Sunday 31 August 2008

Blog Dreaming

Something strange happened in my dreams last night, and I pass it on in case any other bloggers have had a similar sleep experience. Don't worry, this won't take long - my memory for dreams is very poor...
It began as one of my familiar dream sagas of endless frustration, events (if that's not too dynamic a word) looping round without getting anywhere, obstacles springing up at every juncture, complications ramifying - yes I really don't enjoy my dreams... The setting for this one seemed to be some large, old-fashioned seaside town, full of large grey old-fashioned hotels and broad roads with many a slope and curve. Heaven knows (memory certainly doesn't) what was going on in terms of narrative, but the thing is - the strange thing is - the structure was largely verbal (often the case in my dreams - I write too much), and it began to take the form of a discussion on my blog, among my blog regulars, some of whom seemed to be shadowily present and active in the dream (though in waking life I have never seen them). It was at once a dream and a blog discussion. Don't ask me how - or how such a thing could accord with any kind of narrative structure - but somehow it was and it did. And that was how it kept going till I woke up and memory promptly began its work of self-erasure. All very odd. Perhaps I should get out more.

How I Spent the Summer

Pounding rain. Grey skies. Thunder prowling in the distance. The one-day English summer is at an end - but it was good, very good. Speeding early from the house, I headed straight for my regular haunt of Ashtead Common, where I saw nothing of great note (bar a possible sighting of a Brown Hairstreak), but was accompanied every step of the way by an ever-changing multitude of these common but very beautiful creatures of the sun-dappled woodland rides. The picture does them no justice - a fresh specimen (as most of these were, so clearly they at least are having a good summer) is a gloriously rich velvety dark brown, freckled with cream and dotted with bright eyespots. If we saw them only once in a while, they would be real heartstoppers. As it is, they are the perfect accompaniment to a woodland walk - and they even seem to enjoy the company, flying up close as if in greeting before returning to the trees and the brambles.
The common being a mix of wood and open ground - much of the latter studded with dead pollard oaks, stark, silvery and Gothick - I followed the Keatsian prescription and sank into a pleasant lair of wavy grass for a while (though I hadn't packed a debonair and gentle tale of love and languishment). It was, in a word, bliss... And I had the whole of the common almost to myself - I can't have seen more than a dozen or so souls all morning, and three of them were runners, so they don't count. Do people not realise what they have on their own doorstep (this is the edge of suburbia, houses all around, road and rail) - or is The Country now something you have to pile into a car and drive miles to see, and Walking something you have to buy lots of equipment for, then pile into a car and drive miles to do?
Later in the day - still gloriously sunny - Carshalton's Wilderness Island (which, when I was boy, truly lived up to its name) proved equally deserted - but for a man with a butterfly net! There's something you don't see every day. I engaged him (briefly) in conversation of an aurelian bent, and when the subject got on to Hairstreaks, he pointed out a nearby oak that was home to the Purple Hairstreak - and informed me that he'd also found eggs of the White-Letter Hairstreak. Eggs, mark you. I realised at this point that, as a mere dabbler and bluffer, I was out of my depth. The conversation petered out in meteorological laments and we went our separate ways. It's good to know that some people are taking notice of what's there. Serious notice.

Saturday 30 August 2008

Change in the Weath

Sunshine! Blue skies! I'm outahere!

Friday 29 August 2008

Things You Do In Denver...

Swathed in imperial purple, his brow circled with laurels, Barackus Obama stepped forth from the marble propylaeum, raising one mighty arm to greet the acclamation of the multitude. As ullulating virgins strewed rose petals in his path, he strode forward and took his seat under the imperial baldachin, his feet resting on a crouching Clintonista, while eunuchs with mighty ostrich feather fans cooled his brow. There Barackus watched as an effigy of McCainus, bound in chains, was dragged past the imperial presence. As rare scents perfumed the air, a thousand doves were released to fly above the stadium....
Okay, in the event it didn't play quite like that. Obama is far too smart to succumb to a Neil Kinnock 'We're awright!' moment. He struck the right downbeat, dignified, humble, reaching-out tone. His message? In a couplet, 'I'm not John McCain, And I feel your pain.' (which reminds me of the brilliant Onion headline on Clinton's inauguration: 'New President Feels Nation's Pain, Breasts' - none of that with Obama, though). The political deadlock resumes. Imho, he'll be lucky to win from here.

Thursday 28 August 2008

What Am I Bid?

At this level of the market - or rather metamarket - and with paintings this great - the figures get blurry and meaningless. Suppose the Mona Lisa was on loan and had to be sold - any guesses? Still, with the Titians, they're probably right that the offer price is a good deal, and at least these paintings are worth securing for the nation, unlike the 'Raphael' Madonna of the Pinks.

A Cynical Calculus

'If a problem is about everything, it's about nothing'. That, believe it or not, is Tory health honcho Andrew Lansley, in the course of addressing the latest outbreak of health inequality outrage. Lansley has recently steered quite close to saying the unsayable - that people consciously choose to be unhealthy and die young, by smoking, drinking, eating badly and taking dangerous drugs. They do these things because they want to. Whenever the media pluck up the courage to do a vox pop on the streets of these enclaves of fabulous ill health, that is pretty much what the locals tell them - but of course it does not compute with the mindset that values good health and long life above all things, so it gets ignored.
In fact, we should be grateful that there are so many people out there who don't share that healthist view. By a cynical calculus (of a kind no government would care to own up to), those who drink and smoke a lot and die young not only contribute disproportionately to the exchequer, but also save other taxpayers a fortune in unpaid old age pensions. When smoking was near universal, this suited all governments just fine, as lung diseases could be relied on (generally speaking) to kick in fairly soon after retirement, ending a productive, tax-paying life before much pension had been paid. And now they want us to give up smoking, and drink and eat sensibly - ha! The more healthy the population gets, the more costly it's going to be for us all. So, carry on with your fun-loving, life-shortening ways, you hedonistic masses!

