Monday, 31 August 2009

William Maxwell: Gasping Again

I recently finished another William Maxwell - The Folded Leaf, which dates from 1945 (the title comes from an early Tennyson poem quoted as the epigraph: 'Lo, in the middle of the wood, The folded leaf is woo'd from out the bud...' and is peculiarly apt to a novel about adolescence - and one that ends, as this does, in a kind of enchanted wood that represents the reopened life, full of possibilities, of one of the two lead characters). Once again I'm left gasping by the masterly subtlety of Maxwell's art, by how completely he inhabits his characters - especially the two boys whose intense friendship, or rather love, is at the centre of the novel. Among other things, The Folded Leaf is an astonishingly accurate portrayal of the sturm und drang of adolescence, the exalted heights, the crushing depths, the fantasies, passions, daydreams and delusions. It's also, perhaps more surprisingly, very good on the physical delight of fighting - the favourite pursuit of the energetically physical, inarticulate, popular Spud Latham, who befriends the cerebral, pigeon-chested, unhappy Lymie Peters, and sparks in him a fierce, passionate love. The novel, set in the 1920s, essentially traces the course of that love - which is intensely physical and yet not sexual - as the boys grow, go to college and, when a girl appears on the scene, are driven apart and into... Well, to say much more would be to give away the plot. Suffice to say that events reach a terrible climax - almost unbearable after the reader has spent so long in the skin of Lymie and Spud and in their world (as ever, Maxwell is expert at touching in the telling detail). The ending, when it came, I found quite breathtaking - as I said, it left me gasping. And I still don't know how on earth Maxwell does it - he has this gift for creating what seems an entirely free-standing world ('very much lived and very much seen,' as Edmund Wilson puts it) but he is never far away, slipping into the action at frequent intervals, often appearing merely to digress - but all is, in the end, to the point, and Maxwell's touch is gossamer light; this is no omniscient narrator crashing onto the scene, nor a puppetmaster peeping out from behind the curtain. All is of a piece, all is one creation. And what a creation! I cannot for the life of me understand why Maxwell is not regarded, at least on this side of the pond, as one of the 20th-century American greats.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Hail the Shale

A hundred years ago today, Charles Walcott discovered the astonishing depository of bizarre and exceptionally well preserved fossils known as the Burgess shale. Stephen Jay Gould's book about the Burgess lifeforms, Wonderful Life, is one of the most enjoyable science-related books I've read. His demolition of the simplistic 'Tree of Life' model of evolution strikes me (layman and fop that I am) as very persuasive, as does his argument that the species that survived this explosion of lifeforms were no better adapted - and often worse adapted - than those that became extinct. It all boils down to one simple truth - Nothing's that simple. Even that.

I Should Have Known...

... shouldn't I? The least slighting reference to the eternal verities of the warmist creed and the Anonymouses of this world pitch in, bringing an unwelcome touch of bile to a blog normally characterised (I like to think) by good humour, good manners, sweetness and light - oh and foppish snorting of course. I'm not even a denier, merely a sceptic - it seems to me the only sustainable(!) position with a subject so vast and so little understood and in the face of warmist proposals that would, if fully enacted, give the world's economies more of a pasting than anything, ever, world wars included. To inflict that sort of thing on the world, you need to be absolutely sure of your ground - far surer than is possible in the present state of knowledge. The hysterical stridency of the warmists' assertions and their denunciations of other views look less like science to me than religion - this is the attitude of the religious zealot, priggishly asserting the purity and rigour of his belief, not the scientist rationally defending a theory. And the more prominent warmists don't endear themselves to the rest of us when their actions so conspicuously contradict their beliefs - e.g. Prince Charles recently jetting around South America with his huge entourage of retainers, warning us how little time we've got to 'save the planet' (the planet? I think the planet will be fine, thanks Chazza) while emitting more carbon that the rest of us would manage in a lifetime of Easyjet holidays. It seems that We - the unenlightened plebs - must mend our ways, not Them - the elect, the illuminati, the saved. A plague on 'em, I say (snorts foppishly and exits, vowing never to mention the subject again).

