Wednesday 30 September 2009

'A country rapidly passed through...'

'Clear vision goes with the quick foot,' says Robert Louis Stevenson, condensing his previous sentence: 'A country rapidly passed through under favourable auspices may leave upon us a unity of impression that would only be disturbed and dissipated if we stayed longer.' So opens the essay An Autumn Effect (1875), collected in Essays of Travel. An account of an excursion from London to walk in the wooded hills of Buckinghamshire, it's a typical Stevensonian mix of pin-sharp observation, charm and deft description, with descents into fustian prose and whimsy - but I think, in his opening generalisations, he has a point. 'Things fall for us,' he continues, 'into a sort of natural perspective when we see them for a moment in going by; we generalise boldly and simply, and are gone' - gone, that is, before, in the natural course of things, the whole picture changes. Stevenson likens this kind of perception to the exposure of a photographic plate, but it is not exactly photographic; there is also, in scenes we see in this way - while walking through them - something of the heightening and foreshortening characteristic of certain strange effects of strong low light. This vividness may be illusory, as Stevenson allows, but it is vivid nonetheless, and we tend to remember more clearly places that we have merely glimpsed while walking through them than others where we have lingered (and certainly those that we have driven through) - they seem more real to us.
Anyway, I shall have the chance to put this to the test over the next few days, when I shall be walking - in France, again. Tomorrow I take the ferry to Le Havre, then on to Honfleur... Au revoir, mes amis! Blogging will resume next week.
Meanwhile, here are wise words - in French, as it happens - taken from the epigraph to Stevenson's essay: 'Nous ne decrivons jamais mieux la nature que lorsque nous nous efforcons d'exprimer sobrement et simplement l'impression que nous en avons recue.' It's from an essay by one Andre Theuriet, called L'Automne dans les Bois. Very seasonal...

Freedom Days

It's been open for ten years, but today was the first time I visited the Guildhall Art Gallery in the City of London. It's small but full of interest - surely the only art gallery that incorporates the remains of a Roman amphitheatre (though there's not a great deal of it). The core collection is heavy on official portraits, ceremonial pictures, views of London and battle scenes, but it also includes a fine full-size Constable sketch of Salisbury cathedral from the meadows (similar to the one in Tate Britain) and some Victorian gems, including Millais's Lorenzo and Isabella and The Woodman's Daughter (not to mention Her First Sermon and Her Second Sermon). There are also works by Rossetti, Alma-Tadema, Albert Moore, Tissot etc, and some knock-em-dead virtuoso history paintings, among them Poynter's huge Israel In Egypt, and an even huger extravaganza titled A Pythagorean School Invaded by Sybarites, by one Michele Tedesco (that one has to be seen to be believed). But I was in the gallery chiefly to see Transfiguration, a small exhibition (barely 20 works) by two young artists, Dan Llywelyn Hall and Raphael Pepper. The exhibition began life at the National Museum and Gallery of Wales, and in this London incarnation the focus is on pictures inspired by the impact of the impending London Olympics on the chosen site. Dan works in oils, Raphael in coloured pencil, with which he achieves quite extraordinary effects. Dan's landscapes range from the near-apocalyptic - the superb Dreams of Steel and Concrete and Vision of Gold - through the more straightforward but beautifully accomplished Lea Valley Wilderness, to the piognant, roughly painted genre scene, The Last Crop (presumably on an allotment garden now devoured by the Olympic behemoth). These are serious (but never solemn), vivid, engaged, painterly paintings, blurring the line between figurative and abstract, full of the life and energy of pigment. They are authentically modern landscapes, as are those of Raphael Pepper, who is represented not only by pictures from the Olympics site - the glorious green-and gold Canal Life my favourite among them - but a flaming sunset scene of Cardiff Docks, all scumbled and scored with those flying coloured pencils to the point that the paper is blistered and cracked. Other pictures are more relaxed, even ethereal, with shapes suggested by skeins of pencilling - but Pepper's tour de force is a picture quite unlike all the others, called Loss,Time, Love. This is huge - 10ft by 5ft - and divided into two great blocks of colour, both shading gradually (and to different degrees) from dark blues into purple and near-red. Between them glimmers a thin horizon of blank paper, shining like intense light from under clouds. It has the impact and contemplative force of a Rothko - and the entire thing was done painstakingly, stroke by stroke, with coloured pencils. A quite extraordinary work, which on its own is worth the trip (the exhibition closes, by the way, on Sunday). Pepper seems to me underpriced - if I'd had £500 to spare, I would certainly have bought a glorious sunny little blue and gold landscape called Freedom Days... Pepper says: 'I am simply not driven to create by philosophy, reason or ideas. There is no attempt to find any meaning in the use of subject, motif, approach or content. There is a quite deliberate avoidance of any political or historical reference; in fact nothing is put into the work other than drawing.' Here are two young artists who (in refreshing contrast to the rapidly aging YBAs and their imitators) are all about painting and drawing - and who, between them, show a new way of engaging with landscape. New and of course, like all truly new things, deeply embedded in the tradition.

