Thursday, 29 March 2012

The Pasty War - It Had to Happen...

Just when you thought domestic politics couldn't get any more farcical, a full-scale pasty war breaks out, with our leaders and would-be leaders competing to be seen eating the most disgusting downmarket snacks they can find, from so-called 'Cornish pasties' to cheap sausage rolls. When the mysterious rash of pasty shops started spreading across London and elsewhere a few years ago, I knew there would be trouble - and now it's come... The principal mystery of the pasty shop plague remains, though - you never see anyone in them, even in these hard times, and yet they somehow stay in business. Perhaps the 'pasty tax' is a last desperate attempt to get rid of them - if so I back it wholeheartedly...


A beautiful surprise in Holland Park earlier today - two Speckled Woods fight-dancing, rising and falling together gracefully in a perfect double helix. As they do. I think this is the earliest I've ever seen a Speckled Wood (though, amazingly, the first of this year was spotted on January 13th by someone in Cornwall). I've also seen Red Admirals, Brimstones, Small Whites and a fast-flying Peacock - and it's still only March. A good start, but this wonderful heatwave is expected to end any day now and the early flyers will go to ground...

Aah Schubert...

What with one thing and another - life, work, my late-Lent immersion in the St Matthew Passion - I haven't heard as much as I'd like of Radio 3's Spirit of Schubert season - his complete works across the entire schedule for eight and a half days. But it's been a joy to find Schubert there every time I tune to Radio 3, and once or twice I've fallen asleep to Schubert and woken in the morning to more Schubert, surely to the great benefit of my soul.
In my musically formative years, such a project would have seemed outlandish, as Schubert occupied a place a long way down the evolutionary ladder from the great, universally worshipped Beethoven. And, as it happened, when Radio 3 first scheduled a continuous broadcast of one composer's complete works, in 2005, it was Ludwig Van that they chose, launching (with some trepidation) the six-day Beethoven Experience. It proved an unexpectedly massive hit, emboldening Radio 3 to do it again in the same year, this time with Bach: A Bach Christmas filled ten days of the run-up to Christmas with the complete works of Bach. After that, in 2007, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky got the treatment. Then, belatedly, came Mozart, across the first ten days of 2011. And now we have the Spirit of Schubert, which comes to a glorious end on Saturday night with a concert of his last works, including the sublime C Major Quintet and B Flat Sonata...
The question is: Who should be next for this immersive, completist treatment? My own suggestion would be Purcell, who's been well served in the past by Radio 3 (especially in his anniversary years, with a Purcell Weekend in 2009) but he was certainly prolific enough - and great enough - to qualify, and his music is still too little known and appreciated (by me indeed, until quite recently). Any more ideas?

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Hirst Has Jumped the Shark

Julian Spalding's long overdue attack on Damien Hirst is welcome, and is echoed by murmurs from the art market that also seem to suggest an almighty bubble is about to burst. As he says, if you bought a shark in a tank what you've got is a shark in a tank (albeit one with a fancy name) - and the conservation problems don't bear thinking about... I believe Spalding is wrong to finger Marcel Duchamp as being ultimately responsible for this kind of 'con art' or 'non art' - Duchamp was after all a real artist as well as a prankster. The man who, more than any other, paved the way for Hirst and his kind was Andy Warhol, a non-artist who turned 'art' into a blatantly money-making mass production business (though despite this, he and his people did produce some striking work, and it's hard not to like Warhol - just as it's hard not to loathe the loutish Hirst). Anyway, it's rather wonderful that the Hirst bubble is in danger of bursting just as Tate Modern launches its mighty blockbuster exhibition of.. Damien Hirst, backed by two Channel 4 documentaries, and no doubt a BBC Culture Show special and much puffery from our old friend Will Gompertz. Perhaps we should all go and see it, on the grounds that there will never be another, and we can tell our bemused grandchildren that we were there. They probably wouldn't believe us though.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Sleep Hygiene, Night Starvation

