Thursday, 29 September 2011

I Agree with Tony

Having been disappointed by Tony Judt's Ill Fares the Land, I've been reading The Memory Chalet, which definitely didn't disappoint. It's an extraordinary collection of essays and memories - elegant, sharp-witted, warm, often funny and/or poignant - written in the last months of his life and suffused with the awareness that his life was ending. Happily, in this volume, Judt rarely strays into politics, but there is one occasion when he does and - for a wonder - writes not like a leftist but like a true conservative. This is when he - a state-educated grammar school boy who got into King's College Cambridge - considers the present state of the education system:
'Intent upon destroying the selective state schools that afforded my generation a first-rate education at public expense, politicians have foisted upon the state sector a system of enforced downward uniformity. The result, predicted from the outset, was that the selective private schools have flourished. Desperate parents pay substantial fees to exempt their children from dysfunctional state schools; universities are under inordinate pressure to admit underqualified candidates from the latter and have lowered their admission standards accordingly... Today, when the British government mandates that 50 per cent of high school graduates should attend university, the gap separating the quality of education received by the privately schooled minority from that of everyone else is greater than at any time since the 1940s... Meanwhile, we now have more private school graduates in the British cabinet than for decades past - and the first old Etonian prime minister since 1964. Perhaps we should have stuck with meritocracy.'
Indeed. And we also have entirely predictable news stories such as today's latest on university admissions. And, in the absence of the grammar schools, social mobility has all but ground to a halt. I was also a state-educated grammar school boy who got into King's (Judt's essay on 'bedders' rang some painful bells, though my habits were so irregular I rarely saw mine), and I can only say that, when it comes to education, I agree with Tony.

Out of the night...

I see I've popped up again on the Dabbler with Invictus...

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Born on This Day...

... in 1935, the distinctively featured actor Ronald Lacey, most famous now for having played the Nazi villain Toht in Raiders of the Lost Ark, a more villainous version of Herr Flick in 'Allo 'Allo (and no I'm not posting anything about David Croft , the sitcom genius who died yesterday - the press and web are full of well deserved tributes). Scanning Lacey's Wikipedia entry, I came across this remarkable sentence: 'He was known for his generosity and warmth to fans but equally known in the London theatre scene for his smoking and drinking habits.' Drinking habits I can understand - but smoking habits? What did he do? Smoke three at a time? Shove them up his nostrils? Blow smoke rings out of his ears? I'm intrigued...

Tuesday, 27 September 2011


Coffee is surely one of the great blessings - or consolations, according to point of view - of life. It smells good, it tastes good - and, by golly, it does you good. Not so long ago coffee used to get a decidedly negative press, but nowadays the good news just keeps on coming - here's the latest. And note, these findings show that it's not all about caffeine, it's about coffee; other caffeine sources did not yield similar results. It was always a mistake to equate coffee with caffeine - coffee is no more caffeine than wine is alcohol. Drinking a cup of good coffee is nothing like taking caffeine; still less is drinking a glass of decent wine anything like knocking back a slug of alcohol. Coffee and wine are fantastically complex substances with very deep roots in human culture and husbandry, and their effects border on the magical. The same goes for tea and whisky, and quite possibly tobacco (though the bad news there rather outweighs the good).
I knew coffee was the drink for me when I first smelt the real thing - is there anything to touch the smell of freshly ground coffee? My father used to make filter coffee from time to time, even grinding the beans himself - pretty damned exotic in those days - but alas, most of the time, like most of my generation, I was obliged to drink the instant version, usually as a 'milky drink' (ugh). In my late teens I discovered the heady delight of espresso and never looked back... I also knew that beer was the drink for me when I first smelt the hoppy head on my father's Double Diamond - but that is another story.

Monday, 26 September 2011

News from the Infinite Monkey Cage

I've just stumbled on this story - and really don't know what to say, except that the world of science seems more and more to resemble Swift's Academy of Laputa.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

'A dark Vanessa...'