Tuesday 29 September 2009

The Perfect Bookshop?

It's second-hand of course, not new (boringly predictable) or antiquarian (forbiddingly expensive). The premises small-to-middling, with every inch of floor and shelf space put to good use, but still room (just) to move around. The shelves well stocked with all the categories you'd expect - and a few you wouldn't ('Elderly Children's', 'Alcohol') - intelligently but not rigidly classified, allowing for surprises. The stock in good condition, every vintage from early Victorian to near-new, well chosen, with the emphasis on literature but some popular fiction too (scrupulously alphabetical, despite the impression of disorder). No obvious rubbish, and everything reasonably priced (and, when you visit, a half price sale is on). The odd stack of overspill books on the floor and in odd corners, and a small section devoted to miscellaneous bric a brac - a few prints and paintings, masks and fancy headdresses, some china, old-fashioned children's toys and trinkets - not to mention, elsewhere, well chosen greetings cards, and jars of home-made chutney, preserves and honey. Cheerfully friendly, but not twee, messages dotted about the place - and a cheerfully friendly, but not twee, proprietor who's happy to retreat from the secene and leave you alone to browse... Can such a shop exist in these times? Reader, it can - and I was there yesterday. I shan't name it, but will simply say that, if you find yourself in Osterley (the house, Osterley Park, is worth a visit - and the grounds look very well on a sunny autumn day), look out for it. And there's even an equally cheerfully f, but not t, cafe opposite.

Monday 28 September 2009

Peter de Vries

Peter de Vries died on this day in 1993, with a long and prolific writing (and editing) career behind him. Is he still read, I wonder? I don't suppose he is on this side of the pond, where he never really caught on - but in America?
I remember reading him voraciously, back in the day, finding him an uneven but fascinating, and often very funny, novelist. Daniel Dennett has described him as 'probably the funniest writer on religion ever', and there always seemed to be in his better writings a strong tension between his fascination with religious questions and his easy way with a reductive witticism. He was raised in the Dutch Christian Reformed Church, and yet his wisecracking often sounds distinctly Jewish, in the key of Woody Allen. In the end, it was the wisecracking that won out, as De Vries turned out comedy after comedy with an almost garrulous facility. This array of quotes catches his distinctive flavour, that mix of easy gags and deeper insights. One of his aphorisms that doesn't make the cut is 'I've got a big crush on myself, but it's not reciprocated', which strikes me as a pretty good summing-up of how many of us feel about ourselves - or is that just me? And one that's guaranteed to fall every bit as flat in real life as it does in the book it's taken from - 'For I have premises to keep, and miles to mow before I sleep...' You've got to like it though - just as you've got to like De Vries, surely, if nothing else, one of the most likeable of writers.

