Friday 27 February 2009

Minute, Clue

I agree entirely with the excellent Brit's comment below the Bouncing Fish - Paul Merton is indeed in his element on Just A Minute. He's probably the main reason why the show has found a new lease of life in its old age - it's been going ever since 1967, the year Radio 4 started, which is amazing longevity even for radio. Kenneth Williams also found a perfect niche on the show - to the point where some weeks he was virtually the whole show - and after he died it looked as if Just A Minute might run out of steam. But it was refreshed with new comedy blood and gradually regained its top form. Despite its age - not to mention Nicholas Parsons' - it comes up fresh and full of bounce week after week. But what I was meaning to post on was the unsettling news that I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue - which should surely have been allowed to die naturally post-Humph (after all, there's 36 years of archive to draw on) - is to return, with three 'rotating' chairmen: Stephen Fry, Jack Dee and Rob Brydon. And the first in the chair will be the orotund, unstoppable Fry - a figure about as unlike Humph as it's possible to be. This could be a good thing, as there will be no question of trying to 'do a Humph' (he was genuinely unique and inimitable anyway) - but the prospect fills me with trepidation. Even if, with one or all of these chairmen, it works pretty well, it can never be the work of sheer radio genuis it was in the hands of Humph. It seems an awful shame to me that they're carrying on with it.

Bouncing Retro Fish Shows the Way

Well here's a turn-up - though we really shouldn't be surprised by yet another reminder of how utterly strange nature is and how very very little we know of it. It's good to see, too, that in some corner of the Coral Triangle it will be for ever 1967... And talking of retro trends, I'm delighted to report that I've spotted three or four cravat wearers - young ones that is, not Nicholas Parsons-style cravat wearers - on Victoria station this week. I take these sightings to be the green shoots of the Cravat Revival. At last!

Thursday 26 February 2009

Cashless Society? No Thanks

Being naturally averse to queuing - even for The Ladder - I would, or should, welcome anything that speeds up the protracted business of paying for goods in a shop. As we know, the news that items purchased have to be paid for comes as a total surprise to many a shopper, prompting much digging in pockets, purses, handbags, wallets, etc. Then comes either the protracted counting out of the right money or the right change, or the protracted business of slotting the card into the machine, keying in the pin, waiting for the connection, etc, etc, I'm getting fidgety even writing about it...
So, would the much-vaunted cashless society (widely predicted by parties with an obvious vested interest) be better? Obviously not with the present card technology, which tends to be even slower than cash, but with the various new methods of instant electronic payment, via ultrasmart cards, mobiles, thumbprints, voice recognition, whatever, that are being talked of - surely that would be a good thing, woudn't it? Well yes, inasmuchas it shortens my queuing time and lowers my blood pressure - but a firm No in view of the wider implications. Any form of cashless transaction leaves an electronic trail, which can be followed by anyone with the means, i.e. in practice, and in prospect, agencies of the state or others parasitic on those agencies' resources. It is like the also much-vaunted Oyster card in London, a fine cashless system of paying for your journeys - but also a means of tracing your movements around the capital. This may have given us a lot of harmless fun following the blameless Bishop of Southwark, Tom Butler's eccentric journey home after that Irish Embassy Christmas party - but the principle is just plain wrong, and so it is with universal cashless payments. Paying by cash is one of the few areas of unmonitored autonomy left to us. Let's keep it that way.

Wednesday 25 February 2009

Daumier Day

Any excuse for a picture here on Nigeness, the illustrated blog - and today's excuse is the 201st birthday of Honoré Daumier (that Nadar photo - wonderful!). A brilliant, often savage caricaturist - and hugely prolific - he was also a considerable artist (un grand petit maitre?). His murky palate, firm brushwork and muted chiaroscuro effects, with strong but rounded outlines, give his paintings a very distinctive look. And they always have an air of mystery about them - his people seem bent on some private business, lost in their own thoughts and dreams (Don Quixote was a subject to which he returned obsessively - there's a good one in the National Gallery). I think he's worth a second picture...

Cycling: How It Should Be Done

The cycle menace has reached such a pitch in London now that we pedestrians are taking our lives in our hands if we don't maintain 360-degree surveillance every time we step off the pavement - and indeed while we're still on it. Why is that cyclists are allowed to ignore all traffic rules, signals, one-way systems, all the things that make traffic flow smoothly while giving pedestrians a chance? They are a menace - and not only a menace but a smug, self-righteous, hideously-dressed menace, in their ghastly Lycra and Spandex and their stupid little helmets. This glorious blog shows how it should be done, with style, with chic, with joie de vivre and effortless elan - and without mowing down pedestrians at will. I love it - it's strangely restful and beautiful and, frankly, rather arousing (or is that just me? I think not - see the section Your Favourite Photos...).

Tuesday 24 February 2009

Iggy: The Madness Goes On...

Here's a piquant footnote to the Iggy Pop madness. Advertisers... insurance companies... Don't you just love them?

Seeing Mimosas

It's the time of year when, astonishingly, London's mimosa trees come into full sunshine-yellow bloom (accompanied by a subtly beautiful honeyish fragrance). It's always an unexpected, heart-lifting sight in this grimmest month of the year (though I noticed yesterday that the dusk was loud with full-throated blackbirds giving their all). The odd thing about mimosas is that I never noticed them until a few years ago, when a particularly fine specimen stopped me in my tracks - What is thaaat? I soon had it identified, and ever since then I've been seeing mimosas everywhere. It can't be that they're newly planted - many are clearly mature trees. Either I didn't notice them readily because I didn't know what they were, or, since identifying them, I've become sensitised and see them immediately. This looks to me like a good argument for naming and identifying what's around us - it really does, it seems, help us to see.

