Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Two Drunks

This week I am 'on holiday' - which means I'm busier than ever, but mostly in the pursuit of pleasure, relaxation and recreation, which is the best kind of busyness. Yesterday afternoon I found myself at the Tabard in Bedford Park. The interior of this fine pub, dimly lit, lined with gorgeous blue-and-green tiles (double peacock pattern) and plainly carpentered in Arts and Crafts style, is one of the most beautifully designed I have ever seen. There were few customers inside, but perched at the bar was a drunk who was singing, approximately, As Time Goes By and philosophising, equally approximately, about Love and Time to anyone who would listen.
Outside was another amiable drunk, who had taken upon himself meeting and greeting duties, moving from table to table with practised ease. A spry, wiry figure, with a large, lantern-jawed head and a permanent mischievous grin, he looked like a survivor from an end-of-the-pier show. In fact, as he informed me, he had served 29 years in the military, and had been drunk ever since. He appeared to be enjoying life. Pumping my hand repeatedly, he seemed convinced he'd seen me on television. He had not. He assured me I was a remarkably good-looking fellow and that, if I died my hair black, I would be the image of Dean Martin. I would not.
Later, outside Turnham Green Underground station, I spotted the other drunk - the singing one - now back in the guise of a commuter, briefcase in hand, weaving recklessly out into the traffic and heading, presumably, homeward across the common. I hope he made it.
And now I am off on a journey that will take me ultimately to Whitby, by way of Oxfordshire and Derbyshire (and, I hope, the Wirksworth Bookshop) - which means, I fear, no blogging for a few days. Talk quietly among yourselves.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

A Find - or Two

It's a red letter day when you find a new bookshop opening, rather than an old one closing down (I mean of course second-hand bookshops- I'm afraid I don't have much to do with the other kind these days). It happened to me this morning. I was walking past what used to be a thoroughly uninviting house clearance business and noticed there were a few bookstalls outside - but that was just the beginning; the inside was full of books - very full, and only partly organised. The pleasant young man in charge (who had been talking rather intensely with a woman, and pressed a book on her as she left) told me he'd just opened and was still getting things properly shelved, classified and alphabetised - but from what was already on show it was clear that this was a shop well worth browsing in, with a rich mixed stock which I shall certainly be examining in more depth soon. In the meanwhile, I pounced on an edition (a wartime reprint on thin paper) of Logan Pearsall Smith's All Trivia, his collected short aphoristic prose pieces. Who could resist a volume prefaced thus? -
These pieces of moral prose have been written, dear Reader, by a large Carnivorous Mammal, belonging to that sub-order of the Animal Kingdom which includes also the Orang-outang, the tusked Gorilla, the Baboon with his bright blue and scarlet bottom, and the gentle Chimpanzee.'

Friday, 22 July 2011

Bravo, Sarko!

The news of Monsieur le President's intensive culture drive is causing amusement of course (note Yann Moix's witheringly patronising remarks at the end of this piece), but isn't it also rather gladdening? It certainly wouldn't happen here, where our leaders court low culture and shun the high, in public at least - witness Groovemaster Gordo's absurd espousal of the Arctic Monkeys. If any British political leader now reads the literary or philosophical classics or takes a serious interest in classical music, you may be sure they're keeping quiet about it. The last PM to admit to reading anything literary was, I suppose, Harold Macmillan with his famous gag about going to bed with a Trollope (though I think Johnny Major also admitted to the same taste). Of course running the country was a much less time-consuming affair in Macmillan's innocent times - but even so, our present-day politicos would learn more about the world as it is if they made time for reading some 'proper' books instead of endless briefing documents, newspapers, etc (and heaven knows they'd probably be more innocently employed than in attempting to run the country). Sarko must be speed reading, if he's got through half the books he's said to have read ('I took a speed reading course and read War and Peace in 20 minutes. It involves Russia' - Woody Allen), and watching 15 movies end to end would surely take more than 24 hours, which seems a tad improbable. But hats off to Sarkozy for making the effort - for thinking it's worth making the effort - and for somehow fitting it all in around the demands of France and the Eurozone and La Bruni... And isn't it great that in France Hitchcock (who isn't even French!) counts as High Culture.

