Sunday 30 November 2008

Hell and High Water

I feel as if I ought to be saying something about the Damian Green affair - Bryan has - but, as so often these days, I'm so comprehensively aghast that I can barely articulate anything. Indeed my reaction to most of what this government is doing could best be summed up not in words, but in a sound - in that spontaneous gasping whoosh of incredulity that erupted in the Commons when Darling unveiled the full depth of the debt abyss he was digging for future generations. It's as if Brown now has a tactic of unleashing policies so jaw-droppingly preposterous and pursuing actions so breath-takingly deplorable that opponents - inded any sane person looking on - are struck dumb with appalled incredulity. With Mandelson and Campbell egging him on, he seems to be acting like a madman, willing to do anything to cling on to power. One can only hope that, being madness, it will prove self-destructive in the end - but, when power is finally prised from his tenacious grip, we taxpayers, God help us, will be left to pay the bills after he's trashed the place.
Never mind - the good news is that the lovely picture blog Venice Daily Photo is up and running again, after a six-month absence in Rome - and it's acqua alta time. And The Onion has yet more sound evidence of the beneficial effects of booze. (While you're there, check out the Magritte story too...)

Saturday 29 November 2008

Back to Brunel

This is an interesting project (go to White on Brunel, under Projects, for the slideshow)...
There's an extraordinary beauty about the images produced by these slow chemical techniques, I think - a depth and softness, a richness of tone that's quite lost in slicker, sharper modern photography. And all achieved in what is misleadingly called 'black and white'. These pictures feel as if they are indeed 'light drawings', not instant impressions. They are products of time, through which ghostly people stroll, swans swim and trains pass, and they perfectly reflect the monumentality of Brunel's great structures. It seems to me rather wonderful that someone should revive this art, and put it to such good use.

Friday 28 November 2008

Randy Again

Randy Newman - no stranger to this blog - is 65 today. Another of those birthdays that make you suddenly feel that bit older yourself... Here he is in his younger days, singing one of his most beautiful songs. Enjoy...

Blake's Unhappy Birth Day

William Blake was born on this day in 1757. Like Samuel Beckett, he seems to remember and rue the occasion...
Here's an anecdote about him by Samuel Palmer. Blake would frequently come down to Shoreham to visit 'The Ancients', his young devotees, passing the time there in walking, talking, writing, praying and Bible reading. His favourite reading was the parable of the prodigal son, but when he reached the words 'But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion...', Blake would invariably break down in tears, unable to go on. For some reason, this story lingers in my memory.

Thursday 27 November 2008

A Crisis In Mycology (Warning: Contains astoundingly bad joke)

Apparently there's a shortage of mycologists developing in this country, as the fungi experts are mostly nearing retirement age, and young scientists prefer more glamorous fields (I can't think why - after all, isn't a mycologist a fungi to be around?). Beatrix Potter was also an accomplished mycologist (that's one of her illustrations, of course), but her social standing - and sex - meant she could never take it up professionally. In her case, mycology's loss was art and literature's gain.


That supersmooth purveyor of the higher nonsense Alain de Botton has been at it again. Clearly he's all for the art of conversation, is Botton, and happy to help it along with a carefully chosen 'menu' of topics. There's a thought to chill the blood. It's hard to imagine anything much more dispiriting than being at a dinner party with Botton and his menu cards - unless, of course, it was dinner with the French windbag Theodore Zeldin, who seems to have given Botton his bright idea in the first place. 'It's almost impossibe to be bored when people tell you about what they are scared of or whom they desire,' declares Botton. He may well be right - put perfectly possible to be repelled, embarrassed and suddenly mindful of an urgent appointment elsewhere.
Here are all the conversational menu cards anyone needs:
The Weather.
What Do You Do Then?
House Prices.
Schools (if age-appropriate).
Something on Telly.
The Food (appreciative noises only).
Drink hard enough and these will get you through any dinner party.


There cannot be much wrong, I reckon, with a country whose defining national celebration is not some grand affirmation of its own glory but a festival of Thanksgiving (which falls, of course, today). We humans are seldom better employed than in the exercise of thankfulness and its close attendant, mindfulness - which I see as something akin to paying attention. Thankfulness requires no external agent to be thankful to - it is simply a moving outside of oneself, a shift of perspective away from very present woes and towards the good that is to be found if looked for, while mindfulness similarly takes us outside ourselves and makes us aware of others - as, in secular terms, individuals wth their own rights and projects, or, in religious terms, as fellow creatures with God in them. In these days of arid self-absorption, of unmindful self-gratification and its discontents, we need more than ever to give thanks.
'In the desert of the heart
Let the healing fountain start.
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.'

