Thursday 30 July 2009

Cameron Aligns Himself with Browning

David Cameron's unfortunate on-air slip yesterday was a gift to the news editors on a quiet summer day. As so often with these things, I wonder if anyone actually took or is taking any offence. The word 'twat' just sounds so feeble, and, despite its anatomical meaning, seems destined to end up as no more than a near synonym for 'twit' or 'twerp'. Even the verbal use of it to mean punch in a pretty decisive manner sounds more comical than menacing. Was Cameron letting his poshness show? I don't think so - the word seems to be used pretty indiscriminately across the classes, and besides the truly posh have their own, French-style pronunciation for the word, lengthening the 'a' and not sounding the final 't'. Anyway, Cameron has a respectable literary antecedent, in the shape of Robert Browning. As every dirty-minded schoolboy knows, the poet inadvertently uses the word in Pippa Passes. All you need to know about that business - and a lot more - can be found

Wednesday 29 July 2009

Wet Wet Wet

The Met Office's 'barbecue summer' is turning out as predicted with sensational accuracy here. But at least it's not 1956. That was a miserable sodden summer and no mistake, one of its grisly highlights being a wave of storms on 30 July which dumped a full 9 inches of rain on Nairn (almost an anagram) in 48 hours. It was London's wettest July since records began (back in the 17th century), and on this day of it a 12-year-old boy who was being treated in St Thomas's Hospital was brought out by staff onto the riverside by Waterloo bridge, where he watched the river hurrying past, red with mud and swollen almost to flooding point with rain. Eleven years later, that memory inspired the opening of a song - Waterloo Sunset. For yes it was Ray Davies (and the story may or may not be true; it's in his autobiography.)

Loving It, Loathing It

In a fine post, Gaw ponders the peculiar nature of Radio 4 and of the hold it exerts over us listeners (to which Brit responds with a brilliant alternative schedule). Yes, it's a love-hate thing all right - and, in the case of The Archers, to which Gaw is almost literally allergic, the hatred is, I think, an integral part of its power to grip and addict. I've been listening to The Archers since I was at my mother's knee - more precisely my grandmother's, she being an addicted listener. I would overhear the goings-on at Ambridge thoroughly bemused, since I'd assumed a programme called The Archers must be about those medieval bowmen who were to be seen raining death on the enemy in many of my childhood drawings. Eventually, though, I began to get the hang of it, and by my teenage years I was a regular listener (how cool is that?). So The Archers and I go way back - and yet I utterly loathe so much about it. Or is it precisely because I loathe so much that I'm so hooked on it? The excellent organisation (too strong a word) Archers Anarchists is built on the assumption that all sane people loathe a great many of the 'characters' (who are of course real) and a great deal of what The Archers is about. This distinguishes them starkly from the nauseating official fan club, which is built on the assumption that everyone and everything in Ambridge is oh so cute and lovable. The Anarchist line is far closer to the truth of the matter. For myself, I've come to realise that I enjoy the scenes where I'm groaning, squirming with distaste and hurling (usually) silent abuse at the likes of Shula, Ian and Usha, as much as those which are genuinely rather good and even affecting (the recent episode built around Mike and Vikki's wedding, for example, was brilliantly done). That is no doubt why I remain addicted, even though in the past I've been so disgusted that I've given up listening for weeks on end. I always come back. Damn it, I care.

Tuesday 28 July 2009

In a Good Place

This phrase 'in a good place' - as in 'I'm in a good place'. I thought it was the preserve of celebrities, especially celebs who have just been through some self-induced meltdown in their lives. Private Eye had a brilliant Craig Brown parody of Piers Morgan 'intervewing' Katie Price. 'Your boobs, Katie. I have to ask - how are your boobs in all this?' 'My boobs are in a good place, Piers, a really really good place'... But now it seems the phrase has slipped out of the celebrity compound and into respectable public life. On the Today programme this morning, someone representing some quango or trade body had been hauled in to defend the UK's slow and unrelibale broadband speeds. No need to worry, he assured us - when it comes to broadband speed, 'We're in a very good place'. Never mind that there are about 24 better places, to judge by the world rankings - it's the phrase itself. Why did he use it? What, if anything, does it mean? How long will it be till we hear it from the mouth of a politician? Maybe it's already happened...?