Friday, 28 August 2009

The Met Office Does Its Bit for Global Warming

Ah the delicious irony - the Met Office supercomputer, dedicated to mapping global warming, emits 12,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, making the Met Office building one of the most globe-warming (if you buy into the anthropogenic model) in the country. What should also be pointed out is that, so far, the Met Office supercomputer has proved spectacularly useless, as weather forecasting in this couuntry remains the bad joke it's always been - it's just that now it's an incredibly expensive and polluting bad joke. It hardly bears thinking about that the calculations of this mighty mathematical engine are a key element in the climate change projections that are driving government policies around the world. The Met Office and its mighty supercomputer have managed to call the last three summers wrongly, and have a record on forecasting tomorrow's weather that is little better than hanging up a bit of seaweed. Why should they be any more reliable on climate change?

A Pretty Decent Band

Hot on the heels of the death of Ellie Greenwich comes news of the passing of that fine keyboard player Larry Knechtel (who also, among much else, worked with Phil Spector). Knechtel was, along with James Burton, part of the creme-de-la-creme session band on John Phillip's masterpiece Wolfking Of LA, his rolling, lazy piano essential to the album's unique sound. As my old friend, the Sage of Tiverton, remarked, we'll have a pretty decent band waiting for us - but he ain't going till Hal Blaine is of the company. And me I'm holding out for James Burton...

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Keats and Chekhov - Mentshn

When I set out for the Surrey hills on the day commemorated in this post, I found myself with a bag quite heavily laden - what with inordinate quantities of drinking water (I am always thirsty), binoculars, sandwiches, the indispensable Guide to the Butterflies of Britain and Ireland by J.A. Thomas, etc - so I needed to keep my reading matter compact and lightweight. I took down my little blue clothbound OUP Selected Letters of John Keats from the shelf... Needless to say, I am now completely hooked again by this greatest, most vivid, fresh, profound, spontaneous, funny, generous and lovable of all letter writers, and the volume has become my daily reading. It is almost a truism that Chekhov is the only great writer who can unequivocally be called a good man, a thoroughgoing mensch. Is this not also true of Keats, who is so endlessly unselfish, resourceful, tough and practically caring (the hardest kind), so cordially concerned about others, so firmly connected to the world by the ties of human affection and obligation, and so careless of himself and his art when those ties take precedence? Surely he too is that rare combination of good man and great artist. Is it coincidence that both he and Chekhov had medical training? I think it probably is - medicine is not a profession noted for the production of good, or even nice, men - though his medical grounding might explain why Keats, even in his airiest flights of fancy, is always intensely - sensuously and tragically - aware of earthy physical reality.

War Record

I note that on this day in 1896 the shortest war in history was fought, coming in at 38 minutes from start to finish. That's a record unlikely ever to be broken - but then they said the same about Frank Marriott's record-smashing run in his Stanley Steamer in 1906...

Wurzel News

The campaign to rename Bristol Airport after 'Somerset's answer to Jimmy Dean' - Adge Cutler - seems to me a capital idea (I wonder if Brit's behind it?). It certainly beats John Lennon and Robin Hood (a son of Sheffield? really?). How about naming Manchester Morrissey International (heaven knows you're miserable now)? Or Newcastle Eric Burdon Airport (you've got to get out of this place)? Ect, ect, as N. Molesworth would say...

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Good News for the Steam Age

Hurrah! The retroprogressive steam car has done it. 'Kettle car' indeed - I never knew a kettle that could go at 150mph...