A Break in the Clouds

The atrocious recent weather in the Southeast has been seriously bad news for our butterflies, who have been rained off and frozen out just when they should be gallivanting around, courting and nectaring and basking and generally enjoying their short heyday. The sight of a Green-Veined White fluttering weakly past me in Kensington yesterday, in a rare moment of pale sunlight, was an event in itself. But this morning the sun was shining, the sky was blue and, as I walked down Launceston Place, a fine Red Admiral came swooping down and, skimming my head, settled on a sunny leaf of a hedge, right under my nose, and spent several minutes luxuriantly opening and closing his wings in the unaccustomed sunshine. A bravura display, for which I was duly grateful.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Humble Pie

The Worshipful Company of Headline Writers did well in that Westminster committee room yesterday, getting their man in place ready to fling the pie after Rupert Murdoch had professed himself 'humble'. The pie thrower, I can reveal, was not working alone. Also in the room were a trained parrot handler, poised to set his bird free to perch on Rupert's head should he profess himself 'sick' at what had gone on - and an expert marksman ready, on the trigger word 'shaken', to fling an apple core at the hapless press magnate. Another, simpler plan to set off a stink bomb was abandoned on the grounds that nobody nowadays has heard of Stinker Murdoch.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Norbiton Calling

I've just been browsing on this extraordinary website, a thing of strange beauty and wonder, inspired by the South London nowhere known as Norbiton (which, oddly, shares its non-existent quality with the similarly named South London nowhere, Norbury). It seems to me a quite amazing piece of work, which surely deserves to be more widely known.

Olympics News

I shouldn't be talking about this of course, but it seems the high-level, deep-cover, fully deniable conspiracy to prevent the London Olympics from happening is gaining momentum. The hacking scandal was rather a roundabout way of getting there, but objective number one - the decapitation of the Met - has now been achieved. What comes next I cannot divulge at this point in time, but I feel confident that the glorious goal of an Olympics-free London will be achieved. And fear not - the stadium will be put to good use. In keeping with the retro spirit of the times and the climate of economic austerity, I've drafted a proposal for a truly alternative Olympics, one that will ensure a fun day out for all:

Egg and Spoon Race
Sack Race
Three-legged Race
Wheelbarrow Race
Standing Jump
Backward Sprint.

Bring own eggs, spoons, ropes etc. If wet, in Millennium Dome.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Those Impressionists Again

As viewers of BBC documentaries will know, only one thing happened in the history of art. It happened in France in the second half of the 19th century, and it's called Impressionism. BBC2 was back on the subject yet again last night, with shouty Waldemar Januszczak's new three-parter, The Impressionists: Painting and Revolution. The thesis - Impressionists as dangerous revolutionaries - can be deduced from the title, and it's the very same line every 'new look' at the Impressionists takes. It's fair enough, if tired, but plays down the fact that a lot of Impressionist art is, inescapably, very very pretty - which is why it's so hugely popular - and quite a lot of it is little more than pretty (and some of it really rather bad). The presentation is lively, and Waldemar is interesting on the technical side of things - the paint tube, the ferrule, the portable easel. He tells the (mostly) familiar story well enough, but surely BBC2 viewers could handle something other than the Impressionists from time to time.
Looking back at the story now, what amazes is the dominance of the Salon system, the popularity and prestige of what now looks like hideously bad art. But hasn't it pretty much always been the case that what looks to one generation to be self-evidently the best (and therefore most expensive) art to the next generation seems jaw-droppingly awful? This is some consolation as we look at the current art market, dominated by the Saatchi-Serota axis, and the approved big-money stars of the art firmament. Here, surely, is the Salon art of our time - but of course the BBC doesn't see it that way, sedulously plugging the official line through its yartz mouthpiece, our old friend Will. I trust that when the story of 21st-century art is being told at some future time, viewers will enjoy watching Gompertz excitedly describing the Emperor's magnificent new clothes.


