Thursday 31 December 2009

The Year on Nigeness

So much for the decade - now on to the altogether cheerier subject of the year on Nigeness. What have I enjoyed in 2009? Well, I read Home, the nearest thing to a new novel I've read all year - and rejoiced when Marilynne won (and thereby redeemed)the Orange prize. I discovered Garret Keizer's wonderful book, Help, and revelled in Stanley Elkins' The Dick Gibson Show. I was duly shaken by first encounters with Flannery O'Connor and Christina Stead. I continued to delight in Pritchett and Chekhov (and again), read more of the great William Maxwell, and pursued my backward course through the late novels of Penelope Fitzgerald. I finally read Epitaph of a Small Winner, Moominvalley in November and The Death of the Heart. Meanwhile, on my travels, I got Lost in Wales, enjoyed a London gallery I'd never visited before, found the perfect bookshop, got stuck on the Tube, and fell over. It was the year in which I discovered the Mitcham Cabbage - a cabbage that comes in infinitely many forms - and enjoyed much family happiness - but this is not That Kind of Blog. It's This Kind of Blog - and yes it was a wonderful butterfly summer...
A very happy new year to all who read this, and thank you for your kind comments throughout the year. Here's to all of us!

The Decade in a Haiku

The newspapers have for weeks been full of lengthy attempts to sum up the low dishonest decade that is now closing, with endless lists of key events, key books, films, records, best of this, that and the other (on one such TV show counting down the Best TV programmes of the Noughties, as the decade is perhaps fittingly called, No 1 turned out, bizarrely, to be Top Gear, a show from the 70s now well past its best). It seems to me the decade could be summed up much more concisely - in a haiku. Here's one, and it doesn't even use all the available syllables. I'm afraid it's not very cheery...

One thing happened.
The towers burnt and fell.
The rest, noise.

Tuesday 29 December 2009

Like a Gift

The Christmas break is over, and it was, for various reasons, a rather gruelling one - but redeemed by the great joy of having my daughter back from New Zealand, and the equally great but more familiar joy of having my son around. A highlight as ever was Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve in this fine church. Another, on the last day of the break, bookended it perfectly. Walking with my daughter in glorious winter sunlight - crisp, low and golden-clear - I spotted a bird I couldn't at first identify, sitting restlessly on a wire fence. For a wonder, it stayed there long enough for me to raise my binoculars, locate it and focus on it - when I realised, to my quite inordinate delight, that it was a Tree Sparrow. I hadn't seen one in a long while, and had forgotten how pretty and charming these little sparrows - now on the Red List of endangered species - are. Both my daughter and I had time to take a good look, and soon the first was joined by a second bird, which also posed obligingly as we oohed and aahed. It felt like a gift, and, back at work on a wet grey day, the memory of the encounter is still warming and exalting.

Wednesday 23 December 2009

Two Nativities

Here is Rembrandt's beautiful Adoration of the Shepherds (who for once look like shepherds, awkwardly astonished by something wholly new). And here, four centuries later, is Geoffrey Hill taking the Nativity scene into a strange and very different place, and a strange and very different beauty...

Picture of a Nativity

Sea-preserved, heaped with sea-spoils,
Ribs, keels, coral sores,
Detached faces, ephemeral oils,
Discharged on the world’s outer shores,

A dumb child-king
Arrives at his right place; rests,
Undisturbed, among slack serpents; beasts
With claws flesh-buttered. In the gathering

Of bestial and common hardship
Artistic men appear to worship
And fall down; to recognize
Familiar tokens; believe their own eyes.

Above the marvel, each rigid head,
Angels, their unnatural wings displayed,
Freeze into an attitude
Recalling the dead.

And with that - as I shall certainly be whirling in a pre-Christmas frenzy tomorrow, I wish a very happy Christmas to all who browse here. God rest ye merry...

Tepper's Lucky Testicles

I read today that hedge fund king David Tepper, who made $2.5 billion this year by betting that the banks would start making money again (duh - how obvious was that?), keeps a pair of brass testicles on his desk, which he rubs occasionally for luck. They seem to work. Perhaps I'd better get some - the pavements should be littered with them in this freezing weather...

Tuesday 22 December 2009


Because that great (and long-lived) latterday Gothic revivalist Sir Ninian Comper died on this day in 1960, and because this picture shows some of his work in my parish church (All Saints, Carshalton) and because I hope to be there for Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve...

