Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Birthday Boy

They'll be dancing in the streets of Euroopeland today as a grateful people celebrate the birthday of the popular and charismatic Herman Von Rumpoy, President of the European Council. By sheer force of personality, the larger than life Von Rumpoy has cut through the sclerotic consensualism of the EC and bulldozed it into one tough decision after another. The power of his oratory has become legendary, thanks to such stirring utterances as his unforgettable 'We are in the early stages of a recovery and at this time it is important not to weaken burgeoning confidence and to lay the foundations of a sustainable recovery. Most important is to keep the direction. That will also provide stability and support.' The flamboyant Von Rumpoy - affectionately nicknamed Rumpy Pumpy - says he will be celebrating his birthday quietly at home, but knowing his reputation in the loucher nightclubs of Brussels, this seems unlikely. Go for it, Herman - it's your birthday! Europeland salutes you.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Reasons to Be Cheerful. 4

There was a beautiful green cricket in the bathroom this morning - a small one, I think a short-winged conehead, a species that's been doing very well lately. She's been around a few days, moving from wall to wall. I know she's only waiting around to die, and yet I always find the sight of a cricket ridiculously cheering. Perhaps I was exposed to too much Jiminy Cricket at an impressionable age. Or maybe it's the association with summer grass and sunshine. Emily Dickinson clearly loved crickets...

My Cricket
Farther in summer than the birds,
Pathetic from the grass,
A minor nation celebrates
Its unobtrusive mass.

No ordinance is seen,
So gradual the grace,
A pensive custom it becomes,
Enlarging loneliness.

Antiquest felt at noon
When August, burning low,
Calls forth this spectral canticle,
Repose to typify.

Remit as yet no grace,
No furrow on the glow,
Yet a druidic difference
Enhances nature now.

Or there is this, perhaps more apt to the time of year:

'Twas later when the summer went
Than when the cricket came,
And yet we knew that gentle clock
Meant nought but going home.

 'Twas sooner when the cricket went
Than when the winter came,
Yet that pathetic pendulum
Keeps esoteric time.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Reading Fast and Slow

I see there are quite a few appreciative reviews of A Lost Lady out there in the blogscape - and rightly so. Many of them speak of reading the book at a sitting, or even, in one case, in an hour. Well, it's only 160 pages, but I can't imagine quite how it could be read - properly read - at such a pace. That kind of speed reading is fine for workaday formulaic prose - or indeed for the wodges of verbal Polyfilla that pad out many a contemporary novel - but for writing as subtle and sinuous, as delicately nuanced as Willa Cather's, surely it is not enough. For myself, when I'm reading really good - or just demanding - prose, I habitually sound it in my head as I read, like reading aloud but silently. I think prose of real quality has to be sounded. But what do I know? The rest of the world, it seems, careers through books at a terrifying speed. Take Andrew Marr, who has just published a big History of the World (to go with his all but unwatchable TV series). Marr claims to have read 2,000 books in the process of researching his own. This surely is a very loose use of the word 'read'. Think about it - if he managed two a week, in among his many other activities (which include much reading for other purposes), that would be 20 years of reading. Hmmm...
Anyway, I see I'm on The Dabbler today, praising an American sonneteer.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

A Lost Lady

I've just finished reading A Lost Lady by Willa Cather, an apparently slight novel of some 160 pages that achieves the kind of depth and makes the kind of impact you'd expect from something twice the length. It's the story of a beautiful and fascinating woman, married to a much older man - a retired railway pioneer - and living in a small town in Nebraska. She is first presented to us through the adoring eyes of a boy, Niel Herbert, who swiftly falls in love with her - and no wonder. Marian Forrester is deftly and vividly brought to life, with all her entrancing ways - but, as we soon discover, there are hidden depths to Mrs Forrester, there is much that we don't know. She is as vulnerable as she is seductive, as weak as she is strong, as faithless as she is steadfast.  A Lost Lady delivers shock after shock beneath its apparently tranquil surface, not all of them related to its heroine.
As well as being the portrait of a lady, the novel is also a picture of changing times, as the old ways of the pioneering days, based on honour and trust and mutuality, die away in the face of ruthless amoral commercialism (embodied in the book by the aptly named 'Poison' Ivy, a memorably vile young man).  Marian Forrester seems to be herself a victim of this process after her husband dies, but this is a woman who never stays a victim for long.  Young Niel, who observes her through increasingly disapproving eyes as his idealism turns to priggishness, never has the true measure of her...
Willa Cather manages the story with quiet but exquisite skill, never missing a word, a fragment of dialogue, a gesture or look that might illuminate the action and reveal character. We don't, happily, see everything through Niel Herbert's eyes; other viewpoints are deployed, including the author's own. All of this is put to the single overriding purpose of giving us Marian Forrester in the round and as if alive. It succeeds brilliantly, and movingly. It is - like the portrait of the heroine in My Antonia - written with that rare quality among novelists: love.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Another Brook