Sunday 27 September 2009

The Convivial Ukulele

Further to yesterday's post, I hear that more and more schools are teaching the ukulele as a starter instrument - with, it seems, dramatic results. This seems to me one of the few things going on in English schools that makes perfect sense. The uke is easy to learn and play, portable, convivial, and makes, even when ineptly played, a perfectly tolerable sound, especially if accompanying a singalong. What's more, as all chldren surely appreciate, it sets them on the road to what they really want to play - the 'cool' electric guitar. Compare and contrast the earlier starter instrument of choice - the descant recorder. This is a perfectly pleasant instrument when expertly played as part of a recorder ensemble - but in the hands of a child learner, its ear-bleeding squawks amount to 'cruel and unusual punishment' for audience and player alike. Furthermore, it leads nowhere - or certainly nowhere 'cool'...
The rebirth of the ukulele is, of course, not confined to our schools. Grown adults are learning the pleasures of strumming along, and the success of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain has been such that they have performed at the Proms - here's the Ukes' George Hinchiffe backstage, going from rubbish to genius in 1 min 20sec. And then there's the Wellington ukulele scene - but perhaps I've inflicted enough of that on you (though, if you missed it the last time I linked, do seek out the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra's video of It's A Heartache on You Tube - you won't be sorry). Enough.
This is the Age of the Ukulele!

Saturday 26 September 2009

As It's Saturday...

... and as my daughter is out in Wellington, here's this.
An awfully ragged performance yes, especially the lead vocal, but rather sweet and lovely (like my daughter). And yes, that is Bret of Flight of the Conchordes fame!

Friday 25 September 2009

A Thankyou

Over on Anecdotal Evidence, Patrick Kurp pays me the compliment of referring to a string of my recent posts - a compliment I could return any week of the year. I've never made any secret of the fact that I regard Anecdotal Evidence as the finest thing in the blogosphere, the one I'd save from oblivion in any putative bonfire of the blogs. I think of Patrick as my blogscape better self, and turn to his writings at the end of every working day to restore me to my right mind and to the things that truly matter. Thank you, Patrick - and if anyone reading this has yet to discover Anecdotal Evidence, get over there at once, and keep scrolling.

A Good Year for the Spiders

It's been a joy, in this Indian summer weather, to walk out into the garden first thing in the morning to beathe the crisp, dewy air and feel the early sun... Less of a joy is the aftermath - picking the clinging skeins of spider silk off my face and hair. This has been a bumper year for gossamer and those fine and fascinating creatures (which, incidentally, are not insects) that spin the stuff and do so much to keep the biodiverse life of the garden and countryside ticking over. They also play their part in the mysterious, largely unseen life struggles that go on inside the house. A couple of years ago, the deceptively weedy-seeming daddy longlegs spiders - previously confined to cellars and out-of-the-way places - began to take over, making short work of the much beefier house spiders. (Here's one of them making a neatly wrapped ready meal of a house spider - not for the fainthearted.) This year, however, the house spiders are holding on and making some headway, so the daddy longlegs takeover is at least postponed. I'm glad, as I've always felt the house spider to be a friendly familiar presence, whereas there is something sinister about the daddy longlegs with its inchoate snagging killing machine of a 'web'.
Emily Dickinson appreciated spiders, and she surely didn't have the daddy longlegs in mind when she wrote this...

The spider holds a Silver Ball
In unperceived Hands--
And dancing softly to Himself
His Yarn
of Pearl--unwinds--

He plies from Nought to Nought--
In unsubstantial Trade--
Supplants our Tapestries with His--
In half the period--

An Hour to rear supreme
His Continents of Light--
Then dangle from the Housewife's Broom--
His Boundaries--forgot--

Thursday 24 September 2009

News from Mercia

I find the news of the great Saxon hoard strangely exciting - perhaps because it's in the heart of Geoffrey Hill's Mercia...

'Coins handsome as Nero’s; of good substance and weight. Offa Rex resonant in silver, and the names of his moneyers. They struck with accountable tact. They could alter the king’s face.

Exactness of design was to deter imitation; mutilation if that failed. Exemplary metal, ripe for commerce. Value from a sparse people, scrapers of salt-pans and byres.

Swathed bodies in the long ditch; one eye upstaring. It is safe to presume, here, the king’s anger. He reigned forty years. Seasons touched and retouched the soil.

Heathland, new-made watermeadow. Charlock, marsh-marigold. Crepitant oak forest where the boar furrowed black mould, his snout intimate with worms and leaves.'

