterly, remarkable feats of extremely delicate brushwork and coloration - and yet still recognisable as photographic in origin. The sense is of a painter who can't help loving the business of handling paint, breaking out from the austere restrictions he's imposed on himself. At least that was how it felt to me - and why I was glad to have seen these remarkable pictures for myself.

A Green Defeat

Interesting times. No sooner has humanism been outed as a faith than belief in global warming is defined as a 'philosophical belief'. This ruling might appear to be a victory for the greens, but is in fact a defeat. The consensus warmists tell us repeatedly that the case is closed, facts are facts, there's no debate, you can no more disbelieve in global warming than in gravity or the laws of thermodynamics - it's scientific reality. This indeed was the line taken by the defence in this interesting case - and the judge rejected it. The claimant's commitment to the green cause amounted, he decided, to a 'philosophical belief' (which, legally, is halfway to a religious belief - but let's not go there). Well, the thing about a philosophical belief is of course that it is, by definition, open to debate. This ruling therefore confirms that the case is not closed on manmade global warming. Unfortunately it also means that any troublemaking greenist pain in the butt who's making his fellow employees' lives a misery is probably now untouchable.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Page v Screen

In his anything but commonplace blog, A Commonplace Blog, D.G. Myers follows up on my stray thoughts on the future of the book. I think there are still a couple of things to bring in to the discussion, and they're related. I believe the sight of print on paper - in the case of a well printed book in a decent typeface and on decent paper - is not only pleasant to see but literally easy on the eye, in a way that no on-screen image can be. I have a strong suspicion - supported by plenty of anecdotal evidence - that working closely, intensely and for long stretches of time at a screen, however supposedly friendly to the eyes, does a good deal of damage, perhaps not only to the eyes. For myself (and for many others I know of) I can testify that my eyes 'went' at exactly the time I began on-screen working in earnest. Now, some 20 years later, when I reach the end of a week crouched over the computer screen, my eyes can barely focus, I am fighting off headaches and feeling a very specific kind of exhaustion which is quite distinguishable from other forms of tiredness. It may be that screens are doing us more harm than we know - it certainly feels that way to me at the end of a hard week... For me, to turn from screen to printed page is to rest the eyes (if only by the change), and to switch my reading to any kind of on-screen device would be out of the question. And I suspect that I speak for many toilers whose days are spent in the dim, pernicious glow of a computer screen.

For Marcel Marceau (born this day in 1923) and In Memory of Harold Pinter

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Humanists Exposed As Faith Group Shock

Here's confirmation that the British Humanist Association is indeed a 'faith group'. This must be a mortifying discovery for them, and I trust they will refuse all future funding. Meanwhile, representatives of another 'faith group' continue their charm offensive with some measured remarks on sexual mores. Don't expect prosecutions any time soon.

Friday, 20 March 2009

On Your Marx!

I vaguely recall posting, on Thought Experiments ages ago, something to the effect that these days all art (using the term very loosely) aspires to the condition not of music but of the musical. Until it's reduced to bad song-and-dance and corny dialogue and is putting bums on seats in what would otherwise be deservedly empty theatres, it doesn't really, fully exist. Everything, it seems, is destined to end up being turned into a musical - even a film about the making of a musical (The Producers) ends up as a stage musical, which is then itself filmed. However, even I was surprised by this one. I don't, though, see it hitting the West End any time soon. Not a lot of scope for boy-girl romance, big routines, showstopping tunes - oh I don't know though, Nothing To Lose But Your Chains would make a good chorus number...
Meanwhile, some films come ready named for the musical stage. I'm thinking Milk - how long before Milk! hits Broadway?

The Perversity of Genius

Talking of vinyl, one of the most treasured and played-to-death items in my juvenile record collection was a 12in LP of Sviatoslav Richter playing Beethoven's Pathétique and Appassionata sonatas (a concert recording). Today is his birthday - he would be 94 if he were still with us. Here is a bizarre but rather wonderful clip in which Glenn Gould - mysteriously subtitled and voiced-over - recounts how seeing Richter play persuaded him that perhaps, after all, Schubert wasn't entirely 'boring'. Oh the perversity of genius...

Thursday, 19 March 2009

'No longer something you own'...

