Tuesday 30 June 2009

Blaming and Practice

I've just started reading Elizabeth Taylor's last novel, Blaming, which was published posthumously. It's a good thing she didn't live to see the publisher's blurb on the back of the paperback, which begins 'While on holiday in Istanbul, tragedy strikes...' One can almost visualise Taylor, a fastidious stylist, wincing at the dangling participle - though it's the kind of thing we've now learnt to expect, in this age of semi-literate publishing. Something that makes me wince is the use of 'practice' as a verb. This often occurs throughout 'English' editions of American books - presumably as a result of a computer programme substituting 'practice' for 'practise' throughout, regardless of whether the word's being used as a verb or a noun. Whatever happened to copy editing?

Monday 29 June 2009


for reference - and because I can't resist it - here's a White Admiral.

Yes, It's That Time of Year Again...

My last day as Nature Boy before Nigecorp reclaims me - and the sun's shining brilliantly, so what's a Nature Boy to do? I made my familiar beeline for the oakwoods and grassland of Ashtead Common, and soon found myself among those spectacular beauties, the Silver-washed Fritillaries - my first of the year, and they were out in force, fresh and lively, rarely settling as they flew by with that characteristic combination of powerful forward strokes and long gliding swoops. At one point a pair locked in flagrante delicto flew heavily past and landed with the butterfly equivalent of a thump amid the brambles - that's something I've never seen before... It seemed at first that I was not going to spot my favourite, the White Admiral, but evenutally I was rewarded with a tally of half a dozen or so swooping by, again very lively and disinclined to settle - though one, flying so close I could feel and hear the swish of its wings, very nearly landed on my shirt... But the most dramatic moment came when I glimpsed what might - I say might - have been a Purple Emperor. All I can say for certain is that it was something lepidopterine, dark and improbably large, flying at formidable speed, hurtling high up through the oak canopy and disappearing from view in a second. I wouldn't claim it as a positive sighting, but I think it very probably was that fabled beauty (more elusive than actually rare), the Purple Emperor.

Sunday 28 June 2009

Lost In Wales

Well, I am back from Wales. My general thoughts on the Principality remain unchanged from what they were two years ago. This time we also had rain - a steady Welsh rain - and we got lost. It was one of those walks that look fine on the map, but on the ground... Oh dear, another story altogether. Our misadventures began with a well maintained stile that led directly into an impenetrable thicket of brambles, nettles, hawthorn etc that there was no getting through. A long detour through swampy, boot-sucking, undrained fields culminated in a rather desperate breakout, via a barbed wire fence with a deep ditch on the far side and barely penetrable growth around a lost hollow way, back onto the route, along a footpath that crossed a muddy, meandering river. Except that it didn't. Where two paths met from either bank, there was no crossing. The nearest was a mile or so further along, where a footbridge was clearly marked. Already sodden to the knees and above, we wet off to find that bridge. This involved getting over a tributary stream by means of another long, muddy detour, followed by another, worse commando-style assault on a barbed wire fence, more barely penetrable undergrowth, the stream itself, and much mud - in the course of this assault, all but one of us (me, by sheer luck) fell over, either in water or mud. When our bedraggled, torn and mud-spattered crew eventually hauled ourselves out of the wood and into an open field, we realised, having got our bearing, that this gruelling detour had gained us perhaps 30 yards of progress along the river. However, we were nearing that footbridge - that much was certain.
At this point, a tractor appeared, accompanied by three excited sheepdogs. Aboard the tractor was a farmer - the first human being we had seen since the walk began. He steered towards us and stopped, and we realised with relief that he was amiably disposed and not about to order us off his land. We inquired about the footbridge. He thought a moment, then 'No' he said, 'there's no bridge. There was a bridge, but it got smashed up.' Another pause for thought. 'A tank went over it in the war and smashed it up.' So much for the Ordnance Survey map, updated 2007 - and so much for our hopes of getting across that river without having to wade it (and it really didn't look very wadable).
At this point, our walk turned into a Famous Five adventure, as the kindly farmer offered to ferry us across the river in his tractor. It was an old Massey Ferguson, with just room for two to perch beside the driver, hanging on to whatever was at hand. And so this providential farmer took us across that river, two by two, and we, tired, wet, muddy but very very grateful, resumed - and replanned - our walk. What were the lessons of this experience? That even up-to-date OS maps should be taken with a pinch of salt - at least in wild west Wales. That it is amazingly easy, in this overcrowded country, to find yourself seriously lost and up against seriously difficult terrain - and not to see a single human soul around - even when you are ostensibly quite close to human habitation. And that there are nice, helpful farmers - yes, even in Wales.
You're probably wondering about the picture. That's from St Teilo's Church, reconstructed at the superb outdoor museum at St Fagan's, which we visited on our return journey. The church has not only been rebuilt on the museum site but restored to the kind of painted polychrome glory in which it would have appeared around 1520. It works wonderfully well. There is more about it - and more images - here.

