Thursday 31 July 2008


I'm finding it hard to be my usual frivolous self today. The reason is here (for those who haven't already followed the link from Bryan's blog). Although I've never met in the flesh the man who sustains that glorious blog, this feels like a death in the family. In a sense, it is.

Learning From the Past?

The spectacle of the Anglican Communion tearing itself apart over homosexuality is depressing indeed. Whatever the issue is here, it is surely cultural rather than dogmatic. Homosexuality is barely even marginal to any form of Christian faith. It's spoken of in proscriptive terms in a few places in the Old Testament and (by way of Judaic carryover) in Paul, but Christ has nothing whatsoever to say on the subject, and it's surely safe to state that his teachings in general overwhelmingly favour loving inclusiveness. No mention of the issue in any of the professions of faith either, as far as I know. ..
But anyway, the up side is that this might yet be settled by something along the lines of the Elizabethan Settlement, a masterpiece of accommodation. It's good to see Anglicanism reaching back into its distinguished past - a past which is, to a large exent, the point of it - to find, perhaps, a solution. I hope it works.

Wednesday 30 July 2008

Palladianism and Global Warming

Here's a thought (admittedly not an original one). Do we in chilly Britain owe the Palladian buildings of the Georgian era to a spot of 18th-century 'global warming'? The early years of that century saw a remarkable run of hot, d ry and sunny summers, leading to bumper crops, which in turn led to overflowing coffers for the landed gentry, enabling them to rebuild their houses. But would they have been so attracted to fashionable Palladianism - a sunny weather style if ever there was one, with its airy colonnades, shady porticoes, small windows and light-and-shade effects - if the English summers at the time had been more like the gloomy norm?

Labour: Not a Norwegian Blue

This Milliband business - are we meant to care? I mean, are we - really? So he writes a piece in the Guardian (where else?), says the party must 'find the confidence to make its case afresh' (yeah, that'll do the trick), and doesn't mention G. Brown. The commentariat promptly gets into a foaming lather, while the word that occurs to most of us, I suspect, is 'pathetic'. That nice, well behaved prefect Milliband 1 - always so nicely turned out - fires his popgun at the beak. Is this the best they can do? Well yes, it probably is, for the simple, blindingly obvious fact is that no one in their right mind would want to inherit this leadership. As poisoned chalices go, this is surely the most venom-rich around. A change of leader would mean a general election , which Labour would lose. Stick with Gordon and this pathetic spineless useless bunch can hang on to their seats and their perks till 2010. They know the game is up. The only question is whether the party itself or the electorate deliver the coup de grace. The Labour parrot is dead, it is defunct, it has ceased to be. It is not a Norwegian blue pining for the fjords.

Tuesday 29 July 2008

Belatedly, Beatrix

Yesterday, the heat having effectively knocked out my mental faculties, I missed the birthday of Beatrix Potter, despite the fact that Google had Potterised its homepage to mark the occasion.
Here's an artist who divides opinion sharply, some loving and some hating her works. The haters usually accuse her of anthropomorphic tweeness and a difficult, child-unfriendly use of language. Well, there is very little tweeness in Potter's work, the best of which has a decidedly dark edge; her animals are always liable to eat each other, or fall foul of human pest control. And her use of language is bracingly uncondescending and highly individual, with a peppering of songs, rhymes and dialect words spicing up the more correct and formal discourse. That the books are a joy to handle and look at goes without saying. She was an astonishing watercolourist and her meticulously beautiful pictures manage the magical feat of making her animal characters at once fully humanised and fully their animal selves. No wonder her works have lasted - indeed have continued to generate a small industry for a century. Many aspects of that industry are regrettable, but surely the works themselves are, in their unique way, true classics.


A branch of the rather good Costa coffee shop chain where I often pop in for a quick espresso was closed this morning, with a notice in the window giving the reason: 're-image works'. What in tarnation can that phrase possibly mean?

Panting, Lying

The frogs of Britain are in trouble, keeling over from a variety of mysterious ailments. The admirable organisation Frog Life has launched an appeal to the public to report to them any findings of dead frogs. Readers of the Pickwick Papers will inevitably at this point think of Mrs Leo Hunter and her affecting Ode To An Expiring Frog...

Monday 28 July 2008

An Old Friend

The other day I had a letter from an old friend I hadn't seen in 35 years. We were very close friends, together through the madness that was 'growing up' - or, rather, failing to - at the tail end of the sixties and into the early seventies. Then somehow we drifted into the kind of impossible tangle to which the only solution seemed to be a clean break. And break it was, as I neither saw nor heard anything of him for three and a half decades, though I often thought of him, wondered what he was doing and where he was.
Then, earlier this year, another old friend, with whom I am still in touch, happened, in the course of business, to come across another link in the chain - a mutual friend (Friend B?) who was in the same circle, and who was still in touch with the old friend I began with (Friend A?). And so, as I renewed the friendship with Friend B (which I was also glad and amazed to rediscover) via email, I also learnt a little of Friend A. He, it turns out, is one of those rare creatures who live offline, but I conveyed my address to him vicariously - and so the letter came.
I can't remember when I last had a handwritten letter, and had forgotten how much of a person's character such a letter can convey - so much more than type or email. My old friend was vividly present in that letter - written with a pen dipped in an inkwell, lapsing at times into stream of consciousness, and towards the end written around the margins of the page, aerogram-style. Letters, handwritten, tell us so much about the writer - and hardly anyone, even writers, writes them any more. The literary archives of the future will be strangely characterless, much will be lost. Think of Keats's letters...
Yet it is to the new technology of electronic communication that I owe this renewed contact with my old friend - it's a familiar enough story in our shrunken cyberworld. This is part of the magic of the web. Perhaps it is sufficient compensation for the lost magic of the handwritten letter. Anyway, I intend to write back to my old friend, in my own hand...