Wednesday 27 August 2008

The Power of Television

The new series of that wondrous TV drama Mad Men began in the US the other week. In an early scene, Don Draper notices a man in a bar is reading Frank O'Hara's Meditations In An Emergency. Result: the book instantly soars to 2,761 on Amazon (for poetry, that's soaring) before selling out completely. Time for a reprint surely. After all, it contains the great poem To The Harbourmaster. If that became popular at funerals, it would raise the standard of funerary readings considerably.

Tuesday 26 August 2008

Quote Quiz

Which writer (born on this day, as it happens) wrote this?
'The best prayers have often more groans than words.'
He also wrote this:
'The robe of flesh wears thin, and with the years God shines through all things.'
You might well be surprised by the answer...
I don't need to tell you honest commenters that the use of Google is, of course, forbidden.

Fuels Rush In

I don't drive a car, never have done and have never particularly wanted to (I exclude, of course, the odd spin in the Stanley Steamer with Fry). So, as far as I'm concerned, the price of petrol is a matter of complete indifference. However, in the light of today's report of a drive to Greece fuelled entirely by used cooking oil cadged from restaurants, and this one about a car that does 2,000 miles on a tankful (at pretty impressive speeds) - not to mention the endless possibilities of the steam car - it would seem reasonable to conclude that the boffins could quite easily deliver us from heavy dependence on petrol pretty soon. Or maybe I'm missing something - an altogether more sinister narrative to do with Big Oil, the Saudis etc. The oil guys are always a right bunch of bastards in TV dramas (not the Saudis, of course - that would never do)...

Reading and Forgetting

The resurrection of Marcus Aurelius - see Bryan's elegant post here - put me in mind of making a connection with Walter Pater's Marius the Epicurean, a philosophical novel set in the golden reign of Marcus Aurelius. Then it struck me that, although I have definitely read it, I remember nothing of it except a kind of vague Aurelian afterglow. In fact, an afterglow is about all that is left to me of many - maybe most - of the books I have read, and, as age advances, less and less of what I read is retained in any solider form. The one thing I liked about Nicholson Baker's U And I was his frank admission that, of the Updike he had read, he remembered very little indeed - and wasn't going to look again to refresh his memory (well, that's how I remember it anyway, and I'm certainly not going to check Baker again).
Does it matter how much we remember of books? Does it matter even if no memory at all is available to our conscious mind? I know I must have read large numbers of books that I don't even remember reading - occasionally I find myself reading one, and realise I'm actually rereading... What I like to think is that the better ones (of the books I do at least remember reading) have left some beneficial trace at a level somewhere just below the conscious, retrievable memory - an afterglow, an aura, a faint fragrance... Or maybe I'm deluding myself?

Monday 25 August 2008

Butterflies Fall Prey to Global Chilling

And so, despite the odd mocking glimpse of sun, another cool, grey, wet, windy 'summer' grinds on. This is bad news not only for our mental and physical wellbeing, but for the very survival of many of the butterflies that struggle to live in these grey isles. As one cold dismal summer follows another, I have to ask the obvious question: Weren't we supposed to be warming up? Weren't hordes of exotic insects supposed to be wafting in on the balmy southern breezes? If that were happening, you can be sure the warmists would leap on it as proof positive that their case was beyond argument, it was one minute to midnight, etc. As it is, they seem to have very little to say about the weather in Britain, or indeed in much of the northern hemisphere (unless they can get a picture of hunks of ice falling off an ice sheet). Ah well - to quote Bryan's favourite Marriott Edgar, I think it'll brighten up yet.

Sunday 24 August 2008

Oh Boris...

So there we are, it's happened - Boris Johnson, in a wildly improbable scene, took delivery of the Olympic banner from dead-eyed, fork-tongued Jacques Rogge, and managed to wave it about with a degree of conviction. Then the bewildered Chinese multitudes were treated to a foretaste of what London is like. It's a city of tall red buses with blacked-out windows, where the streets are lined with modern 'dance' groups, making aimless movements while brandishing umbrellas and newpapers. Who's on the bus? Why it's a pretty, brown-skinned child, who, guided by a woman in a white coat holding a giant lollipop, walks over the backs of some crouching dancers and back onto the bus.
Remarkable things, these London buses, with their roofs that open out to display topiary representations of London landmarks - and then, what do you know, out pops a pretty, brown-skinned singer, who rises to a great height, warbling away incomprehensibly, until she's joined by an elderly gent with an electric guitar. We then learn that she wants to give us her love, of which she has a whole lot, and would rather like a whole lot more in return. Clearly London is going to be no rest cure... Wait a minute - there's someone we know. Is it David Beckham? Must be - he's kicked a ball into the crowd. And... Well, er, that's it really, apart from a whole lot of mystifying background sounds and music.
So that's London then. Rather like Britain itself, we've no very good idea what it means - or even what it is - still less how to explain it to anyone. We can't do this kind of thing - look at the Millennium Dome fiasco. And this kind of thing, as will become apparent over the next few years, includes the Olympics. Boris - why didn't you just hand that banner back and scarper?

