Friday, 29 April 2011

The Big Day

A toxic combination of overwork, a 'cold', hayfever and bad nights has left me in no fit state to do much blogging... However, I must mark the Big Day: the day on which, in 1863, the fascinating Alexandrian poet Constantin Cavafy was born - and the day on which, precisely 70 years later, he died. That doesn't often happen...
Oh all right, yes, it's also the day of the Royal Wedding, which is fine by me. I'm all for the monarchy (as against the alternatives) and William seems likely to be good news for the institution (unlike his father). And he and Kate seem a nice couple. It would be churlish - or republican - not to wish them well.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

On the Dabbler...

The Dingy Skipper has landed.

Audubon: A Black Mark

The 226th birthday of Audubon is being marked today with a rather fine picture on the Google home page. No doubt he was a great ornithological artist - perhaps the greatest - but to those of us who love Keats, there will for ever be a black mark against his name for his treatment of George Keats, John's brother.
Early in 1819, George, who was in America hoping to restore the family's finances by profitable investment, naively purchased from Audubon (then based in Henderson, Kentucky, on the Ohio river) a boat laden with merchandise that he was assured could be sold downriver for a handsome profit. The catch - as George soon discovered - was that the boat and its cargo were at the bottom of the river. 'I cannot help thinking Mr Audubon is a dishonest man,' wrote John Keats, with commendable restraint, as a substantial slice of what little money the Keatses had disappeared into the pocket of the great bird man.

Monday, 25 April 2011

Butterfly Weather

I had meant to post my usual Happy Easter message - Urbi et Blogorbi - yesterday, but I had picture trouble (and what is an Easter greeting without a picture?) and gave up the unequal struggle with technology. I was also feeling a little stunned, having been out rather too much in the amazing summer-strength sunshine we've been having in the Southeast. It was grand butterfly weather though - Holly Blues, Orange Tips and whites everywhere - and on Good Friday, in a favoured spot on the Surrey hills, I had the pleasure of spotting my first Green Hairstreak, that emerald-underwinged beauty which is a regular on Nigeness around this time of year (though this sighting was certainly the earliest). I also saw several of another old friend, the Dingy Skipper - but that will be the subject of a forthcoming Dabbler Country post...

Saturday, 23 April 2011

How Fairness Works

David 'very relaxed' Cameron has professed himself 'very relaxed' about giving out internships to people he happens to know, or their offspring. In response, the Today programme wheeled out a young man representing a pressure group called Intern Aware (I'm not making this up), who claimed that what Cameron is doing when he doles out these internships is not giving an acquaintance a helping hand but 'pushing down' all those hugely talented young people (they're everywhere - haven't you noticed?) who happen not to be personally connected to David Cameron. This is what happens when you take the initially attractive notion of 'fairness' and follow it to its logical (i.e. disastrous) conclusion. Bear in mind the logic of Intern Aware next time you help an old lady across the road. You might think you're helping an old lady across the road, but what you're really doing is grinding the faces of all those old ladies who happen not to be on that kerb at that particular time - and, still worse, all those old ladies who couldn't even make it as far as the kerb. Shame on you.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Enter The Sims

We've all been there. You post a perfectly innocent link to a piece on cardboard boxes, and next thing you know the Comments have taken on a life of their own. Enter the Sims.
I name this form - a kind of prose haiku in three sentences that must begin 'We've all been there', present a dilemma, and resolve in with 'Enter the...' - after its creator, the estimable Jenny Sims of BBC News Magazine. I think it is a form that - like the Izzard-Fry Rule - can be applied across the board, no subject too big or small. We've all been there. On all fours before the lamentable spectacle of the unknown. Enter God... Thank you, Jenny Sims, for your unwitting gift to the language.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Two Spencer Gores

This year's Wimbledon championship will be the 125th - a fact that will no doubt excite much brouhaha. It was back in 1877 that a fine all-round sportsman called Spencer Gore won the first All England Lawn Tennis Championship (lawn tennis, I should explain, is the new-fangled term for Sphairistike). This was a Gentlemen's Singles competition, and it was a leisurely affair, suspended at the weekend for the Eton-Harrow cricket match at Lord's (Gore was a Harrow boy), and the final was delayed for four days by inclement weather. In the end, Gore walked off with the 12 guinea prize money and a silver cup - a quite sufficient emolument, I'd say (even minus the guinea entry fee). Spencer Gore's other great achievement in life was to father the painter of the same name, a friend of Sickert's and founder member of the Camden Town Group. Sadly, this Spencer Gore died at the age of 35, of pneumonia, after being caught in a storm while out painting. The picture above is one of his.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

A Simple Rule

As the referendum draws ever closer, AV fever rages the length and breadth of the land. In pubs and clubs, offices and shops - wherever two or three are gathered together - they talk of nothing but the relative merits of First Past the Post and Alternative Voting... This morning, I received a personal communication from the Yes campaign, complete with statements from its celebrity supporters. If I hadn't already made up my mind on the issue, this would have decisively swung it: nothing endorsed by Eddie Izzard, Colin Firth, Stephen Fry and Benjamin Zephaniah can possibly be right. This simple rule can be applied across the board. And now I resume my dogmatic slumber...