Monday 23 February 2009

The Strange Case Of Mrs T and the BBC

Ironic, isn't it (a pedant writes: No), that the BBC, having spent decades pillorying Margaret Thatcher as the fons et origo of all that went wrong with this country, has suddenly come over all gooey and taken to portraying her, in drama at least, sympathetically? In fact sympathetically is putting it mildly - in the recent spate of Thatcher dramas, including the new one (Margaret, with Lindsay Duncan), she comes across as one heck of a woman - a beleaguered feminist heroine no less, and sexy with it (I'm thinking Andrea Riseborough in The Long Road to Finchley). What's happened? Is it that documentary and political analysis are one thing, drama another altogether? That once you embody a historical figure in a fact-based but imagined work, you give birth to the Inconvenient Truth of what that person was like - in Mrs T's case, her extraordinary force of personality, fixity of purpose and undoubted (if controversial) achievements become inescapable. Putting a flesh-and-blood 'Margaret' at the centre of the action makes 'Thatcherism' seem a very different, more interesting and compelling, thing. It's hard to believe that the BBC intended to make sympathetic dramas about their great bogeywoman; perhaps they reckoned without the power of drama to surprise, to take on a life of its own.
Meanwhile, of course, the likes of Jeremy Hardy will carry on with their (vicious and unfunny) Thatcher-bashing as if nothing's happened...

Byzantium: Queuing for the Ladder

Yesterday I finally made it to Byzantium - the Royal Academy exhibition,
that is (no crossing of dolphin-torn or gong-tormented seas was involved).
I'd been putting it off because I knew it was the kind of exhibition I enjoy
least - i.e. a blockbuster - but it is a true once-in-a-lifetime event, as
many of the exhibits will almost certainly never be lent out again. So I
went, paid the stiff ticket price (roll on the pensioner years - Bryan of
course would have been nodded through at the concessionary rate) and 'did'
Byzantium, and, as expected, it was a pretty gruelling form of pleasure.
There's an awful lot of stuff to see, and there were an awful lot of people
jostling to see it - which is not easy when so many of the exhibits are
pretty small and are displayed in glass cases, each one surrounded by a
mini-scrum of attentive grey heads. Not ideal conditions for what is anyway
a somewhat artificial experience - looking at objects completely out of
context. I mean, these things were not made to be displayed in an art
gallery (there was no such thing at the time); they were designed either for private use
(practical, devotional, aesthetic) or, for the most part, for display
in churches and palaces, as elements of an all-embracing symbolic structure
of power and worship, and of a theology most of us have little notion of. It
is one thing to walk around the glorious basilica of Torcello; it's quite
another to stare at a mosaic fragment from Torcello, beautiful though it is,
in a case at the Royal Academy. Still, there was much there that I was glad
to see (when I'd fought my way to it) and to have seen.
The last exhibit, and in effect the climax of the exhibition, is the extraordinary Heavenly
Ladder pictured (I hope) above. This was proving so popular that a permanent
queue - yes an orderly British queue - had formed, with each viewer moving
to the front, getting his or her 30 seconds or so (much more would have been
rude), then peeling off and strolling out, sated, to the Gift Shop. Ah

Who's Watts?

Watching Paxo's new series on The Victorians last night (not bad, but surely a real historian/art historian with deeper knowledge and passion might have done better), the image above came up. It's Found Drowned by George Frederick Watts - and, as it happens, it's the great man's birthday today (b 1817). I say Great Man because, in his day - and for a couple of decades after his death - Watts was one of the great figures in British art. Few would have questioned his greatness and his preeminence. Today, however, I imagine that few on the proverbial Clapham omnibus would even have heard of him. His high earnestness and huge synthesising ambition are quite alien to our times - and, it has to be said, his sombre soupy 'spiritual' style of painting is hard to take. A Watts revival any time soon is highly unlikely, I'd say - even though much of his earlier work and his portraiture is still fresh and brilliant and much easier to take.
One thing does make Watts unique, though, and ensures that, however steeply his reputation has declined, his name will live: the Watts Gallery, at Compton near Guildford (a village with a remarkable Norman church). This extraordinary complex includes not only the sole purpose-built gallery in Britain devoted to one artist's works, but also the extraordinary (and to most eyes pretty hideous) Watts Cemetery Chapel. There is certainly nothing like it anywhere else, it's a unique expression of one artist's interests, passions and ambitions, a true descent into a large Victorian mind, and it's well worth a visit - and presumably will be even more so when it reopens next year after much-needed restoration.
Who, I wonder, is the Watts of contempotary British art? The near-universally accepted Great Figure who will, in 100 years' time, be all but forgotten. In these days of hyperinflated reputations, there are surely many contenders - indeed it's a question of Where to begin?...

Sunday 22 February 2009

Palmer Country

Yesterday - a gloriously sunny one, with that sharp ultraclear PreRaphaelite light of early spring - I went walking in Kent with my son. Starting from the beautifully sited, unspoilt village church where, in May, he is getting married (yes, a rare intrusion of family life into the blog), we walked the high ground, with wide far views over the Weald in one direction and, in the other, as far as (amazingly) Epping Forest. Then down into the Darent valley, Samuel Palmer's Valley of Vision - from Lullingstone, where he drew and painted the extraordinary ancient oaks - down along the river to Shoreham, where he lived. Close to London and much visited though it is, the Darent valley, cosily wooded, flanked by rolling hills, remains wonderfully unspoilt, and Shoreham is one of those perfect Kentish villages, right down to the picturesque old pub beside the church. Though neither of us could stand upright beneath its sagging ceilings, we lunched there, before climbing back out of the valley and looping round to return to where we started.
In Shoreham, Samuel Palmer lived initially in a hovel he christened Rat Abbey, before moving in with his father and many comers and goers - including Blake and his fellow Ancients - in a handsome Queen Anne house which is still standing smartly on its enviable riverside plot. As well as painting the extraordinary works that were eventually, long after his death, to bring him fame, Palmer wrote voluminously. He was constantly examining and questioning himself, describing his depressions and exaltations, his frequent religious experiences (divine and diabolical), rhapsodising and lamenting, and all the while feeling his way, with constant self-criticism and much rumination, in his art. Here's one reflection among very, very many:
'Universal nature wears a lovely gentleness of mild attraction; but the leafy lightness, the thousand repetitions of little forms [fractals?!], which are part of its own generic perfection; and who would wish them but what they are? - seem hard to be reconclied with the unwinning severity, the awfulness, the ponderous globosity of Art.'
Ponderous globosity - a lovely phrase...
We saw disappointingly little in the way of wildlife on this walk - partly perhaps because we seemed always to be walking into dazzling sun - but this morning, back in the suburban demiparadise, I saw, for the first time in my life, two kingfishers together. They were perched quite high in the same tree, clearly not in place for fishing. I suspect courtship was on their minds, and they were waiting for me to go away. Which I did.