[Mercian Hymns XI]

Wink Wink

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Pret A Manger (more product placement) make the best sandwiches available on the high street. However, their counter staff, in their eagerness to please, are inclined to overdo the love-bombing of the customers. Fervent exhortations to have a great day, or even a great afternoon (don't they know I'm at work?), are issued as standard, along with beaming smiles - which is all very well, I suppose. But now they've gone too far. As I bought a Tuna Nicoise to take away just now, the young man - young enough to be my son, or even, had I been born into the underclass, my grandson - not only smiled as he wished a highly improbable 'great day' on me, he also winked broadly. Yes, winked. What on earth was going on here? Come to think, he did seem to ask me in a rather pointed manner if there was 'anything else' I wanted. Could it be that Pret has a range of 'special' under-the-counter sandwiches, with wildly exotic fillings, available by invitation only? Next time he winks at me, I'll inquire. Or maybe I'll just horsewhip the young puppy for his impertinence... Has anyone else come across this disturbing phenomenon, in Pret or elsewhere?

Tuesday 22 September 2009


'He had become notoriously an apparent listener who... was given to uttering apparently irrelevant yet gnomic or fantastic comments that killed the subject. He had once interrupted a wrangling discussion on Marxism with the eccentric suggestion: "Everyone should visit a stud farm. It is very interesting."'

This example of Chekhov's sly sense of humour is taken from V.S. Pritchett's Chekhov: A Spirit Set Free, which I have finally got round to reading.
Chekhov, having flirted with various 'systems', became increasingly suspicious of 'general ideas' and shunned them all - no mean achievement, considering the ideological ferment all around him. Retreating from Tolstoyism, he writes:

'Something in me protests... reason and justice tell me that in the electricity and heat of love for man there is something greater than chastity and abstinence from meat. War is an evil and legal justice is an evil; but it does not follow that I ought to wear bark shoes and sleep on the stove with the labourer and so on... But that is not the point, it is not a matter of pro and con; the thing is that... Tolstoy has passed for me, he is not in my soul, and he has departed from me, saying: "I leave this your house empty." I am untenanted. I am sick of theorising of all sorts...'

Pritchett's book is a wonderful and salutary example of how much light can be shed on a large subject in little more than 200 pages. Pritchett has, of course, the special insights of a writer who is writing about a fellow writer - and one with whom he is instinctively in tune. He is particularly sensitive, for example, to Chekhov's use of the telling detail, banal and anticlimactic, that 'makes it true', and to the potency of the closing lines of his stories. Pritchett's focus is more on the short stories than the plays or other writings, but the short stories are surely the best of Chekhov, as they are of Pritchett. What is striking is how deftly and concisely Pritchett extracts the essence from each work he considers, while equally effortlessly progressing the life story pari passu with the works (another advantage of being a writer - a feel for narrative flow). The book is clearly a product of deep, long reading of Chekhov and an equally deep understanding and sympathy. It is, in fact, the kind of book - short, wise, beautifully but unshowily written, and absolutely to the point - that is increasingly rare in a world of stupefying doorstep biographies and unreadable, unilluminating criticism. And Pritchett published it in his 88th year!

Where Would Jesus Shop?

That's the question raised by the Bishop of Reading in his strange remarks (strange, but somehow wonderfully C of E). The Bish has Jesus down as a Lidl and Aldi kind of shopper, rather than a Marks & Spencer man. Well maybe, but to judge by His recorded utterances - 'sell all you have and give to the poor', 'lay not up treasures on earth', 'take no thought for the morrow', etc. - Jesus really doesn't seem to have been much of a shopper. But who knows? He might have been mildly attracted to eBay...

Monday 21 September 2009

What happens in South Mimms...

At one of the churches on the Norfolk weekend, we were greeted, shown around and generally charmed by a man with floppy hair, a cultivated drawl, a wry, extremely subtle sense of humour - and the classic drooping, S-shaped posture that marks out certain members of the posh classes. Think Lord Emsworth... Bryan snappily diagnosed a case of 'old money scoliosis' - a major contribution, I think, to medical science, or at least to comedy.
I must also pass on this bon mot, uttered as, on the journey up, we neared South Mimms services: 'What happens in South Mimms stays in South Mimms.' As I said, he was in sparkling form.