Saturday 23 August 2008

Sacred, Humble...

Jacques Rogge, sinister and increasingly deranged head of the IOC, last night declared that 'the experience of the Olympic Village is sacred' and that the lesson of the Beijing Olympics is 'to be humble'. Oh I see.
His ravings were, as Reason To Be Cheerful Mihir Bose pointed out, by way of reminding us that we don't own the Olympics; the IOC does. We just pay for it.

Friday 22 August 2008

Books, Dust and Ashes

If you haven't come across Patrick Kurp's brilliant blog, Anecdotal Evidence, add it to your bookmarks now. No other blog, I think, connects literature and life quite so elegantly and luminously, and in such unexpected ways - and he's even into butterflies!
'A Dicey Business' is a fine example of how he works - and it contains much truth. When it comes to literature, living in the now is living on thin gruel. It has always, inescapably, been the case that the vast majority of what is published is of no lasting worth. Even before the coming of mass production to the world of books, this was true, as was brought home to me when, years ago in another life, I catalogued a library of 18th-century books. The big names were there, but most of the names were long forgotten - though they had been published in handsome complete editions - and a wide range of the books were altogether incomprehensible, impenetrable and unreadable. They simply no longer made any kind of sense. That will be the fate of most of what is published, in any age. Dust and ashes.
If only all those burgeoning book groups and reading circles would turn their attention from the latest book-group-friendly novel and look back, back, back...

Thursday 21 August 2008

Classic Boris

Boris Johnson - the capital Boris, as Malty describes him below (under Semicolons and Snails) - put on a splendid and very funny performance in last night's Who Do You Think You Are? The mighty Boris (King's Scholar, Brackenbury Scholar) is living proof that it's best to put good classicists in charge of everything . It was classicists - educated in a supposedly defunct tradition - who ran the empire, being well versed in such matters from their readings in Latin history and literature. Without classicists we'd be nowhere - in fact we probably are: I doubt there's a single decent classicist in Broon's mob.

Semicolons and Snails

Over on Thought Experiments, Bryan seems to have got a spot of false memory syndrome. The semicolon as the most complete cessation is a novel idea, the kind of thing that might seem a major insight to a mind in the grip of a psychotropic substance or two (so yes I might have said it) - but I'm pretty sure I've always had a reasonable grasp of the semicolon and its uses, such as they are. It's a handy thing in correct English, but otherwise I really prefer the Laurence Sterne system: dashes of various lengths, full stops and plenty of exclamation marks. That covers most eventualities in informal discourse - and could well be what we end up with anyway. And why not?
I now retire from the punctation minefield, pausing only to salute the heroic achievement of the Cliveden snail. Hang in there, Papillifera papillaris!

Wednesday 20 August 2008

I Believe It's Called an Oxymoron...

While the nation stumbles around, glazed and stunned and wholly incapable of getting to grips with the fact that suddenly we're winning lots of medals at the Olympics, the guys who run the various sports keep coming up with ever more bizarre explanations. Today, it was the cycling boss, and he put his team's success down to their new philosophy of being 'compassionately ruthless'. Well, that's nonsensically sensible, I must say.
By the way, I had my first Azor shave this morning. It was good, eerily good, a compassionately ruthless shave...

A Tattered Coat Upon a Stick

Here's a prime example of the kind of thing charities get up to these days - an utterly pointless protest about a road sign. What, I wonder, would the generic sign they're suggesting look like? Any ideas? Darned if I can think of one...
If these charities are really interested in the dignity of old people, they should be campaiging vigorously to get hospitals and other arms of the state to stop calling them by their Christian names, thereby infantilising them and robbing them of their identity along with their dignity. But charities today, driven by marketing and publicity 'experts' and consultants hired at great expense, are more interested in 'raising awareness' - by getting stories like this into the news, and by launching offensive and alientating advertising campaigns. All part of the onward rush of 'professionalism'.
I wish this weather would improve...

Tuesday 19 August 2008

Mirror, Mirror...

Time for a story from the world of birds - and it's another feather in the cap (hem hem) for our under-appreciated friends, the corvids. I bet rooks and crows could to this too - and parrots, though they might refuse on the grounds that it was an insult to their intelligence.

The Kidults Have Spoken

From feminisation to infantilisation, with this depressing poll finding. Depressing - especially to find that force of evil, Roald Dahl, in second place - but all too predictable. Many, perhaps most, adults now read little or nothing of any significance after childhood, so their early reading will naturally loom large (and Blyton, whatever her shortcomings, was a horribly effective storyteller). Howeever, the sight of hordes of adults voraciously reading the latest Harry Potter suggests a deeper current of infantilisation. Too many people have simply forgotten - or, more likey, never learned - to read like adults. We have become, overall, less capable readers, as a glance at the kind of books that were published for a self-improving mass readership early in the 20th century confirms. Many or most titles on such lists as the early Everyman's Library would be quite impenetrable to the general reader of today - and even a hugely popular (in his day) novelist such as George Meredith would be regarded as all but unreadable (not that he'd make it into print in today's publishing climate).
Oh well - one good thing. Philip Pullman didn't make it into the top 50.

