Sunday, 28 February 2010

Zebra Finch Musicians

This is rather cheering - play the video. Extraordinary...


The last day of a dismal February and, true to the spirit of the month, it's raining relentlessly, on already sodden ground. I don't remember ever feeling such a powerful longing for spring and sunshine - and the butterfly season - as I have felt these past few weeks... This morning I was leafing through Emily Dickinson - who seems greater, and stranger, every time I look at her - and came upon her butterfly poem -

THE BUTTERFLY’S assumption-gown,
In chrysoprase apartments hung,
This afternoon put on.

How condescending to descend,
And be of buttercups the friend
In a New England town!

Chrysoprase? This was a new one on me (though I remember Othello's 'one entire and perfect Chrysolite'). Apparently it's a green version of chalcedony - 'apple green' according to the OED - with (hem hem) remarkable properties, if you believe in that kind of thing. But what could Dickinson's butterfly be, with its 'chrysoprase apartments'? Greens are unusual in butterflies - certainly among British species, though we have this beauty. 'Apartments' suggests something like the beautiful hindwing of the Queen of Spain - but in green. I wonder if any of my American readers might have an idea what butterfly it was that Dickinson saw that afternoon, feeding on buttercups?

Saturday, 27 February 2010


Today is the centenary of the birth of Peter De Vries. Having marked the anniversary of his death a while back, I could hardly let the date pass. The accompanying illustration is a piquant reminder of how De Vries was marketed at the height of his fame, at the time when, as he put it himself, 'Everybody hates me because I'm so universally liked'. Those were the days...

Friday, 26 February 2010

Any Pastries with That?

I've only just found out about this - it's an Espresso Book Machine (there's more about it here), and it might soon be replacing a bookshop near you (assuming there are any left). It's a beguiling idea, with the potential to deliver any book you fancy into your hands, printed and bound, in a matter of minutes and at very little cost. It might even mean that authors see a bit more money, but you wouldn't want to count on that. On the other hand, it's surely a move too far along the road already set out by the internet - the availability from somewhere in the wired world, via a few keystrokes, of virtually any book you're likely to want (usually at way below bookshop price). The adventurous realm of epic book searches and serendipitous finds on the shelves of real bookshops is dwindling all the time, as even charity shops become increasingly market-savvy - again largely thanks to the internet. No doubt bookshops will always survive in some form (if only selling second-hand POD book from Espresso machines), but there will surely be even fewer of them. Will most of our future book buying be via a glorified photocopier, with booksellers reduced to the role of baristas? It's not a very cheering thought.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

White Walls

Apologies for the scant posting - the toad work is squatting on my life especially heavily these days. However I did manage an evening out last night - albeit a work-related one. It was a do in the Saatchi Gallery on the King's Road, in what used to be the headquarters of the Duke of York's Regiment - a fine building, now gutted, stripped and painted stark white in the approved modern art gallery manner. I had a bit of a mooch around, and was struck chiefly by how lost and insignificant most of the artworks seemed in those vast white spaces. They looked more like decor than anything, and pretty bland decor - well, either bland or ugly. No doubt this is an unfair and hasty judgment, but my brief experience of this gallery left me dispirited and vaguely annoyed - which is certainly never the way I feel after a visit to, say, the National Gallery or the Courtauld or Dulwich or even Tate Britain (Tate Modern is another matter). I wonder if galleries of the Saatchi/White Cube kind might one day come to seem as bewilderingly awful as those plush Victorian galleries hung with acres of sentimental genre scenes did to the next generation. Oddly, though, Charles Saatchi himself not so long ago attacked the white wall gallery concept as 'antiseptic' and 'dictated by museum fashion' - a rare case of the pot calling the kettle white?