A morning of glorious mellow sun - Indian summer! At Box Hill abundant crops of berries, hips and haws, and the first leaves turning - and a few butterflies still flying: several Speckled Woods still full of vim and vigour, floppy Large Whites, a couple of lazy Meadow Browns, and - in a brilliant set piece - three Red Admirals all basking in the same corner of a sunny bramble patch, each half a dozen leaves away from the next, all bright and fresh and startlingly beautiful. They never disappoint...
The Red Admiral is 'Nabokov's butterfly', the one that turns up most often and most recognisably in his works. It has, or so he claimed, a special resonance for Russians, who once called it the Butterfly of Doom, because it was particularly abundant across Russia in 1881, the year Tsar Alexander II was assassinated - and the figures '1881' can be read across the spread underwings. Take a close look at the picture - can you make out the '81' that would match the '18' on the other underwing? Look among the patterns in the lower half of the lower wing. It takes a bit of wishful thinking, but it's just about there, quite large, the curved '1' more obvious than the smaller '8'...
The Red Admiral flies unforgettably into the final lines of Nabokov's/ John Shade's Pale Fire, a poem haunted by Vanessa Atalanta. John Shade, unknowingly about to die, notices that
'A dark Vanessa with a crimson band
Wheels in the low sun, settles on the sand
And shows its ink-blue wingtips flecked with white...'
For John Shade it was indeed the Butterfly of Doom.

Friday, 23 September 2011

'Too awful to think about'

While the Large Hadron Collider boffins scratch their pointy heads over the Big Doughnut's failure to deliver a Higgs Boson, a related experiment at CERN seems to have overturned Einstein's special theory of relativity. This is causing shock and dismay among physicists, which is all to the good. Maybe we're on the verge of a paradigm shift, maybe we're not (do I look as if I care?). Nobody understood relativity, let alone internalised it, so let's hope the next model of the universe is something a whole lot simpler. Malty's Egg Timer would fit the bill - or maybe something involving giant turtles..

'You again!'

Ah, Indian summer weather at last...
So there I was, sitting on a bench in Holland Park, minding my own business and basking in the glorious autumn son, when a fellow went rolling past in an electric wheelchair. En passant he turned his head and fixed me with a malevolent glare. 'You again!' he snarled, 'I'm always seein' yer.' Am I that much of a fixture of the Holland Park scene? I don't think so. I smiled cheerily in acknowledgment and bade him good day.
One or two Speckled Woods were still flying.

Thursday, 22 September 2011


My lepidopteral low spirits (see below) were wonderfully lifted earlier today. I was walking past Kensington Town Hall in the sun when I caught a glimpse of blue in the shrubbery, approached closer, and found that it was a female Holly Blue in tip-top condition, feeding happily on the flowers of a False Castor Oil Plant (Fatsia Japonica), which do rather resemble those of one of the Holly Blue's favourite food plants, ivy. This was a beautiful and cheering sight, the more so for being unexpected. It seems very late for a Holly Blue, so I live in renewed hope of seeing more butterflies before this year is over...


I see I've popped up again on the Dabbler, with dear old Clemence Dane.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

The Butterfly Year

It's official - 2011 was a dreadful summer for butterflies. After those glorious spring months raised our hopes and brought out the early fliers in good numbers, what followed was disastrous for our butterflies, as 'global warming' once again delivered a cool wet summer, this one far worse even than last year's and generally the worst in nearly 20 years (spot the warming trend). It's good to see the cheery Gatekeeper at the top of the charts, and the Tortoiseshell apparently stabilising, but other than that (and a rise in Red Admiral numbers that certainly passed me by), it's all bad news.
My own butterfly summer certainly followed this grim pattern. Indeed, sunny weather and free time coincided so rarely this summer that I never saw a single Adonis Blue, not to mention Silver-Spotted Skipper, Dark Green Fritillary, or any other Hairstreak but the early-flying Green. And numbers of almost every species in my orbit (except perhaps Small Heath and Dingy Skipper) seemed well down. However, this worst of years was also, for me, the best of years - the year of the Emperor! For that alone, it was a butterfly year to remember.