Monday 27 July 2009

Pictures from an Exhibition

Earlier today I dropped in on the National Gallery to have a look at the Corot to Monet exhibition. The magic name of Monet certainly seems to be drawing the crowds, so it's not exactly an intimate or contemplative experience, and it's downstairs in the gloom of those artificially lit galleries, which is never a good idea. It's also rather on the large side - four quite densely hung rooms - whereas these 'fresh look' exhibitions often work best on a small scale. This one is, in fact, an extension of last year's lovely little one-roomer called, I think, the Landscape Oil Sketch, and includes several of the same pictures, including an extraordinarily spare and luminous sketch of a (mostly sky and water) landscape near Haarlem by Andreas Schelfhout, and Thomas Jones's masterly A Wall in Naples. From Corot to Monet follows a line of mostly French plein-air painting from early days on the Campagna and around Naples, back to Barbizon, Fontainebleau and the artistic discovery of the French land(and river and sea)scape. It's certainly a must for Corot fans, with work from every period of his career, including a wonderful early view of Avignon and The Four Times of Day, a set of large painted panels which were a treasured possession of Lord Leighton. There's a monumental Millet, The Winnower, quite out of kilter with the rest of the Barbizon stuff, and a grand big Turner, The Evening Star. A powerful Beach Scene by Courbet (a throng of clouds, a streak of light, a turbid Lake Geneva) stands out, and there's a breezy, luminous Bonington, three interchangeable Boudins, and, yes, at the end, the Monets - four of them, including a fine early beachscape, La Pointe de la Heve, remarkably accomplished and hinting at things to come. And so it ends - with the Bathers at La Grenouilliere, a long way from the careful views on the Campagna with which the exhibition opens. The point is made.
Meanwhile, outside on the fourth plinth, a woman was sitting down on the edge, reading a book, when I went in. Nobody was taking any notice. When I came out, she'd been replaced by a grey-haired fellow with a placard reading 'Hello Park Road Year 6'. He was waving hopefully from time to time, but still nobody was taking any notice. How much longer is this going on?

Sunday 26 July 2009

This Is Not a Chalkhill Blue

I went for a walk yesterday in the Surrey Hills, along a stretch of the North Downs Way that was previously part of the Pilgrims' Way. Delightful it was too, with plenty of climbs and descents through varied habitat - woodland (predominantly yew), patches of down and grassland, and abandoned chalkpits and lime works which have reverted to 'nature'. I was hoping to see Chalkhill Blues and perhaps Silver Spotted Skippers, but I didn't spot either, and the Blues were predominantly Common Blues (as pictured) - common but uncommonly beautiful. A high point of the walk was butterfly hunting (sans net, eyes only) in an abandoned chalk quarry which was flowering gloriously with wild marjoram, scabious, vipers' bugloss and all manner of ground plants - not to mention masses of that most butterfly-friendly invader, Buddleia. In the hot sun, with the pungent scent of the marjoram, you could almost think yourself on a Mediterranean hillside... But all this was of course on the edge of suburbia, less than an hour from the centre of London. As it was a sunny Saturday - on what I assumed to be a well-walked route, easily reached by car or public transport - I had expected to meet a steady stream of walkers. And yet - and here is my point, if I have one - in a mid-morning walk of an hour and a half, I met a party of four on foot, and one young man on a trail bike. That was all. It was only when I arrived at the obvious 'beauty spots' of Box Hill that people began to appear in numbers - but even there, as I walked over the top and down the dip slope, I had the place to myself for much of the time. I'm not complaining, of course - far better solitude than crowds - but it does strike me as extraordinary that so few people avail themselves of the beauty and enjoyment that is to be found on their doorstep. Perhaps they're simply not aware of it, or, having got out the habit of walking, they daren't venture far beyond the beauty spot car parks. Or perhaps they're sitting at home lamenting that all our countryside and wildlife has been lost. Get up, I'd say to them, get out, look around you - it's there for the finding.

Friday 24 July 2009

You Live and Learn

I've just come off the phone from 'talking to my bank' - i.e. keying in endless streams of numbers, barking out single words to a machine, and finally, after a long muzak-accompanied wait, ending up with some hapless phone monkey in a call centre somewhere. Yes I know, these calls are always the same and always leave us 'customers' seething, but on this occasion I learned something new. This is that when you order a new cheque book (in my case by text message - how cool is that? Clue: Not very) they send it to you by 2nd class mail - and that, according to the bank's official line, can take up to 14 days from the day of posting. Yes a whole fortnight. I wonder if the Post Office has been told...