Monday, 18 April 2011

Cardboard Boxes: An In-Depth Study of a Disturbing Trend

My tireless quest for soporific non-stories led me to this beauty, curently residing on the BBC News website. Who can but pity Jenny Sims (whoever she be) as she embarked, with a heavy heart, on this one? She has certainly given it her all, though, pursuing multiple lines of inquiry and extracting quotes from interested parties, including the gloriously named Richard Puffette, who's really in the wrong job - he was made for a life in breakfast cereals, or possibly patisserie.
Now, I love cardboard boxes as much as the next man (or, occasionally, woman) - they are, in their way, perfect; if I was smaller, I'd happily set up home in one - but even I had difficulty reaching the foot of this piece. It comes good towards the end, though, when the burning question finally gets the obvious answer: People buy boxes online beacause it's easier - well I'll be darned! Also, I might add, because they can afford to - recession, what recession? - and because of an underlying trend to prefer buying everything new. Even cardboard boxes. But for now I would rather not think about cardboard boxes any longer...

Friday, 15 April 2011

On This Day...

many eminent men and women were born, from Leonardo to Henry James, by way of Bessie Smith, green baize maestro Joe Davis, Fernando Pessa (not the enigmatic Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa, but a prominent journalist and broadcaster who, for a few months before his death in 2002 at the age of 100, was the world's oldest living journalist). Also worth a mention are the painter Arshile Gorky and the 'Great Leader' Kim Il Sung. However, one man - 71 today - towers over all these pygmies. The man whose inimitable blog continues to delight and enthral the nation... I'm sure you'll all want to join me in wishing him many happy returns of the day.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

What a Moth!

I've been rereading Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading - for the first time since I read it as a student 40-odd years ago. It's a rum one, more Kafkaesque than Nabokovian - in fact startlingly so, not least because Nabokov hadn't read any Kafka when he wrote it (in 1938). It tells the story of one Cincinnatus C, who finds himself imprisoned (in a castle-like gaol) under sentence of death for an obscure crime variously labelled as 'gnostical turpitude' or 'opacity' - essentially for being himself in a world in which he simply doesn't fit (and in which, as Nabokov describes it, no one fully human would want to fit). Nobody can understand why he is the way he is, and their incomprehension expresses itself either in contempt and cruelty or in flesh-crawling attempts to befriend him and 'bring him out of himself'. There's an early foreglimpse of Lolita in the shape of the gaoler's young daughter, but little else to link Invitiation to Nabokov's other works. It is certainly the least naturalistic of his novels, taking place in an unpredictable dream world of flimsy appearances. However, there are moments where the physical world comes into Nabokovian sharp focus, as with this brilliantly vivid description of a moth (so precise it can be identified as an Emperor Moth) in Cincinnatus' cell:

'It was only a moth, but what a moth! It was as large as a man's hand; it had thick, dark-brown wings with a hoary lining and grey-dusted margins; each wing was adorned in the centre with an eye-spot, shining like steel.
Its segmented limbs, in fluffy muffs, now clung, now unstuck themselves, and the upraised vanes of its wings, through whose underside the same staring spots and wavy grey pattern showed, oscillated slowly, as the moth, groping its way, crawled up the sleeve, while Rodion [the gaoler], quite panic-stricken, rolling his eyes, throwing away and forsaking his own arm, wailed, 'Take it off'n me! Take it off'n me!'
Upon reaching his elbow, the moth began noiselessly flapping its heavy wings; they seemed to outbalance its body, and on Rodion's elbow joint, the creature turned over, wings hanging down, still tenaciously clinging to the sleeve - and now one could see its brown, white-dappled abdomen, its squirrel face, the black globules of its eyes and its feathery antennae resembling pointed ears.
'Take it away!' impored Rodion, beside himself, and his frantic gesturing caused the splendid insect to fall off; it struck the table, paused on it in mighty vibration, and suddenly took off from its edge.'

That's wonderful. I don't suppose I shall ever reread Invitation to a Beheading again, but I'm glad to have returned to it this once.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Free Beer!

I've just come across this poem by Patricia Beer - which I believe is quite well known, but I pass it on anyway. I think it's rather good, very cleverly and unshowily crafted, and with a terrific ending. There's a programme about Patricia Beer coming up on Easter Sunday on Radio 4 - I must give it a listen...

The Conjuror

Arriving early at the cemetery
For 'the one o'clock, we looked around
At the last sparks of other people's grief,
The flowers fading back into the ground.