I had never heard the phrase 'sleep hygiene' before last night, when I heard it twice - once on the radio and once on TV - within ten minutes. It's got nothing to do with cleanliness but is about arranging matters so as to get a good night's sleep - saying no to that third espresso, drawing the curtains, turning off the light and the TV, that kind of thing. It reminded me of a phrase from the now distant past that I had all but forgotten - 'night starvation'. This non-existent condition was dreamt up in the 1930s to market Horlicks, a sweet malty milk drink that is still available in various forms today. The notion of 'night starvation' caught on, and was still going strong in my childhood. I remember ads in the women's magazines that made up rather too much of my boyhood reading in which a worried housewife, who, despite sleeping well, was feeling tired all the time, consulted her doctor about it. This reassuring figure, in a pinstripe suit, would remove his glasses and suggest that 'You may be suffering from night starvation'. To remedy this, he would recommend - you guessed? - Horlicks. They don't make them like that any more (they're not allowed to) - but why did the notion of 'night starvation' take such a hold? I fancy it was because it sounded faintly alarming (and yet easily remedied), and because in those days of non-stop eating, it seemed barely credible that the human frame could survive the hours between the late supper and the cooked breakfast without further nourishment.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Sensational Reader Offer

The endless coverage of the latest spot of Tory fund-raising bother over the weekend has given me an idea...

I'm sure you will appreciate that running Nigeness doesn't come cheap (you wouldn't believe the amount of fuel the legendary NigeCorp turbine hall alone consumes). Now you, dear reader, can help to keep Nigeness humming along at the top of its game [You call this the top? - Ed.] by making a donation, large or small (cash only please, for administrative reasons). Here's how it will work:

£5 will buy you not only the right to post a comment, but a personal Guarantee that it will not be deleted. Terms and conditions apply.
£20 will guarantee you a personal response to your comment (no minimum length guaranteed).
£50 will secure you a place on a guided tour of NigeCorp HQ.(Note: These tours will not be guided by me.)
£200 will secure you a personal guided tour of NigeCorp HQ, guided by me in person. (Minimum length of tour not guaranteed.)
£500 will secure you a visit to my personal penthouse apartment at NigeCorp HQ. (Minimum length of visit not guaranteed.)
£1,000 will guarantee that I'll be there when you visit. Terms and conditions apply.
£2,500 will secure you afternoon tea in said apartment, with me, in person. (No guaranteed maximum number of other guests.)
£5,000 will secure you a place at NigeCorp's legendary boardroom table, giving you the chance to offer your own input into the future direction and vision of NigeCorp and to shape Nigeness policy on matters important to you.

I'm sure you will agree that this represents excellent value for money, and a visionary way forward for Nigeness. Dig deep!


I see my epoch-making post on Hoffnung has sprung back to life again over on the Dabbler.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Wilfrid Brambell: 'Openly derogatory of New Zealand cathedrals'

Had he been spared, the actor Wilfrid Brambell - best remembered as the repulsive, wheedling 'dirty old man' in Steptoe & Son, a sitcom almost too excruciating to watch - would have been 100 today. He arrived at the Steptoe part by way of various early turns as 'old man in pub', 'drunk', 'tramp', etc, playing way above his actual age. In 1965, declaring he didn't want to do any more Steptoe, he crossed to New York and opened on Broadway in a musical called Kelly, which closed after one performance.
Kelly is one of the most notorious Broadway flops - a musical written and produced by a team with no musical theatre experience at all, and inspired by the story of a man who, in the 1880s, claimed to have jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge and survived (a feat later attributed, by Allen Ginsberg, to Tuli Kupferberg of the Fugs, though the jump he survived was actually from the Manhattan Bridge). In the musical, a daredevil busboy named Hop Kelly falls foul of Bowery gamblers who aim to prevent him surviving the jump so they can win a bet. Even last-minute script doctoring by Mel Brooks and others couldn't save this oven-ready turkey.
To return to Brambell, among his more surprising works was a 1971 single, Time Marches On, in which, speaking over a guitar riff, he laments the demise of The Beatles (with whom he starred in a Hard Day's Night). On the B-side he sings a topical song about Britain's adoption of the decimal currency, The Decimal Song. Still more surprising was Brambell's casting in Frank Zappa's surreal documentary 200 Motels, in which he was due to play the Mothers of Invention bassist Jeff Simmons. However, Wilfrid walked out on Frank in a rage over something or other, and Zappa decided to give the role to the next person to walk into the room - who turned out to be Ringo Starr's chauffeur, Martin Lickert.
A 'closet' gay in the manner of the time - which seemed to involve pouncing on any passing young man, a la Frankie Howerd - Brambell was also an alcoholic, and always liable to end up in a scrape. According to Wikipedia, while on tour Down Under with the Steptoe & Son stage show, he 'used bad language and was openly derogatory of New Zealand cathedrals in an interview'. New Zealand cathedrals, eh? What can he possibly have said?
My landlady in Sheffield (in the early Seventies) recalled having Wilfrid Brambell as a paying guest once when he was on tour. He spent most of his time getting drunk and chasing young men in the town centre. She did not speak well of him.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Aspirin: The Devil's Horns Effect