John Ryan

John Ryan, the creator of the lovably useless Captain Pugwash, has died. Those of us who read The Eagle in our formative years will also remember him for the pompous Harris Tweed, Special Agent. The real-time animation technique he developed (or rather improvised) for Pugwash was delightfully creaky and enhanced the old-fashioned, good-natured charm of the stories. Like Oliver Postgate, who also died recently, he was one of a generation of gifted artists working in a golden age of children's TV animation and spreading a lot of innocent happiness.
(By the way, the long-lived myth that Pugwash characters included one Master Bates and Seaman Stains has no foundation, and caused Ryan considerable distress.)

What Me Worry

As if we hadn't got enough to worry about, what with killer chipmunks, Japanese knotweed, and pregnant tortoises falling out of the sky, the Swine Flu panic has entered a new phase with the startup of the government's dedicated phoneline and website - which, we were solemnly informed by the BBC, was getting up to 2,600 hits a second (and they can't have all been journalists and saboteurs). It's an impressive hit rate - in fact if they'd kept it up, every man, woman and child in the UK could have hit at least once within 7 hours, and in less than a fortnight the entire population of the world. What is going on? It seems to me to have all the appearances of a classic panic. And unfortunately it's sensitised us all. The Yard thought he'd got it on Wednesday, and I thought I'd got it yesterday morning (though on reflection I plumped for a diagnosis of Ague). Needless to say, we are both fine. One thing I do know for certain is that, if I had good grounds for believing I really had Swine Flu, the last thing that would cross my mind would be to avail myself of the government's phonelines or websites.

Wednesday 22 July 2009

Mind-Scrambled Miscellany

I'm having a Herbert Spencer of a time at NigeCorp just now, the resultant mind-scrambling leaving me liable to be tickled by stories like this. It's the tennis court and private beach with lifeguards that get me. Do fish play tennis? Do the lifeguards stop them jumping out of the water? I also spotted a story about a 'crisis' in the cutlery industry caused by the fact that nobody wants table knives any more (or, just possibly, that no one's inclined to buy a canteen of cutlery in a recession). It seems we're eschewing knives and eating with fork and/or spoon - all we need to handle the predigested pap most of us are eating as we stare glumly at the telly. Will the fork ultimately triumph over the doughty knife? It wasn't so long ago that the lower orders of French society would never used anything for eating purposes but a sturdy clasp knife. Eh bien...
I would no doubt have said something about 'Unleashing Apsiration' (as I think it was called - I can't be bothered to check), the government's latest attempt to blame the professions and 'elite institutions' for the failures of the school system - but frankly why bother? The endless stream of 'ideas' and 'intitiatives' and whatnot issuing from this moribund government is really beneath notice, despite leaping reliably to the top of the 'news' agenda day after day.
One item on last night's BBC News did grab me though - as I'm sure it did anyone else who saw it - an interview with the nurse who was locked in her car boot for 10 days. As soon as she opened her mouth, it was evident that this was a truly remarkable woman, and a Christian of the best kind, sustained by her faith and even finding it in her to forgive the man who all but killed her, to pity and pray for him. Few of us can achieve it (and many don't even wish to), but to see faith embodied like this is a very wonderful and moving thing.

Monday 20 July 2009

On the Moon

Well - in case you've somehow missed the blizzard of media coverage - today is the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. I'm afraid I felt nothing very much about it at the time, and rather less now. It left me more bemused than anything - a staggering technical achievement, yes, but what else? And why do it? I don't think Auden was far off when he called it a 'phallic triumph' - it sure showed those Russians! Fair enough - then what? Then very little - for all the brave talk then and since, doesn't it look like something of a dead end? As it took all that phenomenal concentration of effort and expense to get no further than, in cosmological terms, our doorstep - and that in a very limited and extremely risky way - there plainly wasn't going to be much of a future in space travel... Happily, the fact that there are now human footprints in the lunar dust has not dented the sheer mysteriousness of the Moon - it only deepens, the more we find out about that strange object. Seekers after 'design' marvel at the fact that, if the Moon wasn't there, exactly where it is and as it is, life on Earth - the life that led (as we humans like to think) to Us - would have been impossible. The Moon joins all those other features of our larger physical world whose coordinates and properties must be precisely as they are for the miracle of Us to have come about. Well, how else could the world - the one we inhabit - be, since we are evidently here? It's the only world in which we could be. The mystery is not in the 'design' of the universe but in what we are and why we are here... Meanwhile, the Moon remains, to my human eyes, what it always was - beautiful, mysterious, and gazing at us with a human face - an all too human face, abashed, rueful, bemused. Like us.