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Clemence Dane - One of Life's Innocents

Clemence Dane (born Winifred Ashton), a playwright and novelist very successful in her time, was born on this day in 1888. Despite being a prolific screenwriter, she seems to have remained (as her rather sweet features suggest) one of life's innocents. In his cheering memoir, Life's Rich Pageant, Arthur Marshall recalls her...
'The physical side of life had passed her by, together with the words, slang and otherwise, that accompany it. She had no idea at all why people laughed, or tried tactfully to conceal laughter, as time and time again she settled for an unfortunate word or phrase. Inviting Mr Coward to lunch during the war when food was difficult, she boomed encouragement down the telephone: 'Do come! I've got such a lovely cock.' ('I do wish you'd call it a hen,' Noel answered.) Asking her friend, Olwen, what she had secured for a summer picnic, she was heard to yell up the stairs, 'Olwen, have you got crabs?'... To use correctly, in a literary sense, the words 'erection', 'tool' and 'spunk' was second nature to her. When wishing to describe herself as being full of life and creative energy, she chose, not really very wisely, the word 'randy'. To hear a large and imposing women of fifty announcing to a roomful of actors that she felt randy was really something. She never cottoned on to the fact that the name 'John Thomas' had a hidden significance, and she was heard one day expatiating about the different sides to a person's nature: 'Yes, every man has three John Thomases - the John Thomas he keeps to himself, the John Thomas he shares with his friends, and the John Thomas he shows to the world.' 'Of course, Winifred,' people said, when they could speak.'
Talking of such matters, this Appleyard piece has reconciled me to the back pain that's been giving me gip, off and on, this past week or two - it could be worse...

Friday, 19 February 2010

More Sad News

Less than a fortnight after the death of Ian Carmichael comes news of the passing of another fine actor and thoroughly decent man of the same generation, Lionel Jeffries. His most lasting legacy will probably be the classic 1970 film of The Railway Children, which he directed and scripted, but he put in some wonderful performances too, both comic and dramatic. As Prison Officer 'Sour' Crout, he was an essential element in that great comedy caper Two Way Stretch; he did a similarly brilliant job as Inspector 'Nosey' Parker in The Wrong Arm of the Law; he was suitably appalling as the Marquis of Queensberry in The Trials of Oscar Wilde; and, much later in his career, he gave a memorable performance opposite Peggy Ashcroft in Dennis Potter's bleak Cream In My Coffee. He had a 'good war', too, serving in Burma. Another good man gone.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

The New Seriousness or the New Ignorance?

This rather overlong piece on what might be called 'the new seriousness' is vaguely heartening, though we shouldn't take the BBC's expansion of factual programming as in itself a good thing: some pretty dire stuff appears under this rubric in the terrestrial schedules (Andrew Marr's The Making Of Modern Britain anyone?). But BBC4 is certainly a Good Thing, in much the same way as Radio 4 - see the last section of Burrell's piece for the story of the soaraway success of Radio 4's excellent History of the World in 100 Objects. That truly is heartening. But where does this current wave of 'thirst for knowledge' come from? I suspect one factor in it is simply this - that schools, by and large, no longer teach stuff. The new seriousness might be a by-product of the new ignorance. Especially in the humanities, school subjects seem to be approached from every possible angle but that of building a solid backbone of fact. In particular, narrative history - perhaps the most popular form of factual TV - is conspicuously absent from the form of history taught in the classroom. Is television now effectively doing the job that always used to be done by schools - teaching people stuff? If so, it makes you wonder what(apart from its custodial and socialising functions) school is for...

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Sherlock Holmes and the Strangely Silent Eighties