Well, it's been an eventful week (in an entirely good way) since I last posted. Not only did I make my first visit to Chartres, I also spent last weekend in Norfolk with the Yard, who might not have been saying much on his blog lately, but in person was in sparkling form. The weekend - which was gloriously sunny - included a degree of eating and excessive drinking, playing 12-inch vinyl loudly and generally rolling back the years (40 of them since we first met, as callow 'freshers'), but it began and ended in church crawling, in a county thick with fine churches. Sunday included one of the greatest west fronts in the country, Binham Priory, and one of the most perfect in the Decorated style, at Snettisham - and culminated in the vast,luminous, airy interior of St Nicholas, King's Lynn, a seemingly weightless masterpiece of Perpendicular, more glass than stone. Mellow warm September sun, church crawling with a dear friend from way back - it doesn't get much better than that. There were even butterflies - in several churches peacocks and toroiseshells, distracted by the sun from their attempts to hibernate, were fluttering darkly high up against the brilliant windows...
And before that there was Chartres. What can I say that hasn't already been said about that great cathedral? I knew it from books and pictures, but of course nothing can prepare you for the impact of the place itself - its sheer scale, the overwhelming beauty of its plain Gothic style, and the wonders of its sculptures and stained glass. Not to mention the unexpected darkness of the interior, which is only minimally lit, leaving the work of illumination to those magnificent stained glass windows, nearly all of them in place after seven centuries, most of them restored to full brilliance, all together giving an effect unlike any other church on this vast scale. My only regret was that I never saw them with full sun coming through - the weather was iffy and mostly cloudy. Still, it was quite beautiful and awe-inspiring enough - an endlessly rewarding building, inside and out. And the old town, by the river, at the foot of the cathedral crag, is quite lovely. I'm more than glad I've finally been to Chartres...
One thing I missed on my wanderings around the town was the memorial to Charles Peguy, to whom Chartres meant so much. To judge by Geoffrey Hill's poem The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy (which I had with me in Chartres), I didn't miss much:

'.... Peguy, you mock us now.
History takes the measure of your brow
in blank-eyed bronze, brave mediocre work
of Niclausse, sculpteur, cornered in the park

among the stout dogs and lame patriots
and all those ghosts, far-gazing in mid-stride,
rising from where they fell, still on parade,
covered in glory and the blood of beetroots.'

Peguy died in a beetroot field, shot through the head on the first day of the battle of the Marne.

Sunday 13 September 2009

To France

Tomorrow I am off to France on a mission of national importance - i.e. a short break, by Eurostar (the only way to travel). I booked it, by the way, with Railbookers, whose knowhow and customer service are second to none. I might be non-blogging for a week (or it might not be that long). In my absence, perhaps the Silent Yard will rouse himself to speak again. The hungry sheep look up and are not fed...
Au revoir, mes amis!


When I saw this story, I was so shocked that the Frank Cooper's Thick Cut Oxford marmalade very nearly fell from my knife. Product placement! Has it come to this? I was still reeling as I massaged the King Of Shaves Shave Oil into my whiskers, shaved them to perfection with my Gilette Fusion razor (the best a man can get), rubbed in a little Boots Skin Therapy Aqueous Cream (sensational value!) and splashed on a few drops of Penhaligon's Castile. One thing's for sure - product placement has no place on this blog.**

** Unless the price is right - applications to the usual address, cash only, no consecutive serial numbers.

Saturday 12 September 2009

The English Gentleman Drunk

Also at Victoria last night, on the station concourse, I spotted a very fine specimen of a particular type of drunk - the spick-and-span, cleaned-and-pressed English gentleman drunk. This type is at the opposite extreme from the reeling, bawling pisshead. He appears freshly showered, shaved and laundered, his clothes are crisp and immaculate, he walks with straight back in a straight line, his head held high, going about his business the very image of sober respectability. And he is very, very drunk. On closer inspection, everything about his look, his gait and carriage is over-composed, over-determined. The back is that bit too straight, the walk is stiff-legged, the serious, straight-ahead look too carefully composed (the eyes give it away), all is effortful artifice - but, in the true professional English gent drunk, it is superbly done. This one at Victoria would, at a glance, have passed for perfectly sober - but for one eye-catching detail he'd somehow overlooked. The left leg of his immaculately creased trousers was soaked from crotch to cuff.