Another Sign of the Times

Clearing the usual drift of junk mail and flyers from the front door mat yesterday, I was about to bin a flimsy item I assumed to be yet another mail-order pitch, when I realised that it was - the telephone directory! Or rather 'The Phone Book'. About a quarter of an inch thick and measuring barely 6 by 12, it was decorated with a photograph of Daley Thomson clearing the pole-vault bar on the front cover, which was also adorned, predictably, with Olympics 2012 logos, while the back cover was given over to an ad. Inside too, ads predominated - indeed the only readily legible pages were those of the classfied section in the front third, which consisted largely of display ads. After that, densely printed in challengingly small type, came the business A-Z section, and, crammed into the pack pages in type barely visible to the naked eye, came the poor residents (myself, as I discovered with the aid of a magnifying glass, still among them).
How times have changed. Telephone directories used to be dauntingly thick volumes, printed in easily readable, if clunky, type, and bound in plain unfussy covers, coloured in dull pastel tones. In my earlier life as a reference librarian, I had custody of a complete UK set, and a handsome sight they were, lined up in numerical order over shelf after shelf. London Residential alone came in four stout volumes (if I remember rightly, A-D, E-K, L-R, S-Z). Those were the days when telephone directories were telephone directories, and tearing them in two was a feat of strength (or seemed so; actually there was a trick to it, and the late, great humorist Alan Coren - no Hercules - was able to do it if pressed). Today's 'Phone Book' would barely test the strength of a Mr Puniverse - though it would test the eyesight of a Superman. It is of course expressive, in its thoroughly dispiriting way, of how times have changed...

Monday, 19 September 2011

Butcher's Crossing: Some Kind of Great

Having found John Williams' Stoner one of the finest, most perfectly formed - and moving - novels I've read, I was naturally curious to try his 'western', Butcher's Crossing. Actually, calling it a 'western' is about as useful as calling Stoner a 'campus novel'. However, in its early stages, Butcher's Crossing does adhere to many of the conventions of the genre. The town in which the greenhorn stranger, Will Andrews, arrives is recognisable from any number of western movies - the classic Wild West frontier town - and the men with whom Andrews throws in his lot are also recognisably stock characters, as are the townspeople. As I read, all that distinguished Butcher's Crossing at this point, it seemed to me, was the sheer quality of the writing, especially the vivid evocation of the sights, smells and sounds of the Old West. But then Andrews sets off with the buffalo hunter Miller, the mean-spirited skinner Schneider and the one-handed old-timer Charley Hoge on a trek to a remote mountain valley that Miller promises is swarming with immense herds of buffalo - and it gradually becomes apparent that Butchers Crossing is developing into something very much more interesting than a superior western...
The journey into Williams's own distinctive imaginative territory begins with the appalling ordeal of the trek across the scorching prairie, which nearly ends in the death of men, horses and oxen. But that is just a foretaste of privations to come. It's hard to say much more about what happens without spoiling the narrative for the potential reader - but it's not too much to give away that there are indeed buffalo where Miller said there would be, and in prodigious numbers. An orgy of slaughter ensues, in the course of which Miller turns into a relentless, affectless killing machine, so lost in the mechanical process of killing on an industrial scale that he makes a fatal misjudgment, plunging all the men into deadly peril.
The descriptions of the slaughter are Homeric in their unblinking attention to detail, and some passages - especially the scene in which Andrews butchers his first buffalo - are almost unreadably graphic. Butcher's Crossing is an immensely bleak work, an unsparing demolition of the western myth - or rather the Emersonian vision of man at one with Nature, the vision embodied in Andrews, whose father is a Unitarian preacher and who is clearly affected by a vaguely Emersonian idealism. At first I felt that Williams could have made more of this, filling in Andrews's inner life and motivation - it's the only inner life in the novel - but, as the story progresses, it becomes clear that this is no schematic 'philosophical' novel; Williams, like all good writers, shows not tells. And what he shows is shattering. Man in nature turns out to be something terrible and terrifying, and what is left of Andrews and the others after their ordeal is barely human.
Butcher's Crossing could hardly be more different from Stoner - it's hard to believe the same man wrote them both - but I'm quite sure it's some kind of great novel. It will certainly haunt me for a long time...