One of the things I love about blogging is how it so often leads to unexpected connections and happy discoveries. In her comment below my 'Otherwhere' post, Susan from NYC - having expressed surprise at my schoolboy reading of Frost (not unusual I think - he's a kind of honorary English poet over here, and I believe his Selected Poems was a GCE set book) and asked about Emily Dickinson (no, never read at school, discovered much later) - asks if Edward Thomas ever wrote about a brook. I couldn't think of anything off hand, so had a browse - and here's what I found (in Last Poems): 

The Brook

Seated once by a brook, watching a child
Chiefly that paddled, I was thus beguiled.
Mellow the blackbird sang and sharp the thrush
Not far off in the oak and hazel brush,
Unseen. There was a scent like honeycomb
From mugwort dull. And down upon the dome
Of the stone the cart-horse kicks against so oft
A butterfly alighted. From aloft
He took the heat of the sun, and from below.
On the hot stone he perched contented so,
As if never a cart would pass again
That way; as if I were the last of men
And he the first of insects to have earth
And sun together and to know their worth.
I was divided between him and the gleam,
The motion, and the voices, of the stream,
The waters running frizzled over gravel,
That never vanish and for ever travel.
A grey flycatcher silent on a fence
And I sat as if we had been there since
The horseman and the horse lying beneath
The fir-tree-covered barrow on the heath,
The horseman and the horse with silver shoes,
Galloped the downs last. All that I could lose
I lost. And then the child’s voice raised the dead.
“No one’s been here before” was what she said
And what I felt, yet never should have found
A word for, while I gathered sight and sound.

Well, that's quite a poem, isn't it? After getting off to a rather clunky start, it picks up as soon as that butterfly lands on the sun-heated stone and warms himself, from aloft and from below, and Thomas watches him (I wonder what kind he was). 'Frizzled' for water running over gravel is just the word - pure Thomas. And then the shift of perspective, the swoop back into the deep past, and that terse, unexpected 'All that I could lose I lost' - and the call back to life from the voice of the child in the brook. 'No one's been here before.'
And I might never have come across this poem if it wasn't for Susan from NYC.

Thursday, 25 October 2012


On the Today programme this morning, Iain Duncan Smith inadvertently used the lovely word 'otherwhere' in the course of answering a question. He instantly corrected himself, which was a shame.
'Otherwhere' is a word I've liked ever since first coming across it, as a schoolboy, in Robert Frost's beautiful poem Hyla Brook -

By June our brook's run out of song and speed.
Sought for much after that, it will be found
Either to have gone groping underground
(And taken with it all the Hyla breed
That shouted in the mist a month ago,
Like ghost of sleigh-bells in a ghost of snow)--
Or flourished and come up in jewel-weed,
Weak foliage that is blown upon and bent
Even against the way its waters went.
Its bed is left a faded paper sheet
Of dead leaves stuck together by the heat--
A brook to none but who remember long.
This as it will be seen is other far
Than with brooks taken otherwhere in song.
We love the things we love for what they are.

