Friday, 30 January 2015

Another Bryson Footnote

I've been dipping again in Bill Bryson's big brantub of miscellaneous knowledge, At Home: A Short[!] History of Private Life. Last night I found a splendid footnote relating to Edwin Chadwick, the Victorian social reformer who overhauled the Poor Laws and did much to improve public health by way of sanitation (as this note was appended to the chapter about bathrooms, it was unusually relevant). Chadwick's father James was something of a political revolutionary, an associate and supporter of Tom Paine. He also taught music and botany to the scientist-to-be John Dalton. His other son, Edwin's brother Henry, emigrated to America at the age of 12, went into sports writing and became the 'Father of Baseball', codifying the rules of the game and devising the box score (adapted from the cricket scorecard). Thus James Chadwick, an obscure figure in himself, was a living link between Tom Paine, modern atomic theory (via Dalton), modern sanitation, and the game of baseball. Bryson could actually have taken it back a generation to John Wesley, by way of James's father Andrew, a close friend of Wesley's. From Father of Methodism to Father of Baseball...

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

More than Enough

Last night's BBC News coverage of the 70th anniversary commemoration at Auschwitz was moving, despite rather than because of the best efforts of anchorman Huw 'Solid mahogany' Edwards and Fergal 'There will be tears' Keane. The images, and the words of the survivors and their families, were sufficient.
 As the Holocaust passes from living memory - and it won't be long now - so memory fades into Remembrance, with its tendency to ritualised sentimentality, easy attitudinising and airy platitudes. In the face of such horrors as the Shoah, plain words are surely best. Plain words precisely placed and weighted, as in this poem by Geoffrey Hill...

September Song

born 19.6.32—deported 24.9.42
Undesirable you may have been, untouchable   
you were not. Not forgotten   
or passed over at the proper time.

As estimated, you died. Things marched,   
sufficient, to that end.
Just so much Zyklon and leather, patented   
terror, so many routine cries.

(I have made
an elegy for myself it   
is true)

September fattens on vines. Roses   
flake from the wall. The smoke   
of harmless fires drifts to my eyes.

This is plenty. This is more than enough.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Turning the Clock Back

There was a time, not so long ago, when the railway station clock was a byword for accuracy and reliability - indeed, in the 19th century, it played a major part in spreading standard national time across a land where the time of day had hitherto been a rather approximate affair, decided locally. Every station had a conspicuous clock by which you could, back in those clockwork days, confidently set your watch. But now we live in an electronic age and, bizarrely, station clocks are very much less reliable than they were. Of the stations I use regularly, one has a clock that routinely runs about five minutes slow (no doubt causing a few missed trains), the other has a clock that, while still apparently working, has given up all pretence of telling the time. At my London terminus there are several electronic clocks, all of which seem to be running several minutes slow - while the old 'iconic' clockwork station clock nearly always has the right time.
 This seems very odd. You'd have thought that once you'd powered up an electronic clock it would run with precise accuracy until it lost power. You'd never have to adjust it, let alone wind it up, as we used to have to do in the clockwork days. But no - electronic timekeeping simply can't be relied on. Every mobile phone I've owned has gained time, and one - my alleged 'smart' phone - is now running more than 40 minutes fast after a couple of years in which I've left it to its own devices. Surely the very simplest thing a smartphone is called upon to do is to tell the time - but no, that seems to be asking too much, just as it seems to be asking too much of the new generation of station clocks. Once again we have seen the future - and it doesn't work.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

