Saturday, 31 October 2009

Hello Emmylou, Goodbye Dear Departed

Listening to Emmylou Harris last night, my mind wandered back to the subject of secular funeral music. If you must have secular, this seems to me to fit the bill beautifully. Ostensibly it's about a dog (must have been some dog!), but it's a beautiful, universal song of loss and grief. As is her other classic, Boulder to Birmingham. Equally fitting for a funeral would be her lovely version of Beyond the Great Divide (on All I Intended to Be). There - three secular options, none of which would set the teeth on edge.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Busy Busy

Brit usefully divides the human race - or rather the working portion of it - into Tortoises and Hares. There are, of course, two kinds of people: those who divide the world into two kinds of people, and those who don't - but here's another useful division: People who get round to things and People who don't. There's a saying 'If you want a job done, ask a busy man' and it has a deal of truth in it. A busy person is, self-evidently, a person who gets round to doing things; an underoccupied person is one who doesn't. A busy person is also likely to be one who knows how to manage his time to fit into it as much as he can, and to get jobs out of the way with as much dispatch as possible. As I draw near my seventh decade (Lord, there's a thought) and life gets relentelssly busier rather than quieter, I find myself organising my time more and more - in order not to let it got to waste, and, mostly, in the interests of fitting in as many pleasurable activities (reading, walking, listening to music etc) as possible. I am the more busy that I may spend more time pleasurably and profitably 'idle'. On the other hand, if you want a job done, please don't ask me.

The Radio Age

More progress (ha!) on the retroprogressive front, with the latest radio listening figures showing that 45.7 million people listen every week - that's very nearly 90 percent of the population. Surely television, the shiny new medium, was supposed to sweep radio listening into the margins, a quaint survival in an age of wraparound visual entertainment. Well happily it hasn't worked out that way. The trouble with any form of visual entertainment is that it necessarily has a static source - whether TV or computer (mobile phones are really not an option) - and therefore requires rather a lot of focused attention. Radio, on the other hand, being nothing more than sounds in the air, can follow you anywhere, and you can get the minimal equipment you need in totally portable form. 'Perfect for today's busy lifestyle.' (In the early days of radio, it was, oddly, more like TV, in that the family would assemble round the only set in the house, essentially a large item of furniture, and focus their attention on it, even staring at it as if there was something to see. Hence the decorative fretboard over the speaker.) Radio listening is a wholly different experience from TV watching - more human, more intimate, more like being with another person. It has a stronger emotional hold than television, is more like 'company'. And, of course, there's an awful lot of good stuff on, especially on Radios 3 and 4 - both showing good increases in listeners in the latest figures. This very morning I was listening to Melvyn and co discussing Schopenhauer on Radio 4 (admittedly this would be followed in due course by Woman's Hour and You and Yours, but it's an imperfect world). This is the Radio Age - forward to the past!

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Any Excuse for a Picture of Venice...

Born on this day in 1697, Giovanni Antonio Canal. Surname Canal, nickname Canaletto, special subject canals (Venetian). There is no disputing that his early paintings (and his etchings) tend to be much more rewarding than his often repetitive and formulaic later work. We are lucky to have his wonderful (early) Stonemason's Yard in the National Gallery. When Canaletto was working in England, he was certainly not at his best, and the critic George Vertue even questioned whether the artist representing himself as 'Canaletto' was in fact the real thing. The poor man had to give public painting demonstrations to establish that he was...
Meanwhile, Venice awaited Turner.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Reading and Reviewing and Rereading and Transparent Things

I see that tomorrow - or probably, by the time you're reading this, today - this bizarre project reaches its triumphant end: Nina Sankovich will have read and reviewed 365 books in 365 days. What the? you may well ask, followed by Why the? Is there a book of anything like book length that can be truly read in one day, let alone sufficiently assimilated to be usefully reviewed? Me, I've just spent a week's reading time on Nabokov's Transparent Things - a novella of little more than 100 pages. I suppose, if I'd had nothing else occupying me and my eyes weren't in their permanent state of screen-strain, I could have read it in a day, conceivably even 'reviewed' it on the same day, but to little effect. 'Let us now illustrate our difficulties.' Transparent Things is one of those books I return to again and again, am never disappointed and always find new wonders, new beauties and new mysteries. I first read it in the pages of - Playboy was it? Or Esquire? - and have been rereading it at intervals ever since. It seems a perfect condensate of Nabokov's genius, his late masterpiece, containing a hint at least of everything that makes him great, while striking out in what seems a novel and strange direction. On the face of it (those who know it, forgive the rehearsal), it is an account of four visits to Switzerland, separated by 20 years or so, by a sullen, gawky misfit of a publisher, in the course of which his father dies, he (himself) has a professional encounter with the immensely distinguished and morally derelict writer R, falls in love with the icily promiscuous Armande, marries her, and, on the last visit, returns self-widowed to meet his own end ('This is, I believe, it; not the crude anguish of physical death but the incomparable pangs of the mysterious mental maneuver needed to pass from one state of being into another.'). Along the way... Along the way, what? Transparent Things is an agile, beady-eyed, seriocomic meditation on time and memory and dreamlife and loss, and on the 'transparent things, though which the past shines'. It's a tale told by whom? Even such a basic question is not easily answered... But this is not a review. Even this slim volume was not read, reread, rereread, in a day. 'Easy, you know, does it, son.'