Saturday 18 July 2009

An Unexpected Peacock

This year, to give the butterflies a much-needed helping hand through the rain-soaked, wind-lashed 'barbecue summer' (as the Met Office whimsically designated it), I've let the Buddleia bush grow and grow, until now it's up almost to roof level and out across the notorious stable door, via which (readers with long memories might recall) burglars forced entry the winter before last and discerningly stole my laptop and digital camera. All this Buddleia so near the house can have pleasantly surprising results. This morning, groping blearily for the kettle, I was startled by something dark and panicked fluttering around by the kitchen window. It was, I realised with delight when it settled - a Peacock butterfly, which must have flown in through the stable door the previous day and roosted inside. I rescued it with a cereal bowl and a sheet of paper and returned it to the Buddleia, where it is still feeding, obligingly posed for the camera - but, alas, the battery is flat on my (replacement - and higher spec - thanks, burglars!) digital camera, so that's someone else's photo up there, and very lovely it is. For a while my Peacock was joined by a Painted Lady. This may not have turned out to be a barbecue summer, but it is certainly a Painted Lady summer. Hurrah for that!

Friday 17 July 2009

In the Dark

So I get home last night about 9, storm brewing outside, first patters of rain. I compile a couple of pizzas and am about to put them in the (electric) oven when suddenly - flash of lightning, whump, power gone, in the dark. Yes, a power cut, and it lasted two and a half hours (an improvement on the one last year that lasted a whole day). Not having any serious candles about the place, I was reduced to lighting decorative ones and tea lights and whatever else might give a light... A power cut brings several things home to you. One is our utter craven dependence on electricity, and how completely we take it for granted. Another is the beauty of the soft glow of candlelight in comparison to harsh incandescent light. And another - perhaps the most surprising and primally affecting to us spoilt, overlit urbanites - is the sheer overwhelming power of darkness, how suddenly and completely it invades. This great poem by Edward Thomas says it all about that power - and much else.

Thursday 16 July 2009

Calories: Out for the Count

Here's the kind of research finding I like - the kind that agrees with what I already think. I've never bought into the notion that counting calories is a way to lose weight (the high-calorie but undoubtedly effective Atkins Diet is proof enough that weight regulation is a more complex affair than that). And now it seems that the calorie counts given on packaged foods are pretty wildly inaccurate anyway. Nige's top weight loss tip: Don't eat anything with sugar in it. We humans were never meant to eat such a thing (or to drink cow's milk, come to that - but that's another matter).


We must keep out eyes peeled and take our small pleasures where we find them. This morning my commuter train came to a halt in a spot where the line is bordered by a fine ragged mess of grasses, ragwort, hawkweed and wild pea. And there, fluttering about in the morning sun, were a pair of Gatekeeper butterflies, lovely little creatures (and, as I remember from my netting days, just about the easiest to catch) - and, as it happens, the first I've seen this year. They're called Gatekeepers, by the way, for their habit of haunting field openings and bits of hedgerow, from which they never fly far. This unexpected sighting was a much needed heart-lifter on the way in to a dismal workday...