England, My England

On Christmas Day in 1995, Channel 4's TV treat was a two and a half hour film about Purcell (how times change!). I didn't watch England, My England at the time and had all but forgotten its existence until my friend Susan in New York mentioned that she was watching it on DVD. And now I have done the same...
 England, My England is a film by Tony Palmer, who's always good with composers - but this is no straight biopic, not least because so extraordinarily little is known about Purcell's life; he is even more an 'invisible man' than our other greatest artist, Shakespeare. And England, My England is scripted by John Osborne (who died before he'd finished it; his friend Charles Wood completed it), so it is, as you'd expect, peppered with choleric state-of-the-nation rants. Osborne was determined to draw parallels between the lamentable state of the nation in the reign of Charles II and the lamentable state of the nation during the 'reign' of the Royal Court Theatre, and he sets up an ingenious narrative structure to give him scope to do so. Simon Callow plays an actor who is playing Charles II in a Royal Court production of Shaw's In Good King Charles's Golden Days, which is unsurprisingly bombing. The producer - played by Bill Kenwright as, essentially, himself - is threatening to close it down, but Callow suggests that they stage another play about the period, in fact about Purcell, and he'll write it himself...
 And so we're off. Now the action shifts between the mid-1960s, with Callow as the actor struggling to write his Purcell play, and the reign of Charles II, with Callow as the King, and Purcell - well, Purcell is still a boy and remains so for rather a long time, which is one of the problems. Another problem is that the 1960s Callow is a typical Osborne hero - an angry, ranting, ego-driven male with just enough charm to keep some long-suffering (and barely characterised) women in his thrall. It is when the action shifts to the Restoration era that the film begins to show what it might be - but scenes rarely have enough space to breathe and develop, and this is particularly frustrating when Purcell's music comes to the fore. Just when the thing seems to be coming to life, it's back to the dreary 1960s and Osborne/Callow's dreary polemics - there's even a scene of actor Callow taking part in the Grosvenor Square riots, for heaven's sake. There are some curiously cliched features too: when things are going well between actor Callow and his girlfriend they do a lot of painfully Sixties mock-chasing and prancing about, and, in the Restoration scenes, the characters are forever throwing sheets of paper in the air. Every time you see a character walk on with a sheaf of papers, you can bet your life that within minutes he'll be tossing them in the air like so much confetti.
  It might sound from what I've written so far that England, My England is a massive clunker - but the wonderful thing is that, in the end, it is not. The music and the visuals (as you'd expect with Tony Palmer) are always striking and cleverly interwoven, yielding enough beauty, however fleetingly, to keep you watching. And then things begin to look up when Purcell comes of age. He is played by Michael Ball, who for my money is a hugely talented and underrated performer; he certainly makes a very believable, very human Purcell, an essentially genial and life-loving man who suffers much and dies far too young. The film really comes to life in the last three quarters of an hour, beginning with the ascension of William and Mary - William characterised as a mute imbecile, Mary (played by the very beautiful young Rebecca Front) a vivacious bundle of fun, unable to contain her mirth - England, My England makes no pretence of being a reliable chronicle; it's more of an extravaganza. Now, carried along by the glorious music Purcell wrote for Mary, the film becomes by turns joyful and triumphant and, with Mary's death, intensely sad. At last it engages and involves, breaking free of its awkward structure and taking flight towards an intensely moving climax. It's a bumpy ride, but this odd and fascinating film gets there in the end. After it finished and I'd recovered, I was straight on to Amazon to buy more Purcell.

Friday, 23 January 2015


Here on Nigeness it's become something of a tradition to mark the birthday of the great Edouard Manet (born on this day in 1832), so here's another of his paintings. Called Le Repos, this is an affectionate portrait of his friend and fellow artist, the gifted Berthe Morisot - who persuaded Manet to take up plein air painting, with happy results. Morisot was also Manet's sister in law, being married to his brother Eugene until his death in 1895, which was shortly followed by Berthe's death, of pneumonia, contracted while nursing her daughter Julie. She was only 54, but even so she did better than Manet, who died in 1883 at just 51. But enough of death - enjoy the life and joyful free brushwork in Le Repose, a painting that lives quietly at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015


The latest survey of religious belief in Britain looks to be the usual muddle of the obvious, the mildly surprising and the probably meaningless. Here's a question: What does it mean to believe in God? In English, the construction 'believe in' has two distinct meanings. If I say I believe in democracy or free speech, I am not concurring in the existence of those things, but rather expressing a mental/moral/spiritual alignment, a solidarity, an aspiration. Whereas if I say I believe in fairies or the Loch Ness Monster, I am saying simply that I believe such things exist. It seems to me that to express belief in God is to use the word in the first of these meanings rather than the second. And this must have been even more the case in biblical times and antiquity, when the mere existence of God/ a god/ gods was taken for granted. When Jesus used the construction, 'Those who believe in me will live even though they die', he certainly didn't mean those who believed he existed - he was after all standing in front of them.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Bird Life