Saturday 26 July 2008

Morning, Garden...

I had intended to take a break from everything today - even blogging - but there I was, sitting in the garden in the sunshine, having watered the thirstier plants and prepared a light late breakfast, when a dark unfamiliar butterfly came fluttering down onto a columbine leaf, where it unrolled its hair-fine proboscis and set about drinking the drops of water that were still shining on the leaves. My friends, it was a Purple Hairstreak! I had never seen this dark and subtle beauty in my garden before, though often in oakwoods, where it tends to fly high up in the canopy, but sometimes comes down lower. This one kept me enthralled for several minutes as it methodically drank, keeping its wings folded at first, rubbing them slightly against each other, as if in enjoyment. Then, having drunk its fill, it opened them and basked briefly before taking off. A joyful, elating - and wholly unexpected - encounter.

Friday 25 July 2008

To The Harbourmaster

Since Frank O'Hara died on this day in 1966 - struck down by a beach buggy on Fire Island - let's have this beautiful poem, the one that John Ashbery, fighting back the tears, read at O'Hara's funeral.

An In-Depth Analysis of the Glasgow East By-Election Result

Malty reminds me (under the previous post) that I haven't mentioned the SNP's victory in Glasgow East yesterday. Well, of course, I'm all for Broon getting a trouncing, especially in his homeland - but the SNP?! Alex Salmond?! They must be desperately short of politicians up there. Wait a minute, of course they are - they're all down here runnning England.


Let's give the strange, faintly disturbing scenes of Obama worship in Berlin yesterday a little context. The Berliners have, in the past, given a frenzied reception to David Hasselhoff, believing him to be a rock god. But then, he did, by his own account, bring down the Berlin Wall.

Thursday 24 July 2008

Knowledge Navigators

The government - the one that has come up with the bright idea of 'toddler targets' for basic literacy, while presiding over schools that churn out unemployable teenagers - has sent this end-of-term message to secondary school teachers:
'As leading knowledge navigators you are mission critical to achieving robust and effective discharge from pathways from the secondary phase of the intensive learning scenario.'
Message ends.

Back to the Future

Another thing about the progressive view of history is that the future constantly falsifies it by moving in the 'wrong' direction, insisting on behaving more like the past. It was announced today that there are more craft navigating our inland waterways than there were at the height of the industrial revolution - yet if there was one sure thing a few decades back it was that canals would fall into terminal disuse. Similarly, in a future where we'd all be whizzing round with our personal jet packs and being waited on by robots, railways would be reduced to a mere skeleton of the network of old - but no, they have been relentlessly expanding, are now carrying record numbers of passengers (and, for many, offering a faster and pleasanter way to escape England than aviation). Meanwhile, in response to rising fuel prices, fishermen are hoisting sail and steering back to the future - and cool rock stars line up to sing sea shanties (John Phillips got there first, 40 years ago, with the weird and desperate shanty Captain, on his Wolf King of LA album, a forgotten masterpiece). Heave ho, me hearties!

That Was Then...

Caught some of a BBC4 series called The 30s In Colour last night. Potentially fascinating stuff, marred by a relentlessly leftist commentary - for every 20 seconds of footage, 2 minutes of political analysis, rich in the abundant wisdom of hindsight, telling us what to think about it. No prizes for guessing what the commentary made of some rather charming footage of prewar Palestine. Even holiday footage of the Canaries couldn't escape, as Franco was there, so we were told who was right and who was wrong (go on - guess) in the Spanish Civil War. This How could they be so blind? We know better now approach is deeply patronising (how very BBC) and betrays a fatal flaw in the progressive view of history: Then was then Now, and Now will soon be Then. How blind was the world on 9/10? So blind that many, especially on the Left, are still living and thinking as if the date had never changed.

Wednesday 23 July 2008

News, Unreal and Real

It may be summer (I say 'may' because it's always an unknown quantity in this country), but the tedious, depressing daily barrage of 'news', in the form of 'initiatives', keeps pounding away. Invariably, some crackpot scheme that can only make matters worse has elbowed its way to the top of the news agenda in time for the morning bulletins - and as often as not it will have been barged aside by another pack of nonsense by lunchtime. On Monday, for example, the 'greatest shake-up of the welfare state since Beveridge' was swept aside hours later by Trevor Phillips's insane plan to end all social and economic divisions (or something).
Today's top-of-the-morning irritations were the next phase of the government's ongoing war on drinkers, and the Chief Medical Officer's plan to subject GPs to annual assessment, either in response to the Harold Shipman case or not in response to the Harold Shipman case. This one sounds lke a perfect recipe for bringing about the collapse of general practice and driving all would-be GPs to emigrate as soon as they qualify. With any luck, like 90 percent of these ideas, it will never happen - but it's still 'news', and the main 'news' of the day. Well, until lunchtime when some new madness will have replaced it...
When it comes to real news, only two stories need detain us - they concern Lonesome George and cattle egrets.