Friday 20 February 2009

How the BBC Works

Hmm it's very quiet out there today... Maybe this fine example of how the (licence-fee-funded) BBC works will get you going - though really it's beyond comment, and beyond parody.

Thursday 19 February 2009

Ansel Adams and Richard Mabey

As Bryan notes, today is Gordon Brown's birthday - but it is also the birthday of two men infinitely more deserving of celebration: Ansel Adams (born 1902) and Richard Mabey (born 1941). Adams's photographs have a depth and epic grandeur that seems to elevate them above and beyond their medium, though their essence is a perfect observation, understanding and expression of what light does to landscape - that's photography: light drawing - though in Adams's case, it's more like light painting. You could say he's the Vermeer of the American wilderness, though you'd probably be wiser not to, I don't know...
We know where we are with Richard Mabey, who is simply the best living practitioner of a genre the British have excelled at ever since Gilbert White (or, in a broader sense, ever since Chaucer) - nature writing. His magnum opus, Flora Britannica, is one of the great living monuments of that tradition, truly a book that no home should be without. And his brave, lucid account of recovering from severe depression, Nature Cure, is a must-read, not least for its hard-won insights into the vital relationship between man and nature (I'd also recommend one of his more easily missed works, Fencing Paradise, inspired by Cornwall's Eden Project).
Adams' and Mabey's works could hardly be more different - there is litte grandeur in Mabey, little specificity in Adams - and yet they are products of the same creative, and salutary, process: Staying still and looking hard at what is there.

Health Update: Wine

This is reassuring. I always knew they were bad news, those piddling little 125ml glasses, which you only ever seem to come across in France - you'd have thought the French would have more sense. Clearly the 125ml glass should be banned forthwith. Santé!

I Don't Understand...

Radio 4 has struck lead again with its latest Book At Bedtime, which is nearing an end, thank heavens, but seems to have been running for ever. Called An Equal Stillness, it's a heavy-footed chronicle of the rivalrous relationship and marriage between two artists over many decades - a kind of fictionalised version of Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson. Listening to it on the radio (abridged!), you can hear the research, but it seems - to me anyway - entirely lacking in what one might call, rather preciously, felt life. The writer never seems to inhabit either the characters or their world, leaving the listener - this one anyway - wondering why she bothered to invest the time and hard work required to write a full-length novel (and why anyone should invest their time in reading it). Most of my forays into contemporary fiction leave me with this So What feeling (which is why I make so few). And yet this book has been well received - 'an outstanding debut', 'pitch perfect', etc - and is just the kind of work that wins prizes; perhaps it already has. I truly do not understand the present world of fiction publishing and reviewing. It seems every bit as irrelevant, tail-chasing and detached from reality as the political world.

Madvertising and the Greatness of Dylan

On my way home from NigeCorp yesterday, I had an aghast text from my son, telling me that Bob Dylan's Blowin' in the Wind - original studio version - was being used as the music track for a Co-Op TV commercial. So an hour later I get home and what's on the telly when I walk in? That very commercial. Rooted to the spot, I watched it through (it is, like so many mad commercials these days, very long). The odd thing was that this bizarre context - a feelgood extravaganza in which digitised dandelion seeds float about over ever-changing tableaux of jolly farmers, lush countryside, grinning Africans etc - focused attention on the song and threw its greatness into sharper focus. In fact I found it rather moving - and that certainly had very little to do with the visuals.
It's easy to forget - or at least take for granted - the astonishing legacy of the early, folk era Dylan. The best reminder is the remarkable documentary Dylan at Newport, which I caught (again) on BBC4 last week. This is a simple chronicle of Dylan's appearances at that festival, year on year. God he was good - and God he was huge - and God he was enjoying it! There are times when the crowd simply won't let him leave the stage and let someone else perform - all very embarrassing to the festival's organisers. Very galling too to Pete Sanctimonious Seeger, who puts a brave face on losing his folkie crown to the young upstart. Pete makes full use of his height advantage, but inside he's hurting. And then there's embarrassing Joan Baez cosying up to Bob and muscling in on every performance she can, ruining the sound with her intrusive warbling. Everyone wants a piece of Bobby - until 1965, when a suddenly mean-looking Dylan goes electric and is met by a storm of jeers and boos and catcalls. He looks pained but unsurprised. He knows he has to do this. He is right.
We are still a long way from appreciating the full greatness of Dylan and the vast riches of his work - including the prodigious early harvest of his folk years. True appreciation will only come, I imagine, in the usual way - with his death. May it be a long way off.

Wednesday 18 February 2009

A Single Alien in Possession of a Good Fortune...

Well now, here's a thing. I suppose it goes to show how enduring and indestructible Jane Austen's work is - and the fascination it continues to exert, even if it finds some strange expressions. Maybe there's a whole new subgenre in this - take a literary masterpiece, plonk an alien down in the middle of it, and see what happens...