Wednesday 26 November 2008


I' ve just been to Argos (I know - the dazzling glamour of my life - it's almost too much...). It was the second time in the past few weeks that I've been obliged to shop there, and I approached the place with extreme reluctance. On my first visit I had been in and out in under five minutes, with barely any queuing, no queries, no delays. Naturally I assumed this was a freakish bit of good luck - I have memories of shopping at Argos being much like visiting a Soviet-era supermarket. But no - this second time I was in and out of Argos even more smoothly and in even less time. Suddenly Argos is my kind of shopping - swift, efficient, minimal human contact, the whole thing stripped down to the essentials. It will never replace online shopping in my affections - well, online shopping on eBay, Amazon, AbeBooks and a few other favourites - but if shop one must in the nonvirtual world, Argos is the place to go. Good Lord, I never thought I'd say that...

A Doozy

I pass this story on simply in the interests of enhancing the gaiety of nations. Perfect in every detail, it made me laugh quite immoderately on a dank grey morning - and of course put me in mind of that classic scene in Withnail and I when W attempts to bypass a urine test.

Tuesday 25 November 2008

No Comment

These are hard times for those of us who might like to comment on the passing scene from time to time. Stories like this simply render all comment superfluous. We retire dumbfounded, our jaws on our chests. First Darling, now Harman - how much more can we take of this?

Peacocks and Chuggers

Being the only alfresco sandwich-eater braving the cold in a sheltered corner of Holland Park this afternoon, I was hardly surprised to find myself besieged by importunate pigeons and grey 'squirrels' - but to be harassed by a peacock was more of a novelty. Fixing me meaningly with his bright eye, the brute was clearly on the point of snatching my sandwich from my hand when I saw him off - though not very far off; he continued to loiter with intent in the shrubbery. Peacocks may be beautiful birds - and a close-up look is always an aesthetic pleasure - but morally they are every bit as degenerate as the rest of the feloniously inclined fauna.
Returning via the high street, I encountered, inevitably, their human equivalent - the little legion of 'chuggers' (charity muggers) who home in on the unwary passerby with a laser smile and a merry 'How are you today?' At least I imagine that's what they say. Happily I have perfected a Look that freezes the words on their lips and leaves them in no doubt that to proceed further would be to risk something far worse... Happily there are signs that something might be done to clear the street of these grinning menaces. It would be a start.

A Thought on the Crisis

What's to say that hasn't been said (or rather not said) in the Other Place? All I will note is that throughout this crisis, Broon has been flashing that terrifying smile of his and giving the impression of being on some poweful euphoriant drug. When the going was good, he sported, equally incongruously, that jowly, pouchy scowl of his at all times and never cracked a smile. Unfortunately he only has these two expressions at his disposal, and seems incapable of modifying either of them - unlike the great snake oil salesman, his predecessor, who could fake a range of finely nuanced expression for any occasion. The effect of Broon's bipolar face is to suggest a drastic disconnection from what is actually going on. He should be feeling our pain, shouldn't he, not grinning away as if everything's fine and dandy? A man who is actually made happy by crisis has a very strange idea of pleasure. It is another aspect of his not-quite-human quality - the quality that, I have always maintained, makes him ultimately unelectable.

Monday 24 November 2008

Joplin and Busoni

Here, belatedly, is a link to birthday boy Scott Joplin, showing how it's done. And here's a link to the great Ferrucio Busoni playing Chopin. I wish there were more of these piano roll recordings - Busoni's and others - online.

Getting To Grips With Spinoza?

Well I never - it's Spinoza's birthday (born 1632) - just as I'm finally beginning to get some kind of grip on his famously impenetrable system. What grip I have is entirely due to this brilliant book, which I am reading with an increasing sense of having my eyes opened to something very big, wonderful and - yes - life-enhancing. I recommend Betraying Spinoza to all who might be interested - a true guide for the perplexed.
And it's also the birthday of one of my enduring literary heroes, Laurence Sterne - and of Scott Joplin. Which calls for a rag, if only I had the technology (here at NigeCorp) to link to one...
Sagittarians all, of course, like me.

Recycling, Tasers

So the inevitable is happening to the great recycling scam as it collapses under the weight of its own absurdities and contradictions. What happens now? Since 'recycling' (i.e. shipping to the third world) targets are set by the European Commission, they have to be met. But they can't be met. So... Exactly the same applies to the enthusiastically ramped-up targets for renewable energy and CO2 reductions. They can't be met. They must be met. So...? Perhaps future governments might actually think before signing up to these absurdities - but I rather doubt it. It never seems to work that way...
Meanwhile, tasers are to be issued to all police forces. Am I right to be feeling nervous?

Sunday 23 November 2008

Listmania again

How about this for a list? Pretty much as you'd expect from les Cahiers, I guess - but Freaks at no 22 seems a tad de trop...