As I gaze blearily out of the kitchen window these cold twilit mornings, the early blackbird is always poking about hopefully on the lawn, waiting for the other birds to get busy on the hanging feeders and shower their largesse of flying nut, seed and suet fragments on the ground below. There, the other ground-feeders are soon as work too - the collared doves and wood pigeons, robins, dunnocks, the odd song thrush and jay, the occasional bold magpie or crow. Reliable visitors to the feeders are gangs of starlings and house sparrows, to-and-froing blue, great, coal and long-tailed tits - and, these days, raucous ring-necked parakeets. Quite often a pied woodpecker flies down to hammer away at the suet cake - and these past few days a sleek and handsome male blackcap has been an early visitor to the feeders.
 When I was a boy, blackcaps were regarded as summer visitors, but now large numbers of them manage to overwinter (I first saw a winter blackcap some 30 years ago and was astonished, but now I see them all the time). And that is not the only change in the garden bird population: I would never then have seen collared doves (a rare vagrant then, ubiquitous now), let alone those screeching parakeets; magpies, jays and crow were essentially country birds, not often to be seen in the garden; and long-tailed tits and woodpeckers were less common then than now. As for the losses, the most conspicuous has been the decline in finches - all but the happily thriving goldfinch. Nowadays even a greenfinch or a chaffinch in the garden is almost an event - and I can't remember when I last saw a garden bullfinch. But I am lucky that my particular locality has bucked the downward trend in house sparrow and starling populations... I suppose I've seen half a century and more of changes in garden bird life. What, I wonder, will be in the garden 50 years from now?    

Moroni Redux

My piece on Moroni has been recycled on The Dabbler, with bigger better pictures. Hurry, hurry...

Monday, 19 January 2015

Winter Warmer

It's a cold day in wintry London, and it's the date on which Paul Cezanne was born, in 1839 - quite sufficient excuse to put up one of his sunny Provencal landscapes. This one is Landscape Near Aix, the Plain of the Arc River, and it hangs in the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. Cezanne's brilliant brushwork and subtle modulations of colour hold naturalism and abstraction in perfect balance, expressing the essence of a landscape as it becomes present to the eye and the mind. Or, to put it another way - beautiful.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

The Underground Blockbuster Problem

Well, the Late Rembrandt exhibition included some of the greatest paintings in Western art, gathered together from the four corners of the Earth in what is surely a once-in-a-generation display. With just shy of 100 pictures, it was on the blockbuster scale - and it duly attracted blockbuster crowds. When we went, these were on such a scale that it was a struggle to get near any of the exhibits and, at several points, a struggle even to move through the throng. I came out at the end of it dazed and mildly stunned, glad of course to have seen these astonishing masterpieces - but asking myself what I had actually seen? In those circumstances had I really seen those pictures? Whenever I got close enough to have a proper look, it was impossible to settle down and really look, what with the continual jostling and the pressure to move on. It was the most perfunctory of encounters, rather like leafing through a volume of stupendously faithful reproductions in a crowded bookshop, with a gaggle of fellow book lovers clamouring to look over your shoulder. The most intense encounters were with what would generally count as the lesser works - the drawings and prints, where crowd pressure was less and it was possible to get up close and, because of the smaller scale, focus intently on the whole work and really take it in.
 There was another problem too - the fact that the exhibition was in the underground galleries of the Sainsbury wing, where only the intensely lit paintings brightened the Stygian gloom, and low ceilings increased the claustrophobic effect. I really don't think this was doing any favours to the paintings, which were unnaturally overlit, or to the hapless visitors groping their way around in semi-darkness. All the time I was shuffling around, I was envisaging what a vastly more satisfying exhibition this would have been, had it been hung in an airy, high-ceilinged, naturally lit gallery, with about four times the space. Certainly the intense lighting brought out certain qualities and details in the paintings - and of course such masterpieces can withstand overlighting, as they can withstand anything else - but they presented a very unnatural spectacle. We were certainly seeing them as Rembrandt never would have done.
 Anyway, as I say, I'm glad to have seen these astounding pictures - whatever 'seeing' might mean in such a context. I guess I'm just not the blockbuster type.