The latest good news on Aspirin comes as no great surprise to those of us who have been extolling the virtues of this medicine-cabinet marvel for many years. What does continue to surprise me is the apparently ever-strengthening resistance to Aspirin. It's getting increasingly hard to find it on pharmacy and supermarket shelves, where it's being elbowed aside by ever more fancily packaged variants on Paracetamol and Ibuprofen. Neither of these two, in my experience, is as effective a painkiller as Aspirin (especially in combination with Codeine) and neither is any safer - certainly not Paracetamol, which is very bad news for the liver. And yet Paracetamol is seen as safe, nice and cuddly. It's what marketing types call the Halo Effect - an often wholly undeserved aura of health-giving beneficence that surrounds certain products or foods. Aspirin, by contrast, has something more like the Devil's Horns Effect - an undeserved reputation for being harmful and bad (based on the idea that it will make your stomach bleed - though you'd be very unlucky indeed if it did). The Devil's Horns Effect will no doubt trump the health benefits of Aspirin yet again - especially, I fancy, among women, who by and large seem to have a mighty down on Aspirin (or so I've found). And of course the producers and retailers have little interest in pushing Aspirin, as there's no money to be made from it, even if sales now soar. As they should. But won't.

The Big Day

Today is World Poetry Day, and here at NigeCorp we're very excited indeed. I am wearing my best chiton in honour of the occasion and am just putting the finishing touches to this year's Pindaric ode to Euterpe (I'm having a little trouble with the antistrophe - you know how it is). At the appointed hour, I shall don the laurel crown, rise to my feet and, while my devoted deputy smites the lyre, I shall declaim. Libations will then be poured, and if it goes anything like as well as last year, success is guaranteed.
It's also World Puppetry Day, but let's not go there...