Reptiles - The New Dogs

Can this really be true? As it's the British Federation of Herpetologists making the calculations (no doubt on the back of a torpid iguana), they're likely to be on the generous side - but the trend is probably real enough. I suspect that growth in reptile ownership (like the ownership of certain canine fighting machines) follows in line with growth in what might loosely be called the underclass or welfariat. The growth graph would follow growth in obestiy and mirror decline in physical activity. Reptiles, spending so much of their time in a condition of torpor, are the perfect, undemanding couch potato pets. They require no more than the kind of minimal attention even the most dedicated career layabout might manage - thawing out a reptile every few days, lobbing the odd locust... If we are indeed a nation of reptile owners, it is, I fear, another index of our national decline. A nation of dog owners is a sturdy, active, mobile nation, its emotional needs taken care of and social interaction guaranteed (the English being far too reserved to get emotionally involved with non-canines, and unable to talk to each other without a dog on a lead). A nation of reptile owners, on the other hand, is a craven, immobile, atomised and emotionally incontinent society. Is this what we've come to?

Saturday 22 November 2008

Billy Milton

Here's something to cheer us all up on a Saturday morning - enjoy. Billy Milton - the toast of Paris in the Thirties - died on this day in 1989.

Friday 21 November 2008


Time to catch up on yesterday's big story - the sorry plight of the house sparrow, driven out of our gardens by decking mania, tree felling, paving, planting of such exotica as the accursed cupressus leylandii, and altogether doing far too much weeding, cutting back and sprucing up (though there's nothing wrong with spruce). The lazy gardener is now the hero of the hour - which is fine by me, as my own approach is precisely that: minimal weeding, cutting back and pruning, maximum shrubby cover and few unfriendly exotics. And of course absolutely no decking or paving where plant cover should be. The local sparrows, duly grateful, are currently the most numerous visitors to my bird feeder, and I'm very glad to see them.
But wait a minute, the more Oddistic among you, will be saying - that picture isn't a house sparrow (passer domesticus), it's a tree sparrow (passer montanus). Correct - it is - and happily I have a colony of these delightful little birds close to where I live. The unfortunate tree sparrow has suffered more than its relative in recent years, declining by 50 per cent. In fact it is now on the red list of endangered species. Let's hope the house sparrow doesn't go the same way...

Thursday 20 November 2008

The Brightest Star

Well it looks as if the much-vaunted international space station has been pretty much a ten-year waste of time. I suppose this is kind of sad, though I've never been one whose blood was much stirred by space exploration. But what I find really sad is that this man-made object is now the brightest star in the sky. This strikes me as not only sad but fundamentally wrong - I'd really rather it wasn't there at all. .

Alistair Cooke, 100

It's the centenary of the birth of Alistair Cooke, an occasion that is being marked with due ceremony by the BBC - despite the fact that for most of his broadcasting career the BBC was trying to get rid of him. It's a BBC tradition - the high-ups always hate and resent their best talent, usually because it tends not to sit easily with the prevailing leftist-PC ethos. Every now and then some BBC aparatchik would be sent over to New York to try to dislodge Cooke and put an end to Letter From America, a programme the go-ahead BBC regarded as hopelessly dated. Said aparatchik would invariably return scratching his head, rubbing his chin and wondering what happened - and the great man, having bamboozled and charmed the young whippersnapper from here to eternity, would carry on as before.
He was, as the BBC - now he is safely dead - acknowledges, a very great radio broadcaster, who turned the quarter-hour talk into a form of high (but entirely effortless and unforced) art. Ars celare artem and all that - his talks seemed quite astonishingly casual at the time he started them, as hearing anyone else's radio talks from the time confirms. And he kept going, far, far beyond the normal career span of a broadcaser, let alone a programme. He was there for 9/11 and rose to that terrible occasion as well as anyone at the time. There will, of course, never be another Alistair Cooke, and the art which he perfected, the short talk, is barely clinging to life - a great shame, as it has endless possibilities in the right hands. Clive James, for example, can do it - here's his latest. Enjoy.

A Corinthian

Only one issue is occupying the minds of the nation this morning - the voluntary departure of John Sergeant from Strictly Come Dancing. Even the newly returned Bryan has fleetingly addressed it. He doesn't know what it means, he says. Well, here's the meaning I take from it, and it's a surprisingly heartening one. I reckon Sergeant's popularity with the viewing public showed that such traditional attributes of the English gentleman as modesty, delf-deprecating humour and a refusal to take non-serious things seriously are still highly valued. Sergeant had all these qualities in spades, plus an almost unEnglish quantity of sheer charm - the nation was won over, but, as Sergeant saw, the joke was wearing thin by the last round, and it was going to turn nasty. The game had ceased to be fun. Sergeant, in the true Corninthian spirit, withdrew with good grace, realising that if a game is no longer fun and ugly tendencies are rearing up, it's not worth playing. John Sergeant, Corinthian - nothing in the contest became him like the leaving of it.