'Realism, or what we see as realism'

Anne Fine - a very good writer for adults as well as children - is worried about the effects a diet of downbeat literature might be having on child readers. Although it's very hard to judge the effects of books - or any other art form - on anybody, I think she's probably on to something (perhaps even one of the reasons why so many children give up on books altogether? Or why nihilistic adult fiction seems so popular?). Hope, aspiration and sheer escapism can all be legitimately fed by children's (or indeed adult) fiction, and the fact that so many of the most popular and enduring stories have a happy ending suggests that the structure answers a pretty deep-seated desire. The basic misconception that has led to a profusion of bleak children's fiction is that it is somehow more 'real'. It represents, as Anne Fine says, 'realism, or what we see as realism' - a good distinction; there is nothing more innately real in a relentlessly bleak narrative than in one that ends happily. Almost everybody's life contains (often intermixed) bleak narratives and happy narratives, even happy endings (necessarily provisional) - are the former narratives any more 'real' than the latter? Surely not, and the will to regard them as more real seems to me to be related to the bleak scientistic reductionism that insists on telling us what is 'really' going on when, say, we fall in love or enjoy a work of art. Really? Why should an event in life be more real at the level of neuroscience or evolutionary psychology than it is in our actual human experience? This seems as much a flight from reality as an embrace of it - as does the self-conscious 'realist' bleakness of much children's (and adult) fiction.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

A Garden Day

I spent most of yesterday toiling in the garden. Having suddenly noticed the state it had lapsed into - thanks to my recent habit of heading for the butterfly-rich Surrey Hills every time the sun appeared - I realised it was high time I got down to work. So I set about cutting back the would-be jungle - the previous owners planted the garden with the fastest-growing plants available to man, which ensures a pleasingly sheltered aspect and semi-wild look, but also entails much work with shears, loppers and secateurs. Naturam expellas furca, as the poet said, tamen usque recurret (translation: Get off your lazy arse and into the garden). I also tackled dirtier work in clearing accumulations of plant detritus, and restoring some kind of order in an area at the bottom of the garden that, hidden from view, had degenerated into a chaos of pots and compost and half-dead remnants of plants - and a wildly popular resort hotel for the local slugs and snails. Much transformation was achieved, and it was a day well spent - in a far larger sense, I felt, than the utilitarian. Is there any activity more therapeutic - both physically and spiritually - than gardening? Walking comes close, but walking encourages thought, whereas gardening, I find, has a delightful cleansing effect, wiping the mind clear of all but the work that is literally at hand, and the immediate sights and sounds and earthy, vegetal smells. Annihilating all that's made to a green thought in a green shade - if it is even a thought... Garden work feels like a primal, deeply healing activity. Certainly, having started the day conscious of the background mumble of vague undefined malaises,physical and mental (I believe it's known as the human condition), I ended it physically tired, sweaty and dirty, but deeply, richly satisfied, and with all those unformed woes put to flight. Tending a garden is surely what we were put on earth to do. The rest is noise.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Under Threat From Nature

It seems it isn't just me - the butterfly mania has spread to Radio 4. The programme Nature reported last week on the wonderful success of the reintroduced Large Blue - warning: this link contains an image of Brett Westwood, a man whose face was truly made for radio. Then, very early this morning, as I lay reluctantly awake, I was delighted to hear an edition of The Living World devoted to the very rare but recovering Heath Fritillary - don't worry, this link contains only a butterfly image. What struck me in both reports was that each species was endangered not by man's intervention but by man's ceasing to intervene to maintain the particular manmade environment essential to the species' wellbeing. It was when grazing was cut back that nature reasserted itself and threatened to drive the butterflies out (in the case of the Large Blue, it succeeded). Yet another exposure - if any were needed - of the romantic myth (pure 'spilt religion') that nature exists in a paradisal stasis until evil man comes along and ruins everything. What we take to be unspoilt natural landscape is, in a country like ours, entirely manmade - and in most other parts of the world this is nearly the case. We owe the survival of so many of our most precious butterflies - so dependent on very precisely constituted micro-environments - to human intervention, in particular in the form of woodland management and grazing. When man withdraws, these species come under threat - from nature. As Blake put it, 'Without Man, Nature is barren.'