Friday, 16 January 2015

'all the darknesses are dared'

I shall be off soon to the National Gallery to see the great Late Rembrandt exhibition.
Here is an ekphrastic poem by Elizabeth Jennings that explores the extraordinary power of the late self-portraits...

Rembrandt’s Late Self-Portraits
You are confronted with yourself. Each year
The pouches fill, the skin is uglier.
You give it all unflinchingly. You stare
Into yourself, beyond. Your brush’s care
Runs with self-knowledge. Here
Is a humility at one with craft.
There is no arrogance. Pride is apart
From this self-scrutiny. You make light drift
The way you want. Your face is bruised and hurt
But there is still love left.
Love of the art and others. To the last
Experiment went on. You stared beyond
Your age, the times. You also plucked the past
And tempered it. Self-portraits understand,
And old age can divest,
With truthful changes, us of fear of death.
Look, a new anguish. There, the bloated nose,
The sadness and the joy. To paint’s to breathe,
And all the darknesses are dared. You chose
What each must reckon with.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Tramp Juice News

The sad story of Carlsberg Special Brew - from artisan lager crafted to please Churchill to 'tramp juice' crafted to please park-bench drunks, and now facing a cut in its legendary potency - brought back some memories. Among the many phases of imbecility through which I passed in my youth was one in which I regarded alcohol as an inferior drug whose only use was to get you drunk, preferably very drunk very fast. Naturally I took to Special Brew as the proverbial fish to water - and in those days it still seemed almost classy (I think this was before they started canning it and it was only available in bottles in pubs). I barely remember what the stuff tasted like, perhaps because, for obvious reasons, I remember almost nothing of the occasions on which I drank it. I do however remember concluding that the one thing worse than a Special Brew hangover was a Tennants Super hangover - a tip I pass on to anyone thinking of taking up superstrength lagers while they're still available.
 Happily Carlsberg still produces another high-strength lager whose image hasn't suffered the same sorry fate as Special Brew. This is Elephant Beer - and when I last had a bottle (when the alcohol level was still 8pc - it's now 7.2), I found it very drinkable, with a pleasing kick. Here's a celebrity endorsement extraordinaire by my exact contemporary Tom Waits. He was 26 when this was recorded, though his voice was already half a century older. Here's to swimmin' with bow-lgged women...

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Moroni: 'Living likenesses'

Yesterday I nipped up to the Royal Academy to take a look at the exhibition of paintings by Giovanni Battista Moroni - the first large-scale survey of his works to be staged outside Italy. I only knew Moroni from the handful of his intriguing portraits in the National Gallery - including the famous Portrait of a Tailor - and was eager to see more and find out more.
 It's a pleasingly small-scale exhibition (45 pictures in all), and there are no blockbuster-scale crowds - a 16th-century Bergamese painter is unlikely to be a huge draw these days (unless you can find a link to, say, Manet, which would be just about possible in Moroni's case - Manet by way of Ingres). The early rooms contain paintings that need detain no one long, serving chiefly to demonstrate that as a religious painter Moroni was no great shakes, the sole interest being in glimpses of his abilities as a portraitist (often of the donor). There's a pretty awful Trinity by Moroni's fellow Bergamese Lorenzo Lotto, accompanied by an even worse Trinity by Moroni, and several really pretty ordinary religious set pieces. But then - then the portraits begin, and everything changes...
 Some of the early full-lengths and three-quarters are a little awkward, the head not quite sitting right on the body, but the skill with which those portrait heads are painted is phenomenal. These are 'living likenesses', painted with unblinking insight and engaging the viewer's attention instantly and unshakably. Moroni's sitters - minor aristocrats, professionals, public officials - look out at us askance, declaring 'Yes, here I am, This is me.' (The Portrait of a Young Lady, above, is an extreme example, in which the sitter seems almost to defy the artist - and us.) The compositions and settings are invariably very simple, the backgrounds always in subtly modulated greys, the light cool and lucid (a Lombard light) but the colours and textures richly coloured and freely rendered, in the Venetian style.
 By the time of the later portraits, in which Moroni's mastery of every element is complete, most of his sitters are in plain black clothing, rather than the gorgeous vestments of a couple of decades earlier, and this only enhances the concentrated power of the portraiture - and heightens what touches of colour there are. One of the last pictures in the exhibition, Elderly Man Seated with a Book, has the quiet, clear-sighted pathos of a Rembrandt portrait. Talking of which, on Friday I'm off to see the Late Rembrandt exhibition at the National Gallery before it closes this weekend. Moroni at the RA continues till the 25th, and I'd urge you to catch it while it's there - chances are there won't be another Moroni exhibition in this country for many years.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