Thursday 25 June 2009

And Now...

I'm off walking for a couple of days. Normal blogging will resume on Sunday or Monday.

Wrestling with Scott Walker

My old friend down in Devon, a never-faling source of enlightenment, has sent me some recordings - on those dear old familiar old tape cassettes, naturally - including one of Scott Walker's 2005 album The Drift. Walker, of course, is famous for having given up (or rather fled from) being a teen idol, becoming a great balladeer and interpreter of Jacques Brel among others, then, having spent long year staring into the abyss and cultivating an exquisite blend of pain and paranoia, becoming a cult artist - no, the cult artist's cult artist, releasing a tortured and inaccessible album every decade or so. Somewhere along the way, I lost, as it were, the drift - but now I have The Drift. This is an album that makes the bleaker moments of Winterreise sound like a Chas & Dave singalong. It is so punishing in its demands (and often in its assault on the ears) that I can only handle one track at a time. Having negotiated Cossacks Are - a kind of cut-up of found phrases chanted against an alienating soundscape - and the truly nightmarish Clara (Benito's Dream), about Mussolini's mistress and her grisly fate, I have just managed Jesse, a terrible lament built around Elvis Presley talking to his stillborn dead twin. If - and only if - you're feeling strong, you can experience that one here. There is no doubting that this is amazing stuff - dark beyond dark, histrionic beyond histrionic. Magnificent? Absurd? Both? Treading a fine line between the two? I don't know, and I rather doubt I ever will - but I'm glad, in a stunned, shellshocked kind of way, to have had the experience. One track at a time, I carry on...

Wednesday 24 June 2009

Bitter Bierce

Politics: A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.

Positive, adj: Mistaken at the top of one's voice.

Present, n: That part of eternity dividing the domain of disappointment from the realm of hope.

Perseverance: A lowly virtue whereby mediocrity achieves an inglorious success.

Patriotism: Combustible rubbish ready to the torch of anyone ambitious to illuminate his name.

Philosophy: A route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing.

Just a few entries under the letter P in that sardonic masterpiece The Devil's Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce - 'Bitter Bierce' - who was born on this day in 1842, the tenth of 13 children, on all of whom their father (Marcus Aurelius Bierce) bestowed names beginning with A. In 1913, while travelling with Pancho Villa's army in Mexico, Bierce became one of very few authors to disappear without trace. How we wish there were more...

Tuesday 23 June 2009

The Blazer Question

In a comment under The Toughest Game, Mark coins a wonderfully expressive phrase for the kind of officious twerps who run Wimbledon (among other things) - 'blazer-drones'. This got me thinking - what is it about blazers that makes them so loathesome, so suspect, so fundamentally wrong? (I exclude of course those worn by war veterans - and by blazer I mean the double-breasted, metal-buttoned pseudo-military job.) I leave this burning question of our times for you to mull over, as I shall be out and about and offline today.

Monday 22 June 2009

Box Hill Again...

I know, I know - enough with the butterflies already. But what's a fellow to do? I went for a walk on Box Hill earlier today and I saw not one, not two, but three of these beauties. It's the Dark Green Fritillary - almost as spectacular as the Silver-Washed, and every bit as beautiful, but a little smaller and favouring open land. The ones I saw today were on flowery downland, on the dip slope of the hill, flying strongly (as they do) and hard to follow, so I never quite managed a close-up look. But, talking of flowers, I did have the pleasure of taking a long close look at a Bee Orchid - and to feel the furry body of the 'bee'. Why is the flower formed in this strange simulacrum of a bumble bee? There's an obvious answer: to attract bumble bees to attempt to mate with the decoy bee and thereby pollinate the flower. But in Britain this has never been observed, and the flower is self-pollinating. So the real answer is rather the one that fits so many cases: No one knows. When it comes to orchids - and butterflies - nature seems to be exuberantly playful.

The Toughest Game

It's the time of year when the BBC sets about whipping up Wimbledon fever. In the latest overexcited trailer, a portentous voice (John McEnroe's?) informs us that 'the toughest game of all is against yourself'. Well of course it is - if you've ever tried it you don't need telling. Lob the ball up, jump the net, dash to the far end, whack it back before it bounces twice, jump the net again, race it to the line, whack it up... Tough? I'll say - but does Wimbledon do solo tennis?
It reminds me of a running gag on a sketch show (The Fast Show?) where a couple would be having a quiet drink, and a desperate lonely old man would try to engage them in conversation by finding out what their occupation was. Whatever it turned out to be, he would claim to have done it himself. 'Yeah I was in the ballet game meself. Years I was in the ballet game.' Pause, suck in breath through missing teeth, shake head. ''Ardest game in the world, the ballet game.'