Paxo vs Maxo

I hear that suave fellow Jeremy Paxman has stunned the viewing nation by presenting Newnight without a tie - and, to make matters worse, with not one but two shirt buttons undone. Apparently he's long been chafing against wearing a necktie. 'It has always been an utterly useless part of the male wardrobe,' booms Paxo. 'But now, it seems to me, the only people who wear the things daily are male politicians, the male reporters who interview them – and dodgy estate agents.' 
 Hmm, if he really believes that, he clearly doesn't get out much - but leaving that aside, what about his objection that the tie is 'utterly useless'? So are lapels, of course, which no longer serve any practical function. Perhaps Paxo will be switching to a Beatle suit next? It wouldn't do much for his authority but it would give us all a laugh, and it would be one more 'utterly useless' item dispensed with.
 The fact is, as Paxo surely knows, that clothes carry a freight of meanings, adding up to a message - often a very nuanced on - about who we are. That's why we have fashion: the fashion industry is semiology in action, creating and decoding tiny meanings (Barbey d'Aurevilly described dandyism as 'une maniere de vivre composee entierement des nuances'). If David Cameron were to appear on, say, Newsnight, in a tight pink tee-shirt, tartan braces and PVC trousers, his dress alone would say more than anything that came out of his mouth (and it wouldn't exactly be nuanced).
 Paxman is of course taking a deliberately bluff, utilitarian view of male dress. In these reductionist terms, everything we wear is 'entirely useless', except in maintaining a comfortable body temperature and protecting our flesh. As well as carrying meanings and messages, the uses of dress are also aesthetic. As Max Beerbhom puts it in his essay on Beau Brummell, 'So to clothe the body that its fineness be revealed and its meanness veiled has been the aesthetic aim of all costume.' Indeed, and this is where the well chosen tie plays its part, completing the effect of the suit, adding an elegant vertical and a splash of harmonious colour, and (mark well, Paxo) veiling the meanness of the ageing male throat. I have a suggestion for Paxman: if you hate ties so much, why not do the sensible thing and switch to a cravat? The nation would love you for it.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Uggie Tells All

I see Uggie, the delightful Jack Russell who starred in The Artist, will be appearing at Waterstone's on Kensington High St next week. Yes, he's written his autobiography - and he's not the only celebrity dog to have done so recently. Indeed Uggie: My Story will be going snout to snout with the unforgivably titled Pudsey: My Autobidography, in which the dancing dog who won Britain's Got Talent looks back over his life. Uggie's book seems a more attractive proposition:
'I was born an Aquarian in February 2002, to Jack Russell parents,' recalls Uggie. 'According to an astrology channel I watched with my fellow couch potato Gordo (an American bulldog), those born under the sign of the water carrier are intelligent seekers of life’s mysteries, whose quest is to be unique. We are loyal, honest, inventive, and original. On the downside, Aquarians can sometimes be exhibitionists.
I qualify on all counts.
I can recall very little about my puppyhood. I think I met my father once when he came to sniff dispassionately at me and my sprawling siblings. All that I remember of my mother was that she was gentle and nurturing; the smell of warm milk would forever remind me of her. Sadly I was plucked from her teat early on and sold to the first stranger to pick me out from the litter...'
Not bad, but perhaps not as charmingly insouciant as 'Eddie', the Frasier Jack Russell, in his My Life As A Dog, by Moose (2000):
'Acting, I soon discovered, is all about less, not more. My big break came just six months after I started training, when I simply stared at Kelsey Grammer. Yup, just a long hard stare, and I got the job. Don't ask me why, but they all fell about laughing. From then on, I found acting was a walk in the park, or a stroll round the set! Occasionally, I would have to lick one of the actors, but I would do it only if they put sardine oil on first...'
But of course no animal autobiography can hold a candle to that classic tale of a chimp's love for mankind in general and Johnny Weissmuller in particular, Me Cheeta. I have written of this masterpiece before, e.g. here and here...
Much though I love Uggie, I fear he's not half the writer Cheeta was.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Pearl and Zane

Talking of names (as we were a couple of posts back), I was delighted to learn that Zane Grey, the tough-nut writer of pulp westerns - who died, very rich and famous, on this day in 1939 - was christened Pearl. He soon dropped this unmanly handlle in favour of his second name, a much better fit with his style and personality.
 Grey seems to have devoted his boyhood to violent brawling, fishing and getting beaten by his father, who encouraged his literary efforts by tearing his first finished story into shreds and giving him a sound thrashing. No wonder young Zane grew up with a troubled, tempestuous nature, prone all his life to depression. He was also - though this was perhaps unrelated to his early experiences - notably prone to sexual dalliance. As he frankly warned his future wife, 'I love to be free. The ordinary man is satisfied with a moderate income, a home, wife, children and all that... But I am a million miles from being that kind of man and no amount of trying will ever do any good... I shall never lose the spirit of my interest in women.' She married him anyway, accepting his tomcat ways, raising his children, managing his career and editing his work to such good effect that this inept, much-rejected would-be writer (and failed dentist and minor-league baseball player) soon achieved worldwide fame and became one of the first millionaire authors.
 So now, when your young son proudly hands you his first literary effort, you know what to do.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Silver Lining