Alarming news in yesterday's Telegraph: butterflies, it seems, are now cool. Cool? Oh dear oh dear oh dear... Never mind, I shall grit my teeth, set my jaw and carry on regardless.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Watching the Conductors

When the 117th season of that grand musical institution The Proms kicks off tomorrow, TV viewers will be able to avail themselves of a remarkable 'red button' feature called Maestrocam. This trains the camera relentlessly on the conductor, whose work is analysed in an expert running commentary. Hmm. I'm not sure that even watching the concert itself on TV adds anything to the musical experience; in fact it mostly distracts the attention. Nobody looks at their best while performing classical music, let alone conducting it. Many conductors grimace and gurn, emote and make extravagant interpretative gestures - which might be fine in the wide open spaces of the Royal Albert Hall, but will surely look pretty horrific under the pitiless gaze of Maestrocam. My late father always reckoned conducting was a racket. He would point to the behaviour of dance band leaders, who didn't even bother to face their musicians but turned the other way and spent their time smiling ingratiatingly at the audience while making vaguely rhythmic gestures of encouragement. In vain did we protest that dance bands and orchestras - and their respective repertoires - are rather different kettles of fish; there was no shifting him. How he would have relished Maestrocam!


Another blast from the Nigeness past has gone up on The Dabbler.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011


In recent years there's been a lot of talk of butterflies as ultra-sensitive indicators of the impact of climate change - canaries in the climate change coalmine, if you like - so it's good to see that the Big Butterfly Count website (see below) emphasises environmental change in general, mentioning climate change almost as an afterthought. This might be another straw in the wind that's beginning to blow the warmists' agenda off course - largely because people are waking up to what the projected 'green energy' and 'carbon reduction' initiatives are going to cost us all. If you're going to clobber the economy and the taxpayer that hard, you need to be absolutely certain your projections are rock solid - and even then the taxpayers might refuse to play ball... But to return to butterflies, if climate change were to take the predicted effect of warming this none-too-torrid country, the general effect on butterfly numbers would surely be beneficial - every hot summer demonstrates this (as does every journey into warmer climes) and every cool damp spring/summer hits butterfly numbers hard. But what has hit them hardest over the postwar decades has been man-made environmental change that has nothing to do with carbon emissions. Intensive arable farming with attendant wholesale loss of habitat, the 'improvement' of grassland and the draining of marshes and fens have had a catastrophic impact on many species. Conversely, the relaxation (to put it politely) of woodland management and the withdrawal of grazing animals from downlands have hammered many other species. The efforts of Butterfly Conservation and others to reverse these environmental changes have often had spectacular local effects - but our butterflies still need a good run of warm, dry weather from spring well into summer if they're to prosper. And that we haven't had in years - climate change or no climate change.

A Strange Piece of Synchronicity

It was grey, cool and overcast this morning - anything but butterfly weather - and yet, as I stepped out of my front door, I brushed against the ivy-grown fence and inadvertently flushed a roosting Holly Blue, which fluttered off sleepily down the garden path. This was a strange piece of synchronicity, as I'd just been listening on the Today programme to a rather stilted chat about butterflies between the great David Attenborough and 'Jim' Naughtie, who at one point asked Sir David, What are those little blue ones I see flying around? Are they moths? No no, Attenborough assured him - not moths. Common Blues... Hmm. More likely Holly Blues surely, in a North London garden at this time of year? There was also a lot of loose talk about 'cabbage whites' and the still more mythical 'common white' - but never mind; this was all in a good cause, publicising Butterfly Conservation's Big Butterfly Count, which begins on Saturday. I might be returning to this later...

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Philosophy And Me

As I've often remarked to Mrs Nige - who does like it and finds it very interesting - I don't really like philosophy or find it very interesting. This is largely because I'm not up to it - it's too hard for my broad-brush gadabout mind to get to grips with. In this field, titanic intellectual exertions on my part tend to yield little if any reward, and I'm quite happy to maintain my dogmatic slumber. Nice pithy aphorisms I can enjoy, even understand - and with the likes of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, I can cling on long enough to enjoy the ride - but real, solid philosophy, the close questioning of reality, that's too much for me. It would take me too long to understand - in the unlikely event I ever did - and really I'd sooner be spending the precious time reading a good book or listening to music - or even, as a last resort, living (if, that is, I exist). My philosophical limitations were brought home to me just now when I stumbled on this. Anyone out there got any idea what it's about?