Friday, 21 August 2009

Dan Brown, Oxfam Star

Frank Wilson has a few telling thoughts about Dan Brown and links to an interesting longer piece. I rather doubt if Dan Brown's books (if that is what they are) will be on many people's shelves too far into the future. He might prove to be one of those megasellers whose success baffles future generations - like, say, Marie Corelli or Hall Caine - because their works too precisely reflect the preoccupations of their time (in Brown's case a post-9/11 need to decode some simple deeper meaning below the surface of events). There's perhaps some evidence that Brown's books aren't for keeping in the fact that they are the most commonly donated to Oxfam shops. Does anyone reread Brown, I wonder? It's interesting that Ian Rankin still outsells him in Oxfam shops - and odd that so few of the authors on the most donated list are also among the top sellers. Presumably their books are quietly disposed of...

James Burton's Sweet Guitar

I'm workwhelmed again at the moment, but today's big birthday must be marked - it's the 70th of the world's finest guitarist (says he controversially) James Burton. What his Wikipedia entry doesn't mention is that Burton ('Do it for me, James') was also in the great band - Larry Knetchell, Joe Osborn, Buddy Emmons, Hal Blaine ('Hit it, Hal'), Burton - on John Phillips' forgotten masterpiece Wolfking Of LA (which I just might have mentioned before)... Still going more than strong, Burton can be seen here with Emmylou at last year's James Burton Guitar Festival. The sound's all over the place, but there's no missing the beauty of Rodney Crowell's song - and James Burton's sweet guitar.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Not So Good News?

The attempt on the long-standing (and then some) steam car land speed record seems to be running into difficulties. However, we of the retroprogressive tendency are cheering on the team as it races back into the future. When Fred Marriott first broke that record in 1906, his Stanley Steamer was the fastest thing on earth, and remained so for at least 13 years. Who needs petrol?

Good News

Such as it is, the deceptively cool British Warm Spell of recent years is potentially very good news for butterflies - as is proved by this heartening story. The doughty little Duke of Burgundy (not a Fritillary, by the way, but our only Metalmark butterfly), just barely clinging on in this country on by its four tiny legs (the other two are vestigial), has managed a second, late-summer brood again. As the Duke is so fussy about its habitat - its food plant, the cowslip, must be growing to just the right height, in just the right combination of sunshine, warmth and shelter - this is no mean achievement, and might mark the beginning of a slow comeback. As the man says, 'We are forever underestimating butterflies'. And the rest of nature, come to that.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009


I caught a trailer for the new Tarantino movie - his self-described 'masterpiece' - last night (at a casual glance it looked like something Mel Brooks might have dreamt up). But why, I wondered, was only the first word of the title given? The answer, incredible as it may seem, is that the curiously-spelt name Inglourious Basterds has proved too much for British sensibilities and it's been censored. Can you believe it? In a country where we're apparently happy to broadcast genuinely offensive material both before and after the nominal 'watershed', where the casual shouting of Fs and Cs in the street barely raises an eyebrow, and where card shops prominently display (at child level) cards bearing witless crudities I wouldn't care to repeat here, we apparently can't stomach the (non-)word 'basterds', a misspelt version of just about our mildest insulting noun (if it's insulting at all - it doesn't seem to be in Australia). Indeed, the word has been deemed so ultra-offensive that it can't be spelt out on the TV trailer till 10pm - one hour into post-watershed time. What on earth is going on here?