Coming Attractions

If it wasn't for the icy conditions (global warming kicks in - Continent cut off), there would no doubt have been dancing in the streets last night at the news that Broon, Cameron and the other one (Clegg is it?) are going to treat the nation to three (count them) 90-minute (count them too) live TV debates in the run-up to the election. The political class is certainly all of a doodah at the prospect, and the story led the news on radio and TV - but doesn't that only go to show how wide the gap is between them and the rest of us? The rest of us really aren't interested in politics as such - 12 years of Blair-Brown has seen to that - and this election will be all about Cameron managing to persuade us that the prospect of a Tory government is that bit less appalling than the prospect of five more years of the most catastrophically inept government of the postwar years. If he can't do that, then we might as well all despair of the whole business (I suspect many already have). Will four and a half hours of Brown lying, bludgeoning and flashing his weird smile, Cameron looking serious and managerial and faintly wounded, and the other one impersonating a hole in the screen revive our interest in politics and send us to the polling station in unprecedented numbers? Unprecedentedly low, I fear, is the likeliest outcome. Brown is said to be 'relishing' the prospect of the debates... God bless us one and all!

Monday 21 December 2009

Progress Becomes Stasis

There goes Eurostar then - yet another example of something that, when it's working, works spectacularly well, and when it's not working... Well, when it's not working it enters a state of total systems collapse - locomotive power, lighting, heating, air conditioning, water supply, and, to cap it all, even the most basic communications (never Eurostar's strong point), all gone. The accounts of what went on under the Channel are truly horrific, and many thousands are still living through the worst kind of travel nightmare. And why? Because Eurostar's highly sophisticated state-of-the-art trains found themselves unable to cope with a sudden shift from extreme cold into relative warmth. Water got into the electrical systems, and, since the whole shebang (like so many shebangs) depends on those electrical systems, every single function collapsed. It's yet another example of how progress, in the form of technological ultra-sophistication, can tip over into catastrophe and stasis, from the most seemingly trivial cause. Here, as so often, it was the weather, that ever unpredictable, ever surprising phenomenon. As extreme winter cold once again grips Europe and North America, and the curtain falls on the Copenhagen farce, how long will it be till we hear the first talk of a new Ice Age?

Saturday 19 December 2009

'An acrid cocktail...'

Radio 4's Book At Bedtime has taken another of its occasional breaks from the dreary prosing of the latest 'acclaimed' contemporary novelist - and this time it's lurched off in a gloriously unpredictable direction with a rather stylish prose adpatation of 10 of The Ingoldsby Legends. This is one of those books (or rather series of books) so popular in its time and so entirely unfashionable ever since that I never thought it would be revived in any form, let alone as a Book At Bedtime. I doubt more than a handful have read these stories for pleasure in recent times (though one of them, The Jackdaw of Rheims, was still widely anthologised in my schooldays). The Legends seemed to survive only as unsold volumes on the shelves of second-hand bookshops. The received opinion, inasmuch as there is one, dismisses them as 'an acrid cocktail of gallows humour, antiquarian ghoulishness and atrocious punning' (what's not to like?). And yet, to judge by the radio adaptation, they are richly entertaining fare - jolly tales, often of supernatural events, very similar in tone to some of the stories Dickens inserted into the Pickwick Papers (which, sadly, is probably among the least read of Dickens's works nowadays). Dickens, indeed, was a friend of Barham (the author) and his editor on Bentley's Miscellany. There's a colourful account of Barham and his corner of Kent here. And there are still five of the Legends coming up next week on Book At Bedtime.

Friday 18 December 2009


You can always rely on the weather gods, with their quirky sense of humour, to put on a cold weather spectacular just as we mortals are exercising ourselves with maximum solemnity over 'global warming'. With any luck, the delegates to the Copenhagen conference will find themselves snowed in, their fleets of limos standing idle, their squadrons of private jets snowbound on the runways of Scandinavia... Over here, the blizzards, whiteouts, snowdrifts and white hell scenarios painted for us Londoners by the Met Office didn't quite live up to the billing. It was - and is - very cold, that's for sure, but only a couple of inches of snow fell in my neck of suburbia, and scarce any at all in town. It was, of course, enough to bring the trains to a near-standstill and create the usual travel chaos - the infrastructure of London being so frail (wait till 2012...) - but at least, as we trudged through the snow and slush or stood waiting hopefully on frozen station platforms, we could warm ourselves with the thought that, over in Copenhagen, that nice Mr Brown was giving away billions of our money to corrupt power elites in the Third World - sorry, helping developing countries to adjust to the impact of climate change. As Scott Walker said, 'Copenhagen, you're the end.'

