Monday 31 May 2010

150 Today

Walter Sickert, the great English painter and long-time denizen of Dieppe, was born 150 years ago today. This picture shows him in Dieppe with Max Beerbohm, the painter William Nicholson and the tall and very beautiful actress Constance Collier (who later became a Hollywood drama coach). Max is clearly smitten... Although Sickert was for a long time living 'in sin' with a statuesque fishwife (by whom he had a son as golden-haired as his own younger self) in the fishermen's quarter, le Pollet, he was also an ornamentof Dieppe society and conscious of his position in it. It was for this reason that, deplorably, he lined up against Oscar Wilde, his old friend, when, on his release from prison, Oscar headed immediately for Dieppe. Another friend of Wilde's (and Sickert's), the painter Jacques Emile Blanche, had decided not to snub Oscar, but unfortunately he was in company with Sickert when the inevitable encounter occurred, near the Cafe Suisse, and the result was that both Wilde's old friends 'cut' him. This attitude was especially cruel on Sickert's part, as he had been much closer to Wilde than Blanche was, and in particular owed him a debt of gratitude for his kindness to his widowed mother. Here's how Simona Pakenham tells it in Sixty Miles From England: The English at Dieppe, 1814-1914:
'Mrs Sickert had been inconsolable, shutting herself away from the world, until Wilde forced himself into her company. She had refused to see him, but he stationed himself in the hall, refusing to go away until she gave in. When at last she admitted him, the two were closeted for an hour, and, after a time, the family were astonished to hear the sound of laughter coming from behind the door. Mrs Sickert recovered from that moment.'
Still, this unkindness of Sickert pales into insignificance when set against the crimes laid at his door by the crime novelist Patricia Cornwwell, who is unshakably convinced that he was in fact Jack the Ripper, and wrote a book to 'prove' her case. Remarkably, Sickert seems to have managed to commit four of the five murders without even leaving Dieppe.

Sunday 30 May 2010

Even the Pigs Are Celebrating

This is my 1,000th post on Nigeness! And to think that I was a reluctant blogger, dragged into the business by The Yard whom God preserve. Looking back, I see my very first post on Nigeness was about the Eurovision Song Contest. Two years, on I missed most of last night's Eurovision - what little I saw seemed more blandly boring than stark staring Eurobonkers - but I tuned in for the judging, which is always half the fun, with its procession of microcelebs from forgotten corners of Europe desperately milking their announcement moment. Anyway the Germans steamrollered the competition - we seem to have reached the point where the occupied countries are letting bygones be bygones - but sadly the UK, in its heroic quest for the elusive nul points, was let down by a couple of foreigners giving us some points. Better luck next year, eh?


It's that brief period when the Black Locust (or False Acacia) bursts into flower, and this unelegant and rather shapeless tree is suddenly strikingly beautiful - and fragrant. Those pea-like flowers, hanging down in long loose racemes, are described in botanical terms as 'papilionaceous' - yes, butterfly-shaped - no wonder I like them so much.

Friday 28 May 2010

Carl Larsson: Not His Fault

The Swedish painter Carl Larsson was born on this day in 1853. His paintings of his family's idyllic home life can seem a touch sweet, but it's hardly surprising that he so cherished what he had when you consider the brutal beginning he had in life - see Biography here (and I love the title of his autobiography - Me). He was a formidable draughtsman and watercolorist, and it's not his fault that there's a direct path from his lovingly rendered interiors to the 'Swedish look' and thence all the way to the hell men call Ikea.

The New Busy

The New Busy, so the ubiquitous Microsoft ads tell us, Is Not Like The Old Busy. Indeed it isn't - the New Busy is the Old Busy plus all the stuff email forces us to do. Cheers for that.

Retroprogressive News

It's good to know that 25,000 people are still sticking with black and white television - not least because it's just the kind of news the tech-mad neophiliacs who run broadcasting will not want to hear, as they lead the nation into a shiny digital tomorrow. Just as many people are quite happy with B&W TV, so are many many more people - in fact virtually everybody - with FM/AM transistor radios, which are cheap, perfectly portable, function just about anywhere and can be scattered about the house willynilly so you can have radio wherever you are. If all goes to plan - and let's hope very much it doesn't - this perfect state of affairs will be swept away by 2015 and we'll all have to rely on deeply unreliable DAB digital radios, which are far more expensive, far less portable and far more prone to signal loss than FM. What's more, the wonky DAB technology will almost certainly be replaced by DAB Plus a few years later, forcing us to change our radios once more. To the barricades, retroprogressives! Save our trannies! (and I do mean radios)

Wednesday 26 May 2010

Pigs Ahoy?

I rarely check this blog's figures on Google Anayltics (honest), but I had a quick look today - and was astonished to see a spectacular spike in visitor numbers on Monday of this week, to just shy of 1,000, a figure not seen since the Yard namechecked me in his 100 Best Blogs all that time ago. As far as I can make out, it was the Pigs Ahoy! post that did it. It must have got a mention on some megablog (The Troughington Post?), but there's no sign of a link. Can anyone enlighten me? Meanwhile, in a blatant bid to boost my figures, here they are again, those saddleback scallywags!

Something Amis?