Monday, 17 August 2009

A Day Well Spent

There's not a breath of autumn in the air yet, but it's the time of year when the days of high summer already seem numbered. As a result, I have the walking mania - accompanied, when the capricious sun deigns to shine, with the butterfly mania. This morning's sunshine sent me out on another walk on the Surrey hills, climbing up from Gomshall to join the North Down Ways, which I more or less followed as it winds eastward to Westhumble. The sun proved inconstant, but happily it came out at the right moments, notably when I emerged from the steep woods onto well-flowered downland (wild marjoram more than anything, with scabious, bellflowers, knapweed and thistles, St John's wort, hawkweed, viper's bugloss, selfheal, rockrose, birdsfoot trefoil, scarlet pimpernel, etc, etc). On one stretch of down, with wide views over the valley to the wooded hills beyond, there were stocky black-and-white saddleback cattle grazing (not something you often see), as well as rabbits keeping the paths close-cropped. In this classic downland, with the sun out, I was, of course, in butterfly heaven, my face no doubt wreathed in daft smiles as I wandered along - here were beautiful common blues galore, and silvery pale chalkhill blues, also the odd Adonis blue, the most intensely coloured and jewel-like of them all, as well as gatekeepers and meadow browns, a few small heaths and the lovely little brown argus, with delicate orange eyes bordering its chocolate brown wings. Disappointingly, I didn't spot any marbled whites (and, oddly, not a comma all day) - but there was compensation. As I was following the path along the edge of beechwoods (with, every now and then, abandoned brick wartime pillboxes), I took a detour down onto a grassy bank, fringed with woodland and carpeted with flowers - and there, darting about close to the ground, but pausing obligingly to enable a definite identification, were silver-spotted skippers. Nationally this is a rare butterfly, but the Surrey hills are one of the areas where it hangs on, even thrives - and it is a little beauty, as can be seen from the picture above. Then, as I was admiring the skippers, out from the edge of the woods flew a showy male silver-washed fritillary... But we've had enough of those for one summer's blogging.
I also saw a couple of late-flyling ringlets.
'Black Erebia butterflies ('Ringlets' as the old English aurelians used to call them), with a special gentle awkwardness peculiar to their kind, danced among the firs.' That's Nabokov in Speak Memory, quoted as an epigraph to The Aurelian Legacy: British Butterflies and Their Collectors, a handsome book published by the University of California Press (and much remaindered, so available at an amazingly low price). It's in the pile by my bedside, and I'm sure it will do much to help me through the coming months of no butterflies.

Friday, 14 August 2009

Those Magnificent Men...

It may be that on this day in 1901, in Fairfield, Connecticut, the first powered flight was accomplished - two years before the Wright brothers managed it. The man who took to the air (or not) on that day was one Gustave Whitehead (born Gustav Weisskopf), a Bavarian immigrant, and he seems to have covered a distance of nearly half a mile (much more than the Wright brothers), at an impressive height of nearly 50ft. What intrigues me still more is the account of a flight made even earlier, in Pittsburgh in 1899, in a steam-powered monoplane, with a friend stoking the boiler. This ended when the plane crashed into a building, leaving Whitehead's unfortunate chum seriously scalded and scarred for life. Steam-powered aviation - now there's a thought... Anyway, the whole question of who flew first remains riddled with controversy - you can read all about the Whitehead claims, in exhaustive detail, here.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

And Shall Trelawny Die?

On this day in 1881, the very long, extremely colourful and much romanticised life of Edward John Trelawny ended. The fact and fantasy of his life are outlined here. Having narrowly survived a serious murder attempt during his days with the Greek insurgent chief Odysseus, he lived another 46 years, only to succumb in the end to a fall while on his habitual morning walk. The friend and associate of the Shelley-Byron circle - and the orchestrator of the famous cremation - he had lived into the late Victorian age, long enough to pose for a world-famous Millais painting. That's him above, with his daughter Laetitia, in Millais's The North West Passage. Trelawny's ashes were, of course, interred alongside Shelley's in the Protestant cemetery in Rome, in a plot he had himself bought as a suitable resting place for them both.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Keep Your Eyes Peeled...

Here's a book rummager's dream - coming across a copy of this. It would be rather wonderful if some day someone does turn one up. It's still more wonderful that a piece of juvenilia should have such a market value, purely on the grounds of its author's reputation and its ultra-scarcity. But that's bibliomania for you...