The confidently predicted heatwave that was to embrace the Southeast this week has manifested itself in a weekend of cloud, gloom, drizzle and rain, followed by what looks set to be a day of cloud, gloom, mist and fog. I'm finding it hard to remember when I last saw the sun.
However, such dank weather has its compensations,at least for those who - like Geoffrey Hill - appreciate the beauty of raindrops caught on twigs and branches, radiating on a tiny scale
'that all-gathering general English light,
in which each separate bead of drizzle
at its own thorn-tip
stands as revelation.'
On a still smaller scale are the droplets of rain and dew caught in spiderwebs, bringing out their delicate structural beauty. As well as the vertically suspended webs of garden spiders and the like - miracles of design and construction - there are the swathes of gossamer draped all over the grass and lower bushes like so much tacky Halloween spray web, but glimmering with subtle dewy light. In this weather and at this time of year, we become aware of how many spiders we are sharing the earth with - and how greatly they can beautify it.
And now it's time to stock up on sun lotion - an Arctic cold snap is predicted for the end of the week.

Friday, 19 October 2012

The Rev Tollemache: Naming Names

In the records of the more or less illustrious dead, there are many who are remembered for only one thing - but there can be few whose sole claim to posthumous fame is the extravagantly bizarre naming of their children...
The Rev Ralph William Lyonel Tollemache, born on this day in 1826, was a well-connected Lincolnshire clergyman whose career was remarkable only for a brush with bankruptcy, the result of a dispute with his first wife's trustees. The year after that wife died, Tollemache was discharged from bankruptcy and, after a decent interval, he married Dora Cleopatra Maria Lorenza de Orellana, the daughter of an officer in the Spanish army, and launched on a new career of fathering a second brood of children and giving them increasingly elaborate and preposterous names. He also, somewhere along the way, decided to double his own surname, becoming Tollemache-Tollemache. Here's the list of the unfortunate second brood's monikers:

1. Dora Viola G.I.[?] de Orellana Plantagenet.
2. Mabel Helmingham Ethel Huntingtower Beatrice Blazonberrie Evangeline Vise de Lou de Orellana Plantagenet Toedmag Saxon.
3. Lyonesse Matilda Dora Ida Agnes Ernestine Curson Paulet Wilbraham Joyce Eugenie Bentley Saxonia Dysart Plantagenet.
4. Lyulph Ydwallo Odin Nestor Egbert Lyonel Toedmag Hugh Erchenwyne Saxon Esa Cromwell Orma Nevill Dysart Plantagenet.
5. Lyona Decima Veroica Esyth Undine Cyssa Hylda Rowena Adela Thyra Ursuala Ysabel Blanche Lelias Dysart Plantagenet.
6. Leo Quintus Tollemache-Tollemache de Orellana Plantagenet.
7. Lyonella Fredegunda Cuthberga Ethelswytha Ideth Ysabel Grace Monica de Orellana Plantagenet.
8. Leone Sextus Denys Oswolf Fraudifilius Tollemache-Tollemache de Orellana Plantagenet.
9. Lyonetta Edith Regina Valentine Myra Polwarth Avelina Phillipa Violantha de Orellana Plantagenet.
10. Lyunulph Cospatrick Bruce Berkeley Jermyn Tullibardine Petersham de Orellana Dysart Plantagenet. 
11. Fred.
Okay - I made that last one up.
And now I need to lie down...

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Firsts: Sign of Madness?

Although I've picked up a few along the way - mostly from charity shops, fetes and suchlike, back in more innocent times - I've never really seen the point of modern first editions. Why on earth are they worth so much? And why is condition so ridiculously important? Take this collection, expected to fetch a cool million at auction. They're worth that much because their owner has never touched them - to handle them, let alone (heaven forbid) read them, would knock hundreds or thousands off their 'value'. But in what does that value reside? Purely, is seems, in their primacy and their untouched condition. It's nothing to do with the beauty (or, often, otherwise) of their appearance - a later printing of a modern first would be identical but for a different number on the reverse of the title page and yet would be worth a tiny fraction of the value of the 'true first'.
I can understand the appeal of collecting well made small-press books, and pre-Victorian books - these are things of beauty in themselves, hand-made and a joy to handle; indeed (gentle) handling is positively good for leather bindings, helping to prevent them from drying out. But a book that doesn't look like anything much, is entirely machine-made, of pretty poor quality, won't last, and that you can't even handle - what is the point of that? Surely this form of collecting is a kind of madness. 