Wednesday 19 November 2008

Café Royal and Olympics

Sad news about the Café Royal, especially as London is already too full of ludicrously overpriced hotels. The Café Royal isn't what it was in its glory days, when Oscar held court with Max and Aubrey and the rest, and Ronald Firbank nervously pushed a single pea around his plate. But the decor is still something to see...
This move is of course, like so much else in London - for example, clearing rough sleepers from the streets (this is already under way) - geared to the coming of the Olympic horror in 2012. On this subject, Iain Sinclair says it all, and more. Lord how I love Iain Sinclair - I genuinely found London Orbital a book so riveting and fascinating I didn't want it to end. I suspect that's probably just me though - you have to have done a lot of a particular kind of walking....


In work-engulfed times like these, the mind (well, mine anyway) seeks escape and solace by wandering off to revisit happier times and pleasanter scenes, taking a few moments' mental stroll in well loved country or loitering briefly in, say, a fondly remembered church. Also at such times, the hand (my hand anyway) reaches out to the bookshelf to see what it might find. Last night I took down Peter Porter''s classic collection The Cost of Seriousness, opened it and found this poem, which, for me, did the double, offering what might be called the consolations of poetry - something to do with emotion (here, as throughout the collection, grief) caught and given shape in a grid of formal, controlled language - while taking me back to a great church that, once seen, is truly never forgotten. There's an unusually good account of its wonders here.

Tuesday 18 November 2008


Sorry everybody - engulfed in a NigeCorp work tsunami again, and I fear there's more to come. Oh to escape the Corp's clutches and have a life... But I need the money. Which puts me in mind of this poem by John Davidson, an all but forgotten precursor of modernism. Eliot thought highly of him. Thirty Bob A Week, adjusted for inflation, seems an apt tract for the times about to come, just as this was for the times just gone. And we fall face forward fighting on the deck...

Sunday 16 November 2008

The Art of Conversation

Ah yes, the art of conversation - there's a new book about it, reviewed here. It sounds quite good. Are we conversing less, or just differently? We on the blogosphere could be said to be having one mighty conversation,could we not, on a scale undreamt of in pre-internet times - even if it isn't face to face, even if we talk through personas and noms be blogue. The question 'Is the art of conversation dying?' more or less answers itself; if you believe there is/was such a thing, chances are you'll think it isn't what it was. When Wilde and Shaw and Whistler were sparkling away in the salons of London, there were probably many grumbling that their kind of talk had killed the art of conversation. As a man of few (spoken) words, I'm with Randall Jarrell here: 'People say conversation is a lost art: how often I have wished it were.'
The picture above is there simply because I like it. It's by Andy Pankhurst, a ridiculously young and talented painter, who has an exhibition coming up at Browse & Darby. I hope I get to see it...

Saturday 15 November 2008

Homo Erectus Morphs Again

Several times a year, it seems, a fragment of fossilised bone turns up that overthrows what scientists thought they knew about our hominid ancestors (or, come to that, about the dinosaurs). This doesn't, of course, stop them asserting the radically revised picture with all the certainty they attached to the previous one - a certainty that properly belongs to a version of truth a tad more, shall we say, solidly based and likely to last. This time it's Homo Erectus, who is suddenly reshaped as a wide-hipped bighead - more work for the illustrators, who will have to update such gracile images as the one that adorns this post. Fans of the Kinkster, of course, already know all we need to know about Homo Erectus. (I don't recommend it as a ringtone though...)

Friday 14 November 2008

Clough (A Day Late)

I've just realised that I missed the anniversary of Arthur Hugh Clough's death - it was yesterday, and he died in 1861, at the age of just 42. Clough is one of the strangest, most fascinating and unclassifiable of the Victorian poets. He seems the least English, the least rooted of them - hardly surprising, as he spent his childhood years in Charleston, South Carolina (though he later attended Rugby and came under the Arnold influence). Clough also seems one of the most proto-modern of the Victorians, endlessly experimenting with metres and voices, and most un-Victorian in the frankness of his disenchanted world view. Here (belatedly) is one of his better known lyrics, taken from the rambling, Venetian-set satire Dipsychus. It seems entirely apt for our times - or rather for the times that have just come skidding to a credit-crunched halt....

As I sat at the café, I said to myself,
They may talk as they please about what they call pelf
They may sneer as they like about eating and drinking
But help it I cannot, I cannot help thinking,
How pleasant it is to have money, heigh ho!
How pleasant it is to have money.

I sit at my table en grand seigneur,
And when I have done, throw a crust to the poor;
Not only the pleasure, one’s self, of good living,
But also the pleasure of now and then giving.
So pleasant it is to have money, heigh ho!
So pleasant it is to have money.

It was but last winter I came up to town,
But already I’m getting a little renown;
I make new acquaintance where’er I appear;
I am not too shy, and have nothing to fear.
So pleasant it is to have money, heigh ho!
So pleasant it is to have money.