Men In Tights

I hate to spring this on you without so much as a by your leave, but I heard it on the BBC World Service, so it must be true: 50 percent of German men wear tights. Yes that's one in two, every other German man. Pose the question 'Are you wearing tights?' on a German factory floor or in a German office, and not only will all the female hands go up (apart perhaps from a saucy minority), but every other male hand will also rise. What on earth are these men thinking of? And it's not just the Germans - sales of male tights are soaring in the UK too, and a quick Google of 'men's tights' is an eye-opening experience...
Gentlemen of a certain age still recall those dark days when, with shocking suddenness, stockings and suspenders gave way to the all-encasing synthetic horror of 'pantyhose' (ghastly word). But now, it seems, men are following the same route. Of course they attempt to link this aberrant behaviour to such manly outdoor pursuits as motorcycling - yeah sure, and of course you have to shave your legs so they go on smoothly...
No, I fear it's all part of the feminisation of the western male, as reflected in the surging market for male skincare products. This is not in itself a bad thing, but come on, we've got to draw the line somewhere. I draw it at tights.
Cravats? Yes! (I was out in mine again last night, looking one hell of a fellow). Tights? Nein danke!

Sunday 17 August 2008

The Cravat Has Landed

For some while (as readers of Thought Experiments might wearily recall) I have been urging a revival of the cravat, even periodically deluding myself into detecting the first tentative green shoots of such a revival. Well, I have had enough of waiting. Last night I took matters into my own hands and stepped out for the evening wearing... a cravat. The occasion was, admittedly, one with an element of fancy dress: the nextdoor neighbours were staging a Murder Mystery evening, and I had been alotted the role of an Eglish aristo delighting in the name Sir Cophagus. It was a woefully underwritten part, but I manage to inhabit it by channeling Boris Johnson - and, of course, by dressing appropriately, down to the cravat. Gentlemen, it felt good. It felt like coming home. The cravat revival is now officially under way. I have seen the future, and it works - even if it is a little fiddly to tie (let this rather creepy gent show you how).

Friday 15 August 2008

Hail, Azor!

But the big question of the day is How long can I hold out against this baby - the King of Shaves Azor? So far I've managed to stay loyal to my Gilette Fusion, with its mighty array of blades (as Bryan has observed, more like mowing than shaving) - but this, the Azor, this, dammit, is not a razor, it's a hybrid synergy system! It has Eureka tuning fork design, it has a living hinge, it has a polypropylene and elastomer twin shot handle, its blades are Endurium coated (yes, Endurium), it's so minimal it doesn't even begin with R. This has to be the best a man can get...

150 Today: E. Nesbit

It's a big anniversary today - the 150th of the birth of the great E. Nesbit. Hers was a rackety life, to say the least of it. That husband of hers was not only financially feckless but a compulsive womaniser, which led to all manner of complications, and the death of their son Fabian was hideous beyond belief - a botched appendectomy on the kitchen table (home operations were not unusual in those days). With ferocious determination, Nesbit got on with her writing in the midst of domestic chaos, shutting herself away with a limitless supply of cigarattes and gin-and-water - and it was her writing that kept the whole shambolic menagerie afloat.
Much of what she wrote is now forgotten - but those children's books will surely live for ever. They were an astonishing achievement, wresting children's literature from the grip of fantasy and whimsy, and presenting an authentic, clear-sighted child's-eye view (best expressed in the persona of the incomparable Oswald Bastable, fictional avatar of the dead son Fabian). The children's books are vivid, humorous, spare, tough, wholly unsentimental, firmly rooted in Edwardian domestic reality, whatever fantastical things might occur (when she does take off into pure fantasy, often with a utopian socialist tinge, the writing is less alive). As well as being a socialist, she was also - amazingly - a devout Baconian, convinced that the Baron Verulam wrote the works of 'Shakespeare'. Nesbit wasted much ink and much intellectual energy on this - but of course we can forgive her. We can forgive her anything for those Bastable books.
After all the mess and upheaval and heartbreak of her earlier life, she settled into quiet domestic contentment in the gloriously unlikely company of 'the Captain' and was still with him when she died. The first I knew of this phase of her life was when I came across her grave marker in that New Romney churchyard years ago (and no that's not me in the picture). At least her life ended in peace.
She also left behind a wonderful memoir of her own childhood, Long Ago When I Was Young, which is well worth seeking out (especially in the edition illustrated by Edward Ardizzone).

Thursday 14 August 2008

And Elizabeth Bishop

I've finally got round to reading Elizabeth Bishop, having been increasingly impressed by the odd poems of hers that have come my way. Last night I read this, which seems to me a wonderful thing. There's an illuminating essay about it here.

Reasons To Be Cheerful 2: It's Not 1816

The weather may be pretty grim this August - but at least it's not 1816.

Reasons To Be Cheerful: Mihir Bose

One good thing about this Olympics lark is that we get to see and hear more of this man - the grand panjandrum of BBC Sport, Mihir Bose. Did ever the BBC have a more unlikely sports correspondent than this portly, not young, staggeringly posh, shockingly intelligent, literate, well-dined and clubbable chap? Usually the sports types are lean, keen, permanently grinning more-or-less youngsters, with no character and no perceptible electrical activity between the ears. I doubt if Bose would have got the job if this thorough-going old-school English gent wasn't, improbable as it seems, 'Asian'. But the BBC is capable of sudden brainstorms whereby it appoints someone from outside its usual stock of clones and robots - someone, in other words, good, with something interesting to say. It happened when they made Jeff Randall - as un-BBC a figure as can be imagined - their big Business guy. The trouble is, such appointments - like Randall's - never last long. Let's enjoy Bose while we've got him.