Monday, 26 October 2009

And Timothy Dexter

Before the day is over, I guess we should commemorate this fellow, who died on this date in 1806. There's really nothing to add to the extraordinary story outined here, except perhaps a few !s

The Best Time of Year?

Today being one of those perfect autumn days that seem almost too good to be true, I was out of the house like a shot to continue my Picturesque Tour Through Ye Whole Countie of Surrey - or rather those of its more agreeable parts that are within reach of the railway network. A day of duckegg blue skies, warm golden sun, the trees in all their autumn beauty. My first destination was Great Bookham, one of those cosy, low-slung, brick-built and tile-hung, well-fed and prosperous Surrey villages that still retain a villagey character and life, with plenty of shops, plenty of people about, plenty of smiles and good cheer and unsolicited Hellos - at least on a day of such cheering weather. I wanted to see the church, which stands at a crossroads in the middle of the village, a big stocky weatherboarded tower at the West end, a neatly restored 14th-century chancel at the other, the body of the church still recognisably Norman, with short fat scalloped piers, the general effect very charming. Some surprisingly grand monuments of the 17th and 18th centuries dominate the interior - and the best of these is a gem. It commemorates Cornet Geary, killed in the American War of Independence, in 1776, at Flemington, New Jersey. Britannia mourns over a portrait medallion of the young man, beneath which a delicately carved relief depicts his death, in an ambush. Pevsner raves over it- 'a composition as elegant and tender as an early Mozart symphony' - and accords it a photographic plate (sadly I cannot find anything more than the relief online, and that too small to reproduce). Well, Cornet Geary alone was worth the trip, but I carried on, walking by tracks and byways over to Westhumble, ending with a brisk climb up the dip of Box Hill to admire the view. Ah those trees - every shade from the blue-black of yew and box, to tired deciduous greens, through every tint in the yellow-orange palette, copper and bronze, pink and claret and burgundy and fierce splashes of blazing red. Glorious. This time of year, in warm sunny weather, is surely the best of all - apart from the lack of butterflies (though I saw a couple of lingerers - a Painted Lady and a Red Admiral)... I made my way down to Westhumble station - also admired by Pevsner - and so, warmed and cheered and sustained, home.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Scepticism (again)

I'm happy to say I haven't seen the piece of alarmist TV propaganda (paid for, presumably, with my money and yours) skewered here by the redoubtable Gaw. If I had, I would probably have thrown something at the telly; those of a more practical bent have, I gather, complained in large numbers to the ASA, which is good. It just shows the level of hysterical stridency with which the propagation of the warmist gospel and the onslaught on the 'deniers' (see also Gaw's How to Ruin a Word) are now being conducted. As I've argued many a time, the only intellectually respectable position on the subject of anthropogenic climate change is one of scepticism. For that reason, I was especially glad to hear Clive James also making the case for scepticism on Radio 4 - making it eloquently, wittily but forcefully, while at the same time introducing a startled nation to the possibility that we might have been eating sliced golf balls in our potato crisps. The trouble with scepticism, of course, is that it is liable to get drowned out when debate is conducted - or rather evaded - in the manner exemplified by that TV ad. Perhaps, in the end, the warmist onslaught will, as Gaw suggests, become entirely counterproductive, and that might, just might start a general drift towards scepticism. Let's hope so, for everyone's sake.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Cravat Heroes, No 3: Clark Kent

See - even Superman wears a cravat. I rest my case.