Croatia's Gift to the World

World Cravat Day brings this important announcement from the Academia Cravatica. Note in particular the wise concluding words of Marijan Busic BA (and try to avoid pointing out that that's a tie, rather than a cravat, that they've tied around the arena. They order this matter differently in Croatia.)

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Strange Muzak

I've written before about the shock of first coming across Like A Rolling Stone playing as shopping music in my local supermarket. Since then, it seems to have gone onto every retail outlet's playlist and has faded into the sonic background of everyday life. But occasionally piped music can still spring a surprise. The other day I was in a branch of the Camden Food Company (not in Camden, a place I avoid) when I became aware of something playing quietly but insistently in the background. It sounded familiar... Was it...? Surely not? Oh yes it was - it was this haunting and rather beautiful song.
 Well, it's always a pleasure to come across an old friend, in whatever strange circumstances - but I had never imagined I'd hear that one piped out as retail muzak. Has anyone out there had a similar experience?

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Bake Off: Rest and Cake

With the viewing nation eagerly looking forward to tonight's final of The Great British Bake Off, even the Today programme devoted an item to it. As this is going to be an all-male final, Today chose to talk about men and baking, asking why the men had shone in this amateur baking contest, apparently beating the women at their own game. The answer's clear enough, and applies equally to all forms of cooking: while women do far more of it than men and are generally better at it, they mostly lack the testosterone-fuelled drive to excel, compete and win*, the drive that leads to male domination of most fields of activity 'at the highest level'. What is more interesting about Bake Off is that it has been such a massive, wholly unexpected hit. After all, it's only a baking contest - on the face of it the kind of thing that would be more at home in the afternoon schedules than prime time.
  I think the key to its success has been its relaxed attitude, its refusal to take itself too seriously. Unlike just about every other contest on TV, there's no ratcheting up of tension to ludicrous levels, there are no teary emotional back stories, the 'narrative' and the 'jeopardy' are touched in lightly, everybody is unfailingly polite and nice to everyone else, and the presentation by Mel and Sue is jokey and affectionately subversive. The result is a relaxing, but not soporific, show that proceeds at a gentle pace, with a gentle tone, and leaves you feeling that the world isn't such a bad place - especially when it's full of such amazing cakes. Like much of the most successful television - and unlike so much of what is offered - it is, to use Ronald Firbank's favourite term of commendation, 'restful'. We all need rest. Also cake.

* Needless to say, this characterisation of masculinity does not apply to me or, I imagine, most readers of this blog.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Motorway Meg and Mog

Having recently enjoyed an afternoon at a motorway service station, I was delighted to discover, from this obituary of the writer Helen Nicoll who sadly died last week, that the classic Meg and Mog books were conceived over long sessions at Membury Services on the M4 with her brilliant illustrator Jan Pienkowski.
As well as Meg and Mog, the formidable Miss Nicoll also gifted the world Cover to Cover audio books, which were not only impeccable complete readings but invariably perfect matches of reader and text. I enjoyed many of them back in the days of the cassette player, and in some cases - the Trollopes, for example - I actually found them preferable to reading the books. The BBC bought Cover to Cover in 2000 - since when the archive seems to have disappeared, though retroprogressive delvers might still find some of the cassettes online.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Edward Gordon Craig, Hackbridge's Finest