Sunday 21 June 2009

Machado de Assis

Epitaph of a Small Winner by Machado de Assis (born on this day in 1839) sat on my bookshelves for years before I picked it up and read it - I don't know why, and I'm very glad that I eventually took it down and read it. It is one of those great unclassifiable books, ostensibly a memoir written from beyond the grave by a dead man, Bras Cubas, and dedicated thus: ' To the worm who first gnawed on the cold flesh of my corpse, I dedicate with fond remembrance these Posthumous Memoirs' . Beginning with Bras Cubas's ironic death (he had just invented a supposedly revolutionary medicine), it then loops backwards to his childhood and proceeds to tell , after a fashion, the story of his life. Yes, the influence of Tristram Shandy is very apparent, as is that of Schopenhauer, for this is a robustly pessimistic piece of work. Totting up his life as if it were a profit-and-loss account, he considers himself a 'small winner' for not having had any children to pass the misery of life on to. But even Machado's pessimism is ironic, playful and elegantly comic, as in his near contemporary, the great Portuguese novelist Eca de Queiros... What is perhaps most remarkable about Machado de Assis is that a man of such lowly origins - born poor and 'black' - should have managed to immerse himself as deeply as he evidently did in Portuguese, English, French and German culture, and to rise so fast and far in society. Perhaps it says something for the Portuguese style of colonialism and relatively relaxed attitude to 'blackness' - I don't know - but Machado de Assis is certainly a Brazilian writer who belongs to a much wider world, and, if you haven't come across him, is well worth seeking out.

The Pink 'Un

Sorry to return to hawk moths so soon, but last night there was much excitement at Nige Towers when an Elephant Hawk Moth - a species I haven't seen in years (though it's common enough, as hawk moths go) - flew in out of the night, straight into the breakfast room. There it was bouncing blindly from wall to wall while the cat eyed it with murderous intent. As my son and I tried to steer it to safety, it landed on my jacket, where it seemed quite happy to pause while I admired it. Its wings were a frantic blur, but the fat, lightly furred, pink-and-olive-brown body was a sight in itself. It seemed best to get the poor bewildered thing back out into the garden, so I edged out with the moth still in situ, and, my son having turned on an outside light, I settled it among leaves near the light, where its wings came to rest and I was briefly able to admire the whole creature. It seemed best then to turn out the light and shut the door and leave this wonderful moth to recover and return to the night, its element.
(By the way, if you're wondering why 'elephant' hawk, it's because of a fancied resemblance between its caterpillar and an elephant.)

Saturday 20 June 2009

A Good Year for the Daisies

Thanks to this year's unusually summer-like summer weather, the daisies have been thriving. I'd noticed how splendid the ox-eyes have been in the countryside, but unfortunately I have no daisies in my lawn. If I did, I certainly wouldn't regard them as weeds - nothing improves a stretch of grass like a spangling of daisies. Robert Herrick's poem To Daisies, in its simple beauty and small scale, perfectly matches its subject.

Friday 19 June 2009

Titans of Rock

Something half-heard on the World Service in the small hours led me to a band I confess I had never heard of before. They have 17 gold discs to their name, plus 12 platinum, 3 double-platinum and 10 multi-platinum. With sales topping 17 million DVDs and 4 million CDs, they have been Australia's top-earning entertainers 4 years running, and have played 12 sold-out shows on consecutive nights at Madison Square Garden. Who are these titans of rock? This link will tell you...

Richard Monckton Milnes

Here's a bicentenary worth noting. Richard Monckton Milnes (born on this day in 1809) was one of those giant figures of the Victorian age, who seem so much larger than life as we conceive it in our narrower, enervated times. As well as being a very active politician (mostly in sound causes), mover and shaker, and friend of the great and good - indeed, he was one of them - he also pursued a productive and, in its time, successul literary career, his output including two volumes of poetry and the first biography of Keats, the book that launched the revival of Keats's literary reputation. Monckton Milnes was also a friend and patron to many writers, including Tennyson, Emerson, Richard Burton and the young Swinburne. The two latter names hint at the breadth of Milnes's literary interests, for this pillar of Victorian society (and persistent suitor of the secular saint Florence Nightingale) was also an ardent devotee of erotic literature, whose huge collection of erotica now resides in the British Library. This piece on the pornographic publisher Leonard Smithers touches on it. Intriguing to think of this gifted and extremely active public man devoting time to seeking out the rarest and finest of dirty books, and writing a mock-heroic epic on the joys of flagellation, The Rodiad. Oh those Victorian lives...