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Harry Hole and the Lynches

I'm afraid (no I'm not, I'm intensely relaxed about it) that the vogue for Scandinavian detective fiction has largely passed me by. I saw some of the English-language Wallanders, which had much to commend them, even if the plots were barely more plausible than Midsomer Murders, generally revolving around massive conspiracies, cover-ups and corruption involving almost all the dramatis personae. I also rather enjoyed the American version of The Killing, much of which was, I gather, a straight steal from the original, but with a different ending. Once I even had a stab at reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but retired hurt after a few pages. Now I learn (via a poster on Victoria station) that one of the biggest sellers, the Norwegian Jo Nesbo, writes novels about a detective called Harry Hole. Harry Hole? What kind of name is that for a detective? Imagine if Conan Doyle or Raymond Chandler has opted for Harrry Hole. - would they have found a readership? Anyway, Mr Hole, the hero of nine novels so far, has his own Wikipedia entry, one that reads almost like a caricature of the troubled Scandinavian detective (has anyone written a parody of this genre yet? They should.) We learn that he lost his mother - 'a descendant of the Sami people' - to cancer when he was in his 20s, and has never had a close relationship with his father. His younger sister has Down's syndrome. And he is of course both a heavy smoker and an alcoholic. Somehow reading Hole's profile put me in mind of the unfortunate Lynch family in Samuel Beckett's Watt:
'There was Tom Lynch, widower, aged eighty-five years, confined to his bed with constant undiagnosed pains in the caecum, and his three surviving boys Joe, aged sixty-five years, a rheumatic cripple, and Jim, aged sixty-four years, a hunchbacked inebriate, and Bill, widower, aged sixty-three years, greatly hampered in his movements by the loss of both legs as the result of a slip, followed by a fall, and his only surviving daughter May Sharpe, widow, aged sixty-two years, in full possession of all her faculties with the exception of that of vision. Then there was Joe's wife née Doyly-Byrne, aged sixty-five years, a sufferer from Parkinson's palsy but otherwise very fit and well, and Jim's wife Kate née Sharpe aged sixty-four years, covered all over with running sores of an unidentified nature but otherwise fit and well. Then there was Joe's boy Tom aged forty-one years, unfortunately subject alternately to fits of exaltation, which rendered him incapable of the least exertion, and of depression, during which he could stir neither hand nor foot, and Bill's boy Sam, aged forty years, paralysed by a merciful providence from no higher than the knees down and from no lower than the waist up, and May's spinster daughter Ann, aged thirty-nine years, greatly reduced in health and spirits by a painful congenital disorder of an unmentionable kind, and Jim's lad Jack aged thirty-eight years, who was weak in the head, and the boon twins Art and Con aged thirty-seven years, who measured in height when in their stockinged feet three feet and four inches and who weighed in weight when stripped to the buff seventy-one pounds all bone and sinew and between whom the resemblance was so marked in every way that even those (and they were many) who knew and loved them most would call Art Con when they meant Art, and Con Art when they meant Con, as least as often as, if not more often than, they called Art Art when they meant Art, and Con Con when they meant Con. And then there was young Tom's wife Magnee Sharpe aged forty-one years, greatly handicapped in her house and outdoor activity by sub-epileptic seizures of monthly incidence, during which she rolled foaming on the floor or on the yard, or on the vegetable patch, or on the river's brim, and seldom failed to damage herself in one way or another, so that she was obliged to go to bed, and remain there, every month, until she was better, and Sam's wife Liz nee Sharpe, aged thirty-eight years, fortunate in being more dead than alive as a result of having in the course of twenty years given Sam nineteen children, of whom four survived, and again expecting, and poor Jack who it will be remembered was weak in the head his wife Lil née Sharpe aged thirty-eight years, who was weak in the chest..'

Monday, 19 March 2012


Over on the Dabbler, under Mahlerman's Sunday post on Unserious Music, Worm mentions the once very famous and popular Gerard Hoffnung. That name took me right back to my boyhood. One of my uncles had a recording of Hoffnung's legendary stand-up (and sway about) performance in front of a notably well lubricated Oxford Union audience. This was the huge comedy hit of its day, and my uncle and father would laugh almost as uproariously as the Oxford audience as they listened to Hoffnung in full flow - sounding, as ever, like the most bufferish of old buffers, though he was a young man. It's a tour de force, and, though something of a period piece, still worth a listen - his comic timing is quite extraordinary.
Hoffnung's charming little books of music-themed cartoons sold very well - it's impossible not to like them - and still turn up quite often in charity shops. The musical performances he staged were perhaps rather laboured affairs, as such minglings of comedy and 'serious music' tend to be. But his most interesting legacy, I think, are his recorded interviews with an urbane Canadian called Charles Richardson. Hoffnung, his bufferish persona honed to perfection, proves the most impossible of interviewees (think Peter Cook's Arthur Streeb-Greebling and then some), offering rambling irrelevant 'answers', interrupting his hapless interviewer, taking offence at innocuous pleasantries and indignantly telling Richardson to mind his own business when pressed for anything resembling an answer. The result is something at once very funny and way ahead of its time. Have a listen here...

