Wednesday, 29 September 2010


It's a difficult (but undeniably popular) subject, extinction, with all manner of claims being made about how many species are 'facing extinction' and how many extinctions are happening each year. Consider this - a pretty representative story - and wonder, as I do, what it actually means and how seriously we should take it. Then ponder the implications of this finding, and throw into the mix the fact that all estimates of the number of species on Earth are guesswork - no one really has a clue, and there's probably no way of ever knowing. Every time the more biodiverse and/or less thoroughly explored habitats - rainforest, deep oceans - are examined closely, they yield hundreds, thousands of new species. My suspicion is that we know too little about the natural world to make any kind of authoritative judgments about matters of extinction. The Earth is always bigger and infinitely more complex - and resilient - than we take it for.

Ed, Meet Kay...

This blog doesn't really do Politics (apart from Old Nige's uncannily accurate prognostications, at which markets and empires tremble) - but there's been no escaping this Milliband business. I doubt the Second Coming itself would get more coverage than the elevation to the Labour leadership of 'Ed', a man with the charisma of a tent peg and the appearance of something Aardman Animations thought better of. His lamentable speech proclaimed that 'We're the new generation' (and no doubt, like the Monkees, 'we've got something to say'). It was of course (what political speech isn't these days?) peppered with talk of 'change' and 'vision' and a 'new start'... With all this ringing in my ears, I stumbled into bed last night and sought escape in my trusty volume of Kay Ryan. Opening it I found not just escape but a curiously apposite blast of wisdom. I'll let it speak for itself...

Least Action

Is it vision
or the lack
that brings me
back to the principle
of least action,
by which in one
branch of rabbinical
thought the world
might become the
Kingdom of Peace not
through the tumult
and destruction necessary
for a New Start but
by adjusting little parts
a little bit – turning
a cup a quarter inch
or scooting up a bench.
It imagines an
incremental resurrection,
a radiant body
puzzled out through
tinkering with the fit
of what’s available.
As though what is is
right already but
askew. It is tempting
for any person who would
like to love what she
can do.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Walerian Borowczyk

The other evening The Yard (he may have fallen silent blogwise but he still walks the earth) and I were talking about the film-maker Walerian Borowczyk. This often happens. Borowczyk's weird early films were one of the surer delights of our intensive cineaste days when we would haunt arty cinemas and film clubs, taking whatever they could throw at us. Rather amazingly, Borowczyk enjoyed mainstream success for a while when he moved into feature films (Blanche was especially big over here) but it didn't last, and he gradually sank into making films that were barely distinguishable from standard pornography and were often marketed as such (he even directed one of the Emmanuelle franchise), until he gradually faded from view...
I've all but forgotten those early films of his, but they came back into my mind when I read the latest luminous piece by RetroProgressive Susan and watched the film of that extraordinary automaton. Didn't Borowczyk make some short films of automata? Looking on YouTube, I couldn't find automata as such, but what I did come across was this astonishing and moving piece of work. As you watch it, bear in mind that this was done in the days of celluloid - no digital effects here. As I say, astonishing.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Over there...

I'm in Dabbler Country again - and I should explain that that one was written a few days ago, before the weather took this nasty turn. I'm not so sorry to be in the office now. Might get in and edit it if I can find my way around WordPress or whatever it is...

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Some Birthday Thoughts On Mickey Rooney

Today is the 90th birthday of Mickey Rooney, who no doubt has a great many more years in him yet. His enormous popularity - especially with the opposite sex - remains one of the enduring mysteries of the entertainment business. Married eight times, he took as his first wife Ava Gardner, no less - yes, Ava Gardner - Ava, what were you thinking of? Since his first appearance, playing a midget in a 1926 short, he was clocked up 323 acting credits in movies, plus countless TV appearances and appearances as 'himself'. Despite the fact that, since an angel appeared to him in a coffee shop, he has been a 'born-again' Christian, rumours persist that Rooney is actually an emissary of Satan. This, I suspect, is entirely based on his appearance, and he is no doubt a blameless and delightful man. My own theory is that one of his parents was an elf, or possibly a goblin.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Oh Kay!