I drive through the streets, and I care not a d—n;
The people they stare, and they ask who I am;
And if I should chance to run over a cad,
I can pay for the damage if ever so bad.
So pleasant it is to have money, heigh ho!
So pleasant it is to have money.

We stroll to our box and look down on the pit,
And if it weren’t low should be tempted to spit;
We loll and we talk until people look up,
And when it’s half over we go out to sup.
So pleasant it is to have money, heigh ho!
So pleasant it is to have money.

The best of the tables and the best of the fare—
And as for the others, the devil may care;
It isn’t our fault if they dare not afford
To sup like a prince and be drunk as a lord.
So pleasant it is to have money, heigh ho!
So pleasant it is to have money.

We sit at our tables and tipple champagne;
Ere one bottle goes, comes another again;
The waiters they skip and they scuttle about,
And the landlord attends us so civilly out.
So pleasant it is to have money, heigh ho!
So pleasant it is to have money.

It was but last winter I came up to town,
But already I’m getting a little renown;
I get to good houses without much ado,
Am beginning to see the nobility too.
So pleasant it is to have money, heigh ho!
So pleasant it is to have money.

O dear! what a pity they ever should lose it!
For they are the gentry that know how to use it;
So grand and so graceful, such manners, such dinners,
But yet, after all, it is we are the winners.
So pleasant it is to have money, heigh ho!
So pleasant it is to have money.

Thus I sat at my table en grand seigneur,
And when I had done threw a crust to the poor;
Not only the pleasure, one’s self, of good eating.
But also the pleasure of now and then treating,
So pleasant it is to have money, heigh ho
So pleasant it is to have money.

They may talk as they please about what they call pelf,
And how one ought never to think of one’s self,
And how pleasures of thought surpass eating and drinking—
My pleasure of thought is the pleasure of thinking
How pleasant it is to have money, heigh ho!
How pleasant it is to have money.

Only In Russia?

It's hard to imagine this happening anywhere else - except Albania perhaps. Or Liverpool of course - they used to have three cathedrals you know...

Weather Notes from the Sick Bay (and Stubble 4)

On this day in 1922 (I remember it well - foggy it was, a right pea-souper), 2LO, the radio station of the British Broadcasting Company, made its first official broadcast on medium wave from Marconi House, launching with the first radio news bulletin. This was read by Director of Programmes Arthur Burrows, who a month later played Father Christmas in the first radio play, and became one of the original 'Uncles' (yes, Uncle Arthur) on Children's Hour. You don't get that kind of multi-tasking versatility in the BBC these days...
Along with the first newscasts came the first weather forecasts, which predicted more of the same, having grasped immediately that this is always the safest way to forecast the weather. (I'm not sure of the figure, but 'much the same as today' has a surprisingly high accuracy rate, not far short of the computer-assisted Met Office's current performance.) The fog persisted - and so, on an epic scale, did the BBC, becoming the vast, monstrous, sclerotic entity that looms over today's broadcasting landscape, and is run by a man with a stubbly face. Would Arthur Burrows have worn stubble? Would Lord Reith? They would not. Nor, come to that, would that fine old-school weatherman Jack Scott, who sadly died yesterday...

Thursday 13 November 2008

Mitch Mitchell, Never Knowingly Underestimated

RIP Mitch Mitchell, a great drummer and part of one of the most extraordinary bands ever formed (though their output was, to be honest, patchy and their peak didn't last long). A tribute read out on the Radio 4 news this morning declared that his contribution to the band 'could not be underestimated'. It's surprising how often this kind of mistake - which gives the opposite meaning of what's intended - occurs, and it's rarely noticed.
I have been kept awake most of the night by a particularly nasty, insidious 'cold', so I might not be inspired to post much today. Go over to Dick's place and enjoy yourselves...

Wednesday 12 November 2008

Inner Oddie

My inner Oddie had a bit of a treat just now. Walking in Holland Park (an eddy in the NigeCorp maelstrom having flung me briefly clear), I saw - or mostly heard - a party of foraging Fieldfares, flying noisily from tree to tree. This doesn't often happen in London, so I was quite pathetically excited.

British = Spastic

Offensive language eh? Don't you just love it? Actually I don't like the word British myself - it has a kind of artifical sound and I don't feel anything other than English, but I don't make an issue of it. Note who's at the bottom of this latest Welsh nonsense - that colourful character Ron Davies, whose badger watching and 'moment of madness' on Clapham Common gave us all a good laugh a few years ago. He's still aroud then - you can't keep a good man down...

A New Dawn for Abnormally Curved Bananas?