Shaving News

Long-term readers of this blog may recall my dalliance with the improbably futuristic Azor... Since then my ardour has cooled, to the point where I gave up on the thing altogether and reverted to the trusty Gilette Fusion. However, the other day I spotted Azors on sale at half price - yes, half price, and with two spare blades thrown in. Who could resist? Not me - but, before ripping the plastic casing off the new Azor (no easy feat), I thought I'd see if there was any shave left in the old one. To my surprise, it's still shaving well - indeed it shows no sign of blunting. That Endurium coating must work, after all... At this rate the new Azor with its two spare blades will see me out - or certainly last until there are no more Azors to be had. Which, I fancy, won't be long. It's a razor ahead of its time.

Those Crazy French

Ah the glorious (root: gloire) absurdity of the French never ceases to amuse. Now they're celebrating the 50th anniversary of a clapped-out cartoon character with a costumed pageant, a seminar at the Sorbonne, a musical, a flypast, que sais-j'encore - oh and, for good measure, a bitter squabble among several villages over which of them inspired Asterix's home. Only in France would the anniversary of a cartoon character who, even in the fans' estimate, long ago ceased to be any good, and was never funny (except perhaps to the French, whose sense of humour is no laughing matter), spark such a frenzy of self-congratulatory brouhaha. He may be rubbish, is the French line, but he's our rubbish. Asterix is held to stand for the plucky, wily, sturdily independent French nation, holding out against the forces of US cultural imperialism, or whatever is the latest threat to precious French identity (not much holding out in the Last Spot of Bother, if memory serves)... Not that I'm knocking it - the reason France is still France is precisely this inflated sense of her own importance. It's just that I can't see any other nation on earth celebrating 50 years of an unfunny cartoon character on quite such an absurdly grandiose scale. Vive la France!

Thursday, 22 October 2009

New Zealand's Top Bird

My daughter sent me this from that strange and wonderful country, New Zealand. As it had me in fits of laughter, I pass it on in the interests of spreading a little jollity. I think it's phrases like 'flightless national bore' and 'feathered ground dweller' that do it - and the fact the Rio Tinto sponsor the Kakapo (that's the feathered ground dweller that climbs up trees and falls off, I believe). They do indeed take their birds seriously in New Zealand. When Oddie ran a similiar poll over here, I don't remember Rio Tinto throwing its corporate weight behind the Chaffinch...

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Happy Birthday, Manfred and Sir Geoffrey!

Like Tom Waits and me, Geoff Boycott and Manfred Mann were born on the same day - in their case this day - in the same year, in their case 1940. I imagine restrained celebrations are going on wherever it is that Manfred now hangs his hat (still a 'Beat generation' model, I'll warrant). We can be sure that, at Colombey les Deux Sweatbands, our Geoffrey is already draped with adoring female revellers, beguiling them with tales of his days (or was it weeks?) at the crease. How differently things would have turned out if Manfred (born, after all, in sports-mad South Africa)had chosen to wield the willow or tweak the crimson rambler, and Geoff had opted for the chinbeard and black poloneck of the 'hep cat' and started his own beat combo - the Sir Geoffrey Quintet perhaps... Ah well, history is full of might have beens.

Mourning Magpies

Talking of funerals, this news should surprise no one who has observed our corvine friends at all closely (see, for example, Mark Cocker's wonderful book Crow Country). All crows are phenomenally intelligent (for birds), with highly developed social habits, and might very well 'mourn' their dead. The magpies seem to be secularists thus far - no croaking choruses of Dear Lord and Father of Magpiekind - but at least they don't have recourse to Wind Beneath My Wings... The man is surely right when he says: 'It's bad biology to argue against the existence of animal emotions.'

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Funeral Hero

Not a companion series to the epoch-making Cravat Heroes, but simply a way to draw attention to this commendably outspoken cleric. Needless to say, I agree with the thrust of his sentiments, and am delighted a C of E vicar (obviously at the High end of the Church) dares to speak so robustly, if only on a blog. The fact is that improvisation of a funeral service invariably leads to banality and bathos - why not rely on the old, time-honoured forms, which at least lend dignity and a deeper, wider significance to the proceedings?

Monday, 19 October 2009


A fine autumn sun belatedly appearing this afternoon, I took myself out for a stroll around a local park, shielding my eyes against the dazzle, admiring the trees in their seasonal colours, bright against a strong blue sky, and keeping an eye open for the kingfisher. I didn't see him (him? Why do we always assume that? And that there is only one?), but I did have the satisfying small thrill of seeing my first redwing of the year. A small busy party of a dozen or so of these pretty little northern thrushes were restlessly mustering in a poplar tree and, of course, giving that distinctive flight call that rarely seems to stop. John Fowles describes it as 'a very thin, high-pitched, glistening whistle, an inbreath... I kept on thinking of the adjective glistening. Like a sudden small gleam of old silver in a dark room. Strange remote beautiful sounds...'
Strange, remote and beautiful indeed - the sound of northern wilderness, heard in a suburban park. Winter is on its way.