Wednesday 13 August 2008

Plain Speaking from the Antipodes

Good to see that the Aussies seem to have got the measure of today's sporting poms. Australian journalist Ben English helpfully suggests a few events we'd be bound to excel in: 'Whingeing, dentist-dodging and glassing people in pubs', while, commenting on 'Team GB's' (ugh) unexpected successes in the swimming pool, Australia's Olympic chief John Coates remarks that 'they seem to be getting there - for a country that has very few pools and not much soap'. They're awfully good at this kind of thing, those chippy, gap-brained, knuckle-walking convicts.

Evenin' All

Last night I found myself watching a couple of episodes from the ancient police drama Dixon of Dock Green that were showing on BBC4. Expecting to find them merely quaint and, by modern standards of slickness, shambolic, I was amazed and impressed by how technically accomplished they were - especially as the cast and crew were working in conditions their modern equivalents wouldn't even contemplate, and on budgets that wouldn't stretch to a 90-second insert these days. Many of the scenes were filmed live, and there were certainly no retakes, so lines are often stumbled over (giving an oddly raw, modern feel to the dialogue). The acting was at least as good as it would be in today's British cop shows, and there seemed to be a geniune 'chemistry' among the ensemble cast. A deft script drove the story along smoothly, and the whole thing was hugely watchable.
Above all, though, it was a piquant illustration of how the country has changed - yes yes, for the worse - in the 50-odd years since then. Dixon of Dock Green represents a world where decency, restraint, good manners and good humour seem so firmly engrained you'd think nothing could ever shift them. What happened? Everyone - apart from a lovable rogue off the streets - spoke in Received Pronunciation (the women more markedly than the men), and even the lovable rogue was capable of quoting that now forgotten book, the Bible. Everyone (with the same exception) was decently dressed, and all the men were smoking heroically and drinking steadily, but without getting drunk. If there was any inner torment going on, they kept it to themselves. To appreciate just how wide is the gulf between then and now - how extensive has been the work of change and decay - check out The Bill, or the BBC's equivalent police soap, Holby Blue. No don't, it would be too painful.
Meanwhile, here's a suggestion for the next series of Life On Mars (one of the very few good BBC dramas of recent years) - instead of taking the action forward into the 70s (that was a failure), take it back to the 50s and plunge Sam Tyler into the world of Dixon of Dock Green. That would sort him out.

Tuesday 12 August 2008


The cartoonist B. Kliban died on this day in 1990. His work was hit and miss, but when it hit there was, as this site attests, a touch of genius (and if you think it all looks familiar, remember he was doing it years before Larson). One of my Kliban favourites - I don't know if it's in this lot - shows a long-bearded cartoon old man standing outside a clapboard house, looking vaguely stricken and saying something. Caption: 'It Was Hell, recalls former child.'

Yes, A Moth and a Butterfly of the Same Name...

As the honorary Moth Man of this sublime blog, I must report that, lying in the bath last night, my eyes were drawn from the Nige torso (steady, ladies) by one of these beauties, which had settled on the panelling beside the bath and seemed to have lapsed into a contented trance. It was gone this morning though.

On August

August eh? What is it with August that so many people feel obliged to take holidays in this month of all months? Of course some (as I remember with a shudder) are obliged to - notably parents of school-age children. But the rest - what are they playing at?
In August, if you holiday in this country, you can be sure of overcrowding everywhere, rip-off prices, no peace and quiet - and, like as not, appalling weather. If it's not tipping down - the usual thing for an English August - it gets oppressively, hideously hot, then turns thundery and starts tipping it down again. Meanwhile, the nights are drawing in - not by much, I grant you, but the balmy days of sitting out late into the evening are pretty much gone by August. Then, if you go abroad, you can be sure of all of the first three horrors, plust intolerable heat and, most likely, deafening cicadas.
In my book, virtually any month is preferable to August - for a summer holiday, June and July are far better bets in all respects. August is for working through, in the hope of taking a later break in Indian Summer weather: perfect. Yet the cult of the August holiday trundles on. I guess its one benign effect is that politicians are also in thrall to it, so at least things go quiet on the domestic political front and we're not assailed with daily 'initiatives' and other bright ideas (though I was vaguely aware of some idiot floating the idea of a Bill of Rights the other day).
Meanwhile, the Russians, clearly sharing my disdain for August holidays, decide it's time for a spot of war and invading, while the holidaying world looks on aghast and powerless...

Monday 11 August 2008

The Year of the Goldfinch

The goldfinches are so numerous down my way this year that they are easily outnumbering the sparrows. Where the clamorous chattering of house sparrows used to be the characteristic sound of the streets and gardens, now it is the unmistakable liquid twittering of the goldfinches - a soft, non-stop babbling conversation, sweet-toned but unmusical. The goldfinches are everywhere, flying busily from tree to tree, never silent - the perfect counterpoint to the lumbering black crows that seem to be the next most numerous birds around here (not that I'll hear a word against them since reading Mark Cocker's Crow Country). This is good going for the goldfinch, a bird that was on the brink of extinction in Britain at the turn of the 20th century.
The goldfinch, as well as being the subject of one of the most beautiful collective nouns in English - a charm of goldfinches (sadly, its etymology refers only to their sound) - also has the distinction of being the subject of perhaps the greatest bird portrait of all: Fabritius's Goldfinch. That's painting.