A Girl In Winter

I don't know what kept me so long away from Philip Larkin's novels - heaven knows I've been reading his poetry long enough. I think I lazily assumed that his two published novels, both written in his early 20s, were juvenile experiments and that, having tried his hand, Larkin realised his true gift and vocation lay elsewhere - in verse. Well, I haven't read the first of the novels, Jill, about which Larkin was himself very dismissive (and seems not even to have kept the manuscript), but A Girl In Winter - which I have just finished - seems to me a remarkable novel, one that fully qualifies for that overused adjective 'haunting'.
 A Girl In Winter is divided into three parts, the outer two forming a stretch of 12 hours or so in a cold provincial town on a bitter winter day in wartime. Here Katherine Lind works unhappily as a library assistant under a peculiarly unpleasant librarian (vividly portrayed by Larkin). On this particular Saturday morning, Katherine is detailed to escort home a dislikeable girl, Miss Green (those were formal times), who has raging toothache. Part one of the novel follows their journey across town, in the course of which Miss Green's condition worsens, while Katherine comes into focus as someone whose emotions are, like the townscape, frozen. Why she is as she is remains, throughout the novel, a story that is never quite told, though she has clearly been obliged to leave her (unspecified) home country and the life she had there. There are enough hints - but only hints - to suggest that she is German, perhaps Jewish. Whatever the source of the winter in Katherine's soul, the turning point of the first part of the novel is a memorable scene in a municipal park when, suddenly, she sees the tiresome Miss Green as a human being rather than a burden, and compassion becomes a possibility - even happiness.
 We also learn in part one that Katherine has been in touch with an English family with whom she stayed before the war - and there is a note at her dismal 'digs' from the son, Robin, who says he is visiting that day, an encounter that Katherine is now keen to avoid. Why? The back story to that makes up part two of the novel, set in the sunshine and rain of an English summer, in the course of which Katherine falls in love with the reserved and 'English' Robin, then out of love with him. He has been her pen friend, the invitation was unexpected, and Katherine finds the experience of meeting and living with his family, getting used to English ways - and working out what his unhappy elder sister is up to - confusing and unsettling. This section of the novel, in particular, is written with such precision of emotional insight that it seems incredible it was written by such a young man (or indeed by a man at all).
 From prewar summer it's back to wartime winter for the short final part of the book, which picks up where part one ended, and about which I'd better not say much, except that it seems - as is right - the only way this strange and intriguing novel could have ended. If the plot sounds thin, this is because so much of the book's essence is not in action but in the creation of atmosphere and the tracing of nuances of emotion.  Larkin sometimes changes register and pace in a way that can seem jarring, but this, I think, is in the service of portraying Katherine's emotional alienation, the way her feelings, and the world around her, move in and out of focus. I wouldn't characterise it as a 'poet's novel'; it reads like a very assured novelist's novel. However, it does include much wonderful descriptive writing, especially in its evocation of the English weather, and of that frozen, dreary wartime town.
 Here, just after Katherine's moment of epiphany in the municipal park, she and Miss Green are sitting, huddled, on a bench: 'Through the light mist she [Katherine] could see the ornamental front of the Town Hall under the flat shield of the sky, dark and ledged with snow. But all the white-grey patches were not snow, for as she watched they revealed themselves as pigeons, a score of them launching off into the air and hanging with a great clapping of wings. Then the whole flight dropped, rose over the intervening trees across the traffic, and landed on a stretch of snow not fifteen yards from where the two of them sat, coming up as if they expected to be fed.'
 Larkin intended A Girl In Winter to be the second of a trilogy, Jill representing innocence, A Girl representing experience, the third to represent a return of life. He made several false starts, but that third novel never got written. Half a dozen years later, Larkin found his mature voice. And the rest is poetry.