Thursday, 15 March 2012

True Grit

Taking a break from Ivy and Rose and all those lady novelists I seem irresistibly drawn to, I've been reading Charles Portis's True Grit, a novel by a man - and what's more, one that might be classified as a 'western'. It's a tricky book to write about, as I suspect it's one those modern classics that's widely read in America but little read over here (like William Maxwell's So Long, See You Tomorrow). Most people on this side of the Atlantic think of True Grit as a John Wayne movie, and latterly a Coen Brothers' movie, and few have so much as heard of Charles Portis, even though he wrote one of the funniest books of the 20th century, Masters Of Atlantis. Anyway, True Grit - the story of a 14-year-old girl, Mattie Ross, avenging her father's murder, with the help of one-eyed marshal 'Rooster' Cogburn - I found an absolute joy to read. Here's how it starts:
'People do not give it credence that a 14-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father's blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day. I was just 14 years of age when a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band.
Here is what happened...'
What can you do but read on? As always with Portis, it's all in the voice - and Mattie's voice is utterly distinctive and unforgettable. She is telling the story perhaps some 40 years after it happened, but she is still the same person - a forthright Presbyterian with very clear views of right and wrong, a dauntless spirit and sharp wits, and little sense of humour. And yet her story is engaging and funny, despite taking in an awful lot of violent death and injury - all of which is dealt with in a brisk, spunky, matter-of-fact manner. Mattie's voice, and that of the dialogue passages, is vivid, precise, formal and beautifully phrased - perfectly of its time and place (Arkansas in the 1870s or thereabout). And because the language is so exactly right, True Grit can ditch the baggage that weighs down many a less completely imagined period novel - making for a short (200-odd pages) and hugely readable book.
The language is of course the language of Bible readers - and Mattie is not above giving chapter and verse. She also has an endearing habit of putting any vaguely slangy word or expression in inverted commas: 'thugs', 'booty', 'stunts', 'the land of Nod'. She uses the characteristic locution, 'My thought was' - as in 'My thought was: What on earth!' The exclamations too are characteristic: 'It was not to be!', 'Thank goodness for that!', 'You bet he was a game pony!'
Rooster Cogburn has his distinct voice too, but he is mostly a man of few words. When he does let himself go, with a drink-fuelled account of his early career, he sounds at times almost like the immortal Dr Reo Symes in The Dog of the South, but it doesn't last long, and Mattie remains firmly in charge of the story.
I guess Mattie Ross is a heroine in the mould of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. True Grit is every bit as enjoyable as their stories - and, I think, every bit as classic. If you haven't read it, you're missing a treat.

Dabbling again

Over on The Dabbler, I ponder the afterlife of a poet of the 1890s...

Wednesday, 14 March 2012


In The Wood (a section of The Worm Forgives the Plough, republished in Penguin's very attractive series of little books, English Journeys, and available at 1p on Amazon), John Stewart Collis describes thinning a wood and restoring it to health...
'During my work of clearing there was one thing which gave me particular satisfaction. This was the cutting away of the honeysuckle. Belonging to the parasitic company of plants that engage trees for climbing up instead of rising of their own accord, they often provide grim spectacles in the woods of merciless throttling and strangulation. Ascending from the bottom of the trunk they spiral their way upwards, clinging tightly to the bark. This hinders the sap, the tree's circulation, and after a year or two the young trunk itself becomes a spiral-shaped pole, bulging out in a remarkable manner, as if an erect rubber tube full of air had been tightly wound with cord in spiral formation so that it bulged out between the cord (though in the case of the victimised tree or branch the bulge appears at the cord of honeysuckle). The tree struggles to live in spite of the stranglehold, but generally in vain. It is apt to die and rot and bend over, a parched ruin upon which the honeysuckle thrives, spurning the base degrees by which it did ascend...'