Christina Stead - Handle With Care

If I haven't posted much about my reading lately, it's because I have been immersed - I use the word advisedly - in an extraordinary (and very long) novel, Christina Stead's The Man Who Loved Children. This is a book that swallows you whole, and demands in turn that you swallow it whole. The world it throws you into is so entire, and so utterly extraordinary, that there are no half measures, no easy accommodations to be made (in this - and to some extent in subject matter - it resembles the work of Ivy Compton Burnett). Published in 1940 and set in Washington and Indianopolis in the 1930s, it is in fact (in shocking fact) closely based on Stead's own Australian childhood in the 1910s. It is, in a sentence, the portait of an unhappy marriage - unhappy on an epic, a monstrous scale - and of the ways in which the two parties to that disastrous mismatch use, abuse and oppress their children in their own cause. Henny, the wife, has become a raging, ranting harridan, still loved by her young children, capable of tenderness, but capable too of turning on them in her rage, a rage so intense and violent that she frequently passes out from the sheer force of it. Why is she like this? The reason is soon apparent, in the shape of her husband Sam, an overgrown child with no understanding of life but with an absolute, unshakable conviction of his own goodness and the rightness of his ideals (which include more than a dash of eugenics). His goodness is him - and so, tragically, are his children. They are his project, and he sees no boundaries between him and them - a fact which is at its most terrible in his relations with his eldest daughter, Louise, the child of his late first wife. He sees himself as telepathically linked to Louise, who can have no life independent of him, no secrets, and who will be mercilessly, shockingly mocked and humiliated if he discovers signs of independent life - all, of course, for her own good, as Sam can only be good. While relations between husband and wife have broken down, to the point where they communicate only in terse messages passed on by the children or in appalling, epic rows (the word is too weak), Sam - 'the man who loves children' - cultivates his relations with the children with ferocious, unceasing energy, constantly engaging them in merry, loud and messy busyness about the house and in the grounds, even enlisting nieghbourhood children into his loving circle. All are chivvied along in a joshing, wheedling invented language of sickly diminutives and babytalk - used liberally even with the adolescent 'Looloo' (one of half a dozen silly names for her, while Sam is, according to mood, 'Sam-the-great' or 'po' little Sam'). While Sam and his tribe of child helpers crash around, Henny skulks and rages, hurling the vilest insults both at Sam and at the unprepossessing, but smart and perceptive, Louise. So far, so nightmarish. The only glimpses of something like normality come when one or other of the principals is briefly at large in the world outside the family home - most notably when Sam is away in Singapore for eight months. On his return, it seems briefly as if he is not going to slip back into the Sam of old - but alas, he does, and events progress towards the inevitable terrible climax (but one which, mercifully, leaves more than a glimmer of hope for poor Louise).
Outlined like this, The Man Who Loved Children sounds like some exercise in Gothic excess or grand guignol - but it reads like the purest naturalism, however jaw-droppingly appalling the action that is being described (and at times it can even be construed as horribly comic). Stead's touch is so sure, her conviction so absolute, her writing so charged with fierce energy, that this wild, implausible world seems only too plausibly real. Randall Jarrell puts it brilliantly in his prefatory essay, which I am only reading now that I've finished the book. The real life of families, correctly remembered, is implausible: 'There in that warm, dark second womb, the bosom of the family, everything is carried far past plausibility; a family's private life is as immoderate and insensate, compared to its public life, as our thoughts are, compared to our speech.' Quite so - and family life doesn't come much more immoderate and insensate than it is in The Man Who Loved Children. I think this is a very great book - I'm amazed it isn't better known - but it is one of the most emotionally lacerating, at times very nearly unbearable, reading experiences I have had. Like Flannery O'Connor, Stead gives no quarter, she flays the emotions, she appalls. I am still dazed and reeling, and no doubt will be for some time. I recommend it then, wholeheartedly - but not lightly. It is a book to be handled with care.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Cravat Heroes, No 2 - Charles Colllingwood