Notes from the Underground

So there I was, totally done in after a week of grisly workstorms (hence light blogging), sitting on the Tube, resting my weary eyes, as it drew into Victoria - or rather, as it drew elegantly to a halt. The power went off, emergency lighting kicked in (thankfully), and the driver announced that there'd been 'an incident' at Victoria station. Not the most welcome of news on the anniversary of 9/11, but mercifully it wasn't that kind of incident but the more localised horror that is euphemised as 'a person under a train'. Fortunately my carriage was equipped with a resident wiseacre who informed us all that there had been six such incidents in the past two months, and that the last time this happened to him, it was four hours before he was off the train. Hmmm thanks for that... In the event, it was an hour and three quarters this time, with the carriage getting increasingly uncomfortable, but it was not overcrowded, everyone had a seat, there were no drunks or loonies aboard, so it was just a matter of sitting it out as best we could. Everyone was very calm and stoical and English about it - whether English or not; there were a lot of Japanese passengers who seemed to be enjoying the whole thing hugely. An air of resigned good humour prevailed, mildly sardonic jokes were exchanged, desultory conversations struck up, and everyone behaved impeccably. Even the driver was as helpful as could be, with frequent updates on 'the situation'. Eventually the power was turned on again, we crawled jerkily nearer to Victoria and pulled up just behind the train in the station, and began an evacuation that was clearly going to take a very long time - down a ladder from the front of the train, a short walk along the track (the power off again now, of course), up a ladder into the next train and out onto the platform. Those of us near the back of the train soon realised this wasn't great news for us - but at least, as we drew very slowly nearer to the front, mobiles started working again, sparking a frenzy of calls and texts which kept most of us occupied. Then there was a change of plan, the power was turned back on, and our train drew into the station just far enough for eveyone to get out via the front door of the front carriage. One hour, 45 minutes - and I was already gasping for a drink when I got on that ill-fated train. The pint of Grolsch in the bar at Victoria never tasted so good.
Does this post have any point or lesson? Probably not, but I was impressed by the well-mannered, stoical and orderly behaviour of my fellow passengers. Despite everything, we remain, by and large, a pretty well behaved and long-suffering lot. We have to be.

Wednesday 9 September 2009

How Paleoanthropology Works

Here we go again - they find a few skulls and the whole history of early human development has to be rewritten. But of course the rewritten version instantly becomes definitive. Until the next skull turns up...

Men - Make an Effort!

The summer - which now seems to be moving into an Indian summer phase, hurrah! - brought another wave of the usual offences against taste and decency on the sartorial front. The British male is seldom much to look at, but in summer - clad in grubby shapeless t-shirts and various ugly forms of shorts and cut-off trousers - he plumbs new depths. While a few of us respond to summer weather with linen suits and silk shirts (which is anyway the most cooling way to dress), the rest of the male population - including the middle-aged and even elderly - seem content to slouch around in street urchin garb. Do they ever look in a mirror? Presumably not. Meanwhile, at least some sections of the gay population are keeping up standards. Yesterday at Victoria station, I saw a young fellow dressed in a manner that would not disgrace Marc in Ugly Betty, in a fitted white shirt with bow tie, gold cuff retainers holding up the sleeves and braces doing the same for a rather tightly cut pair of pinstripe trousers. The gold pumps and silver manbag were perhaps de trop, but dammit here was a man making an effort, and carrying it off with conviction - no slouching here. If most of the male population makes any effort at all when the sun comes out, I can only assume it is to look as dreadful as possible.

Tuesday 8 September 2009

A Pudden's End

Reversing blogmeister Richard Madeley's recent nameshift to Uncle Dick, Flintshire Council has made this inspired move to put paid to 'immature comments'. That's bound to do the trick...

Monday 7 September 2009

Busoni Plays!