Sunday, 10 July 2011

A Book of Secrets

The biography of Richard Burton mentioned in passing here comes in at a daunting 800-plus pages. Is anyone's life really worth 800 pages? Maybe a few greats, but the biography business - driven by modern research and documentation methods, publishers' demand for fat volumes, and the ever-grinding mills of Academe - does have a tendency to gigantism, to burying quite minor figures under great tombstone slabs of biography. Happily, some of our best biographers have a more supple, graceful - and mercifully more concise - approach. Both Richard Holmes and Michael Holroyd - with their monumental single-subject biographies behind them - are gravitating toward short lives and group biographies. At the same time, both are increasingly blurring the boundaries by introducing themselves into the biographical narrative - a development that, I gather from a recent conversation, is causing much excitement in the field of Biography Studies (although it goes back to, at least, A.J.A. Symons' Quest for Corvo).
I've just been reading Michael Holroyd's A Book of Secrets, a fascinating and immensely readable group biography of a set of people all linked to the Villa Cimbrone, the glorious gardens of which rise over the town of Ravello on the Amalfi coast. The villa and its gardens as they are now are largely the creation of Ernest Beckett, Lord Grimthorpe, an English politician of whom, I must admit, I had not heard before. He seems to have been quite a lad, with an eye for art and, especially, the ladies. The first part of the book follows the intertwined lives of Beckett and one of the loves of his life, Eve Fairfax, who became a favourite model of Rodin's. Much of the rest of the book is dominated by the relationships between three women, all of whose names begin with V, and all of whom are pretty ghastly: Violet Trefusis, daughter of Beckett by the famous Mrs Keppel (the Prince of Wales's mistress), Vita Sackville West and Virginia Woolf.
The more you read on, the more appalling these women seem in their dealings with each other and with the others in their lives - self-indulgent women with too much leisure and money and an inflated idea of their own importance and abilities (okay, that's a harsh judgment on Woolf, maybe). However, Holroyd handles them with a light touch, letting in plenty of air and light, commonsense and humour, and interweaving their stories not only with each other, but with his own, as he pursues his researches, visits the Villa Cimbrone and meets an Italian academic who seems to be posthumously in love with Violet. As a result of this approach, the three Vs are not the intolerably oppressive company they might have been. And it makes for quite a story, especially when Violet and Vita get going. Vita's treatment of her husband, Harold Nicolson, is bad enough (though at least the gay Harold was free to make his own amusements) - but it pales into insignificance against Violet's treatment of the man she eventually deigned to marry. Poor Denys Trefusis was a war hero, magnetically attractive to women - and Violet treated him like dirt. Part of the reason is suggested in this startling account of a conversation with Lady Sackville, Vita's redoubtable mother:
'On the point of separating from her unfaithful husband, Lady Sackville had grown fond of scatological stories and coarse sexual anecdotes of horrifying male lust. What she said opened Violet's eyes to what married life with Denys might entail. For though emotionally so alert, Violet seems to have been ignorant of the facts of heterosexual intercourse - until Vita's mother made the details of men's sexual habits 'dirty and hideous' to her. 'Thank goodness I have been spared this horrible knowledge for much longer than most people,' Violet wrote. '... No wonder I have always preferred fairy-tales to facts.'
I must say I rather warmed to Lady Sackville. She also described one of Vita's early novels as 'brilliantly dull' - a superb two-word description of a certain kind of writing. But most definitely not of this thoroughly enjoyable experiment in biography.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Lionel and Porker

The Nigeness archive features again on the super soaraway Dabbler.

Byron: Trying

It's wonderful what turns up at church bazaars - I've come across many good book finds myself over the years, including this remarkable volume. But it would take a lot to top this find of a tatty volume picked up at a church bazaar in Savannah, Georgia, having somehow made its way thousands of miles from the vault of a village church in Nottinghamshire. It's in a safe place now, and no doubt the contents will soon be published. Meanwhile, I like the description of Byron as 'a homosexual who was also reputed to have bedded 300 women'- that's not bad going for 'a homosexual', is it? Lynda La Hughes used to say on Gimme Gimme Gimme, 'There's no such thing as gays - they're just not trying'. So, full marks to Bryon for really trying.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

'The Human Cost'