New Meanings: Top Shelf Literature

Here we go again - yet another example of the proactive appeasement that now seems to be ineradicably entrenched in the collective mindset of the 'public services'. This particular instance seems to be a strong argument for maintaining the Dewey Decimal System of classification - there's no arguing with Melvil Dewey's iron law. In any public library, users are forever moving books from shelf to shelf and putting them back in the wrong place. When I was myself a librarian, I found that putting them back in the right place was one of the curious guilty pleasures of the job.

Manners and Monsters

Just as, according to Nabokov, you can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style, so, I've always thought, you can count on a murderous dictator to have impeccable table manners. I always imagine Hitler at table as a plump, simpering, ladylike figure, raising a fondant fancy to his lips with a raised pinky, or daintily sipping the cup that cheers from a fine bone-china cup. It seems I was wrong. In all fairness, though, a dictator might well let his table manners slip when he's holed up in a bunker facing certain death, while his regime is destroyed and his country flattened. The odd lapse is surely permissible in such circumstances. I reclaim AH for the raised pinky brigade.
Meanwhile in Cambodia, another mild-mannered monster goes on trial. Another former schoolteacher... I bet he has impeccable table manners.

Stanford - Who'd Ever Have Guessed?

So, as the 'massive fraud' charges fly, it seems 'Sir'Allen Stanford (company motto 'Hard work, clear vision, value for the client') is not quite the fine upstanding honourable gentleman we all took him for, but more of a Texan Bernie Madoff. Well actually nobody with half a brain would have taken him for anything but a shyster. Unfortunately that half-brain qualification rules out the people who run English cricket - or, to be fair, any sport. The one who does come out of this sounding like a fine upstanding honourable gent is the gloriously named PM of Antigua, Baldwin Spencer (what else could he be but a PM?). How's this for a measured statement? Magnificent.

Tuesday 17 February 2009

Baa Thump

There have been strange goings-on among the wildlife of the Outer Hebrides, to judge by this report. Probably, if you observe any kind of living creatures for long enough, you'll see them doing odd things - I reckon my local crows are up to all sorts when we're not looking, probably plotting the overthrow of us humans. The way they look at me when I walk past can be quite unnerving.
Stinky Bay, Benbecula, sounds like a most attractive destination - and it isn't only dunlin that turn up there...


I caught a long, tedious and obviously very expensive TV commercial last night. Bruce Willis, Elle MacPherson and (er) Ringo Starr were talking, in a variety of locations suggestive of massive stardom, about how changing their names from the ones they were born with had propelled their careers into the stratosphere. Yeah yeah, I thought (and will this ad ever end?). Then, at last, it came to the point. This preposterously lavish extravaganza had been put together at vast expense to tell the world that the Norwich Union was changing its name to Aviva. Is it any wonder the world of finance has fallen about our ears? These people are clearly mad.

The Perils of Invisibility

First it was satellites colliding head-on in the vast deserts of space; now it's nuclear subs on a still more improbable collision course, in the same place, at the same depth, in all those cubic miles of the Atlantic. The problem seems to have been that these subs are so determined to keep a low profile that they were invisible and undetectable, even to each other. This puts me in mind of the superhero duo Captain Invisible and the See-Thru Kid, regulars on a long forgotten radio comedy of the early 80s, Son of Cliché. Their adventures would invariably begin with an exchange of 'Kid!' 'Captain?' 'Where are you, Kid? I can't see you.' 'I'm over here, Captain' etc, then build into a fine mess of invisibility-related slapstick. I also remember a sketch in which producers were casting a Hollywood musical of the Nativity, with Barbra Streisand as Mary ('Push, push, push our little baby into the world. Will it be a boy, or will it be girl?'), Dustin Hoffman as the baby, and Karl Malden as the afterbirth. Oh and then there was the writer pitching a cosy Dr Finlay-style medical drama about a Scottish village doctor with an unusual specialism - proctology. 'Och if it's trouble doonstair and roond the back, you've come to the right man'... Does anyone else remember this show?
I know - I should get out more.

Monday 16 February 2009


I'm happy to report that my apparently none too trusty home PC (precisely one month out of warranty) is back in action. After much umming and aahing and head-scratching, I phoned PC Hit Squad or some such and they sent out an Instant Response Unit, which took a mere four hours and turned out to be a very pleasant young man of (I think) South Asian extraction, who soon had the machine working. It hadn't been easy being offline - the world seemed to shrink alarmingly when I was dependent on the resources of the analog world and the dusty lumber room of my mind. Still, I was able to read a bit, and watch Mad Men and muse on its staggering coolness and smartness, and how dumb nearly all British TV is compared to good American TV. And it's not just the odd sui generis gem like Mad Men or The Sopranos or The Wire, it's more routine stuff too. Compare Law & Order to the average British police procedural, which rarely comes up with a plot as interesting as even a below-par L&O, and takes three times as long to do about a third as much in all departments, while making about a third as much demand on the viewers' mind and attention. A UK version of the franchise - Law & Order: UK - is launching soon on ITV, and they seem to have got it more or less right by simply carbon copying the US format. Though of course it's not as cool or as smart...
But enough of TV. Thanks to the restored wonders of the web, I have discovered that today is the 141st anniversary of the founding of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, formerly known as the Jolly Gorks. I must confess I'd never heard of them, but to judge by their website they're huge - and no wonder: being an Elk sounds like the most tremendous fun. Don't miss the poem there - When Father Rode The Goat. Do the Elks still carry on like that? I do hope so.