I know I'm not alone in this neck of the blogscape in being a Busoni fan. He is, of course, widely regarded as a 'god of the piano', but, as he died in 1924, I'd taken it for granted that any surviving recordings, however much cleaned up and 'digitally remastered', would give little idea of his playing. What I'd reckoned without was the Duo-Art recording piano, an ultra-sophisticated reproducing piano that created rolls which, by a complex and painstaking process, recreated a performance with astonishing accuracy. When modern technology is applied to reproducing what is on those rolls and recording it, the result is very much like listening to a CD - but a CD recorded 80 years ago. A label called Grand Piano specialises in these recordings, and I have got my hands on a CD of Busoni playing Liszt, Chopin and his own mighty transcription of the Bach Chaconne. The Liszt is often breathtaking, Busoni going beyond mere virtuosity to create soundscapes that scarcely seem to belong to the piano at all - as he does from time to time with the Chopin, though he has an unusually robust approach there, reflecting his professed mixed feelings about the composer. As for the Chaconne, I guess it has to be respected as definitive, but I can't say it's my favourite performance. Anyway, if it's virtuosity you want, try this... It too is from a roll, though the YouTube commenters seem to have difficulty believing it - or that it's Busoni. Isn't it wonderful - and pleasingly retroprogressive - that such a 'primitive' technology, which crashed out of favour around 1930, should be able to deliver such results today?

Hunting of Snark

Snark - a kind of witlessly abusive non-comedy - seems to be a hot topic. This will surprise no one who spends much time navigating the blogscape, where snark can erupt in even the most civilised corners (I name no names). Now one David Denby has written a book about it, and defines it at rather gruelling length here. He was also on Radio 4 this morning, debating briefly with a vaguely pro-snark Toby Young. What strikes me about Denby's analysis, American-based as it is, is how, in political terms, it is the mirror image of the snark situation here. In the US, it seems, the snarking is coming from the Right, targeting the Left, whereas here the master snarkers are overwhelmingly of the Left - often, in the case of the kind of supposedly satirical wiseguys who populate the 'topical comedy panel shows', of the ultra-Left - and the snark bombs are being lobbed in a rightward direction, against anything that doesn't fit their lefter-than-left worldview (this is why a Labour government can be in the firing line too - it's not Left enough). Historically, I think British snarkism had its origin and seedbed in anti-Thatcherism, long ago reaching the point where mocking Lady T for being old and having had a stroke - and openly wishing her dead - would raise a comfortable laugh. Radio 4 itself is infected, with the likes of Jeremy Hardy and Mark Steel snarking away all over the place. The News Quiz is almost unlistenable (post-Coren) for the prevalence of witless, entirely predictable leftist barbs. Happily the TV equivalent, Have I Got News For You, is pretty much a snark-free zone and is often quite funny. But the place to go for full-on snarky vileness is BBC2's Mock The Week - read this brilliant piece by Nick Cohen if you want to know the depths to which our homegrown snarkists can sink. It makes the situation in the US seem quite healthy by comparison.

Sunday 6 September 2009

A Masterclass in Identification

While I was out walking yesterday on the North Downs Way, above Denbies Vineyard outside Dorking (the wines are a bit grim, but it's nice to have it there - good old global warming eh?), a creature I had never before seen crossed my path. Literally, the path in question being the North Downs Way itself. About ten yards ahead of me, trotting across the path and disappearing into a burrow in the grassy bank went something sooty black from nose to tail, the shape and size of a large ferret. Despite having never seen such a thing before, it was the work of a moment for me to hazard an identification - could it be, I wondered, a... black ferret? This is how we naturalists work - impressive, isn't it? Sure enough, back home I discovered via the internet that ferrets can indeed be bred pure black. So this was presumably a captive-bred black ferret gone feral, or a descendant thereof - maybe there's a little colony of them. This one seemed sleek and well fed - rather handsome indeed. I loitered further along the path and was rewarded with a second look, as the ferret trotted back across the path (could this be classified as a reverse ferret?)...
Needless to add that I was on the lookout for late-flying butterflies, but, despite warm mellow sun, few were out. Speckled woods of course, the meeters and greeters of the butterfly kingdom, and whites and meadow browns feebly fluttering around, but other than that just one fast-flying peacock and a velvety red admiral nectaring on an early ivy flower. I imagine the excesses of last week's weather persuaded all but the hardiest butterflies to give up on the English summer. But it's not over yet...