Wednesday 15 July 2009

A Stroke of Luck

Earlier today, I found myself doubly at a loss. My wristwatch had mysteriously disappeared, and I don't feel right with a naked wrist. And, on top of that, I'd run out of reading matter, having finished with the excellent Norman Stone and not having another book with me. So, trusting that they sell verything (except books), I took myself to Argos - a much improved store these days - and within minutes I was out again with a watch that had set me back the barely believable sum of £4.98 (full price)! It seems to be a perfectly good watch - I mean, what can go wrong with Quartz? It either works or it doesn't. This left the book situation to deal with, so, on the off chance, I popped into Oxfam. I was just about to give up and leave the shop bookless when I glanced at Q on the fiction shelves - and there was a book I've been looking for ever since I first read it in a library copy years ago: The Yellow Sofa, a wonderfully truthful, ironic, serio-comic novella by the great Portuguese novelist Eca De Queiroz. It's in a Caracanet edition, one of a series of titles under the heading Aspects of Portugal, published under the auspices of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. I never even knew this edition existed. That, I think, classifies as a stroke of luck. Now, what's the time....?

Simpsons Sky

Time spent staring at the sky is never wasted. I reckon a person is seldom more innocently - or soothingly - employed than in idly scanning the heavens. As the toad work is squatting especially heavily on me at the moment (though, as ever, it's not so much Work as the Stuff that goes with work - that's what grinds you down), I've been taking every precious opportunity to stare at the sky. With the strange weather we've been having, I've noticed an odd phenomenon: in the sunnier moments of the persistent sunshine-and-showers mix, the sky has a distinct look of The Simpsons - you know, that sky under the opening titles, with its range of small but substantial clouds, light below and darker above, against a slightly watery blue sky. It's hard to see this effect without the jingle sounding in your head (well my head anyway) - 'The Siiimpsons'... I wonder if anyone else has noticed this meteorological phenomenon. I hereby name it Simpsons Sky.

Monday 13 July 2009

Birthday Byrd

Earlier today I was chatting with a friend when the subject of the Byrds came up. We both agreed it was little short of miraculous that so much musical talent should ever have come together in one band - though the preternatural concentration of talent led to endless fallings-out, splits and regroupings. (Still more miraculously, the replacement band members were often as good as - or better than - those they replaced. Gram Parsons was initially brought in to play keyboards...) Anyway, what do you know? Today is Roger McGuinn's birthday - his 67th. Here he is a couple of years ago, playing an acoustic version of Eight Miles High. Terrible vocal (and he knows it), but oh that guitar picking! Enjoy...

'We turned to our right...'

This, it seems to me, is a fine, plain eulogy (we can forgive the use of 'at the end of the day' as it seems, for a wonder, to connote 'at the end of the day'). The sentence 'We turned to our right, saluted the fallen and wounded, picked up our rifles and returned to the rampart' put me in mind of this much-anthologised poem by one of the great one-hit wonders of English poetry, Charles Wolfe. It's a brilliantly effective piece, perfectly suited to its purpose. I hadn't realised, till I read his Wikipedia entry, what a short and, towards the end, sad life Wolfe lived. But, thanks to Byron, that one poem lives on.

Sunday 12 July 2009

Ice Wine!

On Friday night, I rounded off the evening with a bottle of this. It was a gift, and had been sitting around in the kitchen for ages - a couple of years, I think - as it seemed such an unlikely proposition: a Canadian wine? The Niagara peninsula? Frozen grapes? But I soon discovered, as I poured myself a glass - over (appropriately) ice - that it was pretty marvellous stuff, a dauntingly intense mouthful. Terrific sweetness, terrific acidity, terrific flavour. It was only after I'd drunk it that I checked it out online, and discovered just how remarkable a creation ice wine is. The grapes are left on the vine well into the winter, and harvested and pressed when frozen. The idea is that the water content of the fruit will have frozen, but not the sugars and other solutes - hence the intensity of sweetness and flavour. Naturally, in these circumstances, yields of juice are tiny and every drop is precious - hence the high price of the wine. I must remember to thank the generous donor when I see him next. He certainly gave me a new, and memorable, drinking experience.

Saturday 11 July 2009


The catalpas are in full bloom in London now. In the right setting this is a fine tree, in a slightly showy and exotic way, with its huge leaves and great trusses of white blossom, followed by long hanging pods (hence its other name, the Indian bean tree). 'Catalpa' is a fine musical word too - put to good use in Yeats's The New Faces. The catalpa he had in mind was in Lady Gergory's garden at Coole. She was very fond of it, and much miffed when George Moore referred to it as a 'weeping ash'. You can always rely on a 'realist' to get things wrong...

