Sunday, 19 August 2018


On the happy day when I retired (a little over three years ago now) I had a list of things I was going to do with the new-found leisure I was fondly expecting to enjoy. Some of them I have managed, including, I'm happy to say, 'get more sleep'. However, 'stare vacantly into the middle distance' is one that I've not often achieved – in fact I probably did more of that in my working years, from sheer exhaustion / boredom. Retirement has turned out to be pretty much as busy as work was, just busy in wholly different ways, mostly familial, domestic and hedonic (under which title I include research for my book). Which is all by way of explaining why this blog tends to fall silent more often now than in my hard-pressed working days. 
  Never mind. Today I can report that, happily, the swifts have not left after all – or not all of them. Though their screams – the true sound of summer – are no longer to be heard, there are still stragglers up there. I saw one over the garden on Monday, then another over the road the next day – and today, sitting in the garden after (granddaughter) Summer's birthday party, I looked up and saw another – then another, and another, three flying together, lazily circling while drifting generally southward, to Africa. Come to think, I might well have been staring vacantly into the middle distance when I saw them – but upwards, at the sky.

Thursday, 16 August 2018

The King

It was on this day in 1977 that Elvis Presley died. I remember getting off the train to work the following morning (the news reached the UK overnight) and seeing that someone had already scrawled, high up on a wall opposite the station, the words 'Are you lonesome tonight?'
  As music star deaths go, Elvis's was more unglamorous than most, and less premature (he was 42). His best work was surely behind him – and so much of the material he had recorded (not to mention the films he made) had anyway been unworthy of him. Compared to the loss, much earlier in their lives and  careers, of two other Seventies casualties, Gram Parsons and Tim Buckley, Elvis's death did not deprive the world of much musical potential. Who knows where either of those two might have taken their music if they had lived?
  However, with all that said, Elvis Presley's death felt like a great blow and a palpable loss. For a few years, Elvis simply was rock 'n' roll, and even to the end and in spite of everything, he had an aura, a magic, an almost numinous quality about him, something that singled him out from all others (and was strangely blended with an almost childlike vulnerability). Perhaps the best musical tribute paid to him – one that capture that strange and special aura – is Gillian Welch's beautiful Elvis Presley Blues (a song that links him with the American folk hero John Henry). The King is dead, long live the King.

Tuesday, 14 August 2018

Ain't It Grand...

Among Radio 4's more annoying features – which currently include a jaw-droppingly infantile 'history' series, with 'jokes', called Did the Victorians Ruin the World?, and the least funny topical comedy ever broadcast (and God knows it's got a lot of competition), Where's the F in News – where was I? Oh yes, and then there's the habit of larding every factual programme with snatches of music, or even a 'music bed', to the point where some become unlistenable: I recently had to turn off a perfectly decent programme on economics because the accompanying music was, as Danny Dyer would say, 'doin' me 'ead in'.
  The use of music is usually either crassly literal or entirely irrelevant – but sometimes something turns up that catches the ear, in a good way. It happened the other day with a programme about undertakers, which kept giving us snatches of a wonderfully macabre song called Ain't It Grand to Be Bloomin' Well Dead, which I knew only by title and had never heard. Sung in a broad old-fashioned cockney accent, with a sneer in every verse, it's a little gem of black, cynical, deeply misanthropic comedy. Looking it up, I discovered that it's a traditional song of obscure origin, and was popularised by the man singing it on Radio 4 – Leslie Sarony! Yes, Leslie Sarony, the jolly songster who gave us such jaunty classics as Forty-Seven Ginger-Headed Sailors and I Lift Up My Finger (And I Say Tweet Tweet), not to mention Jollity Farm. And here's something for fact fans: Sarony, who was also an actor and busy to the end of his long life, played Uncle Stavely in the final series of Peter Tinniswood's fondly remembered I Didn't Know You Cared. 'I heard that! Pardon?'