Those of us who find ourselves straying from terrestrial television in a bid to find something worth watching (if it's only Two and a Half Men) will be aware that the commercial breaks on many channels are not only amazingly long but also extremely loud. Now ITV3 has got into trouble for 'excessively strident' ad breaks during an episode of Sherlock Holmes. It's all about 'subjective loudness', and ITV3's defence is interesting: this Sherlock Holmes (the definitive TV version) was made in the Eighties and is therefore full of silent pauses, making the ads seem louder than they are. A bit of a lame argument perhaps, but based on truth. It's a reminder of how different TV drama was just a couple of decades ago, when it was not afraid of silence, or of inactivity, or of words. To watch such Eighties epics as Brideshead Revisited or The Jewel in the Crown now is to be amazed not only at the 'silent pauses' but at the leisurely pace, at the restrained use of music, and at how packed with serious dense dialogue - and static scenes - they are. Television dramas now keep dialogue minimal and functional, while filling the screen with (often pointless) activity, and laying on washes of music at every opportunity - and yet, despite the appearance of activity, they rarely get anywhere much. Compare an episode of a standard US crime drama with its UK equivalent - there is more meat in one crisply-scripted 40-minute episode than in an entire British miniseries. The mainstream TV dramas that reach the small screen these days are busy all right, and loud - but they are busy doing nothing.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Consolations of Rain

Another day of Haggard weather - but, determined not to be at my desk all day, I set out, raincoated, gloved and umbrella'd, through the cold rain to Holland Park. All this rainfall is making the trees very beautiful, even in deadening winter light, their soaked trunks almost purple against the bright green of moss, mingling with the duller greens and greys of lichen on the branches (lichens are thriving in London, a reassuring sign of clean air). I don't remember a winter where so many of the tree trunks have been so startlingly green... The great thing - one of the great things - about Holland Park is that there are a few places where you can sit in full shelter from the rain and look out at it. This sensation of being in the open air and yet sheltered - and with a view - has a special cheering magic, and, having eaten my sandwich al (demi)fresco, I went on my way that bit lighter of heart. What's more, I spent a while standing under my umbrella and watching the comings and goings at a well frequented bird feeder. The traffic was incessant - mostly tits and finches, but at one point a pied woodpecker swooped down for a quick taster. I was glad to see several coal tits - my favourite, and so far absent from my garden this winter. Work may be grim, but to have sights like these so close at hand is a magnificent consolation.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Two Finds

Unlike many charity shops these days, my local Oxfam has a few shelves of older books as well as the usual massed ranks of recent paperbacks. Browsing there yesterday, a book on Trollope caught my eye. I'm not a huge Trollope fan, but I took it down to have a look, opened it - and there on the flyleaf was the unmistakable signature of my old friend, mentor and English teacher who died a few years ago (he was first memorialised here)! As was his habit, he'd also put the place and date of purchase - Manchester, October 1944. It was a heart-jolting moment - I think the first time I've come across a friend's name in such circumstances - but a happy one. Clearly I was meant to buy the book, which I duly did. It was Trollope: A Commentary by Michael Sadleir - which reminded me that my old friend had once given me another by Sadleir, Blessington-D'Orsay: A Masquerade, a very readable account of the strange relationship of the reprobate dandy Count d'Orsay (a friend of Dickens) with the Blessington family. Sadleir was a 'man of letters' - a breed that has long since died out. Best known for his (at the time) scandalous novel Fanny By Gaslight, he was a prolific author and a serious literary scholar, among whose bookish achievements was proving the authenticity of the Northanger Horrids. Anyway, be that as it may, the Trollope book was not the only one that caught my eye ysterday. Sitting on the bottom shelf was one with a title I could not possibly resist: The Making Of A Moron. This, surely, was the book for me. I snapped it up, and on examination it proved to be a treatise on the nature of work in modern (1953) society by one Niall Brennan, a man who had clearly tried his hand at many occupations and seen a thing or two. His jumping-off point is the fact that various recent experiments had found that 'morons' ( a term then still acceptable) had been successfully employed doing manual work in factories. From this he goes on to argue that modern work in virtually all its forms makes morons of us all. The first two chapters are summarised thus:

I. The Use of Morons.
Certified morons can be fitted into a working community without seeming different from their normal companions; this could be good from them, but if it is only because they are merged into something itself moronic, then it is no good for anyone. Uncertified morons are at large and recognisable only when they cause trouble. It would seem then that the environment has moronic elements. If it has, then instead of improving the certified morons, it will only be pulling everyone else down to their level.
II. Muscle and Mind.
The place where one expects to find morons, both made and in the making, is unskilled physical labour. But this is not so. Not only is unskilled physical labour an intellectual stimulant, but the ultimate object of any business as a whole influences the attitude of men to their work.