Charles Collingwood is best known for playing Brian Aldridge in The Archers, a part he has inhabited for more than quarter of a century (he is also married to the actress who plays Shula, perhaps the most loathsome inhabitant of Ambridge, but we'll pass that over in decent silence). In The Archers, Brian is the long-suffering husband of foghorn-voiced Jennifer ('Daaahling!) and father to her (and in some cases his) ungrateful brood. With his robust commonsense views, Aldridge is a rare beacon of sanity in tree-hugging, gay's-the-word, multi-culty Ambridge - indeed without him The Archers would be all but unendurable. If he has a fault, it is the excessivly tender heart that has led him into a few scrapes along the way - not least when he unwisely took pity on a barking mad Irishwoman and fathered a boy with a name consisting entirely of vowels. Naturally, with the mother dead, Brian is doing the decent thing and raising the brat in the bosom of the family...
Collingwood was educated at Sherborne, after which he took a double first in Suavety and Charm at the Academy of Smooth, and sailed into the world of showbiz. In 1981, he co-hosted a quiz show on Southern Television with Bernard Manning (that's true). Nowadays, he is a frequent, and always welcome, presence on many a radio chat show and panel game. Like any sane Englishman, Charles loves cricket. Favourite wine: Soave. Favourite dance: American Smooth. Favourite neckwear: Need you ask? Hail Collingwood/Aldridge - cravat hero!

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Another Bringer of Joy

Yesterday Wodehouse, today another bringer of quiet but profound joy into the world - the artist and illustrator Edward Ardizzone, born on this day in 1900. His easy style, with its gentle rounded lines and carefully modulated crosshatching, has an irresistible charm and is instantly, joyously recognisable. Almost any book is worth picking up if it's illustrated by Ardizzone - especially if he did the dust jacket too. His autobiographical writings, The Young Ardizzone and Baggage to the Enemy (about his experiences as a war artist), are worth seeking out, and there's a lovely volume of his Sketches for Friends. He never stopped drawing, and everything he made seems to breathe his generous, good-humoured love of life. For a taste of Ardizzone's world, take a tour of this website...

Don't They Know There's a War On?

As Gordon Brown read out the names of the latest war dead before Prime Minister's Questions yesterday, I must admit I felt a twinge of stony cynicism - not least because the recital takes a chunk of time out of PMQs and alters the mood of the occasion, knocking the fight out of all present. It surely isn't the right time and place. And besides, to adapt a phrase from the Last Spot of Bother, Don't they know there's a war on? Though every death is of course a tragedy for those close to the fallen, and some gesture of national mourning is demanded, these men are, after all, professional soldiers - not conscripts - fighting a war, and in any war there are casualties. Why the reluctance to face the fact that we are at war? Perhaps it's the widespread suspicion that this is 'really' America's war and we shouldn't be involved (it isn't and we should). Perhaps we're just too used to peace - that unnatural state of affairs - to be able to stomach the idea of war and its costs any more... Ironically, Brown's reading came on the 70th anniversary of the sinking of the battleship Royal Oak at Scapa Flow by a German U-boat, with the loss of 833 men and boys. We should perhaps think ourselves lucky that this time we're fighting a war where the names of the dead are few enough to be read out in a matter of minutes.

It's Wodehouse Day...

Or rather it should be. In these dark days, it would surely do the nation good to celebrate every year its presiding comic genius, born on this day in 1881. He was, after all, the greatest comic writer in English, one who created not one but two comic worlds that will surely endure - a rare thing in comedy, which tends to date very fast. Of course he wrote too many potboilers - he was nothing if not a professional, and he earned a huge amount of money by his pen - but there must be very few, if any, that don't have, among the stock characters and formulaic plots, the odd scene or turn of phrase in which the Wodehouse genius shines through. And then there are those two classic worlds - the world of Blandings and the world of Jeeves and Wooster, into either of which it is such an unfailing joy to slip at any time. Pick up a Wodehouse, enjoy the day, and give thanks for a writer who gave so much laughter to the world.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Small c

Over on the excellent Gaw's Ragbag blog, there's a ten-point 'Am I a conservative?' test. Unsurprisingly, being a thoroughgoing retroprogressive reactionary, I scored a straight 10, but I wonder how many in the current party that bears the Conservative name would... As the long-awaited (or dreaded) general election draws near, here, to set us all aright, are wise words on politics and its limitations from the conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott:

'In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea: there is neither harbour for shelter, nor floor for anchorage, neither starting place nor appointed destination. The enterprise is to keep afloat on an even keel: the sea is both friend and enemy: and the seamanship consists in using the resources of a traditional manner of behaviour in order to make a friend of every hostile occasion.'