Tuesday 22 July 2008


Born this day in 1844, the Rev Spilliam Archibald Wooner - sorry, William Archibald Spooner. My favourite story of him is the one in which he preached a long sermon, to an understandably bemused congregation, about Aristotle. Descending from the pulpit when it was over, he suddenly thought of something, climbed back up and announced, 'I'm sorry, did I say Aristotle? I meant Saint Paul.' I know the feeling...
(The Spoonerism 'The Lord is a shoving leopard' is rather good too.)

Quote Contest. No Prizes.

Since it's a sunny day (at least here in London), here's a fine weather quotation, written on this day in 1873. Your job, if you've nothing better to do, is to identify the author. The clue is in the third word...
'The wind dappled very sweetly on one's face and when I came out I seemed to put it on like a gown. I mean it rippled and fluttered like light linen, one could feel the folds and braids of it.'

Cavy Day

Good to see that Peru - where National Potato Day is a highlight of the social calendar - is finding time to celebrate the invaluable guinea pig. And how better to pay tribute to the doughty rodents than by dressing them up in silly costumes and/or killing and eating them (there's always a fine line between fluffy and food).
Personally, I've always had a soft spot for guinea pigs, partly because they were my entrée into the world of letters. An affecting character study of my pet guinea pig was the first thing I wrote that found its way into print - in the school magazine. I remember nothing about it except that it was titled A Cavy Character. I remember the guinea pig though...

Another Failed Artist

Wouldn't you know it? Radovan Karadzic, the war criminal suddenly located in Belgrade, was a thwarted poet. His Serbian epic poetry failed to find a publisher, fuelling his sense of being persecuted and misunderstood. Scratch a tyrant and you'll find a failed artist? Sadly, it rather often seems to be the case. If only Hitler had made a success of his painting...
More surprisingly perhaps (though psychologists do tend to be mad), Karadzic was also a qualified psychiatrist, and was at one time team psychologist to Red Star Belgrade FC. Nothing like a psychopath to motivate the lads.

Monday 21 July 2008


Saw a few of these on my travels today. Very beautiful, and obligingly close. Needless to say, I'd left my camera at home.

Not Controversial?

I suppose this ruling shouldn't surprise anyone. It's good that, despite the best efforts of a great many very well-funded and powerful pressure groups, and 16 months of close scrutiny by Ofcom, the judgment was well short of the ringing condemnation demanded by the warmist lobby. An interesting part of the judgment declares that the link between human activity and global warming 'became settled before March 2007' - and therefore disputing the link can't be deemed 'controversial'. If not controversial, what? Surely the point about The Great Global Warming Swindle was that it was a heartfelt polemical documentary - Channel 4, to its great credit, still broadcasts such films, often taking positions well outside the BBC's 'liberal' comfort zone. This one was followed recently by an equally heartfelt polemical documentary, Leonardo DiCaprio's The 11th Hour, an orgy of breast-beating that held humanity firmly to account for global warming, and made no attempt at 'balance'. As far as I know, Ofcom is not investigating. Nor should it.

Small Can of Worms Reopened

Well, as Malty observes in his comment, this post seems to have opened a small can of worms - thank you, everybody who's commented. I think, to return to the subject with a little more perspective, what goes on in schools is not that different from what goes on in a wide range of institutions that have programmed out, and lost sight of, their primary purpose. This is down to a variety of factors which cluster round the pseudoscience of 'management' and misguided 'professionalising' (via irrelevant or worse academic qualifications), and which have the effect of creating a self-servicing bureaucracy devoted to box-ticking in various forms, its collective gaze turned firmly inward on its own workings, so that whatever gets done by way of the institution's primary purpose is done in spite of, rather than because of, the institution. The NHS is a prime example of this process at work - patients get in the way of the smooth running of the hospital, just as pupils get in the way of the smooth running of the school - and, as with schools, the widespread failure to fulfil its primary purpose(nurse, heal etc) has particularly damaging and lasting effects.
But it's all right really - this government has assured us repeatedly that we have the best teachers ever, teaching the best pupils ever, in the best schools ever.

Sunday 20 July 2008

Dawkins Alert

As a service to readers, I must warn you that a series is impending on Channel 4 titled The Genius of Charles Darwin - though I suspect that, by the time it goes out, its presenter will have got his name into the title (Bill Oddie style), for it is none other than our old friend Richard Dawkins.
At the outset Dawkins nails his colours to the mast firmly enough to reduce any known mast to matchwood. Darwin's idea, he declares at the outset, was 'the most powerful idea ever to occur to a human mind'. It offers the way to 'a far richer and more spectacular view of life than any religious story', a view 'far more wonderful and far more moving than religion', etc, etc. As you might gather, this series is a polemic - and a proselytising one at that. Dawkins descends on a blameless bunch of schoolchildren who are studying science without - how thoughtless of them - having jettisoned their various religious faiths. He is therefore impelled to take them on 'a journey' that is clearly designed to make them see the error of their ways. (As one of the children appears to be a Muslim, this might not be quite the unmitigated success he hopes.) Along the way, Dawkins appears to become sexually aroused while fondling his precious first edition of the Origin of Species - and, rather undermining his own argument, travels to Africa to show us just how bloody, brutal and unredeemed the Darwinian world is - a world he yet describes as 'wonderful', 'beautiful', 'inspiring' in its 'grandeur', and many another term taken from a vocabulary that has nothing to do with Darwinism, and everything to do with that which he rejects - the dreaded R word.

What Do Schools Do?