And so it goes on - but, as I say, this was a man who had seen thing or two, and his account of the workers in a paper mill is quite hair-raising:

'The workers themselves... were a rabble... loud-mouthed, dogmatic and evil-minded men who had apparently committed every sin in the calendar, and were proud to admit it over lunch without the omission of a detail.
I would never have believed it possible that the sexual life of a man could be revealed with such vigour in such dispassionate activities as rabbiting, the races, football or the comic papers... Not one thing was allowed to pass without its sexual significance being demonstrated to the innocent... There was a certain amount of flippant homosexuality. The organs were occasionally produced or displayed. It may comfort the fashionable ladies who insist upon having their parcels wrapped to know that the paper was freely impregnated with urine. Had Freud lived to see it, he would have been a happy man. Not even Havelock Ellis could have demanded fewer inhibitions.'

Crikey. I shall keep this book for the title - and the other for the name on the flyleaf.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Max Beckmann

Today is the birthday of that great unclassifiable artist Max Beckmann (born 1884). That's his Moon Landscape (1925) above, representative of one of his many styles - and rather beautiful I think. I knew very little of Beckmann until the eye-opening exhibition at Tate Modern a few years ago, which showed beyond doubt that he was a major painter who had been seriously underrated. But that's the price an artist pays for not fitting conveniently into the pigeonholes of critical theory...

Thursday, 11 February 2010

The Industrious Francis Bacon...

Jonathan Bate, in The Genius of Shakespeare (an excellent book), devotes a chapter to demolishing, coolly but definitively, the various absurd theories about who - other than the man himself - wrote Shakespeare. Of course no rational argument will ever dent the conspiracy theorists' conviction - based on snobbery and ignorance - that someone other than the 'grammar school boy' Shakespeare must have written his plays. Bacon is generally the favourite (even the otherwise sane E. Nesbit was a convinced Baconian) - but what I hadn't realised, until I read Sarah Bakewell's How To Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and 20 Attempts at an Answer, was that the arch-Baconian Ignatius Donnelly, having proved to his own satisfaction that his man wrote Shakespeare, then goes on to establish beyond peradventure (hem hem) that Bacon also wrote The Anatomy of Melancholy, all of Marlowe's works - and, er, the Essays of Montaigne. Stands to reason, doesn't it? The word Francis occurs several times in the Essays (referring to Francois I), and the word bacon more than once. And the clincher is that the plays supposedly written by Shakespeare frequently mention mountains, or 'Mountaines'. Why did Bacon write in French, under Montaigne's name? Why, he needed the cover in order to express sceptical, heterodox views. Case closed... Truly there is no bottom to human folly.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010


That favourite mimosa of mine (see below)is not yet in full bloom, so its scent is hardly making itself felt above the rather heavy fragrance of the Sweet Box that is planted all around it. Today there was a bumblebee visiting the Sweet Box flowers (a white-tailed Bombus lucorum, to be precise, as in the picture). This was my first of the year, and despite the cold she seemed to be in fine fettle, bombinating merrily around the shrubbery. Time was when you never saw bumblebees in winter, but now they barely hibernate, at least in town, where parks and gardens supply many of their favourite winter-flowering plants. You would have thought, though, that they would feel the cold. As you would with all those other creatures reportedly starting their annual cycle earlier and earlier with every passing year, regardless of the weather. I always thought it was day length that regulated such things, with weather too playing a significant part, but the first hasn't changed and the second has been decidedly parky. What else is at work then? The obvious answer is 'climate change', but I cannot see how something as nebulous and long-term as that could be affecting individual animals. If it was manifesting itself in an obvious way - i.e. a mild winter - that would make sense, but when winters are like this one and still the (accelerating, they say) trend towards earliness continues, you have to wonder what is going on. Well, I do - perhaps there's something I'm missing...