Sunday 15 February 2009

Sunday Miscellaneous

It's all very well being named in Bryan's epoch-making Top 100 Blogs (which has made me come over strangely emotional and Winsletty - don't worry, it won't last), but it's no help when your home PC suddenly refuses to work, for no apparent reason (well, reasons are rarely apparent with PCs, but I did establish that it wasn't the disconnected lead that I reconnected with a premature cry of Eureka!). So, it's a day late that I pass on this St Valentine's Day gem. Bang on the button, as usual, though a pedant would point out that February 14 is no longer St Valentine's Day, but is shared between Ss Cyril and Methodius.
I've also been thinking (no, thinking's pushing it a bit) about advertising. The other day I saw two hoardings next to each other: one was informing the world that the Norwich Union (sound, dull, sensible name, perfect for these troubled times)had taken leave of its collective senses and decided to 'rebrand' itself as Aviva, thereby taking on all the allure and prestige of a second-rate provincial bus company. On the poster next to it, a repulsive suarian lifeform appeared to be endorsing some kind of car insurance. On closer inspection, I realised that this was none other than Iggy Pop. I now have yet another item to add to my ever-growing list of things I never thought I'd live to see. I mean, what odds could you have got 40 years ago on Iggy Pop (a) still being alive 40 years on, and (b) adveristing car insurance in the UK? Both posters also prompt me to marvel yet again at the sheer money-for-nothing madness of advertising and, gawd help us, 'rebranding'...
Oh, and while I'm online (I fear I shan't be tomorrow), I must say I'm suspicious about this story. Is this 4ft-tall, clearly prepubescent boy really 13, and is he really the father? I hope someone's checked...

Friday 13 February 2009

Cheeta Latest

This alarming news reaches me from Dave Lull, via Bryan. Next thing they'll be telling us he didn't write his memoirs himself - Pshaw, a pudden's end!

Next time, Boris - get medieval...

Reading this, one can only marvel at Boris's restraint. You want an expletive-laden rant? I'll show you an expletive-laden rant - no I won't actually, but whatever Boris's measured remarks amount to, they are hardly an expletive-laden rant. You have to bear in mind that he was dealing with one of the oiliest, slipperiest, most comprehensively noxious specimens to be found even in the purlieus of Westminster. Vaz is quite possibly the world's most annoying man, and Boris showed remarkable restraint in not going round to his place and getting seriously medieval with his sorry ass. It would have been a public service...

Sydney in Sonnets

I came across a reference to this by chance - a novel in sonnets published daily in the Sydney Morning Herald! Imagine such a thing in a British newpsaper... No, it would never happen - and yet Australia is stereotyped as a land without 'culture'.
The tetrameter sonnet is a fine form in which to write a novel - ideally the Onegin stanza, as in Vikram Seth's extraordinary The Golden Gate. This is devilish difficult in English (as I know from experience) but can work wonderfully well, the demands of the unnatural rhyme scheme (aBaBccDDeFFeGG) creating new, unexpected,often playful modes of expression, swerving and jinking while the meter drives the action along. And, unlike other sonnet forms, there are no natural divisions - even between stanzas, in a sequence. Enjambment is of the essence. The springy form dictates briskness and lightness of tone, but it can also (as in Pushkin, as in Seth) be intensely moving. A good Pushkin sonnet, according to Nabokov, should be like a spinning top, with the upper part (the opening lines) and the bottom (the closing couplet) standing out clear and apparently at rest, while everything dissolves into a blur in between.
There are too few novels in verse - time for a revival, I say. There's far too much dreary prose out there.

Thursday 12 February 2009

The Wine-Dark Sea

Why, you may often have asked yourself, is Homer's sea invariably 'wine-dark'? Dark is descriptive enough, but the resemblance to wine is elusive... The clue is in another Homeric fact: that there are only four colours in all of Homer - black, white, greeenish-yellow and red. No blue. It seems perception of colours evolves slowly, beginning with the obvious light-dark distinction that gives rise to black and white, then invariably (this is according to Brent Berlin and Paul Kay's 1968 study Basic Colour Terms) the third colour to be named is red, followed by green and yellow, with blue trailing in sixth and brown seventh. This appears to be universal, across all human cultures, and it would explain why some languages still have the same word for 'red' and 'coloured' (Spanish colorado, Portuguese tinto). So it would seem that, in the absence of blue, Homer saw the sea as simply 'coloured', therefore 'red' - this despite living in a landscape dominated by the vast and various blues of Greek sky and sea. How very odd.

Geert Away With You

The old double standard (see Mutual Respect, below) swings into action again as Geert Wilders is refused entry to the UK, on grounds very similar to those used to justify the (failed) police action against Channel 4 over Undercover Mosque. So let's get this straight, to avoid further confusion. Here are the rules: If you're a Muslim preacher calling for the death, or at the very least persecution, of homosexuals and Jews, you're welcome - you might even (under Cuddly Ken) get an audience with the Mayor of London. If you have filmed said preachers making these remarks, you're the one who's inciting hatred and violence and you must be acted against. Is that clear? Good. Meanwhile, Wilders should be prosectued for crimes against hair.

Wednesday 11 February 2009


Yesterday's unedifying show trial of four 'leading bankers' proved once again that Sorry is actually the easiest word to say. This is because it has a double meaning, expressing either remorse/repentance for one's actions, or regret at the way things turned out. Clearly the bankers were using it in its second sense. We could do with a new word that is less weasely.

Mutual Respect

Yesterday Ahmadinejad declared that Iran was open to the idea of talks with the US, provided there was 'mutual respect'. His audience continued their well-drilled chants of 'Death to America!'.
Clearly, to demonstrate full mutuality, Obama should deliver his response in front of an audience chanting 'Death to Iran!' Or is there perhaps a double standard at work here?

Beware the Expert...

