Friday, 25 May 2018

Ten Years

It was ten years ago today that I wrote my first post for this blog. It was about the Eurovision Song Contest, which was still rather fun in those long ago days. Russia had won, and Terry Wogan, of fond memory, was decidedly miffed about the whole thing. Since then I've pretty much given up on Eurovision, but I've no inclination to give up on this blog, so, well – here's to the next ten years!

Thursday, 24 May 2018

What Is Wrong with This Picture?

I noticed this curious painting in the National Gallery the other day. By the Le Nain brothers, French 17th-century genre painters, A Woman and Five Children is an unsettling image, full-frontal and crammed awkwardly into the picture space. The sitters stare out at us with unhappy, challenging expressions. And where is the woman's lower body? There's no room for it; surely she's out of scale. It is all very odd – and strangely reminiscent of Paula Rego.

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Cornet Geary Ambushed

This is the monument to Cornet Francis Geary in the church of St Nicholas, Great Bookham (near Bookham Common, where Purple Emperors fly in due season). The relief shows Geary's death in an ambush near Flemington, New Jersey, in 1776. Geary was leading a company of dragoons on a reconnaissance mission, and a band of patriots – or rebels, according to your perspective – had got wind of it and laid a very effective ambush. The unfortunate Cornet Geary was shot dead by musket fire and his body concealed, before being buried in a shallow grave.
  His Bookham monument, which is unsigned, is described by Ian Nairn in the Pevsner Surrey as displaying ' just the right combination of sentiment and ardour', its two elements – Britannia mourning over a portrait medallion, and the relief below, depicting the ambush – 'combined in a composition as elegant and as tender as an early Mozart symphony'. It's hard to disagree: in its low-key, understated way, this is one of the most touching and memorable monuments of its kind – and the relief panel showing the ambush is a quite extraordinary work of art.

Mouse News

Just a quick update before I head out for a walk in deepest Surrey –
Until five minutes ago, the untrappable mouse seemed to have been finally defeated. I had mentioned the problem to my Greek-Cypriot barber, a never-failing fount to wisdom, and he put me on to ultrasonic mouse deterrents. I bought two, plugged them in, and they seemed to do the trick.

Until, just now, a mouse appeared to my right and ran unhurriedly across the room.
This calls for a stiff letter to the chairman of the Acme Mfg Co...

Monday, 21 May 2018

Buried Twice: Ronald Firbank

On this day in 1926, Ronald Firbank's fragile health, broken down by years of heavy drinking and smoking of tobacco and hashish, finally gave out, and he died, of lung disease, alone in a hotel room in Rome. He was just 40.
  The only person in the city who knew him was Lord Berners, the eccentric composer and writer, who hastily arranged a funeral ceremony with a Reverend Rugg (who had been an associate of the notorious Frederick Rolfe, 'Baron Corvo', in Venice). Unfortunately Berners didn't know that Firbank had converted to Catholicism, so the body was interred in the Protestant cemetery, and later had to be exhumed and reburied, 'far away from his country', in the Campo Verano cemetery.
  'Who knows the fate of his bones, or how often he is to be buried? Who hath the oracle of his ashes, or whither they are to be scattered?' as Sir Thomas Browne put it.

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Roger Moore's One Wish

As a man with a bit of a weakness for Magnums, I was intrigued to learn that we owe the invention of the world-conquering choc ice on a stick to the legendary actor Roger Moore, that master of the mobile eyebrow. Well, sort of. This is one of those stories that hovers somewhere between fact and urban myth...
  After Sir Roger's death, a journalist friend recalled that he had told her how, in an interview in the Sixties, he once said that, if he could have one wish and meet one person, he would like to meet 'Mr Wall's' and ask him why they didn't make a choc ice on a stick. 'I didn't know at the time,' recalled Moore ruefully, 'but other people like Claire Bloom were being asked the same question and they wanted to meet Gandhi or Jesus.' But apparently 'Mr Wall's' was delighted with Moore's answer and sent him some kind of prototype Magnum, but as it was in the form of a cake it was clearly a very long way from the finished product, which indeed didn't appear until the Nineties.
  Happily Sir Roger lived long enough to enjoy many a Magnum (despite being diabetic). His favourite was the Black Espresso, of which he permitted himself two a week. He claimed to be able to make one last a full half hour, which is impressive. The Black Espresso is my favourite too, but I rarely come across it these days, amid all the fancy new flavours.
  If I had one request to make of 'Mr Wall's', it would be to find a way to stop the chocolate falling off the ice cream as you bite into your Magnum.