When weird yachtsman (but he had a good war) Grocer Heath suckered us into signing up to the European project 40-odd years ago, only the most sceptical among us would have guessed just how extensive the reach of 'Europe' would be. In fact few of us realise it now, as our politicians and their media mouthpieces prefer to pass off policies as their own bright ideas rather than what the EU is telling them to do. One small area of the vast ocean of EC regulations has tended to attract unwelcome attention though - the obsessively detailed specifications for fruits and vegetables. So every few years they announce that there's going to be a legislative bonfire and all those silly rules are going up in smoke. Not that they ever existed of course - the regulation on the curvature of bananas (for the benefit of readers from outside the EU, I am not making this up) for example is universally described as an absurd and damaging 'myth', although it's there in black and white, for those who can trawl their way through to regulation 2257/94. It states that bananas must be 'free of abnormal curvature' and at least 5.5in long. That's Europe for you - smoke and mirrors, waste and corruption, and downright lies. No wonder the auditors have refused to sign off the EU's accounts - for the 14th year running.

Tuesday 11 November 2008

The Silence of the Nige

Sorry everybody, but I find myself descending - arms flailing, legs kicking, my anguished cries unheard - into a NigeCorp work maelstrom. And work maelstroms don't come much worse that NigeCorp ones, believe me.
I am hoping to communicate tomorrow, but it might be no more than a stream of sadly winking bubbles...

Monday 10 November 2008


Time for a picture - and a change of shape. That's a Raphael, from the Raphael rooms in the Vatican, and it shows Pope Leo the Great meeting Attila the Hun outside Rome in 452 and persuading him not to advance and sack the city. Attila withdrew, impressed by - here's the multiple choice bit: either (a) Leo's evident moral stature, or (b) the apparitions of armed men in the sky above Leo, or (c) the large quantity of gold Leo had with him and the fact that Attila's army was overstretched. Anyway, it's Leo's saint's day today.


What would Jesus make of these scenes at the Holy Sepulchre Church? What indeed would he make of the very existence of such a building - or of 'Christianity'?

Music Lessons

I'm sure I'm not the only who, reading this depressing story, recalled my own childhood music lessons and marvelled at how times have changed. I was taught piano by a distinguished gent in, I suppose, his 60s, who wore tweed suits and closely resembled the great Ralph Vaughan Williams. A bachelor who had spent most of his life dominated by a formidable mother (who lived into her 90s, on cigarettes and cussedness), he was an excellent teacher and a fine player. Among his eccentricities was to pronounce all Italian words as if they were English - hence acciacatura would be akky-akka-tura... And another of his eccentricities was, at the end of a lesson, to hug me to his tweed-waistcoated paunch for a minute or two, just that, with perhaps the occasional endearment and pat of the head. This never bothered me - coming from a not very tactile family, I found it slightly awkward, but then I found most things awkward at that age. The strange ways of adults were constantly bemusing, and we children just took what came and got on with our lives. As he would hug me in front of my mother, it was clearly all right with her, and I'm quite sure there was nothing actually sexual in it - it was probably no more than an expression of the paternal affection he would have lavished on his own children, had he been allowed to marry and have a family.
Nowadays, of course, the poor soul would be in jail. We live in a society where behaviour is increasingly dominated by the fear of litigation - and by hysterical supersensitivity to potential 'child abuse'. How are today's children going to develop if they are taught to regard any physical contact with an adult as 'wrong', as a sexual threat? The generalised affection and care of the older generation for the younger is already withering away, leaving the young isolated and alienated once they are outside the cocoon of the nuclear family - which is, we are led to believe, where most of the 'child abuse' happens anyway. Hey ho.

Sunday 9 November 2008


Remembrance Sunday, in the 90th anniversary year of the First World War (though the end year is given on most memorials as 1919). As that war passes from living memory - just three veterans alive in the UK now - one of the questions we ask in retrospect is Why did so many Englishmen volunteer to fight? No doubt there were many motives - some higher than others - but I'm sure Edward Thomas spoke for many in this poem, which defines, I think, the noblest and truest form of love of country. He put it more succinctly in a gesture, when someone asked him (while he was on home leave) what he was fighting for. He bent down, picked up a handful of earth, and said, 'For this. Literally for this.'

The BBC Does It Again

Hats off to the BBC's crack team of crisis managers! They've managed to keep the Ross-Brand row in the papers for yet another week, culminating in the jawdroppingly belated broadcast of a botched apology - no doubt the product of many hours of 'meetings' (they're what the BBC does). And then it had to be rewritten.

Saturday 8 November 2008

Astral Weeks!