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

A Heartening Survival

It's somehow reassuring that, in times when all around is changing at bewildering speed, some things stay resolutely the same. This ad, consisting of a chunk of filched copy slapped down in the clunkiest layout available, with a photo that was dated even when it was taken, has turned out to be, in terms of longevity, the most successful newspaper ad ever (probably). So much for the pretensions of the big-money big-ego con artists and bullmongers of the advertising 'profession'.

Childhood Reading

Today is the birthday of Enid Blyton, born on this day in 1897 at 354 Lordship Lane, East Dulwich. I only mention this detail because long ago, in another life, I worked at the public library a few doors away from that far from illustrious address - a library where her works were at the time (this was in the days when Political Correctness was sweeping all before it) frowned upon and not displayed on the shelves of the children's library. Nor was the fact of her birthplace ever mentioned or marked in any way - she was, as far as that borough was concerned, a non-person. Not that any amount of disapproval or censorship did much then, or has done much since, to dent the phenomenal popularity of Enid Blyton among children. She seems to be one of those irresistible forces - irresistible only to children, thank heavens - in the face of which criticism is so much wasted breath. Think Jeffrey Archer, but on a vastly larger scale, over a far longer timespan, and with the saving grace that her readers are not adults. I read the odd Blyton myself in childhood and found them, as I dimly recall, very readable simply for their narrative drive - but I was not much of a reader. I'd pick up what might come my way - which wouldn't be much in a non-bookish household - but I didn't care much about books and really read very little, at least until books began to 'do it' for me, around the age of 10 - odd books that I would read again and again: a life of Albert Schweitzer, Black Beauty, Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals, Tom Sawyer, then, in a bit of a leap, the bombshell of discovering Tennyson (In Memoriam) and Dickens (A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist), and after that, a few more years along the line, finally getting the guidance I needed (thanks to a really good teacher), I truly became a reader...
It was Sophie King's comment under the Tove Jansson post below that got me thinking about childhood reading. She is so right about the joy of seeing another generation discovering the pleasures of reading - and still better if it's with the same books that we enjoyed ourselves in childhood. In my case, it was as often as not a case of discovering rather than rediscovering - I had never read the wonderful E. Nesbit, for example, until I (or, more usually, Mrs Nige, one of the keenest bedtime readers on the planet) read her to our children. Tove Jansson and most of Beatrix Potter, among much else, I hadn't read - let alone a whole world of superb children's books published since my own childhood. It seems to me that reading to our children is not only one of the greatest gifts we can give them - both in the act itself and in the worlds it potentially opens out - but it can also be a great gift to ourselves, and one of those rare occasions in the reading life when we are not on our own.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Tove Jansson

As well as being Philip Larkin's birthday (he'd have been a mere 87), today is also the anniversary of the birth, in 1914, of the extraordinary Tove Jansson, whose work across so many fields avoids any easy classification, except perhaps as 'Finnish'. I didn't realise quite how good a writer she was until I read The Summer Book, her haunting novel about a single summer spent on one of those tiny islands in the Gulf to which Finns love to escape. An elderly artist and her six-year-old granddaughter talk and play, have small adventures and small fallings-out, and do the things that pass a long summer, all in the shadow of an unspoken fact - the death of the child's mother, the grandmother's daughter. Unsentimental, brusque even, and often quite funny, it creates a self-contained world that entirely convinces - partly because of Jansson's gift for sharp close observation - and casts a spell that is all its own.
More recently I read Moomin Valley In November, and that too is an extraordinary book - and, like The Summer Book, one permeated by grief. The characters are drawn to the valley by memories of good times they've had with the Moomin family - but the Moomins are gone, leaving the characters to play out their own obsessions, fears and fantasies, and hope against hope that the Moomins will return. A strange, melancholy book, it is a very far cry from the earlier Moomin adventures, and if those are the only Moomins you know, I'd recommend looking this one out. Or even if you've never read Tove Jansson at all.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

An Aurelian Writes...