The more I read of the extraordinary American poet Kay Ryan, the more I admire - actually love - her. I've passed on the odd poem of hers in the past... What I didn't realise was that she's equally gifted - and in much the same way - in prose. Yesterday I came across this wonderfully funny, blisteringly honest and expertly crafted piece of rapportage. Only Kay Ryan could have written this - the spare, wiry style, the tangy turn of phrase, the sharp insight, always the fewest words necessary - but I must say that I wholeheartedly share her aversion to all forms of co-operative endeavour in the 'creative' field. Never was it so well (and generously) expressed.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Real Grapes

I've been enjoying some real grapes - remember them? They rarely turn up these days, when seedlessness rules. Seedless grapes save you the minor inconvenience of dealing with a few little seeds, but there's a price to day - they are also mostly flavourless and juiceless, they feature gristly little bits that are the undeveloped seeds, and they're encased in a tough chewy skin. A real grape, by contrast, is fragrant, thin-skinned and bursting with juice and flavour. It's the kind of grape you can indeed, like Keats, burst against your palate - which leads me to his Ode On Melancholy (see lines 27-28). What a strange and beautiful ode this is, though there's something forbidding, declamatory, almost angular, about it that perhaps explains its relative lack of popularity, compared to Keats's other odes - but what an ending! And now for another grape...

Sunday, 19 September 2010

The Mystery Deepens

Yesterday's intriguing RetroProgressive post by The Dabbler's style guru, the fabulous Susan, has given rise to a sparkling comment stream (on my head, by the way, I'd have the words May Contain Nuts). Among the comments is the Ineffable Malty on the great contemporary mystery of all those shaven heads everywhere. A still greater mystery is that a shaven head takes at least as long as a hair-covered one to deal with at the barber's, as I discovered this morning at my local barbershop - a Kurdish establishment, nice people ('Kurds. Good people', to adapt Jack's summing-up of Costa Ricans in Vexed). Next to me, and ahead of me in the queue, was a lightly tattooed thirtysomething man with a crop that a Prussian officer of the old school might have thought a tad harsh. When he took his place in the barber's chair, he issued some instruction to the barber which I didn't catch, but which I imagine were along these lines: 'Good day to you, barber. I grieve to report that a mutinous faction among my follicles have dared to raise themselves perilously near to the quarter-inch mark. Would you oblige me by hunting them down and putting paid to their presumption. Employ all weapons at your disposal, and by all means take your time about it. You may, if you like, converse with me the while about football and kindred matters...' And so began an agonisingly long wait while all manner of minutely detailed work was done with a range of electric clippers and even scissors, largely devoted to snipping thin air, followed by blow-drying and the application of unguents and gels. When the lightly tattooed fellow at length rose from the chair, looking just that little bit worse than before, my spirits rose as at least it would now be my turn - but not a bit of it: he had his son with him, a lad of about seven sporting a crop at least as severe as his papa's, and he too was to 'have his hair cut', a procedure that took very nearly as long as what had gone before and left him effectively bald but for a few tiny gelled spikes. The lad seemed well pleased - as was I to at last have my turn in the barber's chair. It might have been my imagination, but the barber seemed glad to have some actual hair to get to work on. He did a fine job (Kurds. Good barbers) and I emerged onto the street a happier, less shaggy man. Outside the shop I was accosted by my old friend, the one-eyed gentleman from County Galway, with the news that, as I had neglected the simple precaution of being born again, I was likely facing an eternity of roasting in the fires of hell. I bore the tidings with equanimity.

Born on This Day...

... in 1796 was Hartley Coleridge, the unfortunate son of Samuel Taylor. He inherited a good deal of his father's character and inclinations, but nothing like the full range of his talents. However, he was a dab hand at the sonnet form and wrote several that deserve to survive. Half a dozen are rounded up on Hartley Coleridge's page of Sonnet Central, a rather wonderful website devoted entirely to the sonnet form. Night seems especially well made, and November is the work of a man who has really looked and listened. I especially like that scentless rose...

Thursday, 16 September 2010


Over at The Dabbler, I'm the 1p Book Review - Time Will Darken It, one from the archives.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Tillotson anyone?