This is harsh indeed - it's as if he's writing about Lianas, or the terrible Kudzu that has engulfed great swathes of the American South. Honeysuckle is a most lovable woodland plant - not only for the beauty of its flowers and their fragrance, but (from my perspective) for being the food plant of that beautiful butterfly, the White Admiral. Also for its alternative name, Woodbine - which, bizarrely, was adopted by W.D. & H.O. Wills for a cheap brand of cigarettes that played its part in winning the Great War, and was still available in pocketmoney-friendly packs of five, in my earliest smoking days...
Richard Mabey, in his mighty Flora Britannica, takes a much more charitable view of the Honeysuckle (which is not, of course, 'parasitic', as it takes nothing from its host tree but physical support). And those strangely twisted barley sugar sticks that the clinging Honeysuckle can produce were, as Mabey points out, a popular prop among Scottish music hall acts. Och aye - another of the Honeysuckle's gifts to mankind.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

'That Prodigy in Nature'

Born on this day was the famously fat Daniel Lambert, a man 'of surprising corpulency' (and then some). I remember as a boy seeing the suit of his clothes on display in Stamford - it made quite an impression. In these times Lambert would be lucky (if that's the word) to make the reserve list for a Channel 5 documentary, such are the heights of obesity mankind has scaled since his innocent time. Lambert seems to have been a man of attractive character, good manners and wide interests (especially in the sporting world) and his condition was clearly not the product of any notable excesses on his part. He seems also to have enjoyed strikingly good health and agility, despite his extraordinary bulk. He certainly didn't court fame, but found himself with little choice, and exhibited himself for as long as he could endure, to make the money he needed. His life was active to the end, and his sudden death seems not to have been related to his weight. Reading his epitaph -

In Remembrance of that Prodigy in Nature.
a Native of Leicester:
who was possessed of an exalted and convivial Mind
and in personal Greatness had no Competitor.
He measured three Feet one Inch round the Leg
nine Feet four Inches round the Body
and weighed
Fifty two Stone eleven Pounds!
He departed this Life on the 21st of June 1809
Aged 39 years -

put me in mind of that to another fat man with an exalted and convivial mind - well, convivial anyway - Tom Humphrys.

Monday, 12 March 2012

'Long, long birch bark...'

It seems that there's going to be some serious opposition to Our Engelbert when Eurovision battle is joined in Beautiful Baku. The Russians have unleashed the
Buravonskiye Babushki, from the glorious Udmurt Republic - and they're rehearsing hard... Whatever the outcome of the Baku silliness, I think Engelbert should join them for a rousing rendition of their imperishable classic, 'Long, long birch bark and how to make a hat of it'. What the world needs now is birch bark hats.

Friday, 9 March 2012

'An Hieroglyphical and shadowed lesson...'

My recent belated discovery of the wonders of Purcell also opened my ears to the beauty of viol music, with its sweet softness of tone. By chance I recently came across a piece by one John Jenkins, who was, I learnt, the supreme composer of his time for viol consorts (and a fine player himself). His time was very long - in effect from Byrd to Purcell, unfortunately including the Civil War and Commonwealth - and, to judge from his Wikipedia entry, he seems to have been as amiable and well-liked as he was talented. Intriguingly, he was in his later years a friend of Sir Thomas Browne's (though sadly he does not figure in my edition of Browne's letters). The author of Jenkins' Wikipedia entry clams that his music is the closest thing to 'an aural representation of the sensibility of this physician-philosopher'. I'm not sure how true that is, but I have certainly enjoyed listening to a CD of Jenkins's works for viol consorts. Here is the remarkable - and untypically programmatic - Newark Seidge, which, with only viols and a chamber organ, portrays the alarums and excursions of battle, the celebration of victory and the mourning for the dead as Prince Rupert relieved Newark in 1644.
It is pleasing to think of Jenkins playing for his friend Browne, who clearly loved music. In Religio Medici Sir Thomas writes:
'Whosoever is harmonically composed delights in harmony; which makes me much distrust the symmetry of those heads which declaim against all Church-Musick. For my self, not only from my obedience, but my particular Genius, I do embrace it: for even that vulgar and Tavern-Musick, which makes one man merry, another mad, strikes in me a deep fit of devotion, and a profound contemplation of the First Composer. There is something in it of divinity more than the ear discovers: it is an Hieroglyphical and shadowed lesson of the whole world, and creatures of GOD; such a melody to the ear, as the whole World, well understood, would afford the understanding. In brief, it is a sensible fit of that harmony which intellectually sounds in the ears of GOD.'