Saturday, 17 September 2011


'Well, there's thirteen hundred and fifty two
Guitar pickers in Nashville
And they can pick more notes than the number of ants
On a Tennessee ant hill.
Yeah, there's thirteen hundred and fifty two
Guitar cases in Nashville
And any one that unpacks his guitar can play
Twice as better than I will...'

Over on The Dabbler, the excellent Mahlerman (whose wide-ranging posts on music are models of accessible expertise) recently wrote a piece on the richness and depth of modern 'Americana' and its deep roots in a long, living tradition of home music making. When making music feels like a natural and normal part of life, talent thrives, and the result is that, in many parts of America, you can barely throw a stone without hitting someone who can play twice as better than you will.
It occurs to me that this musical environment probably feeds into the flourishing in America of, shall we say, straight-shooting evangelicalism - that old time religion has all the best tunes, and there are plenty of formidably talented musicians to play them with vim and vigour. Here, for example, is a performance by an entirely obscure outfit from North Carolina which has since disbanded as one of its members has gone into full-time preaching. After watching this, what can you say but Hallelujah?

Martin Day

Walking home from the shops this morning, I looked up and discovered that I was under a House Martin flight path. There were dozens of them overhead, flying in a steady stream, in small squadrons, in two and threes, single stragglers, all dashing in a roughly southwesterly direction, with looping detours to scoop up any passing insects. It was a magical sight, and I have never seen so many martins in these parts - or in England at all, I think. Hundreds must have passed over in the quarter-hour it took me to walk home, and even now, hours later, there are still some stragglers flying over. Has anyone else noticed such an overflight today?

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Bird Stories

Here are two heartening tales of antipodean bird life. The first comes from my daughter in New Zealand, a country with an endearing tendency to make stars of its animals - from Happy Feet the stranded penguin, to Shrek the runaway sheep and the frisky Kakapo who became an online sensation. This story of the greeting of the Godwits is very charming (and somehow very New Zealand). I wish we rang the bells to welcome the returning swifts every spring...
And here's a funny tale of escaped talking birds enhancing Australia's urban soundscape.

More Dead than Alive...

would be a pretty fair description of how I feel this morning, after an evening with Mr Appleyard (not his fault, and it wasn't even a late one, but I slept badly). The title also sums up a subject that emerged briefly in the course of our conversation - are there more people dead than alive? I've always liked to think so and to continue to regard the dead as 'the great majority' - but lately there has been talk of the living outnumbering the dead. Appleyard and I concluded that it was probably incomputable, but it turns out that the answer's simple - despite population growth, the dead still outnumber us. It is strangely consoling to know this - as it is, I always find, to wander around a graveyard...


Over at the super soaraway Dabbler, I recall a park bench and a forgotten poet...

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Sheds and Shedmen

I was travelling all day yesterday, to and from a funeral, but before leaving I caught some of the Today programme, and was delighted to hear the mighty Roald Dahl estate marking Dahl Day (yes, Dahl Day! In the name of God, why?!) by shooting itself in the foot. The appeal for half a million smackers to restore Dahl's 'writing shed' was greeted with well merited anger - as summed up here. Could this be a first sign that the bizarre Dahl cult is beginning to lose its grip? I do hope so. Meanwhile, here's a shed
that would be worth saving! Happily, however, it's in safe (private) hands and in good nick.