Wednesday 16 December 2009

Happy Birthday, VSP!

On an infinitely cheerier note, today is the anniversary of that great writer and bringer of happiness and illumination, V.S. Pritchett, born on this day in 1900. There's a good recent appreciation of the short stories here, which laments how little Pritchett is read today. He has featured on this blog often enough, beginning with this post, which set me to reading (and rereading) more of his works - and led to the discovery of fellow enthusiasts across the blogscape. It also led me to buy that endlessly rewarding volume of his writings, The Essential Pritchett, which I would recommend to anyone. He might never come back into fashion, but Pritchett was surely one of the greatest critics and short story writers England ever produced. Happy birthday, VSP!

Grim Viewing

'I shall be like that tree,' predicted Jonathan Swift, pointing to a stag-headed specimen. 'I shall die from the top.' As modern medicine becomes ever more adept at keeping our bodies going, increasing numbers of us can look forward to the same grim fate, and the misnamed 'care' (often no more than a form of warehousing) that goes with it. There was a harrowing programme on TV last night in which the businessman Gerry Robinson looked into what goes on in homes that care for the demented elderly, and it was grim viewing indeed. His uphill struggle to improve matters in one home - recently, to his undisguised amazement, upgraded to 'adequate' - was finally blown out of the water when allegations of sexual offences caused it to be closed down. The sight of the bewildered and terrified residents being wheeled out to die elsewhere was one of the most hauntingly terrible things I have ever seen on TV. What will future generations make of our treatment of the elderly - or indeed of babies and young children, who are similarly regarded as a problem to be farmed out to low-paid 'carers' (those that are allowed to live, that is - the scale of abortion in this country might also appall future generations)? It seems that any activity that involves one human being looking after, caring for another human being is by definition low status and low paid (unless it can be 'professionalised' into respectability). Is this because it is 'women's work'? Or is it just that we live in a society that values getting and spending above all else, regarding the truly important matters of life and death as peripheral - though all of us know that really they are central? If you're lucky enough to be lucid as you near death, will you look back and think Gosh I wish I'd spent more time in the office? And yet, while we are working, we must all entertain the delusion that it matters more than anything else. The result of all that getting and spending is that even the relatively poor among us live at a level of luxury that to past generations would seem beyond the remotest possibility. And yet, in the midst of this unheard-of wealth, we cannot spare enough to care properly for the most vulnerable among us. Swift, by no means a rich man, gave away a third of his earnings to charity, and saved another third to found the St Patrick's Hospital for Imbeciles. As he put it in his own ironic epitaph,
'He gave the little wealth he had
To build a house for fools and mad.'

Tuesday 15 December 2009


Here's a thing I don't recommend - having your central heating pack up just as the temperature starts plunging towards zero. Having behaved eccentrically for some while, our system finally gave up in the middle of last week, and (I'll spare you the details of the ensuing saga) was still out of action yesterday. Only one room of the house could be effectively heated, by means of a ferociously effective Chinese log-effect fire, and the rest of the draughty old place was probably a touch colder than the inside of the fridge. As the laptop lives in a now unheated room, there was no question of blogging or any such activity yesterday - not only were my fingers not working, but my brain too seemed to have succumbed. I had forgotten how numbing in every way deep, persistent cold is - it makes everything, physical and mental, fainter, more distant, more sluggish, so that the mind barely functions, and can think of little but the quest for warmth. The only cure - as to so many things - was to take a walk. A brisk march out to a local bird reserve in the making - gravel pits which are not yet worked out - got the chi, as well as the blood, flowing, and temporarily restored my spirits with its glimpses of watery, wintry beauty - the sky in the water, the distant trees, the crows mustering to roost as the light faded. I returned to the icebox house heartened and cheered and indeed feeling properly warm for the first time. Sadly, this did not last... However, the good news is that today, at last, the heating has been fixed. I'll never take it for granted again. Well, I shall of course, but I know I shouldn't.