So there I was, earlier this morning, squinting blearily at an old tape, trying to make out the name I'd scrawled on it. Finally I got it - Astral Weeks. Ah yes, I thought, Astral Weeks, great album, one of the greatest, got it on CD now of course, must throw the tape away... Half an hour later, I check in at the Big House, and what do I find? This, of course. It seems Brit and I have achieved psychic communion...
Actually it's not Van so much as Randy Newman (above) who's on my mind this morning, as I watched him performing a BBC4 session last night. This is one great songwriter, and in an intimate setting like St Luke's (where the session was recorded) with just him and the piano and occasional discreet strings, you realise just how great. And how many stunningly good songs he has in his repertoire, despite his appearance of inveterate laziness and reluctance to release albums. What caps it all though is his between-songs banter, which is simply the best in the business. The session was sheer joy. Anyone in need of a refresher, just buy this.
(He looks alarmingly like Bryan - pre-weight loss Bryan - in that picture, doesn't he? On screen he looked more like a younger David Hockney.)

Friday 7 November 2008

Irritating Phrases, Anyone?

Basically, with all due respect, at the the end of the day, I personally don't entirely agree with the contents of this fairly unique list (at this moment in time). 'I personally' can function as a minor intensifier, and be practically useful in, for example, distinguising a personal opinion from an official one - it's not rocket science (I personally prefer the phrase 'It's not rocket salad', coined by David Renwick). 'With all due respect' is useful when dealing with people you loathe, in as much as it means the exact opposite. 'Shouldn't of' is just plain wrong, but hardly matters in spoken use (at the end of the day). And so on - I'm sure many of you out there have a few issues with this list - that's what these things are published for (at the end of the day) - and will have suggestions for phrases to add to the list.
Mine would include two that are very popular with politicians and other devotees of the weasel word - 'Going forward' and 'Issues around' . Also, for some reason, the noun 'heads-up' annoys the hell out of me...
Any more for any more?

How To Do - and Not Do - Things

Here's a story to savour. What it boils down to is this: the regulatory body in charge of vetting the security 'industry' couldn't even vet its own employees. With every passing day, the world moves farther beyond parody. But never mind. 'We will continue to contribute to public protection through regulation,' declares one Ruth Henig. That's all right then...
For an example of a nation that works, we need to look further afield - to Bhutan. Here's a country that knows how to do things. A new democracy with a popular monarchy, its laudable, if ill-named, policy of Gross National Happiness (GNH) is firmly based on preserving the traditional ways. The Bhutanese have the sense to rely on 'enlightened astologers' rather than the likes of the Security Industry Authority. Very wise.

Thursday 6 November 2008

The Horror, The Horror

Here's one to chill the blood. This ID business has to be stopped. It's preposterously expensive, it will do nothing but make life more unpleasant and inconvenient than it already is for the law-abiding, it will be utterly insecure, and it will hugely expand state surveillance while diminishing what remains of our individual liberties. In short, I'm agin it, and sincerely hope that, when Broon is finally dislodged, an incoming government scraps the whole thing as one of its first acts.

Another One Gone

Another of the very last dies - and a pretty lucky one too. To be discharged on grounds of ill health in 1941 and live to 108 is not bad going. I hope by 'moderate' drinking he meant an Oz-scale intake.

Westfield and the Pits

It didn't take long for the Westfield megamall to show its true colours. Retail dress code trumps remembrance of the nation's war dead any day. And, sure enough, the retailers who were suckered into setting up store there are already being shafted. Makes you feel all warm inside doesn't it?
That's the trouble with secular cathedrals - the values they're built on leave something to be desired...

Wednesday 5 November 2008


Here's Charles Pooter of Diary Of A Nobody fame - a bit of a hero and role model of mine - enjoying Bonfire Night:
'In the evening we went round to the Cummings' to have a few fireworks. It began to rain, and I thought it rather dull. One of my squibs would not go off, and Gowing said: 'Hit it on your boot, boy; it will go off then.' I gave it a few knocks with the end of my boot, and it went off with one loud explosion, and burnt my fingers rather badly. I gave the rest of the squibs to the little Cummings boy to let off.'
And I've just discovered that there's an online version of the Diary.


A historic day then - the day when, in 1605, Guido Fawkes and his gang of prototerrorists were thwarted in their attempt to blow up Parliament. This used to be a big deal in England, with every household making some attempt at a firework display on the night, while boys had the pleasure of lobbing bangers and jumping jacks around at will. Those days are gone now - when did you last see a 'Penny for the Guy'? Except among the pope-and-pikey-burning villages of the Lewes area, Bonfire Night is a sanitised, municipalised affair, a pyrotechnic display conveniently held on the nearest Saturday. The November 5 tradition seems to have been edged out of the popular calendar by Halloween, that interloper from America.
Ah yes, America. That election thing... Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be middle-aged and cynical was very... No no, enough of that - it was the right result, the inevitable result (though the Dem stranglehold on Senate and Congress is worrying). McCain was totally outcampaigned and looked old and confused (if only he'd beaten W to the nomination in 2000...). Indeed the McCain campaign peaked with his fine concession speech - which is not quite how it's supposed to go. Heaven knows what kind of president Obama will make - I just hope he doesn't turn out to be, beneath the glamour and the eloquence, Jimmy Carter mark 2. I hope he gets off to a better start than Bill Clinton did. And I hope above all that the psychos of Al Qaeda don't decide to test his mettle early on with one of their trademark atrocities. For now, let's look on the bright side,and rejoce that America has yet again proved that, in the final analysis, it's a resoundingly Good Thing.