A Shocker

Shocking news from the world of showbiz - cuddly national treasure Stephen Fry is morphing into his friend and fellow national treasure Dick Madeley. Proof, if any were needed, that all humanity aspires to the condition of Madeley.

Wednesday 17 June 2009

A Lime Hawk Moment

I inherited from my father my love of butterflies and moths - and, with it, the June habit of scrutinising the trunks of lime trees as I pass them (a habit which can get you some funny looks). I do this, of course, in hope of seeing newly emerged lime hawk moths on the bare trunks. Some years I spot half a dozen or so (this is on urban and suburban streets), some none. This year it has been none. Then today, sitting with lunchtime sandwich and book under a tree in a small public garden in Kensington, I suddenly noticed, on the grass within a couple of feet of me - a lime hawk moth. I don't suppose I gaped and rubbed my eyes, but it would have been entirely appropriate. My first (and probably last)lime hawk of the year - and in the unlikeliest of places. It was slightly the worse for wear, with some of its colour rubbed off and the outer margin of one wing thin and gauzy - but still a very beautiful sight. I had it crawling around on my fingers for a while as I admired it close-up, then I put it on the trunk of the tree I was under, hoping it would recover its strength and fly off this evening. And the tree wasn't even a lime... A heart-lifting surprise, and a classic case of finding when you have ceased to seek.

Got My Radio On (until 2015)...

This shouldn't have come as a shock - after all it was bound to happen - but it did. What it means is that in six years' time (if they stick to the date) every non-digital radio in your house - all those transistors all over the place - will be so much worthless junk and will have to be replaced with DAB radios. They may prate all they like about 'device and platform convergence' and about all the other platforms on which radio can 'piggyback', but the whole point of radio is to have a simple, working radio with reasonable sound and reliable reception anywhere you want it aound the house - 'portable, intimate and ambient', indeed. Have these people ever tried using a DAB radio in the way we use our humble transistor sets? If so, they should know that DAB sets are as good as useless. Reception is dodgy - very dependent on position, and liable to give out for no apparent reason (especially if you use battery power). This is why take-up of DAB has been so disappointing to the industry - it seemed like a must-have, until you actually bought a set. In the natural course of things, it would be heading rapidly for the technological graveyard, as the people who want such a diversity of channels are quite content to listen on the internet (internet radio is booming), while the people who just want reliable radio around the place tuned to Radio 4, or 3, or whatever, are definitely not served by DAB. If this goes ahead, radio listening is never going to be the same again. To the barricades! For Long Wave, Medium Wave and FM! Forward to the past! !

Tuesday 16 June 2009

Large Blue and Coloured Marbles

Bit of a Nigecorp workstorm going on, but I can't resist passing on this great good news story from the world of butterflies. Despite having a life cycle apparently calculated to court extinction, this fascinating species has been saved by its human friends - and good for them.
Then there's this, the latest on the Parthenon frieze. It's always disturbing (I find) to be reminded of how colourful - to the point of brashness, and probably beyond - the ancient world was. What colours on earth could possibly improve on the marble perfection of that frieze? Or is that just post-classical aesthetic prejudice speaking? In the equally disturbing case of medieval church architecture - where every surface, it seems, was originally painted in strong colours, patterns and pictures - it still seems a very bad idea, and the efforts of the Victorians to revive the polychromatic style seem largely to confirm just how bad. When it comes to classical sculpture, we have to rely on computer-generated simulations - and the effects are shocking. I remember a recent simulation on TV of what the Venus de Milo would have originally looked like, two-armed and in full colour, and it was ghastly. Ah well - the last word should go to Keats. But would he have felt the same if confronted with the full-colour frieze?

Monday 15 June 2009

We Are All Guilty

More nonsense on the subject of 'binge drinking' - from a Bishop this time, rather than a government-appointed wowser. Still, it's good to see that great comic figure the Bishop of Southwark getting a namecheck in the final paragraphs. This excellent piece by Roger Scruton points out the basic flaw in puritan thinking on drink (and not only on drink), and is the most sensible things I've read on the subject in some time. Not that anyone will take any notice...