It's not one of the most inspired acronyms, but some bright spark in the DES or wherever came up with it, and now NEETs (young people who are Not in Education, Employment of Training) are everywhere. According to this, their numbers are at least twice as high as the government would have us believe. No surprise there.
Presumably the 18 per cent NEET cohort overlaps very largely with the similar percentage who emerge from a decade and more of schooling effectively unable to read or write. Since it is perfectly easy - and a sensible precaution - to teach any child to read before they enter the maw of the 'education' system , you have to wonder, what on earth are they doing in schools? Not, evidently, teaching. So what is it they're doing that manages to prevent one in five children from learning to read for ten years?

Saturday 19 July 2008

Lost Property

One thing we can rely on the Ministry of Defence to do, it seems, is to lose laptops (and memory sticks - I think that figure rose to 100 or so in the course of yesterday). Meanwhile, the French go one better by losing 60 Lockerbies worth of Semtex, plus detonators. The more conspicuous and intrusive security impinges on our lives, the less secure we become.

A Man Walks Into a Pub...

and gets sacked. Once again I am forced to ask What the...? Does this story make any sense? Perhaps there's an unspoken backstory...

Friday 18 July 2008

Adam Buddle's Legacy

One good thing about London - or indeed any town - at this time of year is that the Buddleia is in flower everywhere. Growing in profusion on every patch of waste ground, sprouting out of every crack in the concrete, bursting out of the walls of buildings, there's no stopping the Buddleia Davidii - and who would wish to? The flowers are beautiful in shape and colour, fragrant and nectar-laden and, of course, they attract the butterflies. Good to see two small tortoiseshells in that picture. This species, which used to be the commonest of our garden butterflies and the one you could always count on seeing on a buddleia spray, is fast becoming a rarity , in the London area at least (it seems the larvae are being parasitised). I haven't seen one all year. This is almost fitting - the tortoiseshell always seemed rather too beautiful to be so common - but it is sad.

Thursday 17 July 2008

Imagists Fall Out

A great entry today on this website, which I hadn't stumbled on before. I'll be back.

V.S. Pritchett

Browsing in Oxfam just now, I picked up a volume of essays by V.S. Pritchett, The Myth Makers - short pieces about various Russian, European and South American writers, published in 1979. The fact that this was priced at £2.99 - first edition in dust wrappers - shows clearly enough that Pritchett is not exactly collected. Nor, I imagine, is he much read - which is a great pity, as he was a very good writer, with a sharp eye and mind, a sense of humour and (which probably did for his reputation) the common touch. He's immensely readable - try his memoirs, if you haven't - and his work is pitched at that species now deemed extinct, the 'common reader'. So are the short essays in The Myth Makers. I made straight for the essay on the Portuguese writer Eca de Queiroz, a bit of a favourite of mine. It's barely seven pages long, considers only one of his novels (and not the best) - but it captures the spirit of the man and his writings (and the essence of the Portuguese character) perfectly, and would surely leave the 'common reader' eager to read more of this unique writer. What more could you ask? And where would you find such a brief, illluminating essay (or, come to that, biograpy) today? Incidentally, it's good to know that he's the grandfather of the funniest topical cartoonist in the country (by miles) - Matt.

The Singular Panini, A Fact of Life

We pedants - here in England, at least - long ago gave up on 'panino' as the singular form of panini. Correct it may be - but what kind of a prat would actually ask for a panino? And the singular panini, it seems, is good enough for the French... So, we've had to grit our teeth and get used to the catechrestic plural 'paninis' (or, of course, 'panini's') all over the place. However, the domestication of the panino has now taken another step - the other day, I saw a café fascia proudly advertising 'paninies'. Will the panino go all the way to 'paniny'?


Heaven knows geopolitics is hardly my subject, but there's something I've become dimly aware of lately which I rather like the sound of. It seems everyone is talking about leagues. McCain has some kind of plan for a league of democratic nations (to do the kind of jobs we can't rely on the UN for). Sarkozy seems to have founded something called a Mediterranean League, intending to embrace not only Mediterranean Europe but, ambitiously, the Levant too. The Baltic nations virtually form a league already (shades of the Hanseatic League?), and it seems to me there's a good case for an Atlantic League, embracing the whole Atlantic seaboard, down as far as the Iberian Atlantic on this side of the pond. History, prehistory and culture all seem to point to this kind of maritime affinity.
It's a pleasingly old-fashioned idea (and word), but I wonder if the forming of leagues might be a way out of the evident limitations of the nation state and UN-style international organisations.
Silly animal story follows. Probably.

Wednesday 16 July 2008


Meet Australia's luckiest marsupial (there ought to be an annual award in his honour). This story made me chuckle - and a detail not mentioned here is that 'Lucky' also has chlamydia. Where on earth did he pick that up?

An Old Lady in the Garden

Last night, as I was sitting in the garden in the gloaming, a large, dark moth flew past me a couple of times, so close I felt the breath of its wings (as I did with a particularly bold Silver-Washed Fritillary on Monday). From its size and darkness and the way it flew, I identified it, fairly confidently, as an Old Lady moth. How did this encounter play from the moth's point of view? What was I to the Old Lady? a thing in the way, I suppose, occupying space, reflecting what little light there was, emitting body heat and wine fumes.
There's an extraordinary moment in John Updike's novel Marry Me (his best?) where Gerry takes his wife Ruth to a seafood restaurant to tell her he's in love with their friend Sally. He breaks the news and 'when she failed to respond, he asked urgently, 'Who else could it be?'
A fly alighted on her lips and its tingling imposition startled her; she saw herself as she was to the fly - a living mountain, a volcano breathing the stench of shellfish.'
That is a truly startling switch of point of view , vividly conveying the sudden dislocation of Ruth's world.. Mine, happily, was just an idle garden thought.