Tuesday 4 November 2008

Almost Hair-Raising

An interesting find from the jungles of Patagonia, which seems to suggest a major rethink of hydrocarbons is overdue. What I particularly like is the quote from the scientist, who noted that 'almost every hair' on his arms stood up (no doubt like quills upon the fretful porpentine). He must have been counting...


Apologies for not blogging yesterday. I was in one of those sorry states of mind/body when the only realistic option was mindless physical labour to the accompaniment of Radio 4, so I spent much of the day cleaning the kitchen. I hope this sorry state wasn't related to the catastrophe that befell on Friday night, when I arrived home expecting to slump in front of Neil Young Night on BBC4, and found that my digital cable box had comprehensively packed up, displaying the straight eights - 88:88 - that identify a box as bound for the digibox graveyard. It could not be fixed until today - which is why last night, with only the wasteland of terrestrial TV to scour, I ended up watching Prescott: The Class System and Me on BBC2.
This two-parter was made in the over-familiar 'journey' format - Nick Cohen nails it brilliantly here - but with the novel difference that Prezza's 'journey' was entirely circular, as he had already made up his mind about the class system, and nothing anyone said to him about it was going to make any difference. Time after time, the people of all classes that his researchers had lined up for him to talk to blew all his class-war assumptions out of the water - but would Prezza take any notice of that? Of course not. He knew the 'British class system' had held him back - otherwise how could a man of his astounding abilities rise no higher than deputy prime minister? - and that was that, at the end as at the beginning. In the course of this 'journey', the Prescott shoulder only accumulated more chips. The sole interesting or attractive thing about this waste of airtime was Pauline Prescott. The mystery of how she puts up with her appalling husband must still be exercising all who saw this series.
Still, the BBC can come good sometimes, even on terrestrial TV. Laurence Rees's latest, WWII: Behind Closed Doors, which is coming soon, is a superb account of Stalin's making and breaking of alliances in the course of the war. And of course there's always Radio 4, which for all its annoying ways, is still something of a national treasure - especially when it has the gloriously sour Ed Reardon's Week (a comedy that cuts across the grain of the BBC and all it stands for - it's a miracle it was ever commissioned). With Ed Reardon for company, cleaning the kitchen was a postive pleasure. Therapeutic too.

Sunday 2 November 2008

Herons - Not What They Used to Be...

After yesterday's relentless rain, a morning of pale pearly sunlight, diffused through thin cloud. As I crossed the park, this light was showing the still rain-wet autumn trees to glorious effect; the willows in particular, leaves shimmering, seemed barely substantial. Nearer at hand, the fiery reds of cherry and maple, set off by dark masses of yew... By the river a man was throwing bread to the ducks - and to the resident heron, who was eagerly fighting off the competition, grabbing chunks of bread and knocking them back with a fling of the head. This is something I never thought, in my younger days, I'd see. Then a heron was a notable sight - a strange lanky outsize thing in the middle distance, unpacking an improbable quantity of wing and flapping heavily away. I remember I once found, bizarrely, a heron's skull, picked quite clean, by a river bank. I kept it for some while, even did a drawing of it, which I think I still have somewhere...
The heron then was strictly a country sight - though this was not always so. Herons are still a presence in W.H. Hudson's Birds of London, and he recalls the great herneries that lasted into the closing years of the 19th century, despite the best efforts of chaps with guns. But in the following century, with the Thames polluted and the wild wet places disappearing, herons, along with cormorants and kingfishers, left town, returning decades later to a cleaner river with plentiful fish. The next stage of the great reconquest came about with the spread of the Eighties fad for 'water features' (remember Charlie Dimmock?) and garden ponds, offering rich pickings for an early-rising heron. Now this spectacular bird is a commonplace sight of suburban London - and has so far lost its dignity as to take bread as if it were a municipal duck. I shouldn't really be surprised - this particular heron, which haunts the ponds as well as the river, has always seemed pretty useless at fishing, spending most of its time slouching around to no useful effect, and fixing humans, even at very close range, with a beady and fearless eye. It seems it has got our measure - we're there to provide the food. Though I wonder if herons can thrive on bread alone...

Saturday 1 November 2008

Supremely Funny

I know I shouldn't, but The Onion's on such sensational form at the moment, and this one brought tears of laughter to my eyes - no mean feat on a grey Saturday morning. And the election coverage is just brilliant...

At Last - It's Here! A Caption Contest

As it's the weekend and nothing much is happening that isn't too depressing to contemplate, here's something to get your wits limbered...