A card inscribed 'With reverent sympathy
From the Magicians' Club' was propped against
A top hat made of blossoms and a wand
Tied with a black velvet bow. We sensed

The rabbits and the ladies sawn in half
One blink away from being visible
Although the quick deceiving hand was changing
To flyaway dust under a ton of soil.

The funeral that we came for turned the corner.
They had been right to think the world of you,
Who conjured up for us, a hearse approaching,
An interest in life. Bravo. Bravo.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011


Happiness is in the news again, with the launch of Action for Happiness and renewed debate about whether the government should concern itself with how happy we are (as if they could improve matters). This all seems pretty sound stuff - indeed anyone who's given the subject of happiness a moment's thought will have reached similar conclusions. It is indeed the 'wisdom of the ages' - but, in our particular age, it can't be taken seriously until it's validated by 'a significant body of research' and elevated into a 'new science of happiness'. Here's a contribution to the debate from one of our leading thinkers.

PR News

I've had an email from a chap representing Starbucks, telling me all about their global success, praising my site as a 'great resource' and offering me a 'Starbucks infographic' (whatever that is) that 'I think your readers would enjoy'. Ah me - if only people in PR did their homework...

Monday, 11 April 2011

Butterfly News

This photograph is not, alas, mine - but, in the course of a butterflytastic weekend of summer heat, I did have the delight of seeing an Orange Tip on an Honesty flower, in my own garden, what's more. Orange Tips were flying in numbers around Box Hill, whither I took off on Saturday morning, in the hope of perhaps spotting an early Greeen Hairstreak or Dingy Skipper. Those hopes were not rewarded (well, it's still early April), but I was greeted by my first Speckled Wood of the year, and my first Holly Blues, as well as Brimstones and Peacocks galore. My species tally now stands at nine, which is not bad considering that I've yet to see a Red Admiral or Tortoiseshell this year. The garden too was enlivened by patrolling Holly Blues (so blue!) as well as several Orange Tips. As for the wild flowers on Saturday's walk - a glorious medley of musical names: violets, cowslips, windflowers, primroses, periwinkle, cleandine, cuckoo flowers, jack by the hedge, wild strawberries - and, already, bluebells in full flower. Bee flies (those strange hovering creatures with the long hummingbird-like proboscis) were hanging in shafts of sunlight, warblers were singing (or chiffchaffing) lustily, and I even saw a lizard basking - just as if it was summer. It isn't of course, but what a blessing of a weekend!

Friday, 8 April 2011

'Mature and Intrepid Gentlemen'

Here's a cheering story - 'mature and intrepid gentlemen' indeed; we need more of their kind... And leading the expedition, I'm pleased to see, is the same Anthony Smith who - among many other achievements - enlivened Radio 4 back in the early Eighties with his brilliant short talks titled A Sideways Look. Unlike many a 'sideways look', these were the real thing, illuminating a range of subjects by coming at them from an oblique angle, often overturning the received wisdom (he'd have been a great blogger). Smith has written many books about his travels, often by hot air balloon, and wider subjects. He also got the Jolly Boat returned from the US, restored and exhibited in the Imperial War Museum. This was the lifeboat that in 1940 picked up survivors from a ship sunk by the Germans, then drifted off West across the Atlantic for 68 days, finally making landfall in the Bahamas, by which time just two of the seven survivors were alive. Happily the gentlemen of the An Tiki have all survived, in good health and excellent spirits. Hats off to them!

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Dream School?

Last night, owing to circumstances beyond my control, I found myself watching Jamie's Dream School, the jaw-dropping 'reality show' in which the endlessly irritating but well-intentioned Oliver tries to 'rescue' teenagers who have been failed by the school system - not to mention, in most cases, their families and themselves. The aim, oddly, is to get them back into education, though it's hard to see why. Whatever its intentions, the series has done one thing spectacularly well - exposed the utter rottenness of a system that can take over the 'education' of children for ten years and, at great expense to the taxpayer, turn them out not only uneducated but also to all appearances uneducable and unemployable. What, you might well ask, have the teachers been doing with them? Presumably acting merely as custodians and classroom riot controllers, certainly not going so far as to teach them anything (least of all how to behave). To judge by the wet dishcloth of a headmaster who hovers over the Dream School experiment, little or nothing has been offered in the way of discipline or structure - the very things these unfortunate children need to lift them out of their circumstances and preoccupations, offering an oasis of order in otherwise chaotic lives, and opening up the prospect of - yes - social mobility, the Coalition's latest buzz phrase. This was how the Victorians turned even less promising human material into literate youngsters capable of learning and of holding down a job. This was indeed how the class-blind, background-blind grammar schools gave children from poor and troubled backgrounds a way out - a ladder. Now all that has gone, replaced by the 'child-centred', child-failing orthodoxies of the 'education' establishment. The behaviour, attitude and wilful ignorance on show in Dream School demonstrate the results all too graphically. In the light of which, this story should come as no surprise...