Somewhere in the small hours of last night or this morning, I vaguely heard a piece on the World Service about how, beacuse of the way the technology has developed, music is 'no longer something you own' - it's just out there, a digital entity floating in cyberspace, take what you want and leave the rest (spot the quote there, musos?). So, from 'owning' music as sheet music (a phase which, oddly, lasted well into the pop era - managers still thought that was where the big money was) to owning it on giant discs - shellac 78, the blessed 12in vinyl - to miniaturisation via tape cassette, then to the CD, and then to... Well, to nothing you can hold in your hand and say 'This is the Grateful Dead's American Beauty' or whatever it might be. All you can say is 'This is my iPod.' And it feels - especially to those of us who spent our formative years cradling the mighty gatefold sleeves of vinyl LPs - very odd. But then isn't everything going the same way, into unholdability, unownability? So much 'visual product' is now online and freely available, and it's growing at a terrific rate - YouTube is surely just the beginning. How long before nobody bothers owning DVDs either? Our shelves will be clear of music and movies and... Well, it's obvious what the next step is, isn't it? Books. Or is it that simple? Is there something special about books that will preserve them far longer than other media as 'something you own'. I'm fairly sure there is, but it's hard to say - especially in the light of such innovations as Kindle - quite what it is. Is it just their satisfying tactile qualities? The fact that you can use a physical book in a three-dimensional way - up, down and through - that can't really be reproduced? Over to you?

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

A Touch of the Sun

Maybe I got too much sun at lunchtime - I was sitting outside the Orangery in Kensington Gardens, a brilliantly designed suntrap as well as a very fine building (that's it above)... Did this really happen? And if so why? Is the United Nations nurturing galactic ambitions? Or maybe they just want their own TV series. Theme song - all together now - 'They say he's only a Bang Ki-Moon...'

Nigeria: Shedding the Toga?

Good news from the Dark Continent - a campaign has been launched to 'rebrand' Nigeria. Somehow this proud nation (The Heart of Africa, Good People: Great Country...) has acquired the reputation of a lawless hellhole ruled over by kleptocratic clans who have diverted vast fortunes to the secret vaults of Switzerland, while the rest of the nation's tireless entrepreneurs devote themselves to the traditional pursuits of spamming, phishing and draining bank accounts. It's a mystery how this false impression got around. Apparently it's a 'toga'. 'We must shed this toga,' says Nigeria's dynamic information minister. Unfortunately, the launch of the rebranding campaign didn't get off to a very good start. Whoops! There's only one thing for it - change the country's name. But to what?... Got it - Aviva!

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Is It a Syndrome?

I hadn't realised Impostor Syndrome was such a big thing until I heard it being talked about on the radio yesterday, then came across this. Blimey. (Do try the Impostor Syndrome Quiz, by the way.) Is this really a syndrome or just the human condition? Don't we all feel roughly like this, at least part of the time, and don't the workings of the world depend to a large extent on confidence tricks and bluffery? A comforting and often true maxim is 'Don't worry, nobody else knows that they're doing either.' Banking, it is now clear, was run by impostors for a decade and more, and nobody noticed until the wheels fell off. The worrying thing is that the bankers probably didn't feel like impostors, but fully believed in themselves and their magical abilities. Self-doubt is healthy - rather more so than the much-touted 'self-esteem', I fancy. As Chesterton remarked, 'The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums.' Though I suspect quite a lot of them have escaped since his time...

Monday, 16 March 2009

'I like this place very much...'

A glorious sunny day, so I took the opportunity to make my first foray of the year to Box Hill. The brimstones (pictured) were flying - and these too were my first of the year. I also had the joy of seeing a couple of red admirals, a couple of peacocks and a comma, all looking silky fresh from their hibernation and basking blissfully on the ground. On the bird front, much strenuous singing by robins and great tits, but no sound or sight of the chiffchaff (I blame global warming). The mistletoe gets more abundant by the year - there are trees all but covered in it - and the lichens, those other indicators of clean air, also thrive. The light had the wonderful clarity of early spring, so sharp in the wood margins and coppices as to flatten perspective, giving an almost hallucinatory Richard Dadds-like effect.
Keats stayed at the Burford Bridge hotel at the foot of Box Hill in 1817 when he was writing Endymion:

'I like this place very much. There is Hill & Dale and a little River--I went up Box hill this Evening after the Moon--you a' seen the Moon--came down--and wrote some lines. Whenever I am separated from you, and not engaged in a continued Poem--every Letter shall bring you a lyric--but I am too anxious for you to enjoy the whole, to send you a particle.'