At Bookham station yesterday, I stood on the footbridge and watched a pair of Silverwashed Fritillaries enjoying a buddleia bush. I was on my way back home, having seized the opportunity of the first proper sun in a week and more to head for butterfly country, settling on Bookham Common. This, like Ashtead (but with fewer veteran oaks and less open space) is one of those fine Surrey commons that are mostly oakwood, with hazel coppices or the remnants thereof, hornbeam, ash, birch etc, with broad rides as well as lovely narrow twisting paths through the woods. It was a disappointing day at first - little to be seen but those unregarded beauties the Speckled Woods(how highly we'd value them if they were scarcer) - but before long I found myself on the edge of a sunny ride with a full half dozen Silverwashed Fritillaries simultaneously in view, the bright males swooping and bombing, the more subdued females (as in the picture)quietly going about their business. In the course of my walk, I was able to observe several of these subtly coloured, sometimes slightly worn and tattered, females very close up, as they methodically drank the nectar from whatever was on offer. Later I had the pleasure of getting even closer to feeding Common Blues - so close that I was able to minutely compare the markings on their dotted lapidary underwings with the illustrations in my field guide. If only all blues were so obliging... On my way back to the station, I found a small meadow, or rather grassy patch, that was alive with blues and skippers and browns - and this year's speciality, the Painted Lady - just as I remember from similar sites in my boyhood, before the depredations of intensive agriculture had made their full impact. Auden, knowing nothing of either, imaged a faultless love and the life to come as a limestone landscape and the murmur of underground streams. For myself, I think of a sunny meadow alive with butterflies, and the murmur of pollinating bees.

Friday, 7 August 2009

What To Say?

Here's a burning question, plucked hot and smoking from the seething cauldron of contemporary urban life. What do you say when someone you're passing on the street beams at you and declares, with every sign of conviction: 'Jesus loves you!'? It's just happened to me again (it's a not infrequent occurrence - maybe I look especially lovable-by-Jesus). This time I managed to exclaim 'Oh good!' There must be better responses...

Thursday, 6 August 2009

So, Farewell Then...

As I feared, that Reason To Be Cheerful, the BBC's Sports Editor Mihir Bose, has given up the unequal struggle and resigned. It seems he's taken an awful lot of flack - presumably from people who care about sport, which I don't - and I'm sure he'll be glad to be out of the clutches of the BBC (what sane person wouldn't be?). I for one wish him well - and I shall truly miss him.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Pritchett on Chekhov - Nothing to Add

I've just read A Dreary Story - another stunningly good major Chekhov story which, like My Life, I'd somehow managed to miss (I sometimes wonder if I've read Chekhov at all...). I was going to post on A Dreary Story, but then I came across this and realised that there's really nothing to add. Pritchett even catches in a phrase the precise blend of qualities that give the story its uniquely unnerving tone - 'an unrepentant cold intellectual vivacity' indeed. Has any other writer had such a deep and sympathetic understanding of Chekhov and what makes him great?

Those Palm Court Days

For those of us nearing the end of our fifth decade in this whale of tears, it can sometimes seem that we were born into a different world, one now impossibly remote. Mention of my boyhood holidays with my grandmother in this post got me thinking about those distant days in the still genteel resorts of England. The entertainment on offer (apart from the odd exotic bird of passage like John Ogdon) represented the last gasp of the music hall, with mostly dire comedy and novelty acts interspersed with bad crooners trying to sound American. In those days resorts had bands in residence through the summer. In Scarborough, my grandmother would often doze in a deckchair to the strains of Max Jaffa and his Palm Court Orchestra (Jaffa's band included over the years the likes of Plum Wodehouse, Jack Lemon, Alfred Apple Jr, Clementine Churchill - and, in a disastrous late experimental phase, Don Cherry, Moby Grape and Tangerine dream - but I digress). Jaffa and his orchestra also had a regular, very popular show on the radio, which lasted into the 60s. By then, of course, the game was up - the pop-rock juggernaut was rolling - but the old ways hung on a surprisingly long time. Before the coming of Radio 1 (the pirate stations forcing the BBC's hand) there were precious few original recordings to be heard on the (legitimate) radio. If you were lucky, you might get a live performance, backed by the Northern Dance Orchestra; if you were less lucky, it would be an 'interpretation' by said NDO - a fine band, but they could not in any sense be said to rock (and their leader, Bernard Herrmann, was not THAT Bernard Herrmann, of Psycho fame). Once the BBC succumbed to rock, the whole world soon followed suit. For me, along with the music, adolescence struck, with its attendant horrors and follies. Those holidays were at an end, and so was that distant pre-pop world. What a long strange trip it's been, as Max Jaffa remarked (or was it Cherry Garcia?).