And now I'm back from a couple of days in my favourite corner of Derbyshire, where, as usual, I called in on my favourite bookshop (The Bookshop in Wirksworth) and, as ever, made a happy find. This was a King Penguin that I didn't even know existed - KP40: Edward Gordon Craig. A handsome production, like all the King Penguins, it was published in 1948, with a star-spangled cover adapted from a design by Craig, and fine plates taken from some of his huge output of woodcuts, drawings and stage designs.
 Who was Edward Gordon Craig? He was the son of the great actress Ellen Terry and the equally great architect and designer E.W. Godwin (who got together while Ellen was still married to the painted G.F.Watts, 30 years her senior). Craig's own outline of his career - which runs around the borders of the frontispiece and title page of the King Penguin - gives some idea of the man and his career: 'Edward Gordon Craig practised several crafts. 1889 to 97 was actor. 1893 to 1926 was metteur-en-scene, i.e. produced plays and operas. Was designer of scenes and costumes. And was wood engraver. Composed some tunes. Wrote some books. Made some etchings 1906 to 12. Could not play golf. Played football. Could row. Not shoot. Could not cook. Could not bind a book. Nor understand business. Could do nothing with electric wires. Is not a printer.'
 Amid all this, Craig also enjoyed a flourishing parallel career as a womaniser. In 1897 he left his wife and four children in Bedford Park, moving to Thames Ditton - and shortly after, with his current mistress, to the then picturesque village of Hackbridge, which adjoins the much-aforementioned Carshalton, my home patch. It's hard to believe that the house he lived in - now an unremarkable building, one among many, on the grey, traffic-heavy London Road - was once a charming cottage in a quiet and rather delightful location. Rose Cottage, as he called it, was also decorated by Craig in true avant-garde style, with laurel-green woodwork, painted black floorboards, and walls papered in brown wrapping paper below the dado and cream manilla above.
 It was while living at Rose Cottage that Craig began working seriously at wood engraving - which he'd picked up from watching William Nicholson at work - and designing book plates. He launched a magazine, The Page, full of his own woodcuts and his own writings, often pseudonymous. It was well received, and, from first issue to last (in 1901), was published 'at the sign of the Rose' - though by 1899 Craig had moved on when his wife came to live uncomfortably close in Hackbridge.
 It was also while living in Rose Cottage that Craig produced his first book, Gordon Craig's Book of Penny Toys - and, more importantly, became seriously interested in stage design. In this field, his ideas - bold, simple staging, with expressive use of light and colour changes rather than elaborate sets - were wholly inimical to the fussy, detailed style of the late Victorian English theatre. When Craig had the opportunity to work at the Lessing Theatre in Berlin, he took it and left England, never to return.
 Edward Gordon Craig was a classic example of an artist so prodigiously talented in so many areas - and so ahead of his time - that he never achieved the fame he should have had, certainly in his own country. In particular, his delayed impact on stage design - and indeed film design - was revolutionary. But posterity favours the specialist and the representative figure over those whose talents overflow their bounds and their time - and so today most of us have to ask 'Who was Edward Gordon Craig?'

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Spotting a Wrong 'Un: A Lost Art

It's good to have Bryan - aka The Master - back on the blogscape, today filing a fine piece about the increasingly insane brouhaha surrounding the late Sir (for how long?) Jimmy Savile. One of the things that strikes me about the Savile business is that it so graphically illustrates how we (collectively) seem to have lost the useful art of spotting a wrong 'un. It's hard to imagine a wrong 'un much more obviously wrong than Savile, a creepy weirdo and self-confessed psychopath: when interviewed by Anthony Clare for In The Psychiatrist's Chair, he cheerfully admitted to having no feelings, though he did confess to a strong dislike of children, and his deeply weird worship of his mother, 'The Duchess' (yuk), was well known. And yet this man achieved huge fame, popularity and prestige, and moved through the world admired and unsuspected. With a few commendable exceptions, who are only now speaking out, it seems that everyone took him for a thoroughly good egg, if not a living saint. What was wrong with them?
Perhaps we've lost the art of spotting a wrong 'un because we're no longer allowed to act on our instincts about people, but must override such feelings and conform to the rules and conventions - if someone ticks all the boxes, they're OK (though one thing psychopaths are very good at is ticking whatever boxes are required). Perhaps also it is that, increasingly, children are so protected from the outside world that they never develop this useful ability. When I was a boy, in a time when children were free to roam at large to an extent unthinkable today, we all knew how to spot a wrong 'un, someone who might be a danger to us; it was a basic survival skill. I fear it may be dying now - which is good news for the wrong 'uns but not so great for the rest of us, especially as so many of them are attracted to politics. Ask yourself - would anyone in their right mind have appointed Jeremy Hunt to high office? Yet there he is. Not that I'm likening him to Jimmy Savile - there's more than one way to be a wrong 'un.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Odd Fellows and Foresters