Oh why stop there? He goes on:

'One of the three Books I have with me is Shakespear's Poems: I neer found so many beauties in the Sonnets--they seem to be full of fine things said unintentionally--in the intensity of working out conceits. Is this to be borne? Hark ye!

When lofty trees I see barren of leaves
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And Summer's green all girded up in sheaves,
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard.

He has left nothing to say about nothing or anything: for
look at Snails, you know what he says about Snails, you know
where he talks about "cockled Snails"--well, in one of these
sonnets, he says--the chap slips into--no! I lie! this is in the
Venus and Adonis:1 the Simile brought it to my Mind.

Audi--As the snail, whose tender horns being hit,
Shrinks back into his shelly cave with pain
And there all smothered up in shade doth sit,
Long after fearing to put forth again:
So at his bloody view her eyes are fled,
Into the deep dark Cabins of her head.

He overwhelms a genuine Lover of Poesy with all manner of abuse, talking about--

"a poet's rage
And stretched metre of an antique song."

Which by the by will be a capital Motto for my Poem, won't it?--He speaks too of "Time's antique pen"--and "april's first born flowers"--and "deaths eternal cold".--

By the Whim King! I'll give you a Stanza, because it is not material in connection and when I wrote it I wanted you to--give your vote, pro or con.--

Crystalline Brother of the belt of Heaven,
Aquarius! to whom King Jove hath given
Two liquid pulse-streams! 'stead of feather'd wings--
Two fan-like fountains--thine illuminings
For Dian play:
Dissolve the frozen purity of air;
Let thy white shoulders silvery and bare,
Show cold through watery pinions: make more bright
The Star-Queen's Crescent on her marriage night:
Haste Haste away!-- '

Did ever any poet's letters give a more vivid and immediate sense of being alive in the world and in the language and in the living tradition of poetry?

Sunday, 15 March 2009

The New Whaaat??

A big banner poster at Victoria station stopped me in my tracks the other day. 'Chichester,' it proclaimed - 'The New Copenhagen'. It was illustrated with a photo of some kind of waterside development that looked nothing remotely like either Chichester or Copenhagen. What you have to do, it seems, to be 'the new Copenhagen' is to knock up a poncey low-rise residential development beside a bit of water. Make sure the buildings are gabled, slap some timber cladding on them, paint every other one blue, bish bosh job's a good 'un. I'm surprised they haven't been advertising Newhaven (which has just such a development) as the new Copenhagen, but perhaps there's a limit to the brazen nerve even of Southern Rail's advertising people.
It's hard to think, off hand (especially with this hangover), of a town much less like Copenhagen than Chichester, the home of Shipham's fish paste. But if anyone's got any ideas for equally unlikely X The New Y combinations, do feel free to post your suggestions. Meanwhile, I shall take my medication...

Friday, 13 March 2009


It's blackthorn time here in southern suburbia. Every patch of waste and scrub is suddenly white with these joyful early blossoms. It's the only time we notice this otherwise undistinguished shrub with its spiny black branches (hence the apparently contradictory name), unless we go picking sloes for sloe gin. Blackthorn, so abundant in the hedgerows of the farmed and hunted midlands, seems to me very much a Geoffrey Hill kind of shrub. Here it is in In The Valley of the Arrow, from Without Title:

... the singing iron footbridges, tight weirs
pebble-dashed with bright water, a shivey blackthorn's
clouded white glass that's darker veined or seamed,
crack willow foliage, pale as a new fern,
silver-plated ivy in the sun's angle - .

What an eye the man has - and what a vocabulary. Shivey, in case you're wondering, is wool cloth full of dark burrs and splinters (yes, much like Hill's verse).

Fashion Notes

Trust me - this is not a good look. For myself - being of an age to remember the last of stockings and suspenders and the arrival of the dreaded 'pantyhose' - I don't even like tights on women, let alone men. One is tempted to ask, Whatever next?