From the Virtual Post Bag

'The crookedness of the serpent is straight enough for the snake-hole. The crookedness of the river is straight enough for the sea. And the crookedness of our lord's men is straight enough for our lord.' This - from the 12th-century Indian philosopher and social reformer Basava - was sent to me by an Old Friend down in Devon. It seems strangely topical and apposite... From the unblogging Yard (taking a break from his world tour of Starbucks) I got a txt the other day telling me he's listening to (and loving) Emmylou Harris's glorious summation All I Intended to Be - her best album in years, though it needs a few listens to reveal itself. Here's a taste... And this morning, from my daughter in Wellington (NZ, not Somerset), I get this strangely beautiful item, which gives me a strong urge to emigrate...

Saturday 13 June 2009

Intrepidly Ineffectual

Born on this day in 1888 was that strange, fascinating, very Portuguese - quintessentially Lisbonese - writer whose natal name was Fernando Pessoa. There's a good essay on him - and, in particular, on The Book Of Disquiet - by John Gray here (though I'm not sure I go along with Gray's equation of 'the postmodern condition' with individual loss of a single strong identity). Gray doesn't mention that, though born in Lisbon, Pessoa spent his early years in Durban, where his stepfather was Portuguese consul, and his first published poems appeared in, of all things, the Natal Mercury. He was 17 when he returned to Lisbon, and he never left it again. It was the perfect city for him to live his life of determined obscurity and boredom (tedio) - as Gray says, 'no one has lived an ineffectual life as intrepidly as Pessoa did, or written about it with such insight and charm' - or through so bewilderingly many aliases. His literary career was barely noticeable - the creation of a short-lived modernist magazine and the publication of some poems and other odds and ends, in English. When he died, he had published only one unsung work in Portuguese. His legacy was the inchoate treasure trove that became, one way and another, The Book Of Disquiet.

Friday 12 June 2009


In Holland Park just now, I watched a song thrush whacking a snail on the pavement to break its shell and turn it into a tasty turdine treat. Ah yes, I thought, typical song thrush behaviour - this is what they are supposed to do. And then it occurred to me that I hadn't actually seen a thrush do that for years. Of course there are (sadly) fewer song thrushes around these days, but I suspect there's more to it than that. You just can't rely on animals to reliably perform their 'typical behaviour', to do what they're supposed to do; they endlessly confound our expectations. Any edition of Springwatch, with its surprises and non-events, amply confirms this. And those well-wrought wildlife documentaries that the BBC prides itself on give an entirely misleading impression in this as in so many things. What's necesarily missing from the story are the long hours, days, weeks even, waiting for the moment when the creature under observation finally does the thing it's supposed to do. Anyway, I'm glad to have seen that thrush doing what thrushes do - and to have finally used the word 'turdine'.

From the Annals of Human Folly

Glancing at my local freesheet last night, I noticed that this whackjob was in town (or rather suburb), ticking off our Starbucks branches - mercifully few, I'm happy to report, and we even have a couple of entirely independent coffee shops. 'Winter' has ticked off 9,000 Starbucks or thereabouts, and is aiming to catch the remaining 3,000 before they disappear. Seldom in the annals of human folly has so much effort and planning been put into such a worse-than-futile - indeed, bordering on suicidal - enterprise. By the sound of him, 'Winter' might soon be permanently incapacitated by the cumulative toxic effects of all those cardboard pails of brown dishwater. Of course, this could be that renowned Starbucks fan Bryan working in deep cover - that would explain his mysterious absences from his blog...

Thursday 11 June 2009

Lost Words

Affender - to share a meal with an unexpected visitor.
Aranteler - to sweep away spiders' webs.
Carioler - to cry out while giving birth.
Carquet - a secret place between breast and corset.
River - to strip off leaves by running one's hand along a branch.
These are just a few of the useful words that were not admitted to the offical dictionary of the French language. They're quoted in Graham Robb's excellent book The Discovery Of France, which I'm finding something of a page-turner (though, as the comedian Michael McIntyre points out, 'That is the very least I require of a book.' If the pages didn't turn, you'd be well within your rights to return it to the shop.) They are useful words indeed (though I imagine Carquet would have little currency in these uncorseted times), but they describe things for which even English - that great word hoard which, we are told, now tots up to a million words (really?) - also has no words. There are many things for which English has no words - Douglas Adams came up with a whole bookful of them, The Meaning Of Liff, and gave them names. Any more spring to mind? Anything which gets you thinking, why isn't there a word for that? And if there was, what would the word be? Come to that, any ideas for English words to cover any of the above lost French meanings? How about swebbing for the second? The first, in English, would probably be covered by some variant of suffering...