I've just read a short but illuminating new book about the suburban demi-paradise that I call home - Living in Carshalton, 1865-1880, by Cheryl Bailey. I found it particularly interesting for the light it sheds on how people got by nearly a century before the coming of the universal Welfare State - rather well, it seems, thanks to such thriving institutions as the Friendly Societies, which in return for a small monthly subscription paid cash benefits in case of illness, accident or death of a breadwinner. Each club also appointed its own doctor to attend to members at no cost. And they were fun -
'Monthly meetings to collect subscriptions were held in a local pub, and the members could then stay on for a convivial evening of chat and drinking. A church sermon followed by parades, merrymaking and a dinner was held annually to mark the club anniversary. The success of such schemes depended as much on the feelings of comradeship and mutual support that were created as on the insurance offered. The regalia and secret initiation rites appealed to the working men's sense of belonging to a special group... The heavy consumption of alcohol at the clubs caused disapproval, but this was balanced by the commendable realisation of the ideals of thrift and self-help.'
  Carshalton had two such societies, with a third of the village's working men belonging to the Orphans' Protector Lodge of the Odd Fellows, and many of the remainder to the Wallington Order of Foresters...
'Both chose a day in the first week of July to celebrate their anniversary, so that the village was thoroughly disrupted... The club day quickly grew into a village celebration, with bands playing in the streets, processions of club members with their banners and sashes, dancing, cricket matches and fireworks in the evening.'
  There were also a Penny Bank, where workers could lodge small sums against future need, at no cost; a burial club to which even the poorest mostly paid in; and of course a wide range of charitable provision, including soup kitchens in hard times, clothing clubs and almshouses, all organised on a voluntary basis by the clergy and the better-off residents.
  Of course it was not all cakes and ale - life was hard and often short,  and for those on the precarious margins, the shadow of the workhouse always loomed (though notably few from Carshalton found themselves obliged to accept its hospitality). However, the picture we glimpse here is sharply at odds with the received wisdom that, before the coming of the Welfare State, there was effectively no systematic relief for those in need, that it was every man for himself and the weakest to the wall. And isn't there something rather fine about a system of welfare based on mutuality and conviviality - and with a moral dimension - when compared to a system of neutral entitlement, with no relationship between or among donors and recipients?
  Two hundred years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville, in his Memoir on Pauperism, saw how - precisely because it was a system of neutral entitlement - the English Poor Law tended to demoralise, isolate and pauperise its recipients. He would surely despair to see how the modern Welfare State - the Poor Law writ monstrously large - continues to pauperise swathes of the population.  Might we not have been vastly better off if the well-founded mutual and charitable institutions had been encouraged (and subsidised) to evolve along their own paths, rather than be swept into the margins as the monolithic State took over virtually all welfare provision?  Certainly a system that celebrates itself with beer and bands, banners and cricket matches must be preferable to one marked only by a sullen, resentful sense of entitlement.
  One beneficiary of a friendly society pay-out was a carpenter's widow (with three children) called Harriett Francis, who lived in a cottage on West Street. With the club's help, she retained her independence by converting the cottage into a beer shop called The Hope. It evolved into a public house, which is still there - a fine neighbourhood pub - and it was there that Living In Carshalton, 1865-1880 was launched last week.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Retour de Tournai