Friday 10 July 2009

That Pledge

Last night, the BBC news soberly reported that world leaders had pledged to limit the rise in world temperature to 2 degrees. I like to think that headlines like that will afford much innocent entertainment to future generations. What it actually means is that a few world leaders have made a meaningless and unenforcable non-commitment to limit 'greenhouse gas' emissions to the point where - if the anthropogenic model of global warming is correct, and IF the computer models run on that basis prove accurate - the rise in temperature (by when? against what base year?) can be expected to be less than 2 degrees. Well, we'll see... Here's an alternative scenario, which could save the politicians and all of us a lot of grief. A couple of years down the line, having managed to do very little - and faced with the prospect of destroying their own economies if they took the drastic measures proposed - the governments might take stock, begin to seek out the evidence (it's already there) that the world is actually cooling and say 'Hey look, the measures we've taken already have been much more effective than we expected, so we can scale this whole thing down.' This would seriously annoy the consensus scientists and the many others who stand to make huge amounts of money out of the global waming scare, but it would be very good news for the rest of us. On the other hand, governments might prove unable to resist the prospect of ever increasing taxation and state control opened up by such delusional projections as the latest 'pledge'.

Thursday 9 July 2009

A Short History

I am all for short books. Most books published these days are at least a third too long - probably more in the case of fiction, considering how tedious a Radio 4 Book At Bedtime can be even after it's been filleted to a mere sixth of its original length. And it isn't only novelists who write at such punishing length. Historians, too - perhaps with more justification - incline overwhelmingly towards the 'damned thick, square book'. But there are exceptions - and glorious among them is Norman Stone, whose World War One: A Short History I am reading, on the urgent recommendation of The Yard. Coming in at a bare 190 pages of text, it's a joy to read - pithy, witty, stylish, and with a sharp eye for the arresting detail or startling fact. Did you know, for example, that 1916 was the only year ever in which British exports have exceeded imports? Or that the first shots of the Anglo-German war were fired in Sydney Harbour? Or that, when Romania was dragged into the war, one of the first orders issued to its officers was to refrain from wearing eye shadow? Stone covers the vast historical terrain nimbly, condensing masses of tedious business into one well-turned sentence: 'In these circumstances, the eastern war remained one of movement, though the movement itself was generally meaningless'. Enough said. I have just reached a brilliant account of what was 'probably, and with considerable competition, the worst-managed battle of the entire war' - an action near Lake Narotch on the Russian front, of which I must confess I had never heard before. The Russians suffered casualties of 100,000 for no gain at all - and no wonder. 'General Kuropatkin thought up a wheeze by which, in the middle of the night, searchlights would suddenly be switched on, supposedly to dazzle the Germans. It had not occurred to him that the attackers would be silhouetted and be easy targets. He was dismissed. However, the Tsar, to spare his feelings, did not want him to think that he had been sacked for being too old; he was kindly told that he had just been incompetent, and was replaced by someone even older.' Wonderful stuff - there should be more short, sharp histories as good as this; there would surely be a market.

Wednesday 8 July 2009

A Better Thesaurus

Generally speaking I am no friend of the thesaurus. Monsieur Roget's much revised masterpiece seems to me a relic of an age when otherwise sane men thought it possible and desirable to bring everything under one system and, by a process of minute classification, give every single thing an appointed place in the grand scheme. (The Dewey Decimal System was another such project, one which was soon showing its limitations.) Working on the assumption that if you can't think of the right word you're not thinking the right thought, I don't routinely use a thesaurus. I suspect this purist attitude might break down with the advancing years, but I must say that on the few occasions when I have consulted a thesaurus, I've never found it to be of much use. Anyway, to get to the point - here's a thesaurus I do like the look of. Being historically arranged, it expresses the development of the language, as well as the richness of the world of synonyms, euphemisms, dysphemisms, jocular and slang forms etc that has grown, and is still growing, around such a simple notion as a pair of trousers. What's rather wonderful is that this extraordinary feat of scholarship - the product of 40 years' work - was conceived and begun in that now distant-seeming age before computers took so much of the slog out of such enterprises. Hats, lids, titfers, chapeaux and tiles off to Christian Kay!