If the Great Helmsman Brown - and Blair before him - had heeded those words, we wouldn't be in the state we're in now.

A Dahl Rant to Start the Day

The infantilising of our culture proceeds apace. This morning that august broadcasting institution the Today programme devoted an inordinate length of peak listening time to a free commercial for the latest Roald Dahl adaptation, an animation of Fantastic Mr Fox. Dahl was a nasty overgrown child whose nasty stories have sadly proved enduringly popular with children and, worse, adults alike - many of them no doubt reared in their formative years on Dahl's stories. Happily my own children proved resistant to Dahl's charms, despite attending a primary school where there was almost nothing else on the literary menu - but most succumbed and still succumb all too easily, with heaven knows what effects. It's a hard (not to say impossible) case to stand up, but I do suspect that teachers pushing the works of Dahl might have played some small part in the wave of indiscipline, disrespect and moral nihilism that engulfed the country over the past couple of decades. And now adults and children alike are queuing up for more, as they queued up for Harry Potter and The Hobbit and street-urchin clothing and a thousand other 'childish things' - and the Today programme, it seems, is right behind them.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Brace Yourselves - It's a Carnivorous Butterfly

In a comment below yesterday's Global Cooling post, Gaw raises the spectre of a carnivorous butterfly. Well, read this affecting tale, and weep... Truly, there is no end to Nature's wonders - and horrors.

Change in the Weather...

Did anyone catch the new-style weather forecast on PM yesterday, or indeed on Today this morning? It struck me as a huge, long overdue improvement, replacing the grand narrative of UK weather with the information we actually want - i.e. what the weather's going to be like where we are. A bit tricky for those living in marginal areas, true - and the forecast will be no more reliable than before - but at least we can just keep an ear cocked for the bit of the story that affects us, and not have to try to concentrate through some grand saga beginning in the Outer Hebrides and taking a leisurely tour of the provinces before alighting on anywhere people actually live - by which time concentration, even consciousness, are long gone. This morning's forecast even began with the South East! How un-PC, how un-BBC is that? I could hardly believe my ears. And I was able to think of other things (or, more precisely, nothing) for the rest of the forecast. It seems not all change is for the worse, after all.

Monday, 12 October 2009

BBC Accepts Global Cooling!

Well, not quite - but this is not the kind of thing you expect to emanate from the mighty BBC News operation. Is it perhaps a sign that the climate of opinion is finally beginning - just beginning, painfully slowly - to change? The conclusion of the piece does seem remarkable, in the context: 'One thing is for sure. The debate about what is causing climate change is far from over.' Really? That's for sure? The official line from our political leaders and consensus scientists is that the debate is indeed over, and those who question the consensus are liable to get harsh treatment - see,for example, this. No doubt the BBC's strange misconception will be corrected in due course.

A Different View of Delft

Painted by one Egbert van der Poel, this melancholy image is in the National Gallery. It is A View of Delft After the Explosion of 1654 - the catastophic explosion of a gunpowder store in the town on this day (also, as it happens, a Monday) in that year. Luckily, many people were away, visting a market in Schiedam and a fair in the Hague, but the death toll certainly exceeded a hundred, and the devastation, as the painting shows, was extensive. Vermeer, who was then 21, was not affected, but another painter - Carel Fabritius, the most gifted and original of Rembrandt's pupils - was injured and subsequently died of his wounds, at the age of 32. Fabritius, who left few works behind, is best remembered for his extraordinary painting of a goldfinch, which lives in the Mauritshuis, along with Vermeer's view of Delft, that fathomless masterpiece. But look at this, by Fabritius - now there's a different view of Delft.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Looking Back...

The cover story of the Autumn issue of the indispensable Butterfly magazine is, of course, the Summer of the Painted Lady. The numbers are still being crunched, but it seems likely that around a billion Painted Ladies swept across the UK, at the western end of a front some 850 miles long. They flew with such vigour and carried on so far north that some reached St Kilda - the first butterflies of any kind seen there in two years - and others flew on all the way to Iceland. The article poses an intriguing question: What happens now? As the weather cools, the butterflies can't survive, and the obvious thing for them to do would be to turn round and migrate south for the winter, as Red Admirals do. But Painted Ladies have rarely been observed flying south in autumn. Are they flying at high altitude, making use of faster winds? No one knows...
Naturally, reading this got me thinking back over my own butterfly summer, from
the first Holly Blues and Speckled Woods to the profusion of Orange Tips,that memorable encounter with a Green Hairstreak and those beautiful Dark Green Fritillaries. There were happy times among the
Silver-Washed Fritillaries and White Admirals - and more Silver-Washed Fritillaries; an indoor Peacock; those uncommonly beautiful Common Blues that treated me to so many close-up inspections - and there was one great day on the downs, the high point of the season. I glimpsed my first Gatekeeper of the season from a train, and, much later, a Clouded Yellow from Bryan's car - then more Clouded Yellows in the October sun in France... And that was the end of summer. Still, the sky is blue today, the sun is warm. There will be a few stragglers still flying.