Saturday, 19 May 2018

First Thoughts

Well, call me a sentimental dotard, but wasn't that the best royal wedding ever? The most human and likeable of all the current royals marrying a stunningly beautiful woman, and both of them clearly in love head over heels. A brilliantly orchestrated ceremony, individual but traditional, with lovely music and glorious (and very English) floral decorations – not to mention the bride's timelessly elegant dress. Windsor in the sun never looking better, huge crowds full of genuine enthusiasm and affection – and of course magnificent, meticulous pageantry. It's hard to believe there can be all that much wrong with a country that can still put on a show like that (even if, as some might point out, it does depend heavily on the armed forces, arguably the last enclave of dutiful efficiency in our society). It was grand.

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Where Are the Swifts?

Mid-May and something's wrong. Despite warm and sunny weather, the swifts seem to have deserted our road. Last year they lost no time in settling down, and by now were performing their glorious screaming flypasts and dizzying ascents every day. By the end of the season their numbers were higher than they'd been for several years, and our hopes (my next-door neighbour is a fellow swift fan) were high for another good year when they returned. But no. Since the first sightings, punctual to their usual arrival date, I have seen only ones and twos, either in transit or circling aimlessly, and have only heard the telltale scream a couple of times. The other day one bird was flying purposefully close to the gable of a house down the road, but nothing seems to have come of it.
  What is happening? Is it the same in other places? (Bristol is certainly having a very odd start to the season.) In my travels around South London and Surrey, I've seen very few swifts, martins or swallows – even on the river at Kingston. Is this just a stuttering start to the season, or is something more ominous going on? I'd be interested to hear from anyone who's noticed a similar mysterious lack of swifts – and delighted to hear from anyone who's having a good start to the swift year.

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Crying all the way to the bank

The computer dramas continue, but naturally I could not leave the birthday of Liberace unmarked. The egregious showman pianist, who through the Fifties and Sixties was the highest-paid entertainer in the world, was born on this day in 1919, to working-class immigrant parents. A talented pianist to begin with, he moved swiftly away from the classical repertoire towards his own peculiarly schmalzy brand of easy listening (and easy playing – his technique, such as it was, became appallingly sloppy), presented with an unparalleled degree of flamboyant showmanship.
 A particularly shameful episode in his career was the disgraceful libel case  of 1956 in which the famously red-blooded heterosexual Liberace sued the Daily Mirror columnist William Connor ('Cassandra') for making the outrageous suggestion that there was something of the effeminate about him. Of course, having hired on the of the best barristers money could buy, Liberace won and, in a phrase he popularised, 'cried all the way to the bank'. And how had 'Cassandra' described Liberace in the offending column? As 'the summit of sex—the pinnacle of masculine, feminine and neuter. Everything that he, she and it can ever want… a deadly, winking, sniggering, snuggling, chromium-plated, scent-impregnated, luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavoured, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love'. Phew.
 Not one to mince his words, William Connor. They don't make them like him any more – nor, thank heavens, do they make them like Liberace...

Tuesday, 15 May 2018


Sorry, I've been having computer dramas – total keyboard failure following small tea spillage – and still am (trying to move my stuff across from the defunct MacBook to the new one). I'm hoping this will be sorted out soon...
Meanwhile, the resident mouse continues to demonstrate his genius, quite outwitting the latest sate-of-the-art Acme Mfg Co trap. Planning my next move..