Tuesday 7 July 2009


A man who has spent the day, as I have, in Surrey Quays - a part of London that, when I last looked, didn't even exist, and really still doesn't - is in no fit state to post, but I see it's Chagall's birthday (born 1887), so why not? Yes, he was an artist who 'went off', degraded his talent, became a production line, but still, for the best of his work, one of the greats... The image above is from one of his stained glass windows in the little church at Tudeley in Kent - an unexpected gem. Nothing like that in Surrey Quays...

Monday 6 July 2009

Plinth Madness

So the Trafalgar Square plinth lark got hijacked by a protestor. No surprise there, though it was a pretty lame 'message' - Ban Tobacco & Actors Smoking. Hmm... It will get worse and nastier, especially as Gormley, no doubt putting a brave face on it, seems to have given the green light to any nutjob who cares to get up there and make his/her 'point' - he might live to regret that... Never mind, Gormley has more important things to do, such as appearing on The Archers, an imminent event excitedly discussed by the denizens of Ambridge this evening, ahead of an edition of Front Row much of which was devoted to the Plinth. O dear o dear... Let's get one thing straight. Such is the lamentable state of public sculpture, there was never any prospect of the empty fourth plinth being satisfactorily topped - the nearest of the various try-outs was Rachel Whiteread's ghostly inversion of the plinth itself, which could have stayed put as far as I was concerned. But no, all manner of fantastically dumb and/or fantastically badly executed ideas were tried out - and then the great self-publicist Gormley was allowed to take over with his crass notion of allowing 'ordinary people' their moment atop the plinth. The best moment in Front Row's plinth coverage was the contribution from the excellent Ben Lewis, who hailed the event as historic - in as much as it marked the most banal idea any artist was ever allowed to enact in a public space (or words to that effect). He's right of course, but what can you expect when art is viewed in terms of 'ideas' and novelty and entertainment value, as so many competing attractions in a consumer fairground? And how else would art be viewed in a culture that has lost touch with its roots? A truly modern art is always the product of a deep engagement, not with the present, still less the future, but with the past. The gods of literary modernism, for example - Eliot, Joyce, Pound - were steeped in the literature and culture of the past, rediscovering, reimagining, re-creating, knowing that there was no finding a way forward without going back, back, back. The art that consciously addresses the present rarely lasts. As Charles Peguy wrote, 'Homer is still new this morning, and nothing perhaps is as old as today's newspaper'. Or, God help us, today's art world stunt.

A Second Gasket

The thin-skinned sage has been at it again. Taking offence seems to be turning into a full-time occupation with him. I've always worked on the assumption - indeed the experience - that the words that really hurt are those you fear might have a germ of truth in them. And also that any writer who does other than rise good-humouredly above negative criticism runs a serious risk of appearing to be a total arse.

Fiddling Through the Pain

Plunged into a 72nd consecutive year of pain by the Andy Murray defeat, I found myself unable to post over the weekend (the cumulative hangover of two parties on consecutive nights might also have been a factor). Today, however, is the 65th birthday of the great fiddler Byron Berline - so here, to mark the occasion, is the Berline Band in 'action', in a clip that deserves to win awards for its bravura video direction and choreography...

Friday 3 July 2009

Remembering Bunny Austin

According to a headline I happened to glimpse in someone's Sun this morning, when the musclebound Scottish lout steps out onto Centre Court this afternoon, his mission will be to end '71 years of pain'. How very true that is. I remember sitting courtside when Bunny Austin crashed out to Don Budge - the pain, the pain, I've never really got over it - and I'm sure I speak for many there...

Sheep Not Shrinking

These shrinking sheep then - what does this story tell us? Certainly not that the sheep are shrinking - it's only the notional 'average sheep' that's 'shrinking', i.e. weighing slightly less. What's really happening is that slightly lighter sheep are surviving - but that's not a narrative that we can easily accommodate, therefore we give the sheep agency and talk of 'shrinking sheep'. It's much the same with the famous Speckled Moth, which over the years is said to be either 'becoming darker' or 'becoming lighter' (in response to soot levels). It's doing no such thing -it's just that in some circumstances more of the dark form surive, in other circumstances more of the light. But again that's not a narrative we can easily handle, so we reduce it to a more assimilable, but less true version. It has often seemed to me that the acount given in virtually all wildlife documentaries and TV sagas of evolution at work fall into the same trap, presenting a narrative in which creatures are actively changing, adapting, evolving, when they are doing no such thing, according to Darwinism - the blind forces acting on the gene pool are resulting in this or that outcome, that's all. The narrative we are given is surely less Darwinian than Lamarckian - and no wonder: Lamarckianiam makes more human sense and is easier to assimilate. All this just goes to show how hard - even impossible - it is for us to actually construct and experience the world in terms of the physical facts we know to be 'true'. We haven't even internalised Copernicus yet - the sun still 'rises' and 'sets'. It always will, whatever we know.