Toyota, Updike, Forgetting

The beleaguered Japanese car makers Toyota are recalling cars left, right and centre, and facing reputational meltdown. How very different it all looked back in 1979:

'Running out of gas, Rabbit Angstrom thinks as he stands behind the summer-dusty windows of the Spring Motors display room watching the traffic go by on Route 111, traffic somehow thin and scared compared to what it used to be. The fucking world is running out of gas. But they won’t catch him, not yet, because there isn’t a piece of junk on the road gets better mileage than his Toyotas, with lower service costs … That’s all he has to tell people when they come in. And come in they do, the people out there are getting frantic, they know the great American ride is ending … He tells them, whey they buy a Toyota, they’re turning their dollars into yen. And they believe him. A hundred units new and used moved in the first five months of 1979, with eight Corollas, five Coronas including a Luxury Edition Wagon, and that Celica that Charlie said looked like a Pimpmobile unloaded in these first three weeks of June already, at an average markup of eight hundred dollars per sale. Rabbit is Rich.'

That, of course, is the opening of John Updike's Rabbit Is Rich, which I found the most satisfactory of the tetralogy when I read it, though I haven't revisited it in years. It finds Rabbit prospering, having inherited the co-ownership of a Toyota dealership from his late father-in-law. There is, of course, trouble on the way, in the form of Rabbit's returning son and a ghost from his amatory past... Beyond that my memory is vague and fragmentary, as with almost everything I read (in accordance with Montaignean wisdom) - though I have a good deal more of Updike in my head than Nicholson Baker did when he wrote U And I (first sentence: 'On August 6, 1989, a Sunday, I lay back as usual with my feet up in a reclining aluminum deck chair padded with blood-dotted pillows in my father-in-law's study in Berkeley (we were house-sitting) and arranged my keyboard, resting on an abridged dictionary, on my lap.') Baker too made a virtue of forgetting. What else can you do?

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Sun and Hail

Weather's the main thing of course - far more than a background effect, it permeates our lives, inner and outer, making and breaking our moods and our days. And we've been having a lot of it lately, with a spell of bitter cold, relentless leaden skies and peculiarly unpleasant forms of rain and sleet. So my spirits lifted when this morning brought blue skies and sunshine - a cold morning under blue skies is a very different proposition from a similarly cold one that is dank and grey and crushing. At lunchtime I sat by my favourite mimosa tree - yes, it's that time of year again - with the sun now intermittent but, when it was out, blazing straight into my face (where it was more than welcome). I was about to return reluctantly to work when it burst through brilliantly - and at the same time there came a heavy fall of hail. It was a strange magical effect, as if I was somehow making my own weather, like a room around me. The sky, I now saw, was a mix of brilliant sunlit blue and blur-edged clouds of intense black - an extraordinary and, as it turned out, short-lived effect. The hail passed. There was no rainbow, but I returned to work with my heart that little lighter.

Monday, 8 February 2010

A Herbert Spencer of a Day

This fine old phrase - which I believe occurs somewhere in H.G. Wells (Love and Mr Lewisham?) and is forgotten by all but a strange handful - occurred to me again yesterday, when it seemed the entire technical infrastructure of my home life was breaking down, one bit at a time. It began with a straightforward power cut - all too common in my neck of the woods - which lasted half an hour or so, followed by all the lighting in the house - but only the lighting - going off. This turned out to be a blown fuse, which I duly repaired. Then I noticed a marked lack of heating or hot water, and realised the timer had to be reprogrammed from scratch following the power cut. So far, so sorted - until, in quick succession, I sat down at my PC and found myself unable by any shift to get online, and then found myself equally unable to get a picture on the TV. You're probably ahead of me here - yes, my broadband provider was experiencing a little local difficulty. All I could do was wait, until eventually my online life did indeed kick back into action. Needless to say, I handled all these setbacks with my customary stoical sangfroid, which takes the paradoxical form of shouting, swearing, ranting and generally 'losing it' (briefly). It's the sheer dumb stupidity of those technologies on which we - the stupid ones - so cravenly rely. Is there anything more infuriating in the world than a non-responsive computer screen staring blankly back at you? What a day - oh, and in the middle of it my back started playing up (and still is). Hey ho...