The journey to Tournai began, for reasons I shan't go in to here, with a three-hour sojourn at a motorway service station in Kent. This was an unlooked-for turn of events, but I must say I rather like these places - by far the most benign of the various limbos and transitional spaces of modern life. What distinguishes motorway service stations from, say, airport departure 'lounges', is that you can get out of them and wander around outside - and on a sunny day, this is really rather pleasant.
 The grounds of service stations are a distinctive mix of manicured lawns, fringes of closely-planted trees and shrubs, and glimpses of the middle-of-nowhere edgelands beyond. As they age and the trees grow and the manufactured landscape settles into the scenery, these strange spaces actually start to look rather good - especially when the leaves are turning. In the course of my wanderings, I was treated to a showy fly-past by a Red Admiral, and then, on a sunlit bramble patch right by one of the access roads, a beautiful fresh Comma basking with his ragged wings spread. I stood a long while enjoying the sight before strolling back inside to carry on reading. And when I came out again 20 minutes later, he was still there.
 But to Tournai. This is a town with much to commend it (notably the amazing cathedral, still undergoing an epic restoration), but it also boasts what is probably the worst Musee de Beaux Arts I have ever set foot in - which is saying something. The entry lobby is presided over by three thuggish men sitting in a row behind the desk, glaring balefully and barking the occasional discouraging word to the few visitors who bother to step inside. Another thug of similar stamp, bearing an armband labelled 'Gardien', was sucking away at a huge messy cigar beside the entrance.
 Suspended over the central space of the museum was a purple hippopotamus with wings - a heart-sinking sign of curatorial activity, which had also, as became apparent, spread to dividing the meagre collection thematically, under flatulent headings along the lines of 'A le Recherche de l'Infini' etc. The museum is fortunate in having two famous and fine large Manets, one of which was absent - but beyond that, a decent Seurat, a nice Van Gogh drawing and a few other odds and ends, there's little that's worth more than a glance, and what there is is badly hung and labelled. This visit was a thoroughly dispiriting experience.
 On the other hand, there's Bergues, a much smaller town with a much more rewarding Musee des Beaux Arts, housed in a baroque building called the Mont de Piete (sorry about the lack of accents - can't work out how to do them on Blogger), which is also the name given to France's state-owned pawnshops. This one did indeed serve as a pawnshop, among other things, from post-Revolutionary times into the 20th century. But now it is an art gallery, and it houses at least one truly great painting - Georges de la Tour's The Hurdy Gurdy Player (above). This remarkable painter, whose work was only rediscovered in the 20th century, painted hurdy gurdly players more than once, but this haunting picture - unusually large by de la Tour's standard - packs a terrific punch. It arrests the attention in a quite unsettling way - the blind gaze of the hurdy gurdy player, the awkward, half-challenging pose, the mysterious semi-darkness around him, the little dog at his feet - and I found it quite hard to tear myself away from it. It has a commanding, monumental quality, but is also exquisitely painted, and is strangely reminiscent of some of Manet's early works. The gallery at Bergues also has a swaggering Van Dyck full-length and, amid a number of good 17th-century Flemish portraits, one of quite staggeringly good quality, a Portrait of a Young Man by an unknown painter that is so beautifully done it stops you in your stride. This was one provincial French art museum - and two paintings - I'll never forget.
 And then, as we came to the end of a long walk that had begun in rain, the sun came out, and with it, in a field of bright hawkweed, a single Clouded Yellow was flying and feeding - my first, and surely last, of the year.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012


And I'm off again early tomorrow for a few days - this time to Tournai and Ypres.
Meanwhile, I see a review of mine has gone up on The Dabbler.

Retour de Tours

You know how it is when you arrive in a strange town as night falls, dump your things at the hotel, and set out to find somewhere to eat. Invariably you trudge the streets for a long while, discussing the pros and cons of each restaurant, taking a look round just one more corner, weighing all the options - then going back to the first place you saw and having what turns out to be the worst meal of your whole stay.
 Well, in Tours the other evening, I'm happy to say, it was a very different story. In what was surely an all-time first, we settled on a restaurant within minutes, went straight in - and had a truly superb meal, which would have been the best of the stay had it not been knocked off the top spot by an even more wondrous dinner on the last evening.
 Tours is that kind of place - it seems to be almost impossible to have anything less than a good meal, however cheap the menu, and wonderfully easy to find something a great deal more than good. There is plenty more to commend the place too - a glorious cathedral with a profusion of breathtaking stained glass, a picturesque old town and many other delightful streets for strolling in, the wide and luminous Loire to walk beside, and beautiful public gardens, planted by gardeners with an unfailing eye for mixing plants and colours.
 What makes Tours still more attractive is that - unlike many French towns - it has a relaxed, and relaxing, atmosphere. Why, the drivers even stop for pedestrians when they don't have to - incroyable! There are very few beggars and none of the signs of decay and dereliction that are beginning to be apparent in many French towns and cities. The people - who claim to speak the purest form of French (which makes life a bit easier for us foreigners) - seem calmly self-assured, comfortable and prosperous, getting on with enjoying life. In fact, if you're thinking of taking a French small-city break, I heartily reocmmend a few days in Tours. You'll feel better for it.