Monday, 13 August 2018

Auberon Waugh, Novelist: 2

A day devoted to wrestling with technology – fending off an online scam bombardment and trying to get my new printer working. After an hour and ten minutes on the phone with a helpful, if sometimes bemused, operative, I do at least have a working printer. Long may it last (and thereby buck my past record with printers).
  On the upside, my spirits were lifted by the sight of a belated swift circling desultorily over the garden – just when I thought I'd seen my last of the year.
  But to the matter in hand: the novels of Auberon Waugh. I have now read his second, Path of Dalliance, published in 1963. A kind of modern picaresque, it's a less ambitious affair than his debut, The Foxglove Saga – looser, more relaxed, even a little baggy (it could have shed thirty or forty pages). But it's every bit as funny – which is rather the point with comic novels, though sometimes you'd never know it – and it's written throughout in Waugh's beautifully managed prose, with never a dead sentence.
  Like The Foxglove Saga, Path of Dalliance begins at Cleeve, the Catholic school, whence it follows several ex-pupils out into the world – chief among them, Jamey Sligger, an ineffectual, slightly priggish (but in practice often amoral) young innocent who hasn't much of a clue about the outside world. He is off to Godolphin Hall, a highly exclusive Oxford college where he is to share rooms with his rich Cleeve friend Guy Frazer-Robinson. Jamey finds Oxford life as bewildering as everything else, and blunders through it in much the same way as he will blunder (after his inevitable sending down) through his first foray into the world of work – as a journalist, for heaven's sake.
  Waugh's satirising of student life at Oxford – the endless talking (in lieu of doing), the intrigues and snobbery, the posing, the casual cruelty, the abortive love affairs and, in particular, the mad world of student activism – is spot-on. It's striking how little the idiocies of the student left have changed in the half century since Path of Dalliance. though perhaps their methods are rather less insanely devious than the futile plots hatched by the activists of yesteryear. The fellow students who cross Jamey's path are a mixture of university types and more convincingly drawn individuals – and the latter category also includes Mrs Price-Williams, principal of St Rachel's, and her husband, a philosophy don with infantile urges. Later there is some satirising of the modern art market which is rather more, er, broad brush, but Waugh's picture of life in newspaper journalism in the days when the print unions still ruled is much more successful.
 As he blunders through Oxford, and for some while after, Jamey remains under the influence of Cleeve, sending regular reports to one of the Brothers – and of his monstrous, endlessly embarrassing mother, who is perhaps the strongest character in the book. By the end of the story Jamey is, perhaps, beginning to break free and grow up, but you wouldn't want to bet on it. Path of Dalliance ends back at Cleeve with a reunion of old boys and others. It's a satisfying and immensely enjoyable read, and surely deserves to be reprinted. My copy was reissued by Robin Clark, along with the other novels, in the Eighties – and that was a long time ago.

Sunday, 12 August 2018

Quid Pro Crow

Never mind the Boris-Burqa row, here's a real news story – a team of trained rooks is being deployed to pick up litter, and generally spruce things up, at a French theme park. There's an uncharacteristically concise account of this heartening development on the BBC News website. While you're there, do follow the links to 'Crow with Yorkshire accent filmed' and 'Police rescue man from baby squirrel'.
Meanwhile, this is surely an occasion to rehearse Kay Ryan's great crow poem...

Felix Crow

Crow school
is basic and
short as a rule—
just the rudiments
of quid pro crow
for most students.
Then each lives out
his unenlightened
span, adding his
bit of blight
to the collected
history of pushing out
the sweeter species;
briefly swaggering the
swagger of his
aggravating ancestors
down my street.
And every time
I like him
when we meet.