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Beware Weeping Politicians

Alastair Campbell, a man easily identifiable to the naked eye as an emissary of Satan, apparently broke down and wept on Andrew Marr's TV show this morning. It seemed that he was overcome with emotion when contemplating the awful things that have been said about his erstwhile boss Blair, but he later explained that it was about his (Campbell's) latest risible 'novel' being likened to the 'sexed-up' Iraq dossier - which is even more deplorable. I fear we're in for a lot more piping the eye from politicians as the election draws nearer. It's reported that G***** B**** is going to weep when he appears shortly on Piers Morgan's Life Stories, one of the most nauseating shows on TV - for which he was coached by none other than old gusher eyes Alastair. They probably think this is in line with the zeitgeist - all those lacrymose TV talent shows etc - but I very much hope they're wrong, and that all the other lot have to do now is to stay dry of eye and stiff of upper lip. Surely we don't want our politicians, after everything else they've done to us, embarrassing us by blubbing all over the place.

Sad News

Ian Carmichael - a fine comic actor and, by all accounts, a thoroughly decent man - has died at the age of 89. His performances in a clutch of comedies in the late 50s and early 60s - Private's Progress, I'm All Right Jack, Lucky Jim, School for Scoundrels, Heavens Above - were vintage stuff (and I'm of a vintage to remember seeing some of them in the cinema when they were released). Carmichael's playing of Bertie Wooster on TV, oposite Denis Price's magnificent Jeeves, was also very fine, even though he was too old for the role. There's an obit here - but what caught my eye in the coverage of his death was a remark by Richard Briers that Carmichael was 'never pushy. He sort of wandered through the world of film.' Quite so, and that was true of most actors of that generation, who, having just been through a world war, knew better than to take acting, let alone fame, seriously.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Another Sign of the Times

I note (head in hands, moaning) that the name of the agency that supplied the inept German doctor who killed a patient on his first shift in the UK is... Take Care Now. Truly we are well advanced along the road to perdition. How long before a constabulary renames itself Mind How You Go?

Retroprogressive Banking

I should have realised banking was doomed when I last visited my branch to 'see the manager'. These days of course the manager is far too exalted a personage to deal with financial minnows like me, so it was one of his small standing army of branch middle management who saw me. She was a buxom youngish lady with a rather common accent who addressed me throughout as 'Nigel' (at least it wasn't 'Nige'). She had nothing to tell me and nothing to offer that wasn't going to cost money - but what struck me, as I gazed around to keep my mind occupied during our interview, was how little my bank now resembled a bank. It could have been anything at all really - a slightly upmarket Job Centre, some kind of waiting room, a discreet pox doctor's - impossible to tell. Not only have banks dropped the word 'bank' from their names, they no longer offer any visible evidence of what they do, preferring expanses of carpet, strangely shaped receptionist's desks and pale wood cubicles to the familiar rows of tellers behind glass, doing bank stuff. That's why I like the sound of this development - back to proper banking - and hope that Metro Bank gets its licence. My own proposal (which most definitely won't get a licence) is to take it further with a chain of Retro Banks, run on similar principles, styled with restrained grandeur and gravitas, where the manager wears morning dress with wing collar (think Captain Mainwaring in his work clothes) and the staff well cut lounge suits (the gents) and elegant black dresses with white blouses (the ladies), and there are tellers galore. And they will all address all customers by surname and honorific.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Giacometti - Safe as the Rock of Gibraltar