The reference library in Croydon is part of this grand complex, a gloriously extravagant expression of Victorian municipal pride and aspiration. The last time I went in, I was pleased to find it quite wonderfully old-fashioned and unmodernised, complete with chained newspapers, wooden lecterns and dim book-lined galleries - but that was a long while ago, and I'm sure it's a very different story now. However the exterior survives unchanged, with its tall stained-glass windows and, above each, the names of various English worthies, literary and artistic, in threes on little scrolls - very Victorian. Mostly they are the names you'd expect - the likes of Shakespere [sic], Chaucer, Hogarth, Reynolds - but one trio is decidedly odd: Scott, Macaulay (with you so far) - and Tillotson. Who? And why? The only Tillotson of note I can unearth (apart from Johnny 'Poetry in Motion' Tillotson and it's unlikely to be him) is this 17th-century divine. Presumably he enjoyed a Victorian vogue - or perhaps he was a kinsman of the Mayor of Croydon. Who knows?

Alas Poor Jumbo

It was on this day in 1885 that the famous T.P. Barnum elephant Jumbo was killed, struck by a locomotive while crossing the tracks in a marshalling yard at St Thomas, Ontario. The collision derailed the train, and it took 150 people to haul Jumbo's body up an embankment. The melancholy scene is pictured above. Barnum of course couldn't leave it at that. In what was then the largest taxidermy project ever undertaken, he had Jumbo stuffed so that he could carry on touring with the circus. After four years, Barnum let Jumbo go, donating him to Tufts University, where he became the university's much-loved mascot - until he was destroyed in a fire in 1975. His ashes are now kept in a 14-oz Peter Pan Crunchy Peanut Butter tin in the office of the Tufts athletics director, but his tail, which had been removed earlier, resides in the Tufts archives. That peanut butter tin troubles me - surely Jumbo deserves a more dignified resting place after all he's been through...

Monday, 13 September 2010

A Marvellous Thing

I'm just back from a rather wonderful weekend in Derbyshire, which was mostly about an unusual and unusually joyous family get-together - but, this not being That Kind of Blog, I'm not going to go into all that... Two beautiful, non-family-related images linger in my pleasure centres. One is the spectacular view from the tall gothick window of room 7 of the Temple Hotel in (but safely above) the curious resort of Matlock Bath - surely one of the best hotel room views in England (and the hotel itself is delightful, a nicely frayed-at-the-edges Regency house with none of the character-destroying horrors that afflict most modern hotels). The other lingering image is from Sunday morning, when the warm autumn sun broke through early and the late butterflies were flying and basking. On the remaining flowers of a large buddleia bush I saw a marvellous thing - a dozen and more small tortoiseshells feeding happily (along with a red admiral and a peacock). Not so long ago this would have been a common sight, but lately those of us who live in the southeast have been starved of tortoiseshells as their numbers fell steeply. The cause has still not been established, but the likelihood is that a parasitic infection is to blame, rather then the default culprit 'global warming' (in my experience butterflies seem to rather like warmth). This year there were encouraging signs that the tortoiseshell was rallying in the south. Perhaps a dozen of them on a buddleia bush will once again become a common sight - but it will still be a marvellous heart-lifting thing at summer's end.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Where There's a Will...

I'm developing one of my irrational loathings again - and, having asked around, I don't think I'm alone in this one. It's that Will Gompertz, the BBC's Arts Editor, i.e. spouter-in-chief of modish banalities about The Yarts (as Sir Les Paterson eloquently calls them). With his bald dome fringed by long hair (not a good look) and combination of very open-necked shirt, formal jacket and tight jeans (an even worse look on a middle-aged man), his appearance is so strikingly unpleasant as to distract the viewer from what he's saying - which might very well be a mercy but is hardly an advantage for a man in his job. He also likes to stride around self-consciously and chop the air with mannered hand gestures - and he's now adopted a conspicuous glottal stop. And who is Will Gompertz (apart from a former director of Tate Media, whatever that is)? He is, Wikipedia informs us, the third cousin of Simon Gompertz, a reporter on BBC2's Working Lunch. That is quite possibly the most obscure fact I have ever learnt about any living person. Hands up those who know who their third cousins are? Hands up those who even know what a third cousin is? Hands up those who would happily get through the rest of their lives without another report on The Yarts by Will 'Third Cousin of Simon' Gompertz...