The Lush Enigma

I posted some while back, on t'other blog, on the mysterious spread of 'Cornish pasty' outlets across the land - doubly mysterious as nobody ever seemed to buy the product (apart from the odd sociopath with the aim of stinking out a railway/Tube carriage). Another retail presence I'm finding equally baffling is that of an apparently wildly successful chain called Lush, which sells huge, misshapen hunks of garishly coloured, foul-smelling soaps, whose emanations scent the high street air in a most unpleasant fashion (yes, worse than Body Shop). I have seen people going in and out of these shops without apparent respiratory distress, and even buying stuff - heaven knows what for. I suspect Lush products exist largely to serve the purpose of unwanted gifts (an essential category in British life) - to sit around in other people's bathrooms, unfeasibly shaped and constituted, useless and unusable, gathering dust, fouling the air, awaiting the day when, with a faint disgusted sigh, they are thrown out.

Sunday 10 August 2008

Confessions Of a Juvenile Knife Fiend

We have it on no less an authority than The People newspaper that, 40 years ago, the streets of violent Britain were thronged with knife-wielding thugs. Well, I must say that's not quite how I remember it. I carried a knife myself whenever I had the opportunity - I'd been rather fond of the things from early boyhood, but certainly not for purposes of fighting or even self-defence. The fun was in throwing them at trees etc, and doing odd bits of informal whittling, useful cutting jobs, that kind of thing - though teachers, annoyingly, would always confiscate them if they got the chance. In those days, I believe, a sheath knife was part of a Boy Scout's uniform; nowadays, if the government had its way, it would probably land a young person in clink.
Knife ownership most certainly doesn't equate with knife crime, even now. In France, to judge by the prevalence of knife shops, ownership must be near universal, but their knife crime rates are no higher than ours. The present wave of knife crime in Britain (along with gun crime) is a real problem - rather than the 'moral panic' some like to label it - - and it's a problem in a way it never was in the 60s. It's a symptom of a form of social collapse which, happily, was barely under way four decades ago, but which now seems unstoppable.

Hammershoi - A Dilemma

The first time I saw a painting by Hammershoi was at a Hayward Gallery exhibition of works bought for the nation by the National Art Collection Fund. Once I had recovered from the stirring sight of four of the most beautiful bottoms in art all together in one room - Canova's Three Graces and the Rokeby Venus - I found myself drawn repeatedly to a small painting with an extraordinary stillness about it, filled with a cool light beautifully rendered in a palette mostly of whites and greys. I had seen nothing quite like it. This, it turned out, was just about the only Hammershoi on public display (occasionally) in Britain. (It's this one.)
I mentioned it to my dear friend J. Cheever Loophole, who, despite the name, is half Danish, has long been a fan of this great Dane, and was able to fill me in. A couple of years later, Michael Palin also declared himself a fan and made a documentary that no doubt did much to popularise Hammersoi. And now we have this - and I am seriously debating whether or not to go. Hammershoi , it seems to me, is the last artist to enjoy in the context of a Royal Academy blockbuster, with the paintings hung en masse and the crowds jostling and elbowing their way from picture to picture - so much for the Poetry Of Silence... A small, quiet gallery, sparsely hung with a few well chosen paintings - that surely would be the way to savour Hammershoi.
Maybe I'm wrong and I should go - heaven knows I'd love to see more of his work. So, has anyone out there 'done' this exhibition? If so, what was it like?

Friday 8 August 2008

Birthday Boy

As it's Philip Larkin's birthday - 86 had he lived (which was obviously out of the question) - here's a little posy of verses, bitter and bittersweet, by way of a reminder of how ridiculously good he could be.

The Day War Broke Out...

And now it seems a war has broken out. Or is this just a Russian spoiler to divert the world's attention from the hypertrophied spectacle going on in Beijing? I wonder what Captain B makes of it...
(The above title, by the way, is a homage to the great Robb Wilton.)

'Calamitously Stupid'

That's the forthright verdict of the BBC's Robert Peston on the behaviour that got our banks into the pretty pickle they're now in. Dazzled by the prospect of ever-rising profits and bonuses, they pursued a policy - or rather a behaviour pattern, as there wasn't enough thought involved to make it a policy - of 'calamitously stupid lending' until it blew up in their faces. This wouldn't matter if they were just businesses doing something stupid, getting burned, paying the price and learning the lessons. They don't have to pay the price - we do, this time in the form of a brutal credit squeeze - and they don't learn the lessons, as will be proved a few years down the road when they next stampede into 'calamitously stupid' herd behaviour. No government can afford to let a bank go under, nor even force it to pay the full price of its stupidity and greed. And the worst of it is, of course, that it's our money they're mucking about with. What on earth are banks for, if this is what they do with our dosh? I suppose their safes might be relied on for storing the gold which seems to be the only thing worth having these days - but I'm not sure they could even be trusted with that...