And Again - Con Brio

Bob Crow's gift just keeps on giving. Another thoroughly enjoyable walk this morning through the 'human awful wonder of God' (as Blake called London - though I don't suppose he was thinking of Kensington), the sun more-or-less out, and another old cassette blasting away in my human awful ears - The Marriage of Figaro (highlights). That's an overture to get you going, if ever there was one - what brio...
Looking back on last night's news, I seem to remember being bored rigid by the depressing return to business as usual in Broonland. One of the things that mystifies me is why both sides assume that everyone is horrified at the prospect of cuts in 'public services' - many of us surely are shouting 'bring it on', especially if we've had direct experience of the bloated inefficiency of so many of these 'services'. And as for public sector pensions... But there we are, that was the 'big story'. The news also featured possibly the most unreal 'threat to the planet' story yet devised by the misdirected mind of man - a 1 percent chance of Earth colliding with another planet in 3.5 billion years or so. Hmm. Even the BBC's David Shukman - a man whose nostrils twitch hungrily at the slightest whiff of ecopocalypse - had a job taking this one seriously. Fabulous graphic though - which was maybe why it got so high up the running order. However, the 'story' was also there on Radio 4's World Tonight, which was disappointing. Over on the World Service, I was glad to hear, the lead was not the latest set-to in Halitosis Hall but news of Ahmadinejad's broadcast. Now that's electoral politics - and it looks rather like panic on his part. With any luck this menace to society might be unseated soon - though whether that will make matters much better is another question...
Oh dear, I wish I was still out there with Mozart in my ears.

Wednesday 10 June 2009

A Big Thank You to Bob Crow

Bob Crow, leader of the RMT gang, having gifted us another of his periodic Tube strikes, I set out this morning to walk from Victoria to NigeCorp HQ. By chance I found in my radio an old cassette, ready primed on a B side - the finale of the Trout Quintet, followed by the Wanderer Fantasy. So, set the volume to 11 and off we go, striding through the London drizzle. Damn it was a fine walk with that accompaniment - the breathtaking finale to the greatest piano quintet ever written, and then that extraordinary fantasy, a piece of such dazzling virtuosity that Schubert himself could rarely get through it without stopping and swearing. But virtuosity is never the point with Schubert. The point, it seems to me, is melody, the possibilities of which Schubert takes further than anyone else, into realms where words are pretty useless. With him, the most fragile-seeming melody always - like tarragon - punches above its weight,and it's always there, whatever pianistic fireworks are exploding all around. As it happened, these two glorious, exalting pieces took me nearly the whole way, right into the last stretch of the walk, through Kensington Gardens. Strike beating? A walk in the park. Thank you for the music, Bob Crow.

Tuesday 9 June 2009

A Fishy Panic

Here we go again - another food-based moral panic, borne aloft by celebrity hot air. Yes, everyone's going to stop buying tuna now, on the say-so of such renowned experts on the finny tribe as Sting and Charlize Theron. As the BBC News piece makes pretty clear, it is actually very easy indeed to buy pole-and-line caught tuna, and the tins in the supermarket are not going to be bluefin, but rather the extremely abundant skipjack, aka the 'rat of the sea'. Meanwhile, I learnt from last night's Springwatch that the herring gull, one of the rats of the air, is on the Red List of endangered species, along with the giant panda, the white rhino and, er, the starling - not to mention 70 per cent of all plants assessed so far. Endangered old world, isn't it? Must book Bono to headline a Save the Shitehawk benefit concert... Are Flock of Seagulls still in business?


So, as predicted on this blog (hem hem), the Great Helmsman - he of the barely perceptible arches - survives, lashed to the wheel, pipe clamped between his teeth, steering resolutely for the rocks. By not removing him, the Labour MPs have shown themselves not only spineless and self-serving, but also quite fantastically gullible. All the GH had to do was to assure them that he - the Great Immovable Object, the Great Unchanging Entity - would 'change'. As his nose audibly grew, his pants caught fire and squadrons of pigs flew past the windows, the assembled dupes decided to believe him. To show his gratitude, he invited them one and all to visit his ocean front property in Arizona (from the front porch you can see the sea...).

Monday 8 June 2009

Boring Art

A rather startling entry on that beautiful blog, Venice Daily Photo. 'I will not make anymore [sic] boring art,' declares John Baldessari, on a banner defacing the facade of Ca' Guistinian. The fact that he stands alongside Yoko Ono as recipient of a Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement tells you all you need to know really, but there's a fuller charge-sheet - sorry, record of lifetime achievement - here. Not make any more boring art? Sorry John, you just did.
Meanwhile, I discover that it wasn't a cold that hit me last week but a thoroughly nasty and insidious bug that renders a person good for little but sleeping for 7 days or more. I'm on day 6, so hoping it's nearly over. Groan...