A World without Men

Gareth Malone - geeky choirmaster and motivator extraordinaire - launched his latest venture on BBC2 last night. This time he's tackling the sad fact that boys fall way behind girls in primary schools these days, especially in reading and writing. He's going to be giving special boy-friendly lessons to a group of lads in an Essex primary school - and no doubt his efforts will improve their plight. But what a sad plight it is - at school these boys clearly feel themselves in a largely alien world, one where they can only fail, because the whole setup plays to the strengths of the girls. Gareth will be giving them something more tailored to their need for outdoor activity, competition and risk-taking - and from the get-go they seem to thrive on it. But what is most striking about their world, in school and, apparently, out - and what is never actually mentioned - is that there are virtually no men anywhere. Occasionally a father is glimpsed in the background, but there's no sign of a male teacher, or a man in any capacity, at the school. It's a female world. Not only do these boys have no male role models - some of them seem to have no men at all in their lives. Also striking is that several of the all-female staff who you would have assumed were classroom assistants or teenagers on work experience are actually fully qualified teachers - and estuary English is spoken throughout the school, from the head(mistress, natch) down. This is all rather dispiriting to those of us who remember when teachers came in two sexes and gave us something to aspire to, some kind of role model - oh and they also taught us stuff, but that's another matter. Meanwhile, perhaps there's some hope for the boys in Gove's latest wheeze...

Thursday, 9 September 2010

William Gerhardie: Futility

I've been reading William Gerhardie's Futility. His first novel, published in 1922, it was a dazzling debut.
Here's how it begins:

And then it struck me that the only thing to do was to fit all this into a book. It is the classic way of treating life. For my ineffectual return to Vladivostok is the effectual conclusion of my theme. And the harbour has been strangely, knowingly responsive. It has sounded the note of departure, and the tall stone houses of the port seem to brood as I walk below, and 'set the tone'. And because of this and the sense that I am marking time till the big steamer comes and bears me home to England I am eagerly retrospective....

What confidence! What dash! What deftness of touch! No wonder the literary world - from Edith Wharton to H.G. Wells, Evelyn Waugh and the young Graham Greene - was bowled over.
In Gerhardie's own description, Futility is 'a novel on Russian themes, depicting a father gathering dependants as his hopes rise and his fortunes sink through four succeeding stages of the Russian social scene; the narrator, an Englishman of Russian upbringing [as was Gerhardie], revealing, against this humorously and geographically changing but tragically unchanging background, the pathos of his growing love for the second of three bewitching daughters.'
Gerhardie followed Futility with the first critical study in English of Chekhov, and the Chekhovian spirit looms large over his novel, the first section of which is even titled The Three Sisters and includes a visit to the the theatre to see that very play. Like Chekhov - though more self-consciously and self-mockingly - Gerhardie inhabits the territory where comedy and tragedy mingle. He is essentially a comic writer, with a startlingly clear-sighted view of the futility of life - in particular Russian life, about which he has no illusions.
The action (or inaction) of Futility is set against the chaos and civil war that ended in the victory of the Bolsheviks over the shambolic White Russians and their various long-suffering alllies. Revolution breaks out, coups and countercoups alternate, cities change hands repeatedly - and all the while the central situation of the father (Nicolai Vasilievich), his complex family and his army of hangers-on remains unchanged, as he and they wait for that elusive turn of events that will restore his fortunes, while the narrator, Andrei Andreiech, nurses his hopeless longing for the beautiful, infurating middle daughter, Nina.
In one remarkable chapter, the narrator gives a cool, unflinching description of the slaughter attendant on a city changing hands following a coup, before shifting the subject of the conversation (he is talking, as he usually is, to Fanny Ivanovna, Nicolai's common-law wife) to the uselessness of the military in general and of one officer in particular...

'It is a consolation,' said she, 'to think that there are other useless people in the world beside ourselves.'
The snow still fell in heaps as I walked home, and it grew markedly colder, and one felt the onset of winter; while prisoners, it was said, were being killed in prison - noiselessly - out of consideration for the Allies in the city.

In a later conversation, near the end of the book, Fanny Ivanovna sums up:

'Life drags on: a series of compromises. And we drag along, and try to patch it up - but it won't. And it won't break. And nothing happens. Nothing ever happens. Nothing happens...'
'When I was very young,' I said, 'I thought that life must have a plot, like a novel. But life is most unlike a novel; more ludicrous than a novel. Perhaps it is a good thing that it is. I don't want to be a novel. I don't want to be a story or a plot. I want to live my life as a life, not as a story.'
'Yes,' she said, pursuing her own thought, 'nothing happens. Nothing...'
The black night gazed through the window. The samovar produced melancholy notes. Tea was getting cold on the table.