Mao's Great Famine, by the Dutch historian Frank Dikotter, has won the Samuel Johnson Prize. On a radio news bulletin last night, the subject of the book - the starving to death of more than 40 million people - was described as 'the human cost of Chairman Mao's reforms'. Isn't this a little like describing the death toll of the Gulag system as 'the human cost of Stalin's reforms', or the killing fields as 'the human cost of Pol Pot's reforms', or indeed the Holocaust as 'the human cost of Hitler's reforms'? Of course it wasn't a considered statement, and was probably caused by over-compression of the news item to fit a short bulletin, but it is perhaps significant that it got through unremarked. I remember the days, back in the late 60s and well into the 70s, when in Leftist circles Mao's 'Little Red Book' was virtually a fashion accessory - though even then a glance at the relevant entry in the Guinness Book of Records would have uncovered the fact that Mao had broken all records for mass murder (Mao's western pals dismissed this as a CIA fabrication at the time, but the figures turn out to have been about right). I fancy there is still a residue of that once-popular mode of thinking that always gave Communist-inclined mass murderers the benefit of the doubt, on the grounds that their intentions were 'good' and you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs (ignoring the fact that you can break eggs ad infinitum without making anything resembling an omelette). The survival of this mode of (double) thinking can be traced in the fact that Maoist or Stalinist memorabilia and iconography remain faintly chic - or at least inoffensive - whereas sporting the Nazi equivalent would be (rightly) considered anything but. Let's hope Dikotter's book opens many more eyes to the true horror of Mao's regime.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

A Green Thought

In the Comments under my recent Marbled White post, Mary (a newcomer?) gives a cheering account of the wonderful effects of a relaxed mowing regime in her local park. Clearly a flowery 'meadow' in a municipal setting has a soothing and civilising effect, providing pleasure to the eye (and nose and ear - the scent of flowers, the sound of grasses) and relaxing the mind and body. There may well be deep-seated primal reasons for this - the evolutionary psychologists would no doubt say it's our nostalgia for the savannah (to which I would retort - Phooey!). At a less primal level, I would suggest that the 'natural' look of a meadow puts us in more of a country than a town mood, presenting us with something that looks like a landscape made by nature rather than man - whereas a municipal expanse of close-shaven lawn is evidently man-made and can be seen by the ill-intentioned as a blank canvas on which to express their antisocial tendencies, or a wide open arena in which to act them out. This new mowing regime is doubtless the result of financial strictures, but for once the law of unintended consequences has worked wonders. I hope the various authorities concerned are taking note of the benign effects of cutting back on the mowing. And thank you, Mary.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Marathon Men

In broadcasting, a surefire waste of good airtime is the post-match/pre-match/pretty much anytime interview with a sportsman/woman. With few exceptions, they have nothing to say, and they manage to say it in the most mind-numbingly boring manner. A prime example is Andy Murray, whose interview responses consist of a string of inarticulate grunts punctuated by 'y'know' every three seconds. Though naturally resistant to the notion that humans are 'really' automata, I do find myself having doubts when I listen to an Andy Murray interview, or indeed watch him play... However, on the radio this morning there was an interview with a sportsman that was rather engaging, frank and even amusing. The interviewee was ultra-marathon specialist Dean Karnazes, who, as can be seen here, has performed amazing feats of endurance running. Why does he do it? asked Evan Davis, gamely jogging along at his side in a London park. In the last analysis, Karnazes replied, 'because I'm not intelligent. I can't see what's ahead.' Excellent. Later Davis asked if he didn't sometimes find it rather boring. Hell yes, he replied (or words to that effect) it's 'the most boring thing on earth'. He can only get through it by listening to talking books... Of course, even Karnazes's ultra-running feats pale into insignificance compared to those of the strangely little-known Yiannis Kouros - but he probably gives a better interview.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

When R.S. Met Liz

If I hadn't happened to read a review of a new biography of Richard Burton - and I wouldn't have happened to read it had I not noticed that it (the review) was by the excellent Byron Rogers - I would never have known that the craggy and fabulously austere poet R.S. Thomas once came face to face with Mrs Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor. Gwydion Thomas, R.S.'s son, was a talented actor at Oxford and - here I'll leave it to Rogers to tell the tale - 'was recruited by Burton to appear in his film of Faustus. On set, when served tea, Burton, he recalled with awe, had to have the cup glued to the saucer, because his hands shook so much the rattle was picked up on sound.
Then there was an extraordinary lunch after the actor had asked to meet Gwydion's father. In the course of this, R.S. Thomas tried to interest Elizabeth Taylor in small talk. The poet did this by broaching the subject of flatfish. "And have you tried plaice?" he asked the Most Beautiful Woman in the World.'
And have you tried plaice?... I pass this on purely because it made me laugh. But I've made a mental note of the line - you never know when it might come in handy.