Bryan is already onto the tergiversation of the 'experts' on eggs and related matters. As ever, it's mildly agreeable when 'expert scientific advice' finally catches up with one's own commonsensical view - but the tyranny of supposed expertise continues unchecked, and there are some who would insist that the 'independent' views of the 'expert scientists' must take precedence over all other considerations in policy making. Prof Colin Blakemore is one of them, making his point this morning in a discussion stirred by a government drug adviser recommending - on scientific grounds - the downgrading of Ecstasy. I wonder if the likes of Blakemore ever pause to think what the world would be like if the viewsof the 'experts' were translated directly into policy. These same experts, remember, assured us confidently that by now hundreds of thousands of us, in this country, would be dead from an Aids pandemic. A little later, they were assuring us with equal confidence that similar numbers would be dead from a BSE pandemic. (They also, on a smaller scale, assured us that we'd all get Salmonella if we dared to eat an egg - the ghastly Edwina Currie made the mistake of taking them seriously on that, and lost her job.) The only mass death that occurred in this country was in the event the unnecessary panic slaughter of millions of healthy cattle - on the orders of the 'scientific experts'. I really shouldn't mention 'global warming', but it does fit the familiar pattern of 'experts' forming a consensus and talking up a panic, and I'd at least suggest that governments should think very hard (that'll be the day) before taking their 'independent scientific advice' on board... When 'experts' hold forth, have plenty of salt at hand. And when eating an egg.

Tuesday 10 February 2009

New Meanings: Racism?

It seems we've now reached a level of public insanity where 'inclusiveness' (usually thought of as anti-racist) can be labelled 'racist' and be used as a weapon to hound a well-intentioned person out of a job. This is, of course, straightforward bullying, the word 'racist' used as a blunt weapon. In yesterday's Start the Week, there was a long and convoluted discussion of the Satanic Verses affair and its legacy, in the course of which Andrew Marr asked one question that made all the rest of the argument pretty irrelevant: Isn't it just that we're scared of offending Muslims because they're uniquely likely to resort to violence? This question (and its implied answer) remained hovering in the air.
What, then, is racism? I would suggest it goes something like this. I wonder if he'll lose his job. I wonder also at the quality of advice the boy Milliband is getting....

Monday 9 February 2009

Pictures from a (very small) Exhibition

I've just paid a quick visit to Tate Britain - not, I need hardly tell you, for the delights of the Altermodern Tate triennial exhibit (shouty Waldemar Januszczak is surely right that the Tate-based 'modern art' racket of today is the equivalent of the Salon in 1860s Paris - over-intellectualised, self-referring, self-serving, inward-looking and irrelevant - and must soon be blown away by a healthy blast of real art). I was there for a mooch, and to have a look at this tiny exhibition - just 35 pictures in one small room. I'm glad I went - there are at least half a dozen works there which are worth the trip. The Francis Towne is of course wonderful, as is a large Constable drawing of fir trees in Hampstead, but there's also a tiny, gemlike Holman Hunt watercolour of Fishing Boats by Moonlight; a fresh-as-a-daisy Eric Ravilious of an observation post in rural Essex in 1939 (he was dead a couple of years later, lost on an RAF air-sea rescue operation); a meticulous watercoloured pen-and-ink by Charles Ginner of A London Back Garden; a gloriously intense watercolour (plus body colour, gum arabic, the works) of The Bellman, an illustration to Il Penseroso, from the last year of Samuel Palmer's life; and a quite beautiful pastel of Women on the Quay at La Rochelle by William Nicholson - as good as a Degas, which is about as good as pastel gets. Then, in a display case in the middle of the room, there's a colour study for a mural of Country Life which Edward Bawden did for the Festival of Britain. The watercolour study is on card, pleated like a screen, immaculately drawn and designed - and, like so much of Bawden's work, it puts a smile on your face. All in all, then, a gem of an exhibition - cheering, rewarding and refreshing rather than (like so many gallery shows) exhausting. It's in Gallery 5, but you'll have to hurry - it ends on Sunday.

Stoatally Bonkers

I wonder what is going on here. Perhaps the stoat is kicking itself for not having changed into its ermine coat of near-invisibility...

Sunday 8 February 2009

Nothing that is not there...

Looking at the sad remnants of half-melted snowmen in the parks, it occurred to me that I had somehow got through the recent 'snow event' without once referring to this... There, the omission is repaired.

John Ruskin: Illth

John Ruskin - art critic, social scourge, artist, author, reformer, sage and prophet - turns 190 today. A hundred years ago, none would have questioned that he was a giant, a towering figure of worldwide importance. He was read by and influenced everyone, from schoolchildren to world leaders and great writers (notably Proust and Tolstoy). Today, I suspect, he is scarcely read at all outside Academe. This is partly a result of the decline in literacy and public education (very few schoolchildren today - and few world leaders, come to that - would even be able to understand his complex, richly allusive prose). But also we have generally turned against the kind of high earnestness that Ruskin embodied, and to distrust the Great Man and the prophetic voice, especially, perhaps, one as overtly biblical as his. I remember, in the 60s and 70s, often coming across sets of Ruskin's dauntingly copious collected works mouldering away in secondhand bookshops and junk shops, where they were simply unsaleable. In more recent times, positive biographies and critiques of Ruskin have done something to rescue his name from total oblivion. However, he survives in the public imagination only as a specimen of morbid psychology, known for his supposed aversion to his wife's pubic hair (a probably untrue story) and his supposedly unhealthy fondness for little girls. The poor man would indeed be revolving in his grave, if he knew how thoroughly mean and trivial our world has become.
For myself, I've read a good deal of Ruskin in my time - a rollercoaster reading experience, if ever there was one, as Ruskin lurches from piercing insight into impenetrable obscurantism, from clear rightness of judgement to the most boneheaded wrongness, from forcefully expressive prose into hypertrophied prosing and apopletic ranting. Exciting in a way, yes, but I doubt I could take it now in any but small doses. There is, though, an essence in Ruskin of something of true and lasting value - and, as the bankers bring us to our knees, might not the sonorous trumpet blast of his prophetic voice have something to tell us? For a start, we could revive his useful word illth. What were those bankers doing if it was not creating, on a world-destroying scale, illth? Perhaps it's time to have another look at Unto This Last...