Over on The Dabbler...

I take a look at Jean Ingelow.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

I Remember, I Remember

On this day in 1954, Philip Larkin finished one of the best of his early mature poems, I Remember, I Remember (published the next year in The Less Deceived). A sardonic antitype of the sentimental lyric of the same name by Thomas Hood, it is a work full of literary echoes. Like any poem about a train halting somewhere in England, it inevitably recalls Adlestrop ('A whistle went: Things moved. I sat back...') - but it also pre-echoes Larkin's own yet unborn Whitsun Weddings. And that last line - 'Nothing, like something, happens anywhere' - surely calls to mind Auden's 'Poetry makes nothing happen'. A poem of thorough disenchantment, it is also quietly, satirically funny about all those cliched things that did not happen to the young poet - and of course, being Larkin, it is technically very accomplished indeed.

Coming up England by a different line
For once, early in the cold new year,
We stopped, and, watching men with number plates
Sprint down the platform to familiar gates,
"Why, Coventry!" I exclaimed. "I was born here."

I leant far out, and squinnied for a sign
That this was still the town that had been 'mine'
So long, but found I wasn't even clear
Which side was which. From where those cycle-crates
Were standing, had we annually departed

For all those family hols? . . . A whistle went:
Things moved. I sat back, staring at my boots.
'Was that,' my friend smiled, 'where you "have your roots"?'
No, only where my childhood was unspent,
I wanted to retort, just where I started:

By now I've got the whole place clearly charted.
Our garden, first: where I did not invent
Blinding theologies of flowers and fruits,
And wasn't spoken to by an old hat.
And here we have that splendid family

I never ran to when I got depressed,
The boys all biceps and the girls all chest,
Their comic Ford, their farm where I could be
'Really myself'. I'll show you, come to that,
The bracken where I never trembling sat,

Determined to go through with it; where she
Lay back, and 'all became a burning mist'.
And, in those offices, my doggerel
Was not set up in blunt ten-point, nor read
By a distinguished cousin of the mayor,

Who didn't call and tell my father There
Before us, had we the gift to see ahead -
'You look as though you wished the place in Hell,'
My friend said, 'judging from your face.' 'Oh well,
I suppose it's not the place's fault,' I said.

'Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.'

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

A New Use for Isms

'Colombia for Magical Realism.'
 How's that for a sales pitch? Really makes you think, Mmm must go to Colombia and get me some of that Magical Realism...
 I spotted this unlikely legend on a poster over the stairs that descend into Victoria Underground station. I think it's the only case I've known of trying to sell a country on the basis of a literary/artistic Ism (though, come to think, Belgium for Surrealism might work, being merely descriptive). But I guess when your only alternative is 'Colombia for Cocaine', you might get a tad desperate.
 Talking of surrealism, this poster is on exactly the same site as the legendary 'Chichester - the New Copenhagen'.  