Cravat Heroes, No 1: Nicholas Parsons

As the cravat season is upon us, Nigeness is proud to launch an occasional (probably very occasional) series on great cravat men - and who better to begin with than cravat icon Nicholas Parsons, whose birthday falls today. Amazingly, the ageless Parsons is 86. He was born in Grantham (a town with a very fine church, if little else), where his father was a GP, who may well have been the man who brought Margaret Roberts, later Thatcher, kicking and screaming into the world. Nicholas was born left-handed in times when the educational fashion was for enforcing righthandedness, with predictably damaging results. He spent five years as an engineer working in the shipyards of Clydeside before making his elegant way into the business we call show. The rest is history - not least his tireless chairmanship of Radio 4's Just A Minute: since the first broadcast in December 1967, he hasn't missed a single show. Hail Parsons - truly a cravat hero!

Friday, 9 October 2009

A Warning

With NASA about to bombard the moon and take great chunks out of it, I publish this image as a warning. You don't want to upset the Man in the Moon.

For Lionel

A charity called Greek Animal Rescue was collecting (again) on Victoria station this morning. As the name suggests, they endeavour to rescue animals from the Greeks, whose attitude to their furry friends (as to so much else) is rather on the Turkish side. We Brits, by contrast, are generally speaking suckers and softies where animals are concerned (leaving aside what goes on out of sight in factory farms and slaughterhouses). Take this affecting story. The detail I particularly like is the 'moment's silence' for Lionel. Only in Blighty... The French would have had him out of his hole and into the pot before you could say 'Mmm homard thermidor' - and the Greeks, of course, would never dream of diving without a speargun. Fair makes you proud to be British. RIP atomised Lionel.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Hail, Zog!

Today is the birthday of the self-proclaimed King Zog of Albania (born 1895), a glamorous, high-living figure who reigned as constitutional monarch from 1928 to 1939, replaced Islamic law with a Swiss-style civil code, survived more than 50 assassination attempts - in one of which he exchanged fire with his would-be assassins - invented the Zogist salute (right hand flat over the heart, palm facing downwards), was deposed by Mussolini, and ended his days as a Riviera recluse. The throne of Albania seems for a while to have exerted a strange fascination. The cricketer - or rather, in John Arlott's phrase, 'the most variously gifted Englishman of any age' - C.B. Fry claimed he was offered it while on League of Nations business in Geneva in 1920. He might well have been - but one Otto Witte, a German circus acrobat and fantasist, claimed to have gone one better and been crowned King of Albania in 1913. Noting his resemblance to a nephew of the Sultan who had been invited by some Albanian Muslims to assume the throne, Witte travelled to Albania with a sword-swallower friend, and was duly acclaimed as King by local troops. In the five days before his ruse was discovered, he enjoyed the delights of the harem and took the opportunity to declare war on Montenegro. Unsurprisingly, no evidence was ever found to support Witte's story - but the Berlin police allowed him to describe himself as 'former King of Albania' on his identity card. I wouldn't be surprised if Albania's national hero, Norman Wisdom, regales his captive audience at the twilight home where he now resides with tales of how he too was offered the throne of Albania.

The Nation's Favourite Poet?

So there we are, it's National Poetry Day - a day marked by the unveiling of the world's largest knitted poem (true - it's at the British Library) - and the Nation's Favourite Poet turns out to be T.S. Eliot! Well, at least it's a real, and difficult, poet - as is number 2, the only slightly more crowd-pleasing John Donne. It's when you read down to number 3 that the whole enterprise falls apart - Benjamin Zephaniah, for Jah's sake! I fear this poll result is less about poetry than other factors - recent TV exposure in the case of Eliot (an excellent Arena and Robert Webb's documentary) and Donne (Simon Schama's embarrassing documentary), and tireless puffing by the BBC and other PC outfits in the case of Zephaniah. All this against a background of startling ignorance of poetry, even among those who should be teaching it to the nation'c children. Here's a jaw-dropping statistic dropped into the Poetry Society puffery on Radio 4 this morning: 58 percent of primary school teachers cannot name more than 2 poets. And you can bet that one of the 2 is Benjamin Zephaniah.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Hair-Shirt Complacency