Tuesday 15 July 2008

The Unknown Insect Makes Its Point (and flies off)

Naturally I can't resist this story. Like yesterday's reminder of the resilience of nature, this pointed evidence of its vastness, complexity and mystery - and of the limits of our knowledge of it - neatly deflates our human delusions of grandeur. Hats off to the unknown insect!

The Rage for Rosé

Once again I am forced to exclaim Zut alors! at the latest news from France. Some arse on the radio was trying to link this story to global warming - the Telegraph, bless it, prefers to link it to the 'fashion for pink' (those French - so fashion-conscious!). Well, there's nothing wrong with rosé, especially as a summer drink - I've been drinking it more myself lately, and standards are definitely rising. The wrong pink wines are those ghastly, semi-sweet New World 'blushes' - which, of course, the French wouldn't touch with a bargepole. By the way, whatever happened to sherry? Does anyone under 60 drink it these days? I hope it's not headed for extinction, like so many drinks before it - negus anyone? Shrub?

Olive Riley: Blogging Is Good

Sad news about Olive Riley - though to say she had a good innings would be to understate the case. We all have our doubts from time to time about this blogging lark, wondering whether, all in all, it's a Good Thing - but the case of Olive Riley, whose life was immeasurably enriched by her belated discovery of it, and who dies remembered and mourned in ways she would never have dreamt of - surely shows that there are times when blogging is indeed Good.

What Do Men Do?

A friend tells me he went to his daughter's graduation ceremony the other day - she was picking up a degree in Eng Lit - and was astonished by the preponderance of female graduates in virtually every discipline, except Philosophy, which apparently remains a male redoubt.
It's very noticeable that medicine - especially at GP level - is turning into a female-dominated profession (in terms of numbers anyway), as is the dear old Church of England, despite the best efforts of certain traditionalists. Law is going the same way, I believe; schoolteaching, especially at primary level, is overwhelmingly ' women's work' now; and women are entering engineering and 'hard' science in ever growing numbers. Those dysfunctional men in unfortunate shirts who come and fix our computers for us might soon seem like brave survivors clinging to the shoreline as the tide of empowered, educated women surges ever onward. Or maybe they have the one job women don't want.
Nothing wrong with this state of affairs, of course (though more male presences in primary schools would surely be good, in role model terms) , but it begs the question - what are all the men doing? And the more worrying question - do we need them any more? Except of course as philosophers.

Monday 14 July 2008

Into the Woods

I'm sorry, I can't help myself - it's this sunny weather. I've been at it again, heading for the woods and the butteflies. This time it was another of Surrey's fine patches of oakwood, Bookham Common, where the Purple Emperor flies - but, needless to say, I have yet to see one, there or anywhere - the emperor is nothing if not elusive. Today, walking the woodland rides, I saw so many of these beauties that I gave up counting when I reached the 20s. So many indeed that I was in danger of getting blase (can't seem to do accents on this keyboard) about them - a situation I wld never have dreamt possible. The danger passed though, never fear. But the greatest aesthetic thrill for me was, as ever, seeing my old favourite - just three today, so hugely outnumbered by the showier frits.
Meanwhile, there is more good news from the butterfly world - here. As I always say, never underestimate the resilience of nature - it's a lot tougher than we are.
And that's enough of butterflies for now...

Sunday 13 July 2008

The Instinct of Hope

It's John Clare's birthday today - born 1793. Try The Instinct Of Hope from this list.

Bad Rhyme Time

As it's Sunday, here's something to enjoy (ignore the 'comments' etc). After so many true horrors in this list, it's disappointing that they fall back on 'His Bobness' to fill the Number One spot. Dylan was never guilty of a bad rhyme - they just look that way on paper - when he sings them, often spitting out the rhyme words with heavy emphasis, they work perfectly, seeming clever and playful, or vicious and barbed. To treat Dylan as a poet is absurd (pace Christopher Ricks) - he's a lyricist, and a very great one, but his words are only effective in conjunction with his music. Laid out on the mortuary slab of the printed page and subjected to critical analysis as poetry, they can only fail. This, I reckon, is a shorter and better list of truly bad, i.e. desperate and bathetic, rhymes. And here's a dash of rhyming genius from the world's most addictive album, Sumday by Grandaddy:
She's in the kitchen cryin' by the oven,
It seems she really loved him,
And he's so drunk he's passed out in a Datsun,
That's parked out in the hot sun
In the saddest parking lot in all the world...

What the...?

Heaven knows the news can be pretty baffling, often because it's the result of effortfully twisting some sullen lump of nothing into the semblance of a 'story'. Here, though, is an item that seems to make absolutely no sense at all - what on earth is going on here? One can only hope that Sr Giuffrida is right and it is indeed 'a step forward for civil rights'.

Friday 11 July 2008

Best Booker?

Well, this was kind of inevitable, wasn't it? Midnight's Children is simply the perfect Booker novel - a very different thing from the perfect, or even the especially good, novel. Looking at the list of past winners, it's clear that the Booker started out quietly, rewarding decent English novelists (P.H. Newby anyone?) for solid work, then soon grew into a big beast ranging in a a far wider field of fiction (G? The Bone Peple?) and developing a global reach. Of recent winners, Disgrace is the only one I've been tempted to read, and very good it is, in its icy, blood-curdling way - but I'm pretty sure I'd never reread it. The Siege of Krishnapur, on the other hand, I'd happily return to any time - and for my money this was the best Booker winner ever. But it's no surprise it didn't win.