Keith Waterhouse

The coverage of the death, the other day, of Keith Waterhouse has been astonishing, with long, gushing obits and features appearing everywhere - here's one of the briefer, more measured ones - and the news of his death high up on the broadcast media's agenda too. It's hard to think of another living writer who would have such a send-off (Jeff always excepted hem hem) - but then, as all the obits point out, Waterhouse was the last of his kind. Certainly such a career would be wellnigh impossible now, with the West End theatre largely given over to pop-based musicals, established novelists driven into self-publishing and making no money, the newsprint media facing an uncertain future, and the kind of whimsical, curmudgeonly, humorously indignant column he wrote now seeming like a survivor from another age. Billy Liar I enjoyed hugely as a teenager - to the point of repeating chunks of it in dialogue with a friend - but I don't suppose I'll ever revisit it. Of the later novels, I recall a strange, dark affair called Jubb, about some kind of sexual fetishist (of obvious appeal to my dirty teenage mind); a clever one called Office Life which minutely describes the work of a company whose business, it turns out, is simply keeping itself working - it produces nothing and does nothing beyond its own circular routines (prophetic?); and one called Thinks, which takes place entirely in the mind of an extremely angry man. For all his famous professionalism, Waterhouse's column was never the same after he left the Mirror. On the plus side, Auberon Waugh thought highly of him - and, when Waterhouse was asked which was the most important and inspiring book in his life, he replied The Card by Alan Bennett. This was about as determinedly unfashionable an answer as could be given, but, if you think about it, Waterhouse was about as near as we've had in recent decades to an Arnold Bennett - popular, prolific, high-living, professional, commonsensical - and with a reputation destined to nosedive after death. Still, it's been good to see a writer - any writer (Jeff always excepted) - attract such adulation, such affection, and so many apparently heartfelt tributes.

Thursday 3 September 2009

An Invaluable Public Service

From some superstition or scruple, I can never bring myself to use those automated self-service points in supermarkets, the ones that let you buy your stuff without running the many and various risks of interaction with a human being. Just now, however, idly looking around while I queued for a human in Marks & Spencers on Kensington High Street, I noticed that their self-service points offer instructions in the following languages: English, French, German, Spanish, Polish and, er, Welsh. Now, I'm no statistician, but I wouldn't mind betting that there's not a single Welsh monoglot in the Royal Borough, or the whole of London, or England (or, come to that, Wales - but,to quote Father Jack, 'that would be an ecumenical matter').

On Falling

Change in the weather, as His Bobness has remarked, is known to be extreme... On Tuesday morning I stood at my station in warm sunlight watching a nectaring Painted Lady as it methodically quartered a spray of Buddleia. Yesterday morning I stood there under an umbrella in cool wind and spattering rain. And last night, walking home, umbrella up against sheeting rain and gusting wind, I somehow misjudged a kerb, stumbled and - uhoh here I go - fell full length on the hard wet pavement. 'Are you all right?' the lady in front inquired anxiously from under her umbrella. 'Oh yes, fine' I lied, leaping to my feet as if on springs, propelled by sheer embarrassment. Resuming the dignity of the vertical, I strode off manfully as if nothing had happened, only later discovering that I was bleeding from most knuckles, had barked one elbow and fetched one knee a painful whack which is giving me gyp even as I write...
Of course, the strange thing is not that we fall down once in a while but that we manage to remain vertical and bipedal so much of the time, strutting around as if it's the easiest thing in the world and gravity was finally overcome. In reality it's a difficult and thoroughly unnatural way to proceed, and gravity - as falling over reminds us - is an irresistibly potent force. Our upright gait has gifted us the pains of childbirth, the thousand and one things that can go wrong with our backs and leg joints, and the oversized brains that, combined with a lofty viewpoint above the earth, has given us ideas above our station and caused no end of mischief. It was all, surely, a terrible mistake...