Thursday 2 July 2009

Sage Blows Gasket

I'm afraid this story made me laugh immoderately. It seems the great philosopher and sage has a degree of human frailty about him after all - I almost like him better for it. [pause for deep, de Botton-style thought] No I don't.

William Le Queux

Today, a tip of the hat - a trilby worn at a slightly suspect angle, I think - to William Le Queux, born on this day in 1864. Read that biog - and that list of works - and marvel at the man's sheer energy and nerve. Truly, they don't make them like that any more - no, not even the ineffable Jeff can compete. Le Queux puts me in mind of Edgar Wallace - who, as it happens, was another one taken under the capacious wing of the Daily Mail's Lord Northcliffe. I've never read The Invasion of 1910 - has anyone out there? - but I read Erskine Childers's similarly themed The Riddle of the Sands not long ago. Parts of it are excellent.

Wednesday 1 July 2009


Good news from the heart of Europe - legislation on misshapen fruit and vegetables is to be relaxed. But not, note, the infamous directive on banana curvature - which, we were always assured by Euro types, was entirely mythical, a figment of the Eurosceptic imagination. It is all very confusing... But never mind - the return of comically misshapen vegetables will undoubtedly add to the gaiety of the nation. I just hope Esther Rantzen is not inspired to revive That's Life.

The Voice of Tennis

I wonder if tennis players have voice coaches in their entourages these days. Certainly they all - regardless of nationality or sex - seem to end up speaking in the same droning mid-Atlantic monotone, delivered with all the unrehearsed charm of a speak-your-weight machine. Of course no one in the world of tennis - least of all the players - has anything of the slightest interest to say. And yet the minute they come off court - or before - they are surrounded by the cream of the world's sports interviewers (hem hem), all desperate to catch their words of wisdom for the edification of the viewing millions. Utterly pointless.

Heat, Real Heat, and the Drink that Won the War

The warm weather (all right, hot - it certainly feels pretty hot on the Tube) is causing the usual heatwave hysteria, whipped up by the media as if there'd never been such weather before, whereas of course we've always been prone to the odd heatwave in this country - and that's the worst we have to cope with. In India just now the temperatures are in the 40s (according to the Continental system), whereas we have barely reached 30 degrees. Think of all those suffering such heat without benefit of air-conditioned offices or homes - and think of those sons (and daughters) of temperate Britain in far-flung torrid zones before air-conditioning was heard of. Think, indeed, of Rudyard Kipling, whose sparse autobiogarphy Something Of Myself, written when he was in great pain and knew he was dying, gives such a vivid picture of his seven years in Lahore, where he arrived at the age of 17 to work for the Civil & Millitary Gazette - seven years that formed him as a writer and as a man, and the memory of which is the beating heart of the book. Here he is recalling the hot - the really hot - season:
“In those months - mid April to mid-October - one took up one’s bed and
walked about with it from room to room, seeking for less heated air; or
slept on the flat roof with the waterman to throw half skinfuls of water on
one’s parched carcass ... often the night got into my head and I would
wander till dawn in all manner of odd places - liquor shops, gambling and
opium-dens, wayside entertainments such as puppet shows, native dances or in and about narrow gullies under the Mosque of Wazir Khan for the sheer sake of looking ... one would come home just as the light broke in a hired carriage which stank of hookah-fumes, jasmine flowers, and sandalwood.”
In the offices of the Gazette, sans air conditioning and clad always in three-piece suit and tie (like my own grandfather, never seen in anything less), Kipling toiled away ("..there is, or was, a tablet in my old Lahore office asserting that here I ‘worked.’ And Allah knows that is true also"), sustained in those barely tolerable conditions by endless chota pegs, a weak mix of a little whisky in a lot of soda. This was Churchill's all-day tipple too - the drink that won the war. Cheers!