Clear Your Diaries for the Big Bang

Here's one for the diary. On 10th September, Radio 4 is having a Big Bang Day, to mark the great experiment that will be made that day at CERN . Don't ask me what it is, but they claim it will re-create the immediate aftermath of the Big Bang and, they hope, answer all sorts of fundamental questions about the origins of the universe, etc. Anyway, Radio 4 - who, I imagine, have no more idea of what's going on than I do - is going big on it, sending bat-eared lord of the airwaves Andrew Marr (who, I imagine.... see above) to cover the 'event', whatever it is, live. There will also be a special edition of the scifi romp Torchwood (I'm not making this up) and many contributions from celebrities and comedians who claim to be great fans of particle physics. Can't wait, especially as there is, I believe, an outside chance this experiment will pull space-time inside out like a dirty sock, after which (not that there can be an after) not only will it not be, it will never have been. Radio 4 will look pretty silly then, won't it?

Thursday 7 August 2008

Some Pointers for 2012

Here's how to have a proper Olympic Games. I hope the tug o war and bicycle polo will be revived for 2012 - they sure beat BMX biking. We should also bring back unlimited brandy and champagne in place of all those clever drugs - and make sure all the officials are English gentlemen making it up as they go along.
Perhaps 1908 wasn't perfect. It was a little careless to hold a fly fishing contest in the Olympic pool during the games - were there trout milling about beneath the swimmers, I wonder (no chlorine obviously - and the water wasn't changed). Even an organisational genius like Lord Desborough couldn't think of everything - but dammit this was a man who swam the Niagara rapids twice. Has 'Seb' Coe done that?

Pacharan - Sí!

As this blog's occasional roving alcohol correspondent at large, let me recommend this stuff to you, if you haven't come across it. I hadn't until my daughter returned from Spain with a bottle. I can report that as a summer digestif on ice, it's unbeatable. A fascinating flavour, and all too drinkable.

Blair Punches Air

Listening to the radio this morning, a wholly unexpected thought crossed my mind - one I never imagined I'd find myself thinking any time before the crack of doom. 'Maybe,' the thought was, 'that Gordon Broon chap isn't so bad after all.' What occasioned this alarming aberration was an item looking back to the dark day when London 'won' the 2012 Olympics. A voice, at once familiar and strange, came eerily out of the ether. It was Tony Blair, demotic glottal stops honed and ready for action. 'Y'know,' he said, 'it's no' of'en in this job you ge' to punch the air an' do a li''le dance.' Indeed, indeed... How soon we forget the horror of Blair in simpering populist mode. Oor Gordon would not have punched the air - a colleague, possibly, or a stapler (he was recently reported to have driven a staple into his finger in the course of a tanty) - and oor Gordon would have nae truck wi' dancing. There are ways in which there are worse things than Gordon Brown, and this morning's chilling blast from the past amply demonstrated one of them.

Wednesday 6 August 2008

Fatal Fluency

Andy Warhol would have been 80 today (and Robert Mitchum 91), but Alfred Lord Tennyson would be 199 - which means that next year will be his bicentenary.
I wonder how much fuss there will be. Tennyson certainly survives in the language, which remains peppered with inadvertent quotations ('Nature red in tooth and claw', 'Theirs not to reason why,' etc) and in the anthologies. Single poems such as Tithonus and Ulysses, Mariana and The Lotos-Eaters, and some of the shorter lyrics, have deservedly lasted and no doubt will last. With his extraordinary mastery of meter, he could certainly turn a beautiful line. Of the longer works, In Memoriam is surely classic and a truly great work, but its appeal is partly in its rawness - the Tennysonian high style is as yet unformed (the later Maud has a certain appealing rawness too). But who today would read Idylls Of The King from choice? Let alone the turgid dramas and experiments in dialect that bulk out his massive Collected Works... The broken music of Browning is more to our modern taste than the mighty organ note of Tennyson in full flow (and doesn't he just flow - talk about fatal fluency). Tennyson no longer seems, as he once did, our preeminent national poet, our English Virgil. I fear he might end up, like so many others of his time, largely the preserve of Academe. On the other hand, I still remember the thrill of first reading In Memoriam...

On Having Nothing To Say

Tuesday 5 August 2008

Posthumous Confusions

Bill Peschel's wonderfully macabre piece on the 'resurrection' of John Milton puts me in mind of the fate suffered by Laurence Sterne's ill-fated remains. Sterne was eventually reburied in 1969 in the churchyard of St Michael's, Coxwold, where the old reprobate had been parson - but even this was (inevitably) no straightforward affair. When his tomb at St George's was reopened, it was found to contain no fewer that five skulls. Reasonably enough, the one with the top sawn off was taken to be Sterne's and removed to Coxwold, along with miscellaneous bones which may or may not have been his. Even the marking of his grave in Coxwold is unstraightforward; there are two gravestones, one full of errors, the other corrected. A lovely village, Coxwold, by the way, and Sterne's parsonage home is open to visitors. I think I wrote a piece about it years ago, but I may be wrong.

Olympics - Good News

The good news buried in this is that 'young people' have little interest in the Olympics. A rare display of taste and discernment from the 'young people' there, and one which offers a glimmer of hope that, in years to come, the whole sorry spectacle might at least be scaled down, if not (as some of use would prefer) towed out to sea and nuked (okay, I grant you, not a very realistic scenario). The Olympic machine is one of those mighty juggernauts that rolls on, powered by hot air and vested interests, long after it has lost any purpose, relevance or popular support - - the European Union and the United Nations are other conspicuous examples. Perhaps, being so adept at self-preservation and relentless furthering of their interests, they will just roll on for ever, but maybe the wave of indifference among the rising generations will sink them yet.