Wednesday, 7 March 2012


It's good to read that goldfinches are thriving in the nation's gardens. These delightful birds are very numerous down my way, and always a joy to see - but they rarely appear at my garden bird feeders. Perhaps, like other smaller species, they're scared away by the gang of house sparrows that does its noisy, boisterous best to monopolise the garden food supply. Happily the sparrows are such messy eaters that the ground-feeding dunnocks, blackbirds, wood pigeons and collared doves (and the odd song thrush) all benefit from their litter. Starlings - which, like house sparrows, are in national decline - feed almost as enthusiastically, and can hold their own against most competitors. But all retreat from the scene when the ring-necked parakeets swoop down and latch themselves on to the feeders until they've had their (very substantial) fill. The exotic parakeets - greedy and insolent birds with nerves of steel and ugly shrieking voices - are not in the Garden Birdwatch Top 20, but, given the rate at which they're spreading, I fancy they will be before long. I'd sooner have goldfinches any day.

Born a Classic

In the unlikely event that he'd lived so long, the singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt would have been 68 today. For most of his life - outlined here (and it makes pretty grim reading) - he seems to have been hell bent on self-destruction, both personal and professional. But happily for us he found the time to write some seriously great songs along the way. Here he is in 1993 performing the greatest of them all - the immortal Pancho and Lefty, about which Van Zandt said, 'I realise that I wrote it, but it's hard to take credit for the writing, because it came from out of the blue. It came through me.' That's easy to believe; it's one of those songs that seem to have been around for ever - it was born a classic.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

A Rare Foray into World Affairs

As regular readers will know, I prefer not to pay too much heed to World Affairs - there are more than enough bloggers sounding off on such matters already. However, it has been impossible to escape the relentless bombardment of news and comment (often indistinguishable) on the sorry business unfolding in Syria. I can't help feeling that a lot of needless suffering would be avoided if the well-meaning, soft-hearted 'West' and its media turned their attention away from Syria for a while and stopped giving the impression that, if 'we' were allowed to, we'd be in there helping these warriors for freedom to overthrow the Assad regime. We wouldn't and we couldn't, and, what's more, we know very little about who these 'freedom fighters' are, or how widespread their support in Syria is (the fact that they're backed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar and have links to Al Qa'eda suggests there might be something a little amiss with their credentials). Assad is a bastard leading a regime of even worse bastards, but I confidently predict that that regime of bastards will still be in place at the end of the year, and I equally confidently state that any likely replacement regime would be far worse. Better an authoritarian pluralist secular Syria than an authoritarian Islamist Syria - better specifically for the Christians and other minorities, and better, vastly better for the whole region. So I wish the western commentariat would calm down and stop demanding that 'we must do something'. With a country as big and powerful as Syria, 'we' can do nothing, and we should stop pretending otherwise. It only makes matters worse.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Silken Strings

I see that those tireless orb-weaving spiders have been put to good use again. The fine strong silk that created the V&A's wondrous golden cape has now been used, on a much smaller scale, to produce violin strings - strings which, though less tough than gut, are tougher than modern metal-and-nylon strings. And they sound rather lovely - have a listen here... It seems we're going to have a long wait for the spider-silk suspension bridge (imagine that, swaying in the wind) - but meanwhile we're getting some rather beautiful things from our arachnid friends. What will it be next, I wonder - a cravat, perhaps? That wouldn't take those orb-weavers too long...

Sunday, 4 March 2012

'One was a good deal cut up by the war...'