Sunday 7 June 2009

And Another

And - would you Adam and Eve it? - today is the 161st birthday of Paul Gauguin. Ah well, it's a welcome distraction from the steaming midden of 'politics' and Emperor Guano, still balefully immovable (on those almost imperceptible arches) atop the dungheap. Gauguin is, it seems, a saint of this very strange
'church', where his name sits in the list alongside that of Richard Payne Knight, who presumably gained the sainthood for his ground-breaking work, The Worship Of Priapus, rather than his theories of the picturesque. Funny old world. What's that in Tahitian?

Saturday 6 June 2009

Mirror, Mirror

To mark Velazquez's 410th birthday - and as a service to devotees of Venus Callipyge everywhere - here's the Rokeby Venus. As has often been remarked, the image in the mirror, if that is what it is, is 'wrong' - not least because it's actually larger than the original. As Gombrich point out in (I think) Art And Illusion, images in mirrors are surprisingly small - you can find out how small by looking at your face in a mirror, from quite close up, and marking the top and bottom of the image. Step back and you'll be surprised by how small it was - though you had seen it as something like full size. Velazquez was a famously tricky painter when it came to images and reflections - think of the endless complexities of Las Meninas, or several of his works which include something that might be seen in a mirror, or through an opening in a wall, or might be a picture... Anyway, one thing we can be sure of about the Rokeby Venus: to borrow Peter Cook's art gallery gag - the bottom follows you around the room.

Friday 5 June 2009

All Hail, Emperor Guano!

Referring back to an earlier post, Brit (of Think Of England fame) suggests we start calling Brown 'Emperor Guano'. This may be strangely apt... Consider, if you will, the fate of the tiny South Pacific island of Nauru, and ponder the parallels. This dot in the ocean grew rich on guano - very rich indeed, to the point where Nauru was for a while the richest sovereign state in the world, in terms of per-capita income. Phosphate mining they call it, but make no mistake, that phosphate originally came out of seabirds' bottoms. Nauru had grown rich on birdshit. It would not take a genius to suspect that some kind of bubble was being blown up here, and that when the guano ran out, the economy of Nauru would crash and burn. And so it proved. When those phosphate-rich deposits had been mined out - with massive environmental degradation along the way - Nauru's economy collapsed. In the 1990s, the island tried to earn some kind of living as a tax haven and money laundry, but that didn't work out. Now Nauru is dependent on Australia and, in return for aid, has been obliged to house an offshore detention centre for asylum seekers...
So - all hail, Emperor Guano! You have ruled us well.

Virtue, Vice and Brown's Almost Imperceptible Arches

'Virtue is more to be feared than Vice,' wrote Adam Smith (born on this day in 1723), 'because its excesses are not subject to the regulations of Conscience.' This certainly appears to be the case with Gordon Brown's Virtue - his famous 'moral compass' - which is clearly unregulated by anything most of us would recognise as Conscience. The most startling (though really, I suppose, it shouldn't have been) thing I heard in the wake of last night's supposedly seismic events was Barry Sheerman telling how he was woken at 1am to be told by his constituency party that they had had phone calls from Number Ten and Yvette Cooper demanding that they haul Sheerman in and discipline him. This for floating the idea of a secret ballot of Labour members... Anyway, regardless of the words of the Great Prognosticator, I still cling to my rash prediction that Brown won't be going in June. We must never underestimate the tenacious hold of those Carp-like feet with their 'exceptional length and breadth and almost imperceptible arches'...

Thursday 4 June 2009

Democracy - Iranian Style

Things are kicking off in the Iranian election. If only our own elections were that much fun - and were fought between parties with radically different ideas of what to do. When our next one comes - when the undead Broon, or whoever replaces him, is finally wrestled into a corner and forced to name the day - we can be sure it will be a dispiriting affair.

Hill's Pop

The twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre - and Hill marks the occasion by having a futile and counterproductive pop at China, urging it to 'examine openly the darker events of its past'. What are the chance of that happening? Zero - this is pure ethical grandstanding (backed, inevitably, by little Millie Band), and China has immediately, and predictably, expressed 'strong dissatisfaction'. That's their polite way of saying something very much more robust. Hill should remember that China now owns rather a lot of the US and is virtually keeping the States' (and therefore the West's) embattled economy afloat...
I remember hearing the news of the massacre - so terrible, so shocking, so unsurprising - coming in on the World Service. I was in a hotel room in Dieppe. Was Tiananmen a JFK moment? Do other people remember where they were when they heard?