A Lesson From The Mollusc World

As its my 143rd post (hey well done Nige - champagne!), I thought I would devote it to this haunting parable from the oysterbeds of France. This is terrible news for us oyster lovers. But why has it happened? It seems the young oysters, as young oysters will, spent too much of their energy developing their sexual organs. And look where it got them. A lesson for us all there. Gentlemen, don't open that spam...

Monday 4 August 2008

Would Brian Close blub?

I'm sorry, but really, what is English cricket coming to? I don't mean losing Test series - we've always done a fair bit of that. I mean, the England Test captain blubbing like a girl when he announces that he's stepping down. And Michael Vaughan, dammit, is a Yorkshire player. Would Ray Illingworth blub? Would Brian Close blub? Is this what Yorkshire gets for relaxing the birth qualification and letting in Lancastrians?
I suppose we shouldn't be surprised. It's long been apparent that the emotional incontinence of sport at every level has infected cricket too, with those group hugs, passionate embraces, leaping about and whooping and carrying on alarming. The elegant, contained, in a word classy, player is a dying breed - and, if the talk is correct, England's next captain won't be one of them. No one could ever accuse the tattooed, shaven-headed Springbok Kevin Pietersen - gifted player though he is - of being any of those things.
Note for American readers: If none of the above means anything to you, it's possible that in time it will. Cricket is creeping up on you - see this.

Sunday 3 August 2008

Can't See the Wood for the Factoids

These are some of the things we all know about British woodland: 'that woods were destroyed by people felling trees to build houses and ships, that medieval England was still very wooded, that forests were preserved for hunting by severe laws and barbarous penalties, that there was a 'timber famine' in the Tudor period, that iron was smelted with coke because there was no wood left, that there was no conservation, that replanting was taken in hand after Evelyn wrote Sylva (1664), and that the last remnants of the old woodland perished when cut down in the First (or was it the Second?) World War...'
None of the above, you may or may not be surprised to learn, is actually true. It is the romantic pseudo-history of our woodland, built on folk history and 'factoids' (propositions which have all the properties of a fact except that they are not true), and it is, as Oliver Rackham points out in his magisterial Trees And Woodland In The British Landscape, quite impossible to eradicate. 'Pseudo-history,' Rackham writes, 'is not killed by publishing real history. In a rational world, this might lead to a controversy in which either the new version was accepted or the old version was shown to be right after all. In our world, the matter is not controversial; either the old version is retold as if nothing had happeened, or authors try to combine the two versions as if both could be true at once. Pseudo-history is not static but alive and growing... new factoids are even now being devised and added to the temple of Unreason.'
Sir Thomas Browne, back in the 1650s, set about demolishing the already vast temple of Unreason with his mighty Pseudodoxia Epidemica, or Vulgar Errours. Much good that did. Pseudo-history will always thrive, I suppose, because it offers a simple, coherent narrative that seems to make sense and is often in some way emotionally satisfying. It can be intensely annoying - as when Ring A Ring A Roses is explained as being linked to the Plague, a nasty as well as a fallacious notion - and it is saddening that, in an age when most people seem to know less and less about less and less, the one thing they do know is likely to be wrong. Happily for the most part it doesn't really matter - but there are areas where a proper undersanding is essential, and woodland is one of them, since the conservation of this precious resource depends on a proper knowledge of what it is, how it works and how it can be helped to thrive.

Friday 1 August 2008


Richard Savage died on this day in 1743, immortalising himself less by his works than by becoming the subject of one of the greatest and most heartfelt short biographies in English literature, Samuel Johnson's Life.

'Those are no proper judges of his conduct who have slumbered away their time on the down of plenty, nor will any wise man presume to say, "Had I been in Savage's condition, I should have lived or written better than Savage."'


Laughter can be, should be, a joyful, heart-lifting sound - spontaneous, helpless, infectious, the expression of a heart surprised by joy. But another kind - loud, aggressive and entirely mirthless - is gaining ground. From the offensive, in-your-face guffawing of louts in the street to the corporate braying of executives and hoorays, this is laughter as chest-beating self-assertion, as territorial marking, as a kind of weapon. It has little or nothing to do with being amused, still less with being in possession of that increasingly rare commodity, a sense of humour. Rather it's another symptom of the coarsening disinhibition of public behaviour, of the aggressive edge that the most basic social negotiations seem to be acquiring, of the advance, I fear, of stupidity in all its ugly forms... Happily, though, real laughter still thrives alongside its travesty, and there are still, thank God, reasons to be cheerful.

Back to the Future 2

Good news today - the first steam locomotive built in Britain since 1960 is ready to run. This is irresisibly exciting. Steam locos are beautiful things, gratifying to all the senses, and to the intellect - unlike today's technology, with steam you can actually see how it works, its mechanics are perfectly expressed, without disguise, in its form. And, of course, for reactionaries like me, it is always a pleasure to see the supposedly dead past spring back to life and confound the progressives.
On a similar theme, here are a couple of facts to ponder (I owe them to the great Oliver Rackham). The craft of wheelwrighting achieved a perfection in the Iron Age that was not equalled until the 19th century. And the art of joining planks edge to edge was perfected in Roman shipbuilding and has been in decline ever since. Think on...