Sunday 13 December 2009

Mr James Puts Us All to Rights

Another fine Point of View talk by Clive James this week (why do they ever give that slot to anyone else?). I had forgotten about the 'futurologist' Herman Kahn (said to be one of the models for Stanley Kubrick's Dr Strangelove), who was at one time taken very seriously indeed and was always pontificating away to reverential interviewers. (Futurology eh? Presentology is impossible enough, and even Pastology is fraught with difficulties...) On the matter of the warmist 'consensus', James thinks, or hopes, that the debate will now begin. Others, in the wake of Climategate (the East Anglia email scandal), are talking of a 'paradigm shift' (that's from Kuhn not Kahn) - which looks like an overstatement. I think what is happening - despite the Copenhagen juggernaut rolling on regardless - is a marked change of mood, detectable even in such once unbreachable bastions of consensus warmism as the BBC, towards a more open-minded attitude. If the media are heading that way, the politicians will surely follow - and the public, if opinion polls are to be believed, are already there. Being something of a futurologist myself, I, of course, saw this coming (hem hem). And here's another glimpse of the future from Nige's crystal ball: eventually whichever government is in power is going to inflate that deficit away - it's simply too huge to be got rid of by any other means. Mark my words, it's only a matter of time...

Saturday 12 December 2009

Victor McLaglen

I somehow missed the anniversary of Victor McLaglen (b 1886) the other day. My father, who'd been a bit of a boxer in his youth, always had a soft spot for the old pugilist turned actor. Here's McLaglen in action in John Ford's classic She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. They don't make them like that any more - either the films or the actors.

Friday 11 December 2009

1975 - A Vintage Year?

It is a truth universally acknowledged by music journalists of the rockular variety (as parodied brilliantly here by Brit) that 1975 was the pits, the year the music all but died in a welter of guitar noodling, before Punk came along in 1976, applied the electrodes and restored rock to life. Well, I have a friend who believes that, au contraire, 1975 was the greatest year ever (never mind that she was only 10 at the time and is a Led Zep fan). I decided to examine the evidence - and what do you know, she could be right! 1975 was the year in which Dylan released what many regard as his greatest album, Blood on the Tracks, and Patti Smith produced the still astounding Horses. Emmylou Harris released not one but two great albums, Pieces of the Sky and Elite Hotel. Paul Simon came up with Still Crazy After All These Years, Tom Waits released Nighthawks at the Diner, John Cale treated us to Slow Dazzle (the one with his version of Heartbreak Hotel on it)... There must be more in the way of great 1975 albums - but what clinches it for the year is that this song reached number 2 in the singles charts. There - now you'll be humming it all day. But you'll be smiling...

Thursday 10 December 2009

The Sound of the Suburbs

I slipped out to Kensington Gardens earlier today, to enjoy a 'quiet' baguette on a bench outside the orangery. I use the inverted commas advisedly, as, while I sat there, the air was rent every few minutes by the raucous shrieks of squadrons of ring-necked parakeets chasing each other at speed across the sky. I never dreamt that in my lifetime the dominant - indeed the overwhelming - sound of most open spaces in London and its suburbs should be this alien shrieking. It was fun - exciting indeed - to see these exotic creatures at first, but once their numbers started to grow, it was a different matter... And it's not just the parakeets. Rather too many of the changes in birdlife in my time have had a deleterious effect on the soundscape. While the most beautiful of garden singers, the song thrush, has declined steeply, the magpies and crows have come into town, and their unlovely shouts and caws are the only sounds that can match the parakeets. Even the collared dove (another one I never dreamt would become common), a lovely bird and a delight to see, has a strange, unmusical, quite undovelike call. Generally, the more musical birds that have increased in numbers are the ones with the weakest voices - the goldfinch with its beautiful soft liquid burbling, the longtailed tit with its thin piping whistle. On the other hand, there are more blackcaps around, and they're overwintering now - but that's a fact that might lead us to another, less agreeable subject...