Home Again

I've remarked before, I think, on the woeful inadequacy of the word 'cold' as denominator of a condition that so thoroughly knocks the stuffing out of a person as to leave them barely capable of functioning. Such an affliction - contracted on the last day of the great May-June heatwave ('cold' indeed!) - flattened me yesterday. Hence my blog silence (I didn't think you'd appreciate posts along the lines of 'Groan... Cough... Atishoo... Aargh... Groan...'). Feeling a little better today, I wake to learn the glad, if wildly unlikely, tidings about the great Marilynne - see Bryan here for a fittingly warm and magisterial tribute. So strange that she should have won a prize with such a track record, and so strange that it should be for Home, a novel that cannot be properly understood without reading its companion piece Gilead, and one that is challenging and difficult even for a Robinson devotee like me. Still, she has won, she sounded very pleased, and it is cause for rejoicing.
The Orange Prize itself seems more and more anomalous - an award restricted to women suggests an embattled minority in need of a leg-up, whereas the reality is that fiction is increasingly written by women and for women. And looking back over my recent reading and discoveries, I find the list of names is overwhelmingly female - Marilynne of course, Shirley Hazzard, Elizabeth Bishop, Penelope Fitzgerald, Anne Tyler, Cynthia Ozick, now Flannery O'Connor (and Christina Stead waiting in the wings)... That is more than enough literary talent - greatness indeed - to be going on with. It is arguably the men who need a prize of their own now - maybe the, er, Man Booker?

Tuesday 2 June 2009

A Hardy Titbit

As today is his 169th birthday, I pass on this titbit about the great Thomas Hardy (greater as poet than as novelist, in my estimation). It seems that Hardy had the true countryman's gift of being able to urinate while walking, without so much as breaking stride - and would unabashedly do so in male company. Enviable - and probably best not attempted by the non-countryman.

What Emperor Guano Tells Us

Typical! The day's best good news story gets yoked to the global warming scare. Never mind that the all-knowing experts have discovered, thanks to satellite images of (hehe) guano, ten new colonies of Emperor Penguins that are a total surprise to them - and it's hardly the most inconspicuous of species, you'd have thought. Oh no, the real story - despite the evident thriving of these birds of the extreme cold - is, as ever, 'global warming'.
This is not the first time the Emperor Penguin has bamboozled the all-knowing scientists. One of the main purposes of the Scott Antarctic expedition was to confirm that the Emperor Penguin embryo offered uniquely vital evidence of the evolutionary link between birds and reptiles. Bill Wilson, Birdie Bowers and Apsley Cherry-Garrard duly undertook a horrendous journey through the perpetual night and 40-below-zero temperatures of the Antarctic winter to the Emperor Penguin rookery at Cape Crozier to obtain eggs. It was this - not the main expedition (a comparative cakewalk) - that Cherry-Garrard justifiably called, in the title of his remarkable memoir, The Worst Journey In The World. And, after all that, after a journey that left all three men barely alive, those hard-won eggs proved only that the scientists were wrong.

Monday 1 June 2009

Birdsong, Brown and Carp

Sad news - Birdsong, Britain's most restful and purely enjoyable radio station, has gone, to be replaced by the usual cacophany (in fact an interactive cacophany, God help us). Surely there must be a home for birdsong somewhere else on the dial - perhaps featuring more extensive and ambitious recordings than Birdsong's. I note from para 5of the BBC story that the garden where Birdsong was recorded has gone on to an illustrious career in radio - why not give another garden a break? Or an entire wood?
Meanwhile, Pa Broon yields to the public will and announces that he will be, er... setting up a National Council for Democratic Renewal. What do we want? A National Council for Democratic Renewal! When do we want it? Now! There's a man with his finger on the pulse. And by the way I'm quite sure - pace The Yard - that he won't be gone by June. If ever there was an immovable object, it is Gordon Brown. In this, as in many things, he resembles that great comic creation, Augustus Carp, Esq, who, you may recall, commended at length his own remarkable abilities in playing the game Nuts In May. His laborious account of the game ends thus:
'Ultimately it might happen, and indeed it often did, that one of the sides would finally absorb the other, and the absorbing side usually including myself, my services were naturally in the keenest demand. I soon found, in fact, that, in spite of my ill-health, I was singularly adapted to this form of recreation. Inheriting, as I did, to a very great extent, my father's powerful and sonorous voice, I was able to throw myself with dominating effect into the preliminary vocal exchanges, while my physique stood me in admirable stead in the later stages of the game. For though I was short, with singularly slender arms, my abdomen was large and well covered, while my feet, with their exceptional length and breadth and almost imperceptible arches, enabled me to obtain a tenacious hold of the ground upon which they were set.'
Yes indeed.