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

The Invisible I

The first time it happened, I thought I must have missed something, or perhaps it was lost in the edit. So, when the subject returned to the news this morning, I listened with more attention - and blow me down, the same thing happened. The subject was the latest wave of demonstrations by the fast-growing German populist movement that calls itself Pegida - Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West. There was quite a lengthy report this time, with vox pops, interview, expert analysis - and, once again, not a single mention throughout of Islamisation, or indeed Islam or any of its derivatives. Despite its name, this organisation is apparently opposed only to the other I word - Immigration. Makes you wonder why they bother with that name, doesn't it...
 Clearly 'Islamisation' is now as invisible to the BBC mindset as 'Immigration' itself was not so long ago - how ironic that the latter is now the respectable term used to conceal the former. Whatever the rights and wrongs of 'Islamisation' - whether it exists, what it is, what kind of  threat it poses, if any - would surely have been matters worth discussing, especially as it's the Bad I Thing that seems to be preoccupying Pegida and many others across Europe. But whatever discussion is to be had is clearly not going to be heard on the Today programme. It's the Immigration, stupid. And look, the expert analyst pointed out, this protest movement is at its strongest in Dresden, where there are not many immigrants. So it's just those benighted racist Saxons; others, who have experienced the wonders of vibrant multiculturalism, love it so much they're more inclined to mount anti-Pegida protests. Well maybe, though one of the vox pops suggested otherwise: a woman described herself as 'a refugee' from her home town, where the prevailing culture (no hint as to what that culture might be, but I think we can rule out Lutheran) was such that she didn't feel it was a safe place to bring up her daughters. That woman may be a benighted racist - as may they all - but there's no way of judging when the very thing against which they're protesting can't even be mentioned on the BBC.
 Meanwhile Cologne Cathedral turned out its lights in protest against protests against Islamisation. And they say the Germans have no sense of humour...

Monday, 5 January 2015

Happy Day

Well, to conflate the words of two classics of popular song, I am
                  three times a Grandad.
My daughter in New Zealand brought another fine big boy into the world earlier today. Mother and baby well. No name yet. If he'd hung on one more day he could have been Epiphanius...

Sunday, 4 January 2015

The Name's Bond...

James Bond was born on this day in 1900. No, not that James Bond, but the one who wrote the definitive guide to Birds Of The West Indies (first published 1936).
 Bond was born in Philadelphia but moved to England with his father in 1914, studying at Harrow and Trinity College Cambridge, where he was the sole American member of that almost risibly exclusive institution the Pitt Club (though the late David Frost was somehow a member, not to mention large-lipped actor Eddie Redmayne). Returning to America, James Bond spent three years in banking before his lifelong interest in natural history got the better of him and he signed up for an expedition to the Amazon. He never banked again, but became an ornithologist at Philadelphia's Academy of Natural Sciences, where he rose to become curator of ornithology. 

 Ian Fleming, being, among other things (most of them covered under the term all-round shit), a keen birdwatcher resident on Jamaica, was naturally familiar with Bond's Birds Of The West Indies, and borrowed its author's name for his hero. As he explained to Bond's wife, 'It struck me that this brief, unromantic, Anglo-Saxon and yet very masculine name was just what I needed, and so a second James Bond was born... In return, I can only offer you or James Bond unlimited use of the name Ian Fleming for any purposes you may think fit. Perhaps one day your husband will discover a particularly horrible species of bird which he would like to christen in an insulting fashion by calling it Ian Fleming.' Unfortunately no such opportunity arose.

Thursday, 1 January 2015


So, 2014 - what happened? Time for a look back.
 After a quite amazingly wet winter and early spring, the weather turned rather glorious and the second wonderful Butterfly Summer in two years got under way, lasting even into November - but I've already reviewed that (rather prematurely, as it turned out).
 Reading highlights included Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop, Stanley Elkin's The Magic Kingdom, discovering the short stories of A.E. Coppard, rereading Mercier and Camier and The Green Man, finally embarking on Barbara Pym (and finally reading The Master), and marvelling at John Gross's great Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters (see here, here, etc).
 It was the year of my discovery of that Provencal nectar Henri Bardouin Pastis, and my annual outing to the kinema was rewarded with the wonderful Inside Llewyn Davis (the companion musical DVD is also a joy). I travelled around quite a lot, with visits to Ontario, Dieppe, Norfolk, Margate, Nice and (more than once) the Peak District all chronicled here - but, though I paid a few flying visits to galleries, I only took in one exhibition (this in the year of Veronese and the Matisse cutouts!). I didn't even get many walks. All this I expect to change after mid-2015, when I shall finally loose the surly bonds of NigeCorp and reclaim my life. I fancy next year's look back might be rather different...