Scepticism Is Conservative (since you ask)

Over at the Yard, our man is asking why opposition to warmism is 'such a right-wing thing'. No doubt I've said it before (and no doubt many others will), but I'll say it again. Conservatives (never mind 'neocons', who are mostly mutated Marxists) are bound to be sceptical about all large claims made by 'experts', governments and international bodies, if only because of their dismal record on such things, and the dubious purity of their motives. Warmism looks to us like apocalyptic projection, which is both a spillover from religion (answering to emotion rather than science) and a reverse form of Utopianism, about which conservatives too are deeply sceptical, for the best of historical reasons. It is also perfectly obvious that the enthusiasm of governments for the warmist scenario is driven by the possibilities it opens up for massive exactions of revenue from the public and considerable extension of state control over individuals and enterprises. What's not to be sceptical about? 'The science'? There is no (scientifically respectable) way on earth that such large claims and precise projections can be made about such a vast and complex web of systems. It reeks of human arrogance - overestimating our importance to the planet (as to everything else) - whereas conservatives (and indeed Christians) veer towards humility in regard to man's place in the scheme of things, and mistrust fierce conviction ('enthusiasm', in the old sense) in anything. The best, after all, lack all conviction...

Wednesday 9 December 2009

Any Excuse for a Venetian Drawing

And the excuse is that a drawing by Raphael has sold for a very high price. That kind of money is meaningless of course, but if it's going to be paid for anything, then better a Raphael drawing than, say, an Andy Warhol screen print. Raphael's drawings are among the greatest ever drawn, and, being less finished, they seem to tell us more than the paintings, under their reflective sheen of ultraperfection. It is good, then, that the worth of the drawings should be recognised in the market. An artist whose drawings were, in his lifetime, valued as highly as his paintings was the great (and underrated) Venetian, G.B. Piazzetta, who specialised in highly finished, large-scale drawings, whose delicacy of touch and tonality is quite wonderful. That's one of his above. Enjoy... And from that brief encounter with art and beauty I return to the eye of the workstorm.

Monday 7 December 2009


Birthday again - and this year's a big one for me and Tom. As ever at this time of year, I'm up to the oxters in work, but I expect Tom to touch down on the NigeCorp helipad this evening, bearing a case of the Lafitte '49 (a legendary year). Then it's all back to Edmundo Ros's - he's 99 today. Happy birthday, Edmundo!

Sunday 6 December 2009

Nevil Shute

I'm glad to hear that the novels of Nevil Shute have suddenly come back into fashion and are being reprinted by Vintage - see this excellent piece. My gladness is largely on behalf of my late father, who adored these books, even investing in a book club uniform edition, red-and-gilt, bound (as Private Eye would put it) 'in hand-tooled Gnomitex'. He would read them repeatedly, and some of them would, oddly, reduce him to tears (he wasn't a lachrymose man, unlike the one his younger son seems to be turning into). A pity he isn't alive to see his man restored to favour (and to replace his uniform edition with something a little easier on the eye). Mind you, he'd be 100 years old...

The Cost of Living

I've been half-reading a small book on Edward Thomas, which I picked up in a second-hand bookshop that was so perfect of its kind I couldn't bear to leave without buying something. On closer inspection, I discovered that this nicely produced little book was a 'Faber Student Guide', published in the mid-80s and clearly designed to fit poor Thomas's works to a Procrustean bed of Marxian analysis. This approach does yield the odd insight in passing, and the book's concentration on Thomas's prose as well as his poetry is refreshing. There's also enough extensive quotation from both to remind the reader of the real thing. But, putting all that aside, it was a biographical detail that caught my eye. Thomas's father was a clerk - 'staff clerk for light railways' at the Board of Trade - and on his Civil Service salary alone, he was able to support a wife and large family (six sons), plus domestic help, in a large detached house near the common in Clapham. So, at that time, a clerk in the Civil Service could afford what today only millionaires or the recipients of City bonuses can run to. What level of inflation does that suggest? It's barely computable. Similarly, in The Death of the Heart, set in the 1930s, we are informed that the total income of the Quayles amounts to £3,000, which is ample for a large house on Regent's Park with live-in domestics, all the comforts of upper-middle-class life, and long holidays abroad (when travel was relatively dearer). To achieve that standard of living today would surely require an income nearer £3 million than £3,000. My question is - What happened? Why would it now cost a fortune to live in the kind of style our middle-class ancestors took for granted? No Marxists need respond.