A Reputation

Hugh Walpole was born on this day in 1884. His career stands as a salutary reminder of the fragility of literary reputation. A prolific, versatile and ambitious writer and an energetic (as we'd say now) 'networker', he built a huge popular and critical success in the Twenties, selling large numbers of books, while attracting the encouragement of Henry James and the praise of Joseph Conrad and Virginia Woolf, to say nothing of lesser critics. It was widely assumed that he was a major English novelist, a classic whose fame would last, and deluxe editions of his books were considered highly collectible. This was just as Walpole wanted it, and he was seriously put out when Hilaire Belloc named Wodehouse rather than him as the greatest English writer of the time. Not that this perceived slight did him any harm; it was Somerset Maugham who, arguably, dealt a real blow to his hopes of lasting fame, with his thinly disguised caricature of Walpole as the ruthlessly ambitious, superficial writer Alroy Kear in Cakes And Ale. Through the Thirties, the reputation of Sir Hugh, that giant of English letters, declined, to the point where he was already passing out of fashion by the time of his death in 1941. He continued to be read - indeed the volumes of his Herries Chronicle are still is print - but today his work is most likely to be found sitting neglected, in its handsome bindings, on the shelves of charity shops and junk shops, and his name is all but forgotten. Literary fame is a fickle mistress. Every age has its Hugh Walpoles - giants whose mighty, apparently secure reputations will barely outlast them. I wonder who are the Walpoles of our time?...

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Pedestrians - It's Getting Worse

I don't like the sound of this one bit. It might be fair enough if drivers interpreted the crossing lights less loosely than they do - and if there weren't squadrons of bat-out-of-hell cyclists zooming around town ignoring all traffic controls, not to mention the distinction between roads and pavements. Even with the lights set at currents speeds, I've often seen the halt and lame stranded halfway across - at this rate they won't even dare to start out on the perilous journey across the road. Make life harder for the motorists, I say - they must be mad to be driving in London, and waiting while people cross the road is surely among the least of their irritations - and a whole lot easier for the pedestrians.

Chocolate Bad, Salt Good?

So this Scottish wowser is calling for a tax on chocolate. Chocolate, he declared on the radio this morning, is 'a major player in the rising obesity crisis' (and obesity is, he points out, 'a mushrooming problem'). He's especially indignant about the good press chocolate has been getting lately, giving people the impression it's good for them. Well, that depends, of course, on what you call chocolate. In my book, proper chocolate begins at 70 percent cocoa solids (and ends some way short of the all but uneatable 99 per cent). Unfortunately, what most people regard as chocolate has percentages in the 20s and is mostly fat and sugar. The obvious thing to do - and I've been saying this for a long time - is to tax sugar, a substance which has no place in the human diet. Best, indeed, to tax all sweeteners, as they only encourage the 'sweet tooth' and make us fat. Sole exemption - honey, because I like it and therefore conclude it's health-giving. Sorted.
I also like salt - and there's good news on that front. It may kill you, but at least you'll die happy. Of course, like all such 'findings', this should be taken (hem hem) cum grano salis.

Heat and Light

The discussion thread under my (lifted) post 'Brrr' below followed a sadly predictable pattern, with the sceptics staying generally cool and polite while the warmists, appropriately, waxed wrathfully warm. The heat generated by any questioning of the 'consensus' on this matter is not (as Spurious Pesudonym, I think, points out) that of beleaguered prophets in the wilderness - the warmists have all the agencies of power on their side and everybody's listening. Their righteous rage is similar in this respect to the militant atheists, who can hardly count themselves an embattled minority struggling in the iron grip of the church militant. And it is similar too in being, at bottom, a matter of faith - quasi-religious, pseudo-religious, sub-religious, meta-religious, whatever, but undoubtedly faith. It used to be that religion and politics were banned from conversation in the mess and at civilised dinner parties, for fear of generating unpleasantness. Perhaps global warming should be added to the list. It certainly tends to spoil the atmosphere of pleasant, amusing conversation that ought to characterise the blogscape - or at least a blog like this. A shame. And by the way there's a world of difference between Anonymous (which is what is says) and Nige (who, though pseudonymous, is a known entity).

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Grand Theft Parmigiano

I pass on this mind-boggling story from 'the number one site for cheese news' (a hard-won crown, I'm sure) without comment. Does it mean anything? Are the suffering middle classes really reduced to snaffling wedges of parmesan and pecorino? Where will it all end?

More Stylish Drama...