'As the rockets went up from either trench I saw the cornflowers thick and tall round me, covering with burial flowers so blue and hopeful the poor crumpled form of some enemy, who had been there long dead, for whom Ezekiel wrote an epitaph in the days past "Son of man, can these bones live?"'
That striking passage, reporting a first excursion into No Man's Land, is in a letter written from the front in August 1915 by Ivy Compton-Burnett's brother Noel. Here he is again, calmly describing a bombardment a few days ahead of the Battle of Loos:
'For one minute, lying alone together and close we seemed in the midst of a flaming fiery furnace, or like one of those immaculate heroes who stand in a perfect hail of missiles to advertise Dri-ped shoes or some military tailor. But really no shell came within 30 yds and soon they got more distant. I feel something of the fascination of modern war - this strife of midgets who hurl the thunderbolt...'
'The noise is rather a bore,' he continues coolly. 'Will you get me the Mallock Armstrong Ear-Defender 4s...'
Noel Compton-Burnett, who was a popular Fellow of King's with vague literary ambitions, died in the first assault on Mametz Wood on 14 July, 1916. 'It quite smashed my life up,' recalled Ivy years later in a rare moment of frankness.
Noel's death was but one of a succession of blows that rained down on Ivy in the years following the death of her beloved father: the death of her favourite brother from influenza (pre-war); the decline and death of her emotionally tyrannous mother (whom Ivy succeeded all too well as domestic tyrant); the loss of Noel, who was all in all to her; her own near death from influenza, post-war; and the death of her two youngest sisters, in an apparent suicide pact. 'One was a good deal cut up by the war; one's brother was killed, and one had family troubles,' as she would put it, with masterly understatement, when asked what happened in the 14 years between her first novel and her (entirely different) second one.
Hilary Spurling's brilliant page-turner of a biography, Ivy When Young, which I have just finished, leaves its subject in 1919, with the first beginnings of her creative 'awakening' just apparent. I fear I might have to read the second volume. But not yet, not yet...

Friday, 2 March 2012

Dorsey Redivivus

Summing up 1967 - you know, Summer of Love, San Francisco (be sure to wear flowers in your hair), Monterey festival, Purple Haze, Cream, Velvet Underground's first, Strange Days, John Wesley Harding - the British music press spoke with one voice: It was, they declared, the year of Engelbert Humperdinck. The Hump's smooth ballad stylings had indeed dominated the charts to the extent that the great crooner (born Arnold Dorsey) even kept Strawberry Fields/Penny Lane off the Top Spot. And now, it seems, it is again the Year of Engelbert Humperdinck: he has been chosen to represent the United Kingdom at the Eurovision Song Contest in Baku, that jewel of the Caspian Sea. This is immensely heartening news, suggesting that at last we've got the hang of Eurovision and stopped regarding it as some kind of song contest or as something worth winning, except as a rather good joke. I'm only sorry that this versatile songster, who dominated the 1965/6 charts to an almost Engelbertian extent, was overlooked. Maybe next year?

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Happy Birthday, Mr Wilbur

Today is the 91st birthday of the great American poet and translator Richard Wilbur - who, happily, is still with us.
He has been remarkably prolific (by modern standards) and at times his extraordinary fluency and mastery of form could seem almost facile, but when he is in full flow, his imagination fully engaged, he is surely among the greats. As in this moving and brilliantly achieved poem, on a theme which in lesser hands might be merely banal, but here is spun into something new and quite startlingly beautiful...

The Writer

In her room at the prow of the house
Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,
My daughter is writing a story.

I pause in the stairwell, hearing
From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys
Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.

Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:
I wish her a lucky passage.

But now it is she who pauses,
As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.
A stillness greatens, in which

The whole house seems to be thinking,
And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor
Of strokes, and again is silent.

I remember the dazed starling
Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;
How we stole in, lifted a sash

And retreated, not to affright it;
And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,
We watched the sleek, wild, dark

And iridescent creature
Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove
To the hard floor, or the desk-top,

And wait then, humped and bloody,
For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits
Rose when, suddenly sure,

It lifted off from a chair-back,
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.

It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.