Monday, 12 September 2011

A Very Glorious Exception

Heaven knows, I'm no fan of 'public art'. Too often it's a pretext for 'statements' of clumping banality and/or monuments of kitsch ugliness (Exhibit A: that monstrous statue, The Meeting Place, at St Pancras). However, there are many exceptions, and this weekend, up in Derbyshire, I was present at the unveiling of a very glorious exception.
This website gives you the basic facts about the project, but of course it can't convey the magic of the setting, or of the opening ceremony. Two or three hundred people had climbed the hillside above town to get to the site. There had been a cloudburst shortly before, which lent the Star Disc a beautiful watery sheen, but then the sun came blazing out from under cloud, bathing the wide views in a breathtaking golden light. As it grew darker and the ceremony got under way, the moon appeared from between clouds exactly as a speaker spoke the word 'Moon', then slipped back behind the cloud for a while before rising splendidly later in the evening...
I should declare an interest, as the artist who created the Star Disc is my cousin's husband, but I don't think I'd have been any less impressed if he was a stranger. This project, it seems to me, exemplifies what good public art should be - beautiful in itself and giving pleasure, but also serving a useful public function (in this case several, including an educational one) and enhancing the place where it sits. It's a fine example of human intervention perfecting the landscape, bringing it to a kind of completion (though, being human, it will pass).
It took real vision to spot the potential of this site, and a whole heap of other qualities to carry the project through to completion. The magic of the ceremony was transitory of course - you had to be there - but the magic of the disc itself and its glorious setting will long endure. If you're in that part of Derbyshire, make for the Star Disc - as it happens, you can get to it be climbing the steep road up from the
Perfect Bookshop.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Collecting, Martins

Over on the Dabbler, I speak up for collecting as a way into a relationship with nature (and get straight into trouble). And while we're talking of nature, I was entertained at lunchtime by house martins - there must have been 30 or 40 of them - circling and swooping over Kensington Gardens, calling excitedly to each other and feeding up for the great journey to come. They must be feeling the pull of the South. But while they're here with us, it's still summer in England...


A large and still burgeoning bush of this stuff - it's an Aquamarine Datura - has burst through the pavement round the corner from my house. It's rather lovely, in an un-English kind of way - and it is, of course, highly toxic, like all its kind (see under Toxicity here, and tremble). Should I alert the authorities? Or harvest the seeds (you never know when they might come in handy)? Are the plants finally taking over? I blame John Wyndham.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

This Is Probably Not a Portrait of Jane Austen

But it would be nice if it was. The 'Rice portrait' is a delightful piece of work, and it did come down through one branch of Jane Austen's family. However, the evidence against it being a portrait of her in childhood is pretty strong...
The artist who painted it was the splendidly named Ozias Humphry, born on this day in 1742. Humphry - a close friend of Romney and a patron of Blake - was an accomplished painter of portrait miniatures until his failing sight forced him to work in larger formats. The poor man finally went blind in his mid-50s.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

High Jump Heroine

With the Olympics looming ever nearer, here's a reminder of more innocent times - a picture of housewife high jumper Dorothy Tyler training for the 1948 event, at which she won her second Olympic silver medal. There's a fine profile of this redoubtable woman here, which is worth reading to the end. And note, the 1948 London Olympics turned a profit! Dorothy Tyler is still alive - has she been invited to the 2012 event? Perhaps she's booked a cruise...

Posh Bingo, Damp Toast

Yesterday's gusty winds quite blew my wits away, but I was vaguely aware that the Man Booker Shortlist had been announced. Hot favourites Alan Hollinghurst and Sebastian Barry are nowhere to be seen, leaving serial Booker bridesmaid Julian Barnes in pole position. It's little more than 'posh bingo', as he's said himself, but good luck to him.
My ever earlier nightly retreat to bed, book and nightcap means that I often find myself in the bath while Book at Bedtime is on Radio 4. It is generally a depressing experience, and has been more or less ever since this great aberration. As it happens, the current BatB is the Sebastian Barry, On Canaan's Side, read by Claire Bloom in the sepulchral tones reserved for this kind of Irish thing (I blame Edna O'Brein). And a few weeks ago the BatB was none other than Julian Barnes's The Sense of an Ending, read in fittingly laborious style by the author. I remember almost nothing of it, but it has left behind a faint sense of dim light, damp toast, lukewarm soup... Is this unfair? Of course it is. As I said, Good luck to him.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Pictured, Not Seen