I imagine most of you will have somehow managed to resist the allure of Mistresses, BBC1's sub-chicklit soap that wishes so much it was Sex and the City. Mistresses is about a group of daft bints, all of them old enough to know better, all of them apparently irrestistible to men and incapable of resisting in return - as Homer said of Sex and the City, it's 'about these middle-aged women who behave like gay guys' - so the 'drama' consists entirely of the various ups and downs (as it were) of their wholly unbelievable sex lives. (The men, of course, are all improbably good looking and all either dull or dodgy, or both.) I believe that, as with Sex and the City, many watch this tosh - or claim to - for the interior decor and the clothes, which are indeed, er, striking... Anyway, my point is not to write about Mistresses (it would be to waste criticism on unresisting imbecility, as Johnson said in another context) but of what followed last night's episode. A BBC continuity announcer said, with a straight face, that for 'more stylish drama' we should switch to BBC 4 for... Mad Men. Now Mad Men stands in relation to Mistresses pretty much as Rembrandt stands in relation to Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Light. Yet the BBC seems to believe there is a common audience and a common appeal - the two programmes are also yoked together on the iPlayer trail - and that viewers of Mistresses will be left at the end of each episode thinking, Mmm that was stylish drama and no mistake. I wonder where I can find some more? Mad Men eh? Surely it can't be as stylish as Mistresses? Oh well I'll give it a try...
The BBC has lost the plot.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009


I've lifted this from a link on Frank Wilson's invaluable blog - couldn't resist it. Thanks, Frank!

Darn Socks?

What are we to make of this? Seems to me there are a lot of people out there with a whole lot more skills than me. Of that list, I can only do three for sure (not including claiming benefits or darning socks), perhaps another couple at a pinch. As Brian Wilson said, I guess I just wasn't made for these times...

Is It Him?

This is the portrait that's in the news - the 'Cobbe portrait' of someone who might or might not be
Shakespeare. It looks to me to be a pretty strong case - about as strong as it could be in the context - and it will be interesting to see if further research confirms it. I for one would certainly like to think that this sharp-eyed roguish fellow in the fancy ruff might be the man himself - and it's a fine portrait in itself. Any thoughts?

Monday, 9 March 2009

Bawden. Enjoy

Today is Edward Bawden's birthday (he'd be 106 if he were still with us) - a date that cannot go unmarked here at the illustrated blog. There's something about Bawden's work that always lifts the heart and leaves a smile on the face - no darkness about him, even in his war pictures. Here's a fine site with more images and links to Bawden heaven. Enjoy.

The Seinfeld Reunion - What Will It Be?

I'm not sure why, but the news of an impending Seinfeld reunion makes me feel rather uneasy - even if it is taking place on Larry David's sublime Curb Your Enthusiasm. I guess it's my reflexive distrust of reunions, the going through the same river twice thing. Good seldom comes of reunions, in comedy or music - an act comes together, establishes a chemistry, finds its place, then (usually) falls apart and can't be put back together again. And Seinfeld was all about chemistry - what else could have sustained a sitcom about disagreeable people doing deplorable things, with no hugs, no learning, no redemption? That such a show, breaking all the rules of the game, should not only have succeeded but become the biggest sitcom in the world is altogether extraordinary. Only in America. I doubt it would even have got made in the UK. Well, that chemistry and that time are gone for good, and I'm sure Larry David knows that, so it will be intriguing to see what he does with his four old 'friends'. Curb is already a kind of metacomedy; bringing Seinfeld (which of course was David's creation) into the mix will create - what - a kind of metametacomedy, I suppose. Will it be funny? Probably it will, with that much talent involved. It won't be Seinfeld. It will be fascinating to see what it will be.

Napping News

Oh no - even napping is bad for you now. At least this claim has a certain refreshing novelty, as every other 'finding' about napping has been overwhelmingly positive - excellent news for those of us who take an afternoon nap whenever we have the chance (taking care to loosen the cravat before nodding off) and feel a whole lot better for it. The list of risk factors for Type 2 Diabetes is ever growing, and even includes 'being 40' - hard to see how you could avoid that one, though some actresses seem to manage it for a while. A sensible precaution on their part. Personally I'm inclined to blame rising levels of Type 2 on the likes of the Krispy Kreme Donut and the cupcake, neither of which is fit for human consumption (see below).