On Paying Attention

Walking to the station this morning, along a path beside the railway, I stopped for no obvious reason - and had a wholly unexpected, heart-lifting encounter with a comma butterfly, which was basking on a bindweed leaf not 2ft away from me. Now this, with its ragged wings, is just about the easiest of all British butterflies to identify, but it got me thinking about this recent post by Bryan, which Frank Wilson also picks up on, identifying with me as, well, an identifier.
There's a lot to be said against the identifying tendency. Advanced twitchers, for instance, seem to reach the point where they barely deign to notice anything but rarities - and those they notice only to tick off their list. My identification skills are limited, but I find myself effectively dismissing the commoner species once I' ve established what they are, unless they have some special beauty, like the increasingly common speckled wood. In other words, skill at identification can prevent you seeing, or even bothering to look. The danger is of not paying attention, and this, I think, is the root of the case for identifying, for distinguishing one creature from another.
It's a bit of a stretch, but surely this principle applies in the human world too. There's a famous passage in Proust, where the narrator, anxious about his grandmother, races to Paris to see her. When he arrives, she is not expecting him and he witnesses, as it were, his own absence. In that absence, what he sees, shockingly, is not his grandmother but a florid-faced, mad old woman, sitting in a chair reading. Momentarily, he has not identified her, in the act of loving attention in which she is, not that mad old woman, but his beloved grandmother. Loving (ideally) attention is what makes us what we are - what, in every sense, distinguishes us - and without it, as King Lear demonstrates with horrific vividness, we are no more than bare forked animals.
Glad I saw that comma, anyway.

Thursday 10 July 2008

Of Mice and Men

Once again, lab mice have been tirelessly at work, helping scientists to extend the frontiers of the bleedin' obvious. Still, at least this time there was a drink in it for them - even if they did have to suffer the indignity of the Porsolt test. Cheers!

Blog to Book to Radio 4

I see the well known blog Wife in the North is now the Book of the Week on Radio 4. Bryan and I (who spent a very enjoyable evening together last night, in the real world - well, Notting Hill) are not bitter. For myself, I can see that one man's lonely journey into the southern suburban heartlands might not have quite the Radio 4 appeal of WITN's saga - and perhaps there's a certain lack of narrative drive... Anyway, good luck to her.


Further proof, if any were needed, that Gordon Brown has gone mad - and don't you just love that 'absolutely correct'? Of course he is no Heathcliff (in his dreams maybe) - but who, in terms of fictional characters, is he? He puts me in mind of the tormented, thwarted Bradley Headstone in our Mutual Friend , so congested with rage that he was liable to spontaneous bleeding and self-harm (so far, with Brown, it's only the nails that have suffered).
And for proof of what the British political scene has come to, how about the fact that Harriet Harman is now being seriously talked of as Labour leader/PM in waiting. Whaaat?! The woman would be hard pressed to find her bum with both hands, as they say in Australia.

Wednesday 9 July 2008

On This Day in Pipe History

You'd hardly have thought such a step was necessary, but the corn cob pipe was patented on this day in 1878 by Henry Tibbe of what is now the Missouri Meerschaum Company. Is it possible, I wonder, to smoke such a thing and not look a complete prat?


And another thing - people who pronounce lingerie 'lahnzheray' (or 'lonzheray'). What's that about? Is there a more annoying, stupid and unnecessary mispronunciation? Suggestions, please, to this address...

Back to the Pasty

On the Tube this morning, a young woman sat down next to me and, for the entirety of my journey, munched her way through an extremely pungent Cornish pasty, washed down with Coke. A dispiriting start to the day for me, a ferociously indigestible breakfast for her. A long while back (on the Thought Experiments blog), I deplored the mystifying proliferation of Cornish pasty outlets, then the latest fast-food rash to spread across London. As nobody seemed to be buying the things (and no wonder - they're vile), I assumed this rash would soon fade away, like Victoria station's legendary, deservedly short-lived Danish Sausage Experience (a misrepresentation on three counts). But no - the Cornish pasty outlets are still everywhere, though apparently doing no better business. Maybe this 'recession' of which we hear so much will finish them off - or maybe it's exactly what the pastymeisters have been waiting for. The pasty - vile but undeniably filling - might just be the perfect food for hard times. But not breakfast.

Tuesday 8 July 2008

Climate Change - Get This

Here is a representative sentence from the latest clarion call on climate change - the G8 statement, issued today at Hokkaido:
'We seek to share with all parties to the UNFCCC the vision of, and together with them to consider and adopt in the UNFCCC negotiations, the goal of achieving at least 50% reduction of global emissions by 2050, recognising that this global challenge can only be met by a global response, in particular, by the contributions from all major economies, consistent with the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.'
Got that?

The Disappearing Cork

Zut alors! Clearly, for lovers of the wine cork - its grateful sound, its feel, its smooth action, above all its corky winey smell - it's all up, or soon will be. And it will be all up too for the unique fauna of the Iberian cork forest and for its eminently sustainable industry. Well, at least when everybody's switched to screw caps, we'll be shot of those plastic 'cork' abominations which are all but impossible to draw, smell of nothing and won't go back in the bottle. I shan't miss them - but I'll certainly miss the cork...

How Are You?