Saturday 5 December 2009

Richard Todd

It was sad to hear yesterday that the actor, war hero and all-round good egg Richard Todd had died, albeit at a ripe old age. To say that Todd had a good war would be an understatement - read this and be humbled... This was a man - and, to judge by that piece, he was rather a good writer too.

Christina Rossetti

The annual winter workstorm has kept me from blogging much lately, but I note that today is the birthdate of Christina Rossetti (born 1830). The poor woman led one of those sad Victorian lives that were the lot of so many of her sex, self-thwarted by religious scruples whose force we can scarcely comprehend today. She left behind much half-good poetry, little of which entirely works (she certainly wasn't our homegrown Emily Dickinson) - but In the Bleak Midwinter will surely survive. In its beautiful setting by Holst, it's one of the most moving of Christmas carols - and read as a poem it has something of the force and simplicity of George Herbert. Played by a Salvation Army band, it is certainly more than I can easily bear - but more and more things reduce me to tears these days. I think it's part of growing older. Lacrimae rerum...

Wednesday 2 December 2009

Winter Night, Summer Meadow

Lying awake in the small hours this morning (having been abruptly woken by a violent calf cramp, the afterpain of which is still with me), I realised again how poorly we semi-insomniacs are served by the radio since the demise of the much missed Birdsong radio. The World Service, at an appropriately low volume, is fine, though it's all too likely to grab the attention and haul you back from incipient slumber - or, worse, wake you from a doze with a blast of vibrant ethnic music. Radio 4 has an appalling habit of switching from the World Service to loud, jaunty and utterly infuriating song-and-dance programmes that appear to be aimed at deaf imbeciles, but are, I believe, intended for teachers to record and inflict on classrooms of helpless children - one can but pity them. Similarly, Radio 7, once the studio laughter shows have died down, is likely to jolt you with a blast of jollity aimed at the little ones, god bless 'em. Radio 3 would be fine, but you just can't rely on music to stay at the same volume for long, so there's no sleeping through it. What to do then? I know what I'd have, to see me through the long winter nights in a calm, going on blissful state - an endless loop, a la Birdsong, of the sound of a summer meadow. The buzzing of bees from flower to flower, the intermittent chirring of grasshoppers, birds singing merrily in the middle distance, every now and then the faint susurration of a passing butterfly... I'm nodding off already. Here's a project for some right-minded philanthropist - maybe that Anglophile Getty, whatever his name is - Radio Summer Meadow. What could be more perfectly relaxing in the long small hours of a winter night?

Tuesday 1 December 2009

That's What I Call a Walk...

The other day I came across a mention of a chap called Foster Powell, who, back in 1773, was now about halfway through an epic walk, from London to York and back (396 miles) in less than six days, that won him a hefty bet and made him a celebrity. I've long been vaguely fascinated by these feats of 'pedestrianism', but hadn't realised quite how extreme they were - or, still more surprisingly, that they are still being surpassed in the 21st century. Foster Powell's great walk was soon bettered, and, in the 19th century, the six-day walk became a fiercely competitive, big money, big crowd (a staggering 70,000 for one event!) indoor sport, largely because of the prodigious feats (500 miles in 6 days? No problem) of an American pedestrian called Edward Payson Weston. By the time the 500-mile mark was reached, the six-day walk was open to all comers - runners or walkers. The distances covered in six days became ever more mind-boggling, Weston reaching 550 miles and the Englishman Charles Rowell managing 530. Then in 1882 another Englishman, George Hazel, hit the altogether unbelievable 600-mile mark - but even that record didn't stand long, with yet another Englishman, competing in America, clocking up 623 miles in 1888 - by which time interest in the six-day event was waning. So that was that? No, far from it - there was a revival of interest in this form of 'ultrarunning' in the 1980s, and new six-day records were set in 1984 - 635 miles - and, finally and surely unbeatably, 644 miles, run indoors by a Greek runner, Yiannis Kouros (nicknamed 'Pheidippides' successor') as recently as 2005. Why do we never hear of these astonishing feats - equivalent to running four consecutive marathons a day for six consecutive days? Oh of course - there's no money in it, and it's too boring to attract spectators or TV cameras. This makes these lonely endeavours at the extremes of human endurance all the more noble - or mad, or both... There's a potted history of the six-day race here. Read and boggle.