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Retroprogressive News

Here we go - back to the future again. Not only are the railways carrying more passengers now than at any time since the postwar demobilisation, they're managing to be slower than they were in the 1930s. This shouldn't surprise us retroprogressives - but what did surprise me was the footage used to illustrate this story on the London news the other night. This showed commuter trains steaming into Waterloo in the 1930s, and the surprising thing was that, on each occasion, as soon as the train had stopped (or even slightly before), a high proportion of the passengers leapt out and sprinted up the platform at speed - a far cry from the dispirited shuffle of the modern workbound commuter. Why was this? Were they that keen to get to work? Was there some specific reason for getting off the platform sharpish? Was it the dynamic spirit of the age finding concrete expression (like Mussolini's high-speed marches)? Or was it just convention, part of 1930s commuter etiquette?
And here's another puzzle - the increasing popularity on this side of the Atlantic of the cloying, high-fat, mouth-puckeringly sweet, shockingly overpriced American cupcake, with its thick heavy topping of luridly coloured icing, plus all manner of cutesy shapes and sprinkles. First Krispy Kreme Donuts - now this. I suppose it's all part of the general infantilisation of our culture. Maybe hard times will reverse that trend and turn us into proper grown-ups again, sprinting up the platform, clasping our hats to our heads...

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Saturday Morning Minuet

A little something for Ravel's birthday (born 1875). A lovely piece... I used to stumble through this myself years ago, when I was at the height of my very limited pianistic powers. The suite Le Tombeau de Couperin - each piece in memory of a friend killed in the Great War - was criticised by some for being insufficiently sombre for the occasion. To which Ravel replied to the effect that 'Les morts sont assez tristes dans leur silence eternel.' Indeed.

Friday, 6 March 2009

Dark Is Easy

If you made it to the end of the desperately overstretched first of Channel 4's drama 'trilogy' Red Riding last night - and I suspect viewing figures plummeted during the second hour - you will not have failed to notice that this was dark stuff. Very dark. Very very dark. Dark as the Earl of Hell's waistcoat. You might also have noticed that - despite the hype and the acting and directing talent involved - it was essentially tosh, a preposterouly over-the-top confection, lazily mixing fact and fiction into a grand guignol extravaganza that presented West Yorkshire Police (incredibly, the force is named) as totally corrupt and dedicated solely to coverups, intimidation and even murder. However, despite having it in their power to bump off anyone who gets in their way, they limited themselves to progressively harder beatings (plus torture) when it came to our hero, the investigative reporter, thereby keeping him alive long enough to make it to the bloodbath finale. As I say, tosh. So why was it so eagerly commissioned and so heavily promoted? Partly, I think, because its insulting and patronising portrayal of the North as a realm of darkness and corruption appeals to 'smart' southern opinion, but more widely because of the unspoken assumption of our age that the darker the picture the truer it must be - we almost will it to be so. This is very handy for dramatists (and others) as, of course, Dark is so much easier than Light, the Bad Guys so much easier to portray and make 'interesting' than the Good Guys. There's an excellent essay on that subject here...
In the end, this unthinking preference for the dark side, the unquestioning assumption that it is somehow more authentic, is a fashion - a long-lasting one now and quite deeply entrenched, but still a fashion. Arguably it is linked to the luxury of living in easy, safe times - as we have been doing until very recently. When things get tough, we are more likely to seek escapism, optimism, good cheer, even exemplars of goodness - look at Hollywood during the Depression years, or, in a smaller way, British cinema during the postwar austerity. Maybe, now that times are going to get very much harder, the pendulum will swing again and hardship will return us to doing what, I hope, comes more naturally to us as humans - swimming towards the light.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Dylan News

As a service to readers, I bring you this breaking news of a new Bob Dylan album. The titles of the tracks sound promising...

If Beer Drank...

Yesterday I noticed a poster for Young's beer (a brew to which, as a south Londoner, I have a strong sentimental attachment). Here's what it said:
'If beer drank, it would drink Young's.'
Hmmm bit of an epistemological poser in there somewhere, I suspect... But if it means anything, I suppose it means that Young's is, as it were, the beers' beer. Beer itself would choose Young's as its preferred tipple. Can this be extended to other areas? If wine drank... no, the field's too big. If whisky drank... no, I don't think so. If biscuits ate biscuits... If cars drove cars... If blogs read blogs...?

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Tiepolo Today

The illustrated blog couldn't let the birthday of Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (born on this day in 1696) pass unmarked. The picture above, Time Uncovering Truth, achieved a certain belated notoriety when Silvio Berlusconi used a reproduction of it as the backdrop for a press conference - but not before having the exposed breast digitally covered with a wisp of gauze, for decency's sake. How strange...
Tiepolo, despite having been the last Venetian artist to achieve pan-European fame, was already passing out of fashion by the end of his career, and his reputation plummeted in the 19th century. Henry James described him as 'that tardy fruit of the Venetian efflorescence' and saw nothing to admire in him. Ruskin gave him but a couple of mentions in a late work, St Mark's Rest - this despite the fact that you can barely turn a corner in Venice without coming across something of Tiepolo's. Much later, in my own formative years, he was still regarded with suspicion - too frivolous to be taken seriously. It was only when I first went to Venice that I began to see the point of Tiepolo - to admire his dash, his sprezzatura, the luminosity of his colour, the sheer sensual enjoyment he offers (especially to someone like me who is particularly susceptible to blue - Tiepolo's blues are incomparable). His work doesn't reproduce well - as much of it covers entire ceilings, that is hardly surprising - but in situ it can be glorious, heart-lifting stuff. It is certainly one of the major joys of Venice. Happy birthday, tardy fruit!