What happened here? How did a Giacometti sculpture looking like all the others, only bigger, fetch the largest price ever paid for an auctioned work of art? Is Giacometti even a great artist, in the sense that, say, Titian or Rembrandt are? He always seemed to me a one-trick pony who, once he'd found his style, just carried on imitating himself (as many artists do). The record-breaking sculpture is big, instantly recognisable and has scarcity value - even though it would be possible to mass-produce exact replicas that would fool anyone. It is also - and this, I suspect, is the clincher - perfect Corporate Art, the kind of thing that would look good, and impressive, and expensive, and instantly recognisable, in the vast foyer of some mighty finance corporation. Poor Giacometti - that it should come to this, the tortured products of his existential angst now (in the words of Godfrey Barker yesterday) 'safe as the Rock of Gibraltar'. He meant in investment terms, but...

Wednesday, 3 February 2010


Brit has discovered a motto for our times - and very good it is (and good to see Peter de Vries getting a mention). The motto puts me in mind of the wise words of Bertie Wooster on a similar theme: 'The bally balliness of it all makes it seem so bally bally.' It does indeed - and most especially so in times like these...

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Invictus Redivivus

My father's taste in poetry was that of an upright Edwardian. He had a personal anthology of poems of moral uplift and patriotic heroism which he delighted in reciting while shaving. Vitai Lampada was of course a favourite, as were The Revenge ('Sink me the ship, Master Gunner - sink her, split her in twain! Fall into the hands of God, not into the hands of Spain!'), The Loss of the Birkenhead and Horatius at the Bridge ('even the ranks of Tuscany could scarce forbear to cheer'). These kind of poems were still to be found in the older anthologies of my childhood, but were soon to fade away... Or were they? The sudden vogue of W.E. Henley's Invictus suggests some at least of these poems have a long afterlife and are liable to flare into renewed vigour and popularity even now. Invictus has given its name to the new Clint Eastwood film about Nelson Mandela, just as the poem, on a scrap of paper, gave strength to the prisoner Mandela. John McCain has also claimed the poem as a source of personal inspiration - as has (gawd help us) Gordon Brown. Why is this? It is a very effective poem of its type, technically well done, full of memorable phrases, with a message that I suspect bordered on the subversive when it was published (1875) since it proclaimed man free from God (gods now plural and dubious), in control of his own destiny and fearing no afterlife or judgment. Now, however, it is one that stiffens the sinews of the individualist captain of his soul, at best in a way that will strengthen a good man (Mandela), at worst as a kind of archaic equivalent of My Way (G***** B****). Either way, it seems it's back. For a while.

Groundhog Day

Happy Groundhog Day, everyone! (Yes, it's come round again...). I'm pleased to report that, on emerging from my burrow this morning, I was unable to see my shadow. Winter, therefore, is nearing an end. I'll notify the Met Office forthwith.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Nature: Words and Pictures

Bette Midler on Princess Anne: 'She really loves Nature' [beat] 'despite what it did to her.' Well, as is amply documented on this blog, I too love Nature (and on the whole it's treated me quite kindly). However, I do not, by and large, like watching wildlife documentaries, too many of which seem to be a case of genius-level camerawork undermined by remedial-level commentary (and, often, music). Even the great Attenborough is liable to lapse into the windy platitudes and twee anthropomorphism that characterise the genre. However, once in a while, a film comes along in which the words live up to the images on screen, and one such is coming soon. It's a Natural World film called Wild Places of Essex, and it's on BBC2 on Wednesday of next week. The reason it's so good is that it's made by Robert Macfarlane, who wrote The Wild Places - indeed the commentary is adapted from that book. The result is an unusually thoughtful, eye-opening and insightful film, which, while pondering the nature of wildness, opens up its unpromising subject into something fascinating (and, along the way, pays homage to the late Roger Deakin). It is, of course, beautiful to look at - but the chief pleasure is in the accompanying words actually having something to say, and saying it well. (The picture's a Peregrine, by the way: they haunt the Essex badlands these days.)