Saturday, 12 May 2018

Pym Again

'... she crouched down, her fingers moving over the shelves among the Marie Corellis, Hall Caines and Annie C. Swans.'
Such was the choice of leisure reading available to guests in a South coast seaside hotel, circa 1960, as noted by Barbara Pym in No Fond Return of Love. Marie Corelli, bestselling writer of sensational romances, and Hall Caine, phenomenally successful 'serious' novelist, I knew, if only by name – but Annie C. Swan? She was, I learned, a Scottish writer who in her heyday was every bit as popular as the other two, and now even more surely forgotten. She wrote romances of Scottish life, the first of which, Aldersyde, was praised by both Tennyson and Gladstone, but her core audience were readers of The People's Friend magazine (which is still extant, and next year celebrates its 150th anniversary).
  But enough of Annie C. Swan. I was reading No Fond Return of Love to recover from my long immersion in Martin Amis's Experience. Published in 1961, it was the last to come out before the long hiatus in her career that began with Cape shamefully dropping her, continued with a string of further rejections from other publishers – and ended, happily, with both Philip Larkin and David Cecil naming her as their 'most underrated writer of the century' in 1977.
  Shirley Hazzard judges No Fond Return of Love 'one of her very best', and I'm inclined to agree. It gets off to a richly promising start – indeed the very first sentence is arresting:
'There are various ways of mending a broken heart, but perhaps going to a learned conference is one of the more unusual.'
The broken heart belongs to 'sensible' Dulcie Mainwaring, who, at the 'learned conference', meets flaky Viola Dace, who is nursing a helpless passion for the handsome Aylwin Forbes, a guest speaker on the subject of 'Some Problems of an Editor'. Before long Dulcie too has fallen for the irresistible Aylwin (ah, those Barbara Pym names!)
  From this germ, the plot unfolds with the kind of masterly precision we expect from Pym at her best. A colourful cast of characters is deployed, a range of locations deftly evoked, vicars and their female admirers turn up everywhere (as we'd expect), substantial meals are eaten at every opportunity, and even youth gets a look-in, in the shape of Dulcie's niece. The action is driven by Dulcie's natural curiosity, heightened by her professional abilities as a researcher. Determined to find out all she can about Aylwin Forbes and his family, she proves remarkably tenacious as she and Viola pursue their researches...
  But it is Pym herself, of course, who is controlling the action, and in a surprisingly self-conscious way. Dulcie's conversation is peppered with references to how events are beginning to resemble a novel (often a Victorian novel) and how things would play out 'if this were a novel'. There is even a scene in which Aylwin, under the influence of The Portrait of a Lady, starts speaking in Jamesian dialogue. As all the characters are drawn together in one place for the climactic scenes, Pym uses contrivances – including overheard conversation – worthy of Ivy Compton Burnett herself (whom she greatly admired), though she is never as blatant in her disregard for probability, or as stinging in her comedy. No Fond Return is, however, a very funny novel, its comedy typically never far from pathos. And it pulls off a bravura last-minute ending that might be summed up as 'They think it's all over... It is now!' A joy to read, and the perfect antidote to an excess of M. Amis.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

Fred and Cyd

Born on this day in 1899 (which really does seem improbably long ago) was the great Fred Astaire. Here he is with Cyd Charisse, Dancing in the Dark, strolling into an elegantly balletic little dance then out again, ending with an impossibly graceful ascent into a horse-drawn carriage...

 As Mel Brooks fans will know, Dancing in the the Dark was the song that finished off many a cardiologically compromised elderly Jew enjoying an evening of borscht belt entertainment. They always started too high...

Last night's round of Man v Mouse was indecisive, though I suspect it was another mouse win. I got up at 2.30 and found the door of the trap once again firmly shut, so I took it down to the bottom of the garden (in a soft early-morning rain) and opened the door. As far as I could make out, nothing emerged – but the light was dim, and I figured the mouse might anyway be staying in the trap a while to assess the situation. I left the trap, open, where it was and went back to bed. Round three tonight.