Futility is a novel that more than earns its title - all of the action it portrays, on the large and the small scale, is in the end futile. But there is no existential angst here, and the Russian gloom is, as in Chekhov, used largely for comic effect. The futility of life is comic not tragic, and Futility is a novel that lightens the heart and is a joy to read. It sparkles as brilliantly now as it did on its first appearance - though there is a poignancy to reading it now, for Futility was less the beginning of a dazzling career than a precocious flash of brilliance before a slow slide into obscurity. Though some of Gerhardie's later novels were much admired - especially The Polyglots and Doom (also, confusingly, published as My Sinful Earth and Jazz And Jasper) - his reputation was in steep decline by the Thirties and he published no more fiction after 1939's intriguingly titled My Wife's The Least Of It. Gerhardie lived on until 1977, his works were republished, but he remained a nearly forgotten 'cult' writer who had outlived his time and, probably, his talent. But in Futility that talent - Evelyn Waugh called it genius - is shining bright. It is, as H.G. Wells said, 'a wonderful book'.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010


Over in Dabbler Country, I am up a tree.

Monday, 6 September 2010


I've been laid low with what is laughingly referred to as a 'cold'. This has drained my vital spirits something shocking and left me in no fit state to blog. However, I am represented historically in the super soaraway Dabbler with a post which might ring a bell with regular readers...

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Life, The Universe and Everything

This notion strikes me as rather attractive, perhaps because it's a thoroughly humanising scientific account of the origins of the universe - and it seems to chime with the feeling we all get from time to time (or is it just me?) that perhaps the whole thing is a set-up, someone's idea of a joke. Of course, it begs the question of where these intelligent beings and their original starter universe came from - who made that one? Meanwhile, everyone's favourite genius scientist Stephen Hawking has made up his mind that there's no need for a God to be involved in creating the universe. I don't know quite what he means by 'because there is a law such as gravity' - is gravity a law, and how does its existence mean that the universe can create itself from nothing? He seems to have a strange idea of a 'personal God' too - 'a personal God that you could meet, and ask questions.' I doubt that many believers in a personal God would expect to meet Him and ask Him questions - in fact that God sounds more like the kind of intelligent entity envisaged in the other theory, the 'designer universe' one. And to the question 'Why?' the answer would apparently be 'Because we could'.


The William Hague imbroglio is sad and faintly nauseating (as against the full-on nauseating Blair memoirs imbroglio) and I've no comment to make on any of it. However, one thing that struck me was Hague's firm statement that he has 'never been involved in a relationship with any man'. Yes, it's come to that - the useful if overworked word 'relationship' has now been so thoroughly sexualised that it no longer needs a qualifier. That too is sad. Those of us - i.e. all of us - in relationships of all kinds with all manner of people that don't involve sex now need other words or qualifiers. Surely this is the wrong way round, as very often sex does not involve any real relationship, whereas real and deep relationships very often - indeed usually - don't involve sex. Strange how mealy-mouthed we can be in these supposedly sexually liberated times.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Singaglonga Kazuo

As I might well have remarked before, in our day all art aspires to the condition of the musical. Or rather almost anything is liable to end up being turned into a musical. Take, for example, Kazuo Ishiguro's fastidious tale of emotional repression below stairs, The Remains of the Day. This, I learnt on the Today programme this morning - though the story's been out there for months - is the latest novel to be adapted for the musical stage (and Ishiguro's more than happy about it). The mind initially boggles at the prospect, but then musicals aren't what they were (more's the pity) in terms of either story or music. With modern 'serious' musicals (yes I mean you, Stephen 'no tunes' Sondheim) nothing happens, and you're likely to leave the theatre humming the programme notes rather than the dreary up-and-down-the-scale recitative that passes for song (naturally I speak from a position of near total ignorance here - c'est mon metier). So, as neither happy-ending storyline nor singalong tunes nor showstoppers are required, almost anything could be grist to the musical mill. Ishiguro's own The Unconsoled could make a terrific night out at the theatre, don't you think? And mining the back catalogue, there must be rich pickings in Samuel Beckett's novels, late Henry James, Proust of course, Virginia Woolf... Any thoughts?