Starbucks: Instant Karma?

Fast losing the plot, Starbucks, the bucket-of-froth franchise, has launched its own instant coffee on an unimpressed public. 'Weak', eh? 'Watery', eh? Whoever would have guessed? Starbucks' talk of having 'cracked the code' and come up with the freshest-tasting instant coffee ever seems to have had an element of wishful thinking about it. As the guy says in the piece, 'It's more the scene than the coffee.' Which is precisely why I never willingly set foot in a Starbucks.

Garret Keizer

I must admit I had never heard of Garret Keizer until I came across this brilliant essay on Home - which prompted me to seek out his other works. So I am now reading (at the usual halting pace dictated by life and eyestrain) his rather wonderful book, Help: The Original Human Dilemma. This is, as one of its reviewers remarks, 'that rarest of all books: one that has never been written before'. It is certainly no self-help manual or short cut to moral uplift; it's about as far from that as The Anatomy of Melancholy is from Ten Steps to a Happier You. I would say it's closer to the works of Thomas Lynch than anything I've read - and both men are clearly in the tradition of Montaigne, inquiring essayists exploring their own and other people's experiences. Help is a set of long essays on the giving and receiving of help, its difficulties and satisfactions, its costs to both helper and helped. Keizer focuses first on that great Christian paradigm of help, the Good Samaritan, and later on Norman Mailer's ill-fated attempt to help the killer Jack Abbott, and the extraordinary tale of how a French village managed to shelter and save some 5,000 Jews from the Nazis. Mixing anecdotes and interview material with quotations from his wide reading and instances from his equally wide experience of helping (he has been a pastor and a teacher), he is continually throwing new, often unsettling, light on the business of help. Never plumping for the easy answer, he is never happy either with the dusty answer, but pushes on to arrive at something like a satisfying picture of the human reality of helping and being helped. And all this in an easy, relaxed, almost conversational style that puts to shame the more pretentious and jargonish dabblers in these waters (I shan't name names). He is, indeed, a pleasure - and an education - to read, and deserves to be much better known on this side of the Atlantic. Seek him out.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009


Chervil, now - dashed fine herb (in fact a key ingredient of the classic French mixture fines herbes). It keeps popping up in recipes left, right and centre. But can you buy it in the shops? No, in my experience, you cannot - neither fresh nor dried - it is nowhere to be found. This is frustrating - and someone's missing a commercial opportunity here too, aren't they? However, I have managed to find the seeds on sale, and this year I'll be having a go at growing my own - shouldn't be too hard. While I was at it, I picked up some sorrel seeds too - another one that can never be found on the shelf (except occasionally in a salad mixture). In the words of Bob Marley, that's plenty 'erb, mon...

Vikki of Windsor

That Queen Victoria eh? Phwoar - bit of a goer, wasn't she? Yet again - prompted on this occasion by the release of the movie Young Victoria - we are being told to tear up all our preconceptions about Victoria being a straitlaced old bird, a miserable asexual killjoy, the gloomy Widow of Windsor, not amused, etc, etc. Well excuse me, but is there anyone alive who actually has these preconceptions any longer? For decades - since well before Mrs Brown - we've been told all about Victoria's happy sex life with Albert and her close, on this account at least quasi-sexual, relations with a succession of important men in her life. Indeed, the dear old Queen's popular image is now - following a string of books, documentaries and journalism ramming the message home - that of a near-nymphomaniac, incapable of living without male attention. The man or woman in the street is more likely now to think she had a succession of torrid affairs with all comers, up to and including John Brown and her Indian manservant. All of which is rather more of a caricature than the previous grim image. A truly revisionist view of Victoria now would be one that emphasised her gloomy killjoy side - and we'll probably be getting it in the course of time: tear up all your preconceptions about Victoria being a sex maniac, up for anything in trousers, etc, etc.
Maybe the problem is our compulsion to sexualise great figures from the past. The same thing has been done ad nausem with that most tempting of targets, the Virgin Queen - though oddly, with Cleopatra, a reverse process is under way, playing down the sensuality, playing up the hardheaded politics. Ah well, that's history...