Tuesday, 4 August 2009


Like my new look? Actually, it's not me but this fine fellow. Burke's Peerage's judgement - "he seems only to have existed for the purpose of giving a melancholy and unneeded illustration of the truth that a man with the finest prospects, may, by the wildest folly and extravagance, as Sir Thomas Browne says, 'foully miscarry in the advantage of humanity, play away an uniterable life, and have lived in vain.'" - seems a little harsh, though life is indeed uniterable. You can understand the Pagets not being very keen on him, but the grand tradition of loony English aristos - in which Paget holds an honoured place - surely enhances the gaiety of the nation. And gaiety is something we could all do with - especially those of us who are at this moment wrestling with infuriatingly recalcitrant technology in steam-room temperatures...

Sunday, 2 August 2009

'Reading' and Reading

We are told that the Man Booker Prize judges have, in less than seven months, 'read' 132 novels. Am I alone in finding it somewhat unlikely that these busy public figures have found time in their lives to read something like five novels a week? I don't think I'd be able to manage that even if I devoted every waking hour to it - and if I did, what would I have achieved, apart from a feat of endurance? I certainly wouldn't remember anything much (if anything at all) of the endless book blur whizzing past my tired eyes. I've written before about reading and forgetting - and this morning, on the radio, the excellent Craig Brown spoke with commendable candour on his own literary amnesia, freely admitting that he remembered only the odd snippet, if anything, of books he had read - and reviewed! - the previous week. The Booker pretence of having read and remembered such a ludicrous number of books (and it grows larger every year) gets more and more absurd. The truth is that the judges will have skimmed most of them, made up their minds pretty fast on which titles not to proceed with, maybe revisited a few in the course of the whittling down process. None of these novels will have been properly digested - still less enjoyed - in the way of a book read at leisure, at the reader's own speed. For this reason, no doubt, many a good title - one that demands to be properly, fully read - slips through the net, and many a less good one ends up on the shortlist. This is to say nothing of the vagaries of panel discussion, which can throw up the most unlikely winners. Never mind - at least this year Me Cheeta made the longlist. That's a book I'd recommend anyone to read. At leisure.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

John Ogdon

While the Yard finds himself museless, me I find myself in the grip of a bastard 'summer cold'. But I don't complain. Yes I do...
Anyway, today is the 20th anniversary of the death of the prodigiously gifted pianist John Ogdon (and, oddly, the 12th anniversary of Sviatoslav Richter's death). I saw Ogdon twice in my life. The first time was on a boyhhood holiday with my brother and grandmother at some seaside resort (it might have been Folkestone, still at that time a genteel resort). My grandmother took us to a recital by Ogdon, who played the Moonlight sonata and I can't remember what else. I was duly impressed, but my grandmother - a woman whose cultural horizons were not of the broadest - was less convinced. 'He's good,' she opined, 'but he's not as good as Russ Conway, is he?' Many years later, I was at the launch of a book about children's radio when I noticed a plump, tweed-coated, bear-like man with a shock of curly grey hair wandering vaguely around the edges of the crowd looking bewildered. With a shock, I realised that it was Ogdon - a fact confirmed when a Radio 3 music producer pounced on him and swept him away. This must have been shortly before his death.
Here's a snatch of Ogdon in his prime, playing the Hammerklavier.