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

The Mouse Trap

I found myself strangely prostrated on Monday, quite exhausted and unable even to read. Having spent yesterday recovering, I am now back in my habitual rude health. I don't know what caused this malaise – possibly a touch of sunstroke or dehydration following a sunny afternoon of butterfly hunting on the Surrey hills (Grizzled Skippers, Dingy Skippers and a single Green Hairstreak, breaking last year's duck).
 While I was out of action, in-house entertainment was provided by a field mouse (or maybe mice) that was making merry in various cupboards about the house, and was to be glimpsed from time to time skittering across the floor. Last night I set a trap – a humane one that catches the mouse alive – are awaited results. It was one of the tilting kind, with the bait at the far, raised end: mouse goes in to get the bait, its weight tips the entrance end into the air, door snaps shut, mouse trapped. Rising early this morning, I found the trap firmly shut, so clearly it had done its job. I carefully carried it down the road to the allotments, opened the door, tapped the far end, shook it, looked inside (in approved cartoon fashion). Nothing. The mouse had somehow managed both to escape and to shut the door politely behind it. Round one to Timmy Willie – but that trap will be set again tonight, and I'll be waiting...

On Monday I tottered into the garden in the early evening, heard a familiar aerial scream, looked up – and there they were, the first swifts of the year! Three of them, circling quite low down. Summer is here.

Monday, 7 May 2018

Full Marx

The 200th birthday of Karl Marx certainly didn't pass unnoticed, with much discussion of the old monster and his legacy in the press and on the radio over the weekend. Clearly much can justly be laid at his door, but I wonder if a lot of the bloody stuff mightn't have happened anyway, even if Marx had never written a word. After all, the template for murderous, all-devouring terror in the name of remaking the world (of course on 'scientific' principles) was set by the French revolution, and arguably the horrific Chinese and Cambodian revolutions, if not the Russian one, could have taken their 'thinking' straight from the French model. That the Russian revolution occurred as it did was the result of a particular freakish combination of events, and could never have been predicted – it certainly wasn't foreseen by Marx, nor has any revolution ever happened along the lines envisaged by the German sage (industrial proletariat seizes power as capitalism collapses under the weight of its own contradictions).
  So here's a thought experiment: what essential difference would it have made to the course of history (as against the history of ideas, social sciences, etc) if Marx had never existed, and the line of revolutionary terror had run straight from French 'Enlightenment' ideas to the revolutionaries of the 20th century? (Pol Pot and Deng Xiaoping both spent several years in France and Pol Pot greatly admired Rousseau.) Indeed, might not the roots of bloody revolution be traced still further back, to religiously based (Christian and Islamic) millennarian ideas about remaking and redeeming the human world at any cost? Or maybe even to something destructive and delusional in human nature itself...

Sunday, 6 May 2018

A Juicy Morning, A Livelier Iris

'After breakfast I lit a cigarette and went to the open window to inspect the day. It certainly was one of the best and brightest.
"Jeeves," I said.
"Sir?" said Jeeves. He had been clearing away the breakfast things, but at the sound of the young master's voice cheesed it courteously.
"You were absolutely right about the weather. It is a juicy morning."
"Decidedly, sir."
"Spring and all that."
"Yes, sir."
"In the spring, Jeeves, a livelier iris gleams upon the burnished dove."
"So I have been informed, sir."
"Right ho! Then bring me my whangee, my yellowest shoes, and the old green Homburg. I'm going into the Park to do pastoral dances."

[P.G. Wodehouse, The Inimitable Jeeves]

Bertie Wooster's quotation – the kind of thing every young man about town once had on his lips – is from Tennyson's Locksley Hall, and is slightly wrong (Jeeves forbears to correct it): 'In the spring, a livelier iris changes on the burnished dove.'
Locksley Hall is a fascinating, if overwrought, poem, a monodrama in a similar register to Maud but with a much wider sweep. It even, bizarrely, appears to foresee aviation, both civil and military, when the narrator
Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,
Pilots of the purple twilight, dropping down with costly bales;
Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rain’d a ghastly dew
From the nations’ airy navies grappling in the central blue...