Friday, 10 August 2018

Journey by Moonlight

Having limbered up with The Pendragon Legend, I last week read Antal Szerb's acknowledged masterpiece, Journey by Moonlight. This one is a very different kind of novel, but the tone of voice – playful, quicksilver, endlessly ironical – is very similar. Szerb has a gift for making his material at once deadly serious and not serious at all (is this a Hungarian thing?). Journey by Moonlight chronicles what is in effect a catastrophic mental breakdown, but it is closer to a fast-moving, unpredictable, often funny adventure or escape story than to a psychoanalytical study. Szerb's is, decidedly, a comic imagination – and a very distinctive one.
  Journey by Moonlight has the kind of opening paragraph that defies you not to keep on reading:

'On the train everything seemed fine. The trouble began in Venice, with the back alleys.'

Mihaly, we learn, is on his first visit to Italy, at the age of thirty-six, on his honeymoon. He has travelled a good deal, but always avoided Italy:

'Italy he associated with grown-up matters, such as the fathering of children, and he secretly feared it, with the same instinctive fear he had of strong sunlight, the scent of flowers, and extremely beautiful women.'

But now he was married, on his honeymoon, so 'now, he reasoned, there was nothing to fear from the danger Italy represented'. Until, that is, he felt the irresistible pull of those Venetian back alleys and, unplanned and unannounced, spent the night wandering in a daze among them. This is the beginning of Mihaly's 'journey by moonlight'.
  Trying to explain this nocturnal fugue to Erzsi, his long-suffering wife, he tells the story of a phase in his boyhood when he came under the spell of a group of free-spirited friends, dominated by the beautiful, death-obsessed Eva and Tamas Ulpius. It is in that luridly intense period of Mihaly's past that the key to all that follows resides, and it is to that phase of his life that Mihaly's flight from present reality repeatedly returns him. When one of those friends of his youth, the unreliable Janos, turns up in person, Mihaly is shaken and knows he cannot carry on with his life as it is. Soon he leaves Erzsi behind by half-consciously boarding the wrong train and taking off on his own, with no idea of where he's going. His journey takes him from one Italian city to another, and to various remoter locations, guided only by hints from Janos, who keeps turning up wherever Mihaly finds himself. But can the troubled Mihaly ever find a way of breaking free of the past that haunts him?
  That bald (and very incomplete) synopsis makes Journey by Moonlight sounds a lot more solemn than it is – indeed solemnity is a note that Szerb's writing never strikes. Reading him is always, for all sorts of reasons, fun; he's a great storyteller, and Journey by Moonlight is a real page-turner. It is also one of those books that is, I think, liable to haunt you for a long while after you've put it down.

  Szerb was a glittering star of the Hungarian literary firmament, the author of three major scholarly surveys of English, Hungarian and world literature, as well as the novels and numerous short stories. But he was Jewish (the son of assimilated Jews, and a baptised Catholic), and therefore vulnerable in the Hungary of the times. In 1944 he was removed from his professorship at the University of Szegad and sent to a forced labour camp. Friends and admirers offered to save him with falsified papers, but he turned them down, wishing to share in the common fate of his people. He was beaten to death in 1945, at the age of 43, and buried in a mass grave.

Thursday, 9 August 2018

Giles Cooper

Today is the centenary of the birth of Giles Cooper – a name that might still mean something to lovers of radio drama (if they're of a certain age). Cooper was a prolific dramatist who wrote for both radio and TV – among much else, he adapted Simenon's Maigret novels for the hugely successful TV series starring pipe-smoking Rupert Davies. Perhaps his best known radio play was Unman, Wittering and Zigo, which also became a TV drama and a feature film (screenplay by Simon Raven).
  Cooper, who was born into a landed Anglo-Irish family, confounded family expectations by enrolling in drama school, but before much longer he was conscripted into the Army and sent to Burma, where he fought for three years in the jungle in that most gruelling of campaigns (see George MacDonald Fraser's Quartered Safe Out Here). After the war Cooper worked as an actor (encountering Kenneth Williams and Harold Pinter in rep), then moved into script editing and playwriting. He died at the age of 48 after, bizarrely, falling from a train as it passed through Surbiton. He had been attending the Guild of Dramatists' Christmas dinner at the Garrick and was perhaps excessively refreshed. The coroner's verdict was misadventure.
  Happily his name lived on for some years after his death, in the shape of the Giles Cooper Awards for radio drama, jointly sponsored by the BBC and the publishers Methuen. These awards ran from 1978 to 1992, and winners included Tom Stoppard, William Trevor, Fay Weldon, Anthony Minghella, Rose Tremain and bloody Harold Pinter. I remember being at several of the (pretty minimal) awards ceremonies back in the days when I was writing about radio for the late lamented Listener. A pity there isn't a prestigious award for radio drama these days – it might raise the standard.