In my capacity as a wholly owned subsidiary of NigeCorp, I often get phone calls from keen young thrusters in the PR business - tho never, alas, from Selena Dreamy... They invariably begin with the apparently heartfelt, even concerned, inquiry, 'How are you?' How is one supposed to respond to that? For myself, I have to suppress two urges: one is to bark 'Yeah, like you care. Cut to the chase will you?' The other is to treat them to a minutely detailed runthrough of my state of health, mental and physical, listing any interesting symptoms that might have cropped up since last we spoke. However, in the end - like, I suspect, most people - I just grunt 'Fine' and this seems to suffice. Maybe it would be more polite to say 'I'm fine, thanks, how are you?' but this would be to spin things out unnecessarily, and to maintain the pretence that the initial 'How are you?' was actually a question. There are, once again, no easy answers.
If only we'd stuck to that meaningless, wonderfully English greeting 'How do you do?' Nobody ever pretended this was a question. The correct response was to repeat 'How do you do?' After this exchange, it was straight down to business. The perfect solution.

Bushes, Haggis and Rights

Herewith two blood-boilers from today's press - bushes and haggis as inalienable rights. At times like this, it's hard not to agree with Jeremy Bentham: 'The idea of rights is nonsense, and of natural rights is nonsense on stilts.'.

Monday 7 July 2008

Pro Leylandio

Hats off to these plucky little chaps, who, aided by 'climate change' (yeah of course), are leading the fight against the Leylandii menace. There is something uniquely depressing about a Leylandii hedge - the nearest thing in nature to darkness visible - but as a tree, in isolation or a small group well away from any house, it's perfectly fine. I have one at the bottom of my garden (in fact in next door's garden) and quite like it, not least because it provides good dense cover for the birds, and a fine high perch. As it's been dying back from the top for several years - whether from aphid attack or what, I don't know - the crown is now fully exposed to my bird-alert eye and eBay binoculars (a recent purchase - under £20 and all a man could ask of a pair of bins). If only those bloody magpies would stop chasing the other birds away...

Chagall in Kent

Google is marking the birthday of Marc Chagall - a great painter who, in my opinion, long outlived his greatness. However, there's the stained glass. If you've never visited this church, I'd urge you to do so, preferably on a sunny day. The windows, seen in situ, are quite stunningly beautiful (you can get an idea - but only an idea - of them from following the links on the page). A medieval village church in Kent is the last place you'd expect to find such windows - but they work perfectly.

Back to the Future 2

And it's not only Broon who's gone retro. There are plans to rebuild the Skylon. And why not? I hope it happens.

A Clear Plate Means A Clear Conscience

Once again it's all our fault, and once again Gordo's striking a retro note. This is, of course, rich, especially as one of the prime wasters of food in the UK is the state, in the form of the NHS. Something like a third of hospital 'meals' come back untouched and are thrown away - that's how good the state is at catering. Then, of course, there are the supermarkets, throwing away vast amounts - often within its (often meaningless) date - as well as foisting quantities of stuff on us with its 3 for 2 offers, etc. And then there's the fact that a huge proportion of the food produced worldwide never even reaches the market, owing to crumbling or nonexistent infrastructure and endemic corruption which makes the free movement of goods impossible. Never mind that stuff, though - it's all our fault.

Sunday 6 July 2008

Kenneth Koch

As Kenneth Koch died six years ago today, here are a couple of his poems. Enjoy (a word you can use in all sincerity of Koch's poems).


Never saw the point of waxworks myself - vaguely creepy, death-in-life affairs, either unsettlingly accurate or wholly unrecognisable. Still, the more effective of them certainly seem to inspire strong emotions - as exemplified by recent events in Berlin. Note that he was only the second visitor.

Warren Jeffs, Fashion Icon

Yes, that Warren Jeffs. Apparently the sight of his female 'followers' in their long skirts and prim blouses got the fahionistas wildly excited and has dictated the trend of the latest look .. It's all about long skirts and (you guessed) prim blouses, with the odd outbreak of old-fashioned lace - yes, ladies, you too can have that FLDS Sex Slave of Warren look. Exciting prospect, isn't it? I heard this latest manifestation of the glazed, self-absorbed amorality of the fashion world expounded on the radio some time in the early morning. Pretty sure it was on Radio 4's Sunday programme, but I can't bring myself to listen again, in case I was hallucinating. ...

Saturday 5 July 2008

Now, I'm Not Paranoid, But...

Amazon have just sent me this book recommendation:
Persecutory Delusions: Assessment, Theory and Treatment, by Daniel Freeman.
They're onto me...
Meanwhile, someone seems to have cloned my bank card (and found no better use for it than topping up a mobile phone and buying a couple of coach tickets), so I spent half the morning on the phone to the bank. Or maybe it was a persecutory delusion.

Friday 4 July 2008

The Legacy of Prezza - and The Dead

The legacy of Prezza lives on. An extraordinary report on the Today programme told how the Japanese are still steaming with resentment at having been shamed and bullied into signing up to the (nonsensical) Kyoto 'climate change' protocols on Euro-friendly terms - i.e. a 1990 baseline, around the time at which western Europe began cleaning up its 'dirty' industries. It was apparent at the time that the Japanese weren't happy when their spokesman muttered his agreement out of the side of his mouth, like a schoolboy forced to apologise. This triumph for international goodwill was spearheaded in the small hours by none other than John 'I'm the Clunking Fist round here' Prescott, who bore down on the cowering Japanese with his eyes, according to eyewitness reports , black with rage. Ah Prezza, how we miss you...
Meanwhile, this story gets more and more bizarre. Not only is the man unconscious for no known reason, but it has come to light that he was known to be all right at the weekend because he, er, logged on to a Grateful Dead fansite. He is, we are told, a huge fan. Well, am I alone in being mildly disturbed by the thought of 'Britain's top spy' wigging out to Live Dead?