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

John le Mesurier: Intensely Relaxed

The great comic actor John le Mesurier would have been 99 today, if he hadn't 'conked out' (in the words of his self-penned death notice) in 1983. I've always admired his languid, good-natured, bemused style since the Ealing comedy days (and I'm old enough to have seen many of them in the cinema when they came out) - and of course his Sergeant Wilson in Dad's Army was a classic performance. The wonderful thing is that, by all acocunts, his screen persona was pretty much the man himself - intensely relaxed, you might say, albeit with the aid of a heroic intake of alcohol and tobacco. When doctors took him off the drink, he very nearly died - picking up the bottle again gave him another seven years of pretty happy life. He had a good war, becoming a Captain in the Royal Tank Regiment, and his innate gentlemanliness extended to taking the blame for the break-up of his marriage to Hattie Jacques in order to protect her name. He also stoically put up with his third wife leaving him for Tony Hancock, then coming back a year later. Intensely relaxed indeed - and a true gentleman.

Heck, why not?

Following the resounding success of the House that Looks like Hitler, how could I resist this stink bug that looks like Bert? Initial reports suggested a resemblance to Elvis, but the fine analytical minds at work on Mail Online realised that the bug looked, er, nothing like The King - but a little bit like the Sesame Street stalwart. Journalism eh - don't you just love it?

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Nothing on TV

Last night I watched Nothing. That is to say, I caught up with part two of the excellent Jim Al-Khalili's BBC4 two-parter, Everything And Nothing, which divides neatly into Part 1: Everything, and Part2: Nothing. I love Al-Khalili's knack of taking huge and bewildering concepts and giving me the pleasing - and fleeting - illusion that I've understood them. For a while there, as his exploration of whether Nothing could truly exist, and if so what it would be, led us further into the strange outer realms of quantum mechanics and the role of matter and antimatter in bringing universes into being, I thought I'd understood what he was getting at. But in the end had I understood Nothing, or had I understood nothing? More likely the latter, but the whole thing was a joy to watch - Al-Khalali has all of boy scientist Brian Cox's gift for explication and simplification with none of the distracting and frankly annoying baggage. And, in the course of the programme, he passed on a really quite startling fact - that the great physicist (and very strange man) Paul Dirac and the great comic actor (and rather strange man) Cary Grant, then Archibald Leach, attended the same primary school in Bristol. If only they'd invited them both to a school reunion - imagine the conversation... Actually there wouldn't have been any, as Dirac would have regarded it as unnecessary and therefore maintained one of his famous silences, while his mighty mind dreamt up some beautiful equation.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

1976 - A Retraction

Last night, BBC4 began the process of methodically demolishing my argument that 1976 was a musical Annus Mirablis by immersing us in the horrors of every single edition of that year's Top of the Pops. By the end of that ordeal, the nation will once again be convinced that 1976 was indeed the Grand Nadir. However, it should be noted that I was making my case from albums not singles. Golden Years for singles do exist - mostly in the Sixties and mostly in dreamy retrospect: the reality was that for all the steady stream of classic singles in the mid-Sixties, the charts were much of the time dominated by the likes of Ken Dodd, Engelbert Humperdinck, Vince Hill and Herman's Hermits. Memory is kind...

Friday, 1 April 2011


'And with his eyes he literally scoured the corners of the cell.'
That unfortunate sentence occurs on page 36 (in the edition I'm reading - Capricorn Books, NY, 1965) of Vladimir Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading. It must have got past both the notoriously fastidious author and his scrupulous translator son Dmitri (not to mention editors and proofreaders). It just goes to show that - in the words of Osgood Fielding III at the end of Some Like It Hot - 'Nobody's perfect.'

1976 - A Golden Year

Here at NigeCorp we occasionally take a break from wrestling with the knottier points of Kantian epistemology to address larger questions, such as this: Was 1976, as is popularly supposed, the worst year in the history of rock music, the dismal pre-punk nadir? Having looked into the matter, I can confidently assert that no, it was not - in fact it was one of the best years. Among the albums released in that surely golden 12 months were Bob Dylan's Desire (swiftly followed by Hard Rain), self-titled albums by the Ramones, the Modern Lovers, Joan Armatrading and Warren Zevon, Emylou Harris's Elite Hotel, Stevie Wonder's Songs In The Key Of Life, David Bowie's Station To Station, Dr Feelgood's Stupidity, Steely Dan's The Royal Scam, Nils Lofgren's Cry Tough. And Kate and Anna McGarrigle's self-titled debut album, which alone would make 1976 an Annus Mirabilis. I rest my 'case'.
At which point, I realise with a shudder that all this was 35 years ago...