Wednesday, 8 August 2018


And I got back to find that the swifts have flown – already (but then it always feels like 'already'). I thought they looked as if they were getting ready to go when we left for Dieppe, but was hoping they might hang on a little longer. After all, they got off to a belated start, not settling down until mid-May – but, like the butterflies, they recovered to enjoy a prodigious season, thanks to weeks of warm sunshine. I hadn't seen so many over our house in years.
  Susan Hill, writing in the Spectator, reports a complete absence of swifts in her neck of the woods (North Norfolk?) until, one July evening, they suddenly arrived – 'a few, then dozens, soaring, diving, swooping, crossbows in the blue sky'. Since then, she claims, she has done nothing but watch them, and she urges the rest of us to 'gaze while you can. Neglect everything. These are not birds, they are angels.' I hope they are still with her.

Back from La Canicule

Blue skies and unbroken sunshine meant that this Dieppe jaunt was – unusually in a part of France not famous for brilliant weather – something of a beach holiday, and all the more enjoyable for that. However, I did find time to visit the two great churches and check on progress. The restoration of St Jacques continues at an arthritic snail's pace – but at St Remy things are really moving, with impressive progress on the decayed Northern facade, most of which is now convincingly restored.
  This visit also added a word to my French vocabulary – 'canicule', meaning heatwave. This word was everywhere, all over the papers and television, where, in addition to alarming 'scorchio' weather reports, there were endless, very French discussions of the implications of 'La Canicule' for the future of the planet, etc.
  And then it was back to England, and to endless, very English discussion of a subject encapsulated in another single word – Burqa. The brouhaha over Boris Johnson's 'letterbox' remark – in the course of a piece arguing for the 'right' to wear the burqa – seems peculiarly fatuous and confected, even by the standards of such brouhahas. And nobody seems to have pointed out that it's based on an erroneous use of words: it is not the burqa but the niqab that lends the wearer the fetching letterbox look Boris remarks on. The burqa offers its wearer complete insulation from the lustful gazes of men by covering the entire body, eyes included. You don't come across it too often over here, but I've seen women shopping in the full burqa on Kensington High Street. They order this matter better in France, where the burqa is banned.

Thursday, 2 August 2018

To D***** Again

No prizes for guessing which French port-resort I'm heading for tomorrow. Mais oui – it's Dieppe again. In what seems set to become an annual tradition, Mrs N and I are spending a few days there with son, daughter-in-law and ever adorable granddaughter. There might be the occasional dispatch; if not, normal service will be resumed some time next week.

Wednesday, 1 August 2018

The Welsh Claude

Born on this day in 1714 was the Welsh painter Richard Wilson, who turned out lots of fine restful landscapes, suffused with the spirit of Claude Lorrain and the Dutch landscapists, and reflecting his early experience of painting in Italy. Wilson was a rarity in his time for concentrating so heavily on landscape painting – and he seems to have been the first to notice that his native Wales had a few landscapes that were worth painting (that's Llyn-y-Cau, Cader Idris, above).
  Wilson, Ruskin opined, 'paints in a manly way, and occasionally reaches exquisite tones of colour'. Ruskin also acknowledged that 'the Welsh Claude' had a significant influence on his hero Turner. Good to know he painted in a manly way.