Friday 6 February 2009

Animated Relevance

So there I was, in a dream last night , talking to a friend who had been left by not one but two wives, but had now moved on to number three - who, happily, seemed very nice and no bolter. He was telling me how he had got his life back on track after someone had put him on to a new way of thinking. What was that? I inquired. 'Animated relevance,' he replied. 'Ah,' I nodded sagely, not having a clue what he was talking about. 'Animated relevance...'
I've no idea where that could have come from, but it's a fine sonorous phrase, and surely has self-help potential. 'Animated Relevance: A New Way to Unlock the Power of You'...

Fulsome Misprision Blues

And yet another thing... I've noticed that the BBC line - on paper and when vocalised by the ghastly Jay Hunt creature - is that Carol T had to go because she failed to deliver a 'fulsome' apology. This is what 'fulsome' means, and I don't think even the likes of Jay Hunt would consider such an apology tremendously useful. What the catachrestic BBC meant was 'full', but that blunt monosyllable didn't seem strong enough to convey just how full, so they reached for the beefier-sounding 'fulsome'. It's an increasingly common misusage - I've even seen it applied to bodily features ('fulsome lips' etc) - and I suspect the word 'fulsome' might well be migrating towards meaning nothing more than very full, fuller than full, super-full - just like the apology that, to the scandal of the BBC and the relief of the rest of us, never came.


And another thing... Maybe it's just me - it very probably is (as a child, I found the world endlessly puzzling and generally misunderstood everything - yes, nothing much has changed) - but when I was a boy I never made the connection between golliwogs and black people. I just thought of gollies as some indeterminate anthropoid form - like Rupert the Bear, Winnie the Pooh and most toys designed to be held. If I'd thought about it at all, I'd have guessed the golly was based on some kind of animal I didn't know. It was only when the 'racist' interpretation gained ground - by which time I was some kind of adult - that the penny dropped. As I say, it probably was just me...
Meanwhile, here's a remark that is clearly offensive to one-eyed Scottish idiots everywhere.

'Fine variations of the commonplace'

I make no apologies for returning to the Gollygate saga - after all, the BBC, with its usual deft PR footwork, is keeping this hugely damaging story alive and kicking day after day. It seems to me that the root of this story - the 'offence' taken - is a textbook example of priggishness in action. And who wrote the textbook? Marilynne Robinson of course, in her brilliant, burningly pertinent essay, Puritans and Prigs.
Priggishness, she says, is 'up-to-date and eager to go to work, and it does a fine imitation of morality, as self-persuaded as a Method actor. It looks like morality and feels like it, both to those who wield it and those that taste its lash'.
But priggishness is not morality... Distinguishing between the two, Robinson concedes that ' perhaps what I have called priggishness is useful in the absence of true morality, which requires years of development, perhaps thousands of years, and cannot simply be summoned as needed. Its inwardness and quietism makes its presence difficult to sense, let alone quantify, and they make its expression often idiosyncratic and hard to control. But priggishness makes its presence felt. And is highly predictable because it is nothing else than a consuming loyalty to ideals and beliefs which are in general so widely shared that the spectacle of zealous adherence to them is reassuring. The prig's formidable leverage comes from the fact that his or her ideas, notions or habits are always fine variations on the commonplace. A prig with original ideas is a contradiction in terms, because he or she is a creature of consensus who can usually appeal to one's better nature, if only to embarrass dissent. A prig in good form can make one ashamed to hold a conviction so lightly, and, at the same time, ashamed to hold it at all. '
And there's more: 'People who are blind to the consequences of their own behaviour no doubt feel for that reason particularly suited to the work of reforming other people. To them morality seems almost as easy as breathing.'
Further comment would be superfluous.

Thursday 5 February 2009

The Fool Hath Said...

The Agnostic Bus rolls on, and now, belatedly, it's drawn a Christian response, of a kind. I think the Russian Orthodox approach is preferable - you can't go far wrong quoting a Psalm. The Christian Party sounds a deal too sure of itself (and quasi-political). The smartest response would have been a Christian counter-bus with the simple slogan 'There probably is a God. So stop worrying and enjoy your life.' This exposes the non sequitur of the Agnostic Bus slogan, and goes about as far in assertion as a conscientious believer could in the circumstances. In the end, as Eames says in Gilead, 'Nothing true can be said about God from a posture of defence'.

William Nicholson: Great Boots

Just days after James Joyce's, we have another birthday to celebrate (a 137th, rather than a 127th) - that of William Nicholson, an artist best remembered for revolutionising the art of the woodcut in his 'Beggarstaff Brothers' collaboration with James Pryde. Those great prints, with their bold, expressive design, deservedly remain hugely popular. Many of them - the famous Queen Victoria and Rudyard Kiplng among them - also demonstrate the gift for portraiture which was to provide Nicholson with his bread and butter. As a painter, though, I reckon he is hugely underrated. The exhibition at the Royal Academy a few years ago was one of the most enjoyably eye-opening I have ever seen, and included some unmistakably great paintings. One that lingers in the memory is a huge group portrait of the Canadian Headquarters Staff in World War I, an awkward assembly of men in uniform, standing at various angles, no one's eyes meetng anyone else's - in front of, and entirely dominated by, a gigantic aerial photograph of some bomb-flattened French town. It is a breathtaking work (rarely seen in public, and no image traceable on the internet unfortunately), and one of its remarkable features is that the officers' shiny boots seem more alive than them... And then there are Miss Jekyll's boots, which Nicholson painted in addition to his portrait of the great gardener (Gertrude) herself, and which seem almost as alive. With Van Gogh's these are, I'd contend, the great boots of modern art.
Nicholson was also an accomplished landscapist - his strong sense of design and preference for minimal means again to the fore - and, in particular, a marvellous still-life painter, with an almost uncanny gift for rendering metallic shine and lustre. Considering his careful cultivation of the 'dandy' pose, his work is always suprisingly restrained, with little of the dash or swagger so characteristic of Edwardian painting. Nothing is over-finished, and his virtuoso brushwork doesn't call attention to itself - nothing about his paintings does - but anyone with an eye can see that this was a real painter. His present eclipse is partly due to the swing in fashion that favoured modernist Ben over bygone Bill, and partly due to his work being so widely scattered in private collections (a lovely little landscape turned up on Antiques Roadshow recently). It would be nice to think that future generations might yet put him up there where he belongs, as one of the great British painters of the 20th century.