Thursday 3 July 2008

For Elizabeth Taylor

No, not that one - this one, born on this day in 1912. She was one of those elegant, quietly gifted Enlish lady novelists we used to have quite a few of, and she's well worth reading even now. Happily, unlike many of her generation, she's still on the literary (and cinematic) radar, and several of her works have been republished by Virago.. I wish someone would reprint what we have of Julia Strachey - two novellas, both quite brilliant. Cheerful Weather For The Wedding, a dark but sprightly social comedy,, was reprinted by Persephone books a few years ago and can be found on Amazon (at a price), but An Integrated Man, an extraordinary study in thwarted love, seems to be all but unobtainable now. I have a battered old Penguin (both titles), which I recently reread, and was not disappointed. If you come across either or both of these, snap them up - you won't be sorry.

Gentlemen In England...

The good news on the NHS, though, is that, according to this poltroon, GPs are operating 'gentlemen's agreements'. I hope they are; there are far too few gentlemen's agreements - or indeed gentlemen - these days.

The Noblest Manifestation?

Confirming that the National Health Service has - in some eyes at least - the status of a national quasi-religion, a service of Thanksgiving for its 60 years of existence was held in Westminster Abbey. From the pulpit, Gordon Brown declared the the NHS is 'the noblest manifestation of the character of our country'. If that is the case, there is truly no hope. Emigration looks ever more attractive...
(And the noblest manifestation of the character of our country is to be found in the Works of William Shakespeare - isn't it?)

Wednesday 2 July 2008

Olympics News

All I can say about this story is surprise, surprise. That's what you get if you commission an 'iconic' building from this woman, whose sky-high reputation ('greatest living architect') rests largely on unbuilt and/or unbuildable designs - and winning an awful lot of prizes.

Whistling Past the Graveyard

A gloomy morning, and I'm still recovering from my wild night of owl and moth fun with Dick and Judy (see below) - so, while I gather my scattered thoughts, here's a chap to cheer us up, one who has truly mastered his art. Wittgenstein was a very fine whistler too, with entire Mozart symphonies in his repertoire. Nobody whistles much these days...

Tuesday 1 July 2008

Plucky Stuff

Here's a tale of old-fashioned (and gloriously pointless) British pluck. On this day in 1957, Peter Scott, the naturalist and (subsequently) gliding champion, was up in his glider when he spotted a promising cumulo-nimbus thundercloud and decided to have a crack at getting his Gold height badge. This is the kind of cloud that pilots avoid at all costs - but not the more intrepid members of the gliding fraternity. Scott plunged into the side of the cloud and, amid hail and ice, found himself being bounced about violently at 20ft per second as the altimeter raced to 11,000ft. An ascent of 700ft in about 30 seconds was promptly followed by a violent hurtle downwards, then up again for another 700ft, with full air brakes out and 80mph on the clock. Another almighty jerk, down again, then finally out of the cloud. Trying to shut the air brakes, Scott discovered that they were frozen open. On landing, he was pleased to note that he had indeed climbed to Gold height. .

Murray's Biceps

So, the surly young Scot Andy Murray managed to achieve a tortuous and agonising victory (hats off to the Belfast Telegraph for that headline) - and here we go again, another deeply unlikeable, charisma-bypassed 'great British hopeful' grinding his way to the quarter finals (at best) before being, er, blown away in his turn. Just when we'd got shot of the annual agony inflicted on us by Timbo Henman, along comes this ghastly overgrown teenager with his hideous, joyless triumphalist antics. When I saw him roll up his sleeve and show off his biceps at the end of last night's game, I instantly wished him a straights-set humiliation at the hands of the gentlemanly Nadal. It's probably what he'll get anyway.
This is my idea of a sportsman, though sadly he seems not to have bothered with tennis.

Knockoffs - Don't Blame eBay

eBay - a phenomenon that plays rather too large a part in my online life - - is in trouble,and it's hard not to be sympathetic. So 9 out of 10 'Louis Vuiton' items traded on eBay are knock-offs - well, 9 out of 10 such items traded anywhere are knockoffs (and hideous with it, just like the originals), as is a high proportion of almost anything you buy. Most buyers, I'm sure, know this and hardly care (unless it's medicine, or something that could go seriously wrong) - but the companies who own the names do care, and hope to take money off such soft targets as eBay by way of compensation or revenge. Well, they got themselves into this pickle in the first place, by outsourcing their manufacturing to China and such sweatshop nations, where their trade secrets were hardly going to stay secret for long. Now counterfeiting has reached such a pitch in China that the Chinese are outsourcing to even cheaper locations, e.g. Cambodia, where closed factories employ slave labour, with women and children chained to their machines. That is the real cost of counterfeiting - not a small dent in the profits of the likes of LVMH.

Only In Holland...

The Dutch smoking ban seems to be proving more absurd than most - and is being pretty fiercely criticised, if not openly resisted, in that traditionally smoke-wreathed land. Good for the Dutch. The French, I was saddened to observe, seem now to have knuckled under with positively Teutonic thoroughness.
The idea of 'smoking chambers', off-limits to staff (the 'risk' to whose health was the ostensible reason for the ban), seems an excellent one - as was the idea of effectivley air-conditioned smoking areas. But oh no, it had to be a ban. And since then the process of 'denormalising' smoking has continued apace. As I've always said, drinking will be next...