Friday, 4 May 2018

Poet Voice Latest

I've written before about the distressing phenomenon of 'poet voice'. Now I learn that there is an algorithm for it. I  do hope this can be weaponised, perhaps enabling a device that would administer a salutary non-lethal electric shock to the offending poetry reader.
  Meanwhile, on Radio 4, things go from bad to worse. While prime offender Paul Farley continues the great work of putting listeners off contemporary verse with The Echo Chamber, a form of 'poet voice' has spread from the poetry programmes into the 'factual' arena. Grace Dent – a woman who in other circumstances speaks perfectly normally – adopts an intimate crooning tone when voicing the links on a perfectly ordinary documentary series called, for some reason, The Untold. Every word is spoken as if it is some kind of secret that can only be whispered into the ear of you, the listener. The impeccably banal sentences are loaded with faux portent and punctuated by random pauses, as if Ms Dent has just heard someone coming and isn't sure if she dare continue. It is so irritating that I now have to turn off at the sound of her voice – or switch over to Radio 3 where things are so much more agreeable.

Wednesday, 2 May 2018


I've been avoiding reading Martin Amis's Experience for years now. It keeps crossing my path, I pick it up, weigh it in my hands, maybe flick through it abstractedly, think about it, but somehow can't summon the energy to read it. The thing is, when Amis's early novels came out I was about as avid a fan as could be imagined, but by the time of The Information I was already having my doubts, and over the subsequent years I found that I just wasn't interested any more. Nor was I tempted to revisit those early novels, for fear of further disappointment. But then there was Experience, the big fat autobiography, and part of me badly wanted to read this one, even as another part kept me putting it back on the shelf unread.
  Then, a couple of weeks ago, I spotted it yet again in a charity shop, and this time I took the plunge, bought it and read it. It was a curious reading experience, reminding me why I had been such a fan – and, more or less simultaneously, why I had gone off the author so decisively. I found the book compulsively readable – Amis certainly knows how to keep you turning the pages – but as I neared the end I was beginning to find his tricks and tropes, his slick phrase-making, his bottomless self-consciousness, irritating. Also I was beginning to get fed up with the endless grisly accounts of surgery inflicted on his mouth and jaws (this by way of justifying his huge advance for The Information – he did not, he wants you to know, spend it on cosmetic dentistry). There's altogether too much score-settling and setting the record straight, and the book as a whole could have been cut by maybe a third with no great loss. The footnotes are often interesting, but too numerous, and some are punishingly long – and there's an entire Appendix devoted to the deplorable behaviour of Kingsley's biographer immediately after KA's death.
  However, Experience has a terrific tale to tell, of a life not short of incident, unexpected turns of events, and downright tragedy (Amis's cousin Lucy was one of the victims of the serial killer Fred West). And, of course, Martin is the son of Kingsley, so there is masses of good stuff on KA, some of it very funny indeed, and all of it illuminating. Anyone seriously interested in Kingsley should certainly read Experience. As usual with autobiographies, the earlier, family-focused parts are the best, but Amis managed to keep me gripped, despite my growing reservations, to the very end, and I read the whole thing in half the time such a fat volume would normally take me. An unlikely page-turner, but a page-turner none the less.

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Big in Norway

Looking at my stats just now – something I seldom do, as they tell a dismal story – I discover that this blog is once again more popular in Norway than in any other country. As a token of my gratitude to the people of that fine country, today I mark the 170th birthday of one of their most accomplished painters, Adelsteen Normann.
  Normann was the artist who launched Edvard Munch's international career, inviting him to join him in Berlin to exhibit his works – which duly divided critical opinion and caused a great commotion. Normann's own works, on the other hand, were safely naturalistic, and he built his career around annual return visits to his homeland, where he would paint grand views of the fjords. These splendid images are credited with helping to popularise the fjords as a tourist destination.
  Adelsteen Normann, this blog salutes you, and your fellow countrymen.