Wednesday 4 February 2009

Brown: 'I Screwed Up'

'I screwed up,' declared a visibly distraught Gordon Brown at a hastily convened press conference. 'I am here to tell you that I screwed up. I screwed up the economy, I screwed up the country, I might very well have screwed up the world.' His jaw set and his eyes glinting, Brown continued, 'I am to blame. Nobody else. It is all my fault. I take full responsibility. Someone might be able to sort out this mess, but it sure as heck isn't me. I, gentlemen, have screwed up.' With which words, he strode manfully from the platform...
No, wait a moment, actually it was this guy.

The High Life

It seems that Aeroflot still keeps up the best traditions of Soviet-era aviation, with a strong emphasis on customer relations and health and safety. The story is reminiscent of life aboard Air Scotia in the camper-than-camp aviation sitcom from the 90s, The High Life - which, by happy chance, BBC4 is currently repeating.

BBC Aims for the Foot Again

We all know, do we not, that the BBC is working tirelessly night and day to find new ways to foul up - but this one is a real jawdropper. Despite careful spinning to make it appear that Miss T was being 'racist' about a black player, it's now becoming apparent that she was referring to the bizarre spectacle presented at times of stress by Andy Murray's hair. In a private conversation, what's more. The only conclusion we can draw is that the word 'golliwog' itself is, in any context - even off-air - offensive as far as the BBC is concerned. Meanwhile, the charmless lout Chris Moyles (a Radio 1 'disc jockey', m'lud) is repeatedly complained against, often on grounds of racism, and generally escapes uncensured. And smirking middle-aged teenager Jonathan Ross, having made obscene, probably criminal prank calls to an old man - on air - returns to his absurdly lucrative BBC work after a mere suspension. The BBC regards the likes of Moyles and Ross as 'the Talent', and therefore largely immune, whereas small fry like Carol Thatcher they will come down on like a ton of bricks. Well, more fools them - especially as, with their unerring instinct for crisis mismanagement, they've clearly gone and shot themelves in the foot yet again.

Tuesday 3 February 2009

Monotheism News

Monotheism has opened a new front in its war on, er... what? Polytheism? Secularism? The wrong kind of monotheism (i.e. Judaism and Christianity)? Still, this satellite throws in Peace and Justice as well, so who can complain? If Woody Guthrie's guitar could kill fascists, surely an Iranian satellite can do its bit for monotheism and the rest. He seems such a nice man too, that Ahmadinejad...

Monday 2 February 2009

I suppose we can't allow James Joyce's birthday to pass unmarked - 127 today.
'The demand I make of my reader,' he remarked modestly, 'is that he should devote his whole life to reading my works.' I fear most of us have let him down badly there, though for myself I've given him quite a lot of time, having read the Portrait several times, Ulysses twice (parts of it more - what stamina I once had!) and Dubliners several times - and have even managed bits of Finnegans Wake, but feel no urge to repeat the experience. The Wake seems a sad dead end, a hermetic experiment, closing in on itself where Ulysses reaches out to embrace a whole world - its sheer exuberance is astounding (and perhaps exhausted Joyce, leaving him nowhere to go). I'd say the best quick reminder of what a great writer Joyce could be is that wonderful, sad, perfect short story, The Dead. For that alone - even if he'd done nothing else - he'd deserve to be remembered.


Well here I am, snowbound in Suburbia. I am tempted, as ever, to blame global warming - but, being a true sceptic, I shan't, even though I know very well that at the next heatwave the media will be alive with warmist pundits telling us that this is how it's going to be, etc. Where are they now? Strangely silent. I just hope no gardeners took any notice of all that earnest advice over the past couple of years about switching to Mediterranean-style plants - they'll have an awful lot of dead vegetation on their hands now...
Here's Hardy on Snow in the Suburbs. As so often, he somehow achieves greatness while teetering on the brink of extreme badness.

Sunday 1 February 2009

Here's One I Painted Earlier

So now we know: Brown sees himself as very much a
Titian kind of chap - a tirelessly productive genius coming to the end of a career encompassing the macroeconomic equivalent of 'nearly 100 brilliant paintings' and, as he prepares to lay down his fiscal brush for the last time, realising that only now, at the end, is he beginning to learn how to do it. This can be taken as a frank admission that up till now he hasn't had a clue - but I rather doubt that was the intent. Or - which he surely did intend - it can be taken as an effort to align himself with greatness, with the wisdom of experience, with a reborn gusto for the conquest of new worlds. Unfortunately for Gordon, it seems to have been almost universally read as yet another symptom of his increasingly delusional state. It takes more than mere nerve, more than chutzpah, more than hubris for a busted PM who has bankrupted his country and is clinging to power by his fingernails to liken himself to one of the greatest artists the world has ever seen or is ever likely to see - and one whose late works in particular are wonders that transcend even his earlier triumphs. As the man said to T. Danforth Quayle - I knew Jack Titian, Jack Titian was a friend of mine. You, Mr Brown, are no Titian.
But enough of this sad mad man and his quest to lead us all into perdition. There is good news on the Titian front too - Diana and Actaeon has been saved, Diana and Calisto will surely follow. This suggests that we might be, after all and despite the best efforts of our masters, a civilised nation.