One of the pleasures of being in France was - as it always is - being cut off from the 'news' and, in particular, the dreary spectacle of domestic politics. Now I am back and have fallen into my old habit of watching 'the Ten' (as BBC insiders self-importantly call the 10 O'Clock News). So it was that I caught the lugubrious 'highlights' of coffin-faced George Osborne's extraordinary 'We're all in this together' speech, the like of which we haven't heard since the days of Stafford Cripps. Is he mad? 'Cuts' are one of those things that everyone is for in principle, but only so long as it doesn't affect them personally. As soon as they start feeling a real impending lightening of the wallet, they take fright - that is why politicians are careful not to tell them the bad news until after they're in power. The Tories are, in effect, acting as if they're in power already - hair-shirt complacency rather than triumphalist complacency, but still a big mistake. Nobody ever won an election by promising hard times, and surely they never will - or has the world changed so much that we now actually want to suffer, perhaps as some kind of atonement for past excess? I doubt it, and I suspect Pa Broon is rubbing his hands together in glee as he picks the bones out of Austerity Osborne's speech. Grim-faced George managed to leave us feeling worse about everything, even the coming end of Labour rule - a remarkable achievement for a Tory politician.

Sensation - Good English Writer Wins Booker!

This is surely good news. Hilary Mantel is a seriously good writer - one of rather few practising English novelists you can say that about - and Wolf Hall sounds a fascinating book (I'm still limbering up for it - it's a Big One - maybe when it's in paperback...). This might possibly be a case of Right Author, Wrong Book - a bit of a Booker syndrome (e.g. Penelope Fitzgerald Offshore, Kingsley Amis The Old Devils). Mantel's Beyond Black - a deep dark comedy (beyond black indeed) set in the strange world of psychics in the equally strange territory outlying London (as evoked equally brilliantly in Iain Sinclair's London Orbital) - should perhaps have been a winner. But never mind, she's won - and by doing so restored some honour to the often absurd Booker Prize business.
By the way, I'd strongly recommend Hilary Mantel's memoir Giving Up The Ghost - an extraordinarily vivid, strange and honest work. And by the way again, Hilary was brought up in the Derbyshire mining village of Hadfield, which clearly inspired the setting of her early novel Fludd - and was more recently the location of The League of Gentlemen's fictional village of Royston Vasey.

Monday, 5 October 2009

The End of Summer

Around this time yesterday I was sitting beside the Seine, outside a restaurant in Caudebec-en-Caux, tucking in to a dish of excellent Moules de Bouchot. Now I am back in rainy Blighty, with work to do, and the dismal prospect of returning to the NigeCorp grind tomorrow...
The lunch was a fittingly high note on which to end to a convivial weekend of walking, eating and drinking - and the river was not the Seine of Paris, but the mighty lower Seine, wide and deep, meandering across its vast plain on its way to the sea - a formidable river. It was a few miles downriver from Caudebec, at Villequier, that Victor Hugo's young daughter Leopoldine, just 19 years old and newly married, drowned with her husband in the Seine after their rowing boat capsized. On Friday we walked the chalk cliffs that line one side of this part of the valley, and tough going it was - precarious climbs and descents on dry dusty chalk, seeking out tree roots and protruding stones for foothold, and grasping at low-hanging branches to haul the weary body up or brake it on its way down. We were rewarded, as we gulped in great lungfuls of air, mopped the brow and waited for the heart to quieten down, by magnificent wide views from the clifftops across the river and its vast plain. Later, after lunch (in Grand Andelys), came another, shorter and far easier, climb - to Chateau Gaillard, the spectacular ruin of Richard the Lionheart's castle - though even that ruin was topped later in the weekend by breath-taking Jumieges abbey). Ah France - inexhaustible... But the butterflies Nige, I hear you cry - what of the butterflies? Well, I'm happy to report that there were still some late fliers enjoying the sun when it was shining - among them the unobtrusively lovely Wall butterfly, which I hadn't seen this year, and the Clouded Yellow (that's the one at the head of this post), which I had sighted only once in the UK - from Bryan's car, at a motorway service station, of all places. I don't suppose I'll be seeing many more butterflies this year, and I know I shan't be going away again. This feels like the end of summer - but, as it's now October, that is pretty good going. And this last French trip was pretty much the perfect finale.