Monday, 2 March 2009

Trombone and Monkey

I realised today that I remember the registration number (ULW 505, since you ask) of the car (a boxy old Anglia, since you ditto) of the headmaster of the school I was at half a century ago. Somehow, when so much that would have been vastly more useful, beautiful or illuminating, has fallen down the oubliette for good and all, this entirely worthless fragment remains firmly lodged. I could use the space too, now that my memory banks appear too full (of this sort of dross, no doubt) to take much more in, or even to allow me to remember what I was talking about a moment ago... But yesterday I discovered by chance a couple of facts which, though useless, do have a certain beauty, and stand a chance, I think/hope, of staying put in my frail memory. The French, I discover, call a paperclip a trombone - a rare flight of fancy by Moonseer Froggie there, at once perfectly descriptive and surreal. And the Polish - ah the Polish - call the @ sign, for which we have no word but at, a monkey. Think about it. I love it, and am going to set about introducing it into common usage. I suggest we all do the same. Ridicule and incomprehension will be our portion - but it will be a noble fight. We also need words for ... (OK it's an elipsis, but only subeditors use that word)and / - forward slash is very ugly. Oh there's stroke of course - but then what's back slash called - backstroke? Enough - time for my medication.

The Strange Case Of Mrs T and the BBC

Ironic, isn't it (a pedant writes: No), that the BBC, having spent decades pillorying Margaret Thatcher as the fons et origo of all that went wrong with this country, has suddenly come over all gooey and taken to portraying her, in drama at least, sympathetically? In fact sympathetically is putting it mildly - in the recent spate of Thatcher dramas, including the new one (Margaret, with Lindsay Duncan), she comes across as one heck of a woman - a beleaguered feminist heroine no less, and sexy with it (I'm thinking Andrea Riseborough in The Long Road to Finchley). What's happened? Is it that documentary and political analysis are one thing, drama another altogether? That once you embody a historical figure in a fact-based but imagined work, you give birth to the Inconvenient Truth of what that person was like - in Mrs T's case, her extraordinary force of personality, fixity of purpose and undoubted (if controversial) achievements become inescapable. Putting a flesh-and-blood 'Margaret' at the centre of the action makes 'Thatcherism' seem a very different, more interesting and compelling, thing. It's hard to believe that the BBC intended to make sympathetic dramas about their great bogeywoman; perhaps they reckoned without the power of drama to surprise, to take on a life of its own. Meanwhile, of course, the likes of Jeremy Hardy will continue with thier (vicious and unfunny) Thatcher-bashing as if nothing's happened...

Sunday, 1 March 2009


He was born on this day in 1810 - here's a little something to mark the occasion...

Buy More Books - And Cough Medicine!

Scenes like this (and no, I wasn't there yesterday) are, I find, at once guiltily exciting and decidedly unsettling - not only in their affront to one's (well, my) inner librarian, but in presenting the worrying image of the collapse of a corner of the book trade. As an Amazon Marketplace regular, I've had books from Bookbarn in the past - invariably astoundingly cheap, usually in good nick - and I'd hate to think that the demise of this pretty vast operation is a sign of things to come. It must be a very low-margin business when books are priced as low as 1p, as they are all over Amazon Marketplace. I guess there's only one thing for it - it is now incumbent on us all to buy even more books and keep these useful and amazingly good value operations going...
Meanwhile, this 'story' somehow found its way to the top of the news agenda overnight - well, it's not as if anything's happening in the world just now, is it? As well as being no news - it's been known for years that most cough and cold remedies, for adults or children, are clinically useless and can have adverse reactions - it's bound to spark yet another shelf-clearing panic, and no doubt present pharmacists with queues of anxious parents, who will have to be fobbed off with the only 'safe' (really?) medications, paracetamol and ibuprofen. Nice work... Surely the main point of cough and cold treatments is that they feel good and syrupy, clinging to the throat and easing it a bit - and that, with luck, they'll go some way to knocking you out. My own favourite is this classic, full of reassuringly old-fashioned ingredients, including both chloroform and ether - a few swigs of that and you're on your way. Stock up before it's banned.