What is the use of a blog without pictures? as Alice nearly asked. Well, of course it has plenty of uses, and some of the very best blogs make do with no pictures at all, but my own inclination has always been towards an illustrated blog. Which means I've been having a frustrating time of it lately, defeated by the technology (which seemed to change overnight from something I knew how to use into something I couldn't use - please don't ask for details, it's too humiliating). Anyway, now, with the help of a friend, I've cracked it - and to celebrate, I've put up a picture of an Adonis Blue. This is the butterfly - the most ravishingly beautiful of our native blues - that I went looking for at the weekend, but sadly failed to find. As I also failed to find the Silver-Spotted Skipper - it probably just wasn't warm enough to get that reluctant flyer into the air. I did see some faded Brown Arguses and large numbers of Small Heaths - both of these seem to have been having a bumper year. That might be the anticlimactic end of my butterfly summer, but I live in hope and shan't be filling my annual report just yet. I'm pretty sure that I saw two swifts, which would have extended my swift summer into September - but I can't be certain as it was a brief, distant sighting. My last certain swift was on August 27th, and that, in my book, is pretty late.

Can Such Things Be?

There are some pieces of news that, at a stroke, undermine the solid certainties of life and shake the foundations of what you took to be a known world. This surely is one of them. Can such things be? What will we do without this perfect symbol of a job never done? Will the metaphor live on, regardless of this shattering development? I very much hope so, as it's hard to think of anything as elegant to replace it... Any ideas?

Friday, 2 September 2011

Shakespeare Wrote Shakespeare

Heaven help us - Hollywood has discovered the Oxfordian theory of Shakespeare authorship. Which means that shortly millions of people whose minds had never before been troubled by any thoughts of Shakespearean authorship (and precious few of Shakespeare) will 'know' that the Earl of Oxford wrote the works of 'William Shakespeare' (and was the incestuous lover of Queen Elizabeth into the bargain) - just as they 'know' that Salieri poisoned Mozart, that alien landings have been covered up, Lee Harvey Oswald didn't assassinate Kennedy, the CIA staged 9/11, and the Illuminati, the Vatican, the Freemasons and the Rosicrucians are behind everything.
The case against Shakespeare having written his own works has been comprehensively demolished often enough (Jonathan Bate does it brilliantly in The Genius of Shakespeare), but it's stubbornly persistent, even among people you'd have thought had better judgment - E. Nesbit was a convinced Baconian, even Henry James entertained a suspicion that 'the divine William is the biggest and most successful fraud ever practised on a patient world'. Sadly the refusal to believe in Shakespeare seems to boil down to snobbery and a failure to understand how the imagination of a geat artist works. In future, though, it might boil down simply to having seen this silly film.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Far Too Much Stuff

The BBC News website seems to be developing a curious obsession with what are nowadays called 'storage solutions'. Who can forget the classic piece on cardboard boxes ('We've all been there...')? Now comes an equally, er, hard-working piece on the startling discovery that people are leaving stuff in self-storage warehouses for longer - which, amazingly, is the most popular story on the website today, with a terrific stream of comments building up. This piece doesn't go down the 'We've all been there' route, opting instead for the ominous 'It begins as a temporary solution...' and following the unfolding of the inevitable narrative of descent into helpless self-storage dependency. As the piece makes its stately progress through paragraph after paragraph, facts and figures are deployed, along with harrowing personal testimonies and insights from a wide range of leading storage experts. The social implications are considered, and there's a mention of the excellent Freecycle scheme (which I heartily recommend as the best solution to having too much stuff). Then along comes a touch of economics - the 'endowment effect' - before the inevitable dip into psychology and a contribution from Oliver James. It's a long, long ride to nowhere in particular. The fact is, we all have Far Too Much Stuff - although, of course, followers of Nigeness will not need telling that books don't count as Stuff.