Finding myself with time to kill on Victoria station last night ('person under train in the East Croydon area'), I mooched for a while in the former bookshop known as W.H. Smith, idly scanning the meagre 'General Fiction' shelves. I noticed that Martin Amis - despite this week's BBC TV adaptation of his Money - was represented by only one title, Success (probably his best novel, certainly his shapeliest). What would have irked poor Marty more was that Julian Barnes was represented by 4 titles, Ian McEwan by virtually his entire works, Sebastian Faulks ditto; Salman Rushdie had 4 or 5 titles (oddly not including The Satanic Verses), even Will Self had 4, even David Mitchell (whose Cloud Atlas no one has read) had 3 (plus the new one stacked up elsewhere). How fast and far Martin Amis's reputation - and, by the look of things, sales - have fallen, to the point where I am surely not the only former fan who would never dream of opening a new book of his. I stuck with him up to The Information or thereabouts, and by then it was clear enough that the once brilliant comic novelist had started to take himself far too seriously, that the talented writer was becoming convinced he was a genius, that the dazzling stylist was repeating his old tricks too often, and that each 'loose baggy monster' of a novel was baggier and saggier than the last. A great shame. In his heyday, Amis was one of the most exhilarating of writers, his springy, zestful sentences and paragraphs a joy to read - I've seldom enjoyed any contemporary novels more than those first few of his. Including Success.

Tuesday 25 May 2010

Warmists Against Democracy

I caught some of a programme on Radio 4 last night - Analysis it was - in which a couple of warmists were roundly declaring that, in the face of what they saw as impending catastrophe, democracy might well have to be abandoned. One of them was our old friend Jim Lovelock. The presenter Justin Rowlatt questioned them robustly, and gave plenty of time to the opposing case, essentially that no such drastic measures could conceivably be justified by such uncertain science. But just supposing, by way of hypothesis, that at some point it was scientifically established beyond doubt (inasmuch as science can really establish anything beyond doubt) that (a) global warming was increasing to the point where it was an imminent threat to human survival, and (b) that the acceleration was due to human activity, and (c) that it could be stopped by human intervention - just supposing all of that - would it then be right to abandon democracy? Would we actually know what to do, and would abandoning democracy make it any easier in practice to do it? And would it, in the end, be worth giving up one of the great human achievements, one of the things that makes life livable, for the sake of maintaining the human population at its current extremely high level? Would the world we were reduced to by these drastic measures be worth saving? Perhaps, as Rowlatt suggested, democracy has already effectively been suspended in this cause, as all three electable parties have signed up to a near-identical green agenda - and, he might have added, the UK is already committed, without public consultation, to a legal process that, if carried through, will effectively destroy the economy (the notorious 80 per cent cuts in carbon emissions). I don't suppose that was what Lovelock had in mind when he chillingly declared humankind 'too stupid' to deal with climate change, but it looks pretty stupid to me.

Monday 24 May 2010

What Are the Chances?

The hot weather over the weekend reduced me to the usual mental and physical torpor. Though the Outer Nige was intermittently active in the world - even labouring heroically in the garden - the Inner Nige might be best imaged as a cartoon Mexican, dozing under his sombrero (Mexico, says Kinky Friedman, is the country to which Jesus said, Do nothing till I come back). However, both Inner and Outer Nige came briefly to life when I went walking in the Surrey Hills on the lookout for butterflies. Reader, I must tell you that, a week almost to the hour after my Derbyshire Dingy Skipper, I saw another one, similarly abask, though in far warmer sun. Had you been present and carrying a feather, you could have knocked me down with it. What's more, I saw not one but two Green Hairstreaks. One was flying fast and eluded me, though there was no mistaking that flash of green. The second was more obliging, settling on a nondescript flower bud on a sunny bank and treating me to a long close-up view of those shimmering emerald-green underwings, delicately lined in reddish brown, with a tiny tail to the hindwing. From the way it was methodically moving about the flowerbud I surmised it was probably laying eggs - she, then, and a most beautiful she... I had been hoping that I might see an Adonis Blue, but I had to be content with large numbers of Common Blues - what am I saying? The Common Blue is a most beautiful butterfly, and would itself fully deserve the name Adonis if its astonishing turquoise-winged relative didn't exist. The wings of the male Common Blue are precisely and perfectly the blue of a sunny early summer sky, and there's even a splash of blue on the beaded underwing, as if the colour was so intense it had soaked through. That's a Common Blue in the picture. On this walk I also saw - No, that's enough butterflies for one post - time to get back under the sombrero...

Friday 21 May 2010


Born on this day in 1917 was the TV and film actor Raymond Burr, best remembered as Perry Mason. Burr lived in more innocent times, when an actor could falsify not only his sexual orientation but great chunks of his life story - a couple of marriages that never happened, a non-existent son, his war service. It all came out after his death - see Early Career and Personal life here. Still, Burr seems to have been a thoroughly nice chap (if a little fantasy prone), who was happiest tending his orchids (no pun intended) and who gave away generous chunks of his earnings to charities and individuals. After Perry Mason, of course, he found TV fame again as the wheelchair-bound detective Ironside, a role he left in 1975 because he couldn't stand being pushed around any more. Boom boom.

Thursday 20 May 2010

Winning Troubles

It's good to see that J.G. Farrell has won (posthumously) the Lost Man Booker Prize for his 1970 novel Troubles. This makes him one of only three double winners, and he'd have deserved it if he'd won a third Booker with The Singapore Grip (Iris Murdoch's The Sea, The Sea won that year, and Farrell wasn't even shortlisted). This piece includes a poignant account of poor Farrell's death... The other works shortlisted for the Lost Booker were by Muriel Spark, Nina Bawden, Mary Renault, Patrick White and Shirley Hazzard (The Bay of Noon, which I must read). Put those names from 40 years ago up against any recent Man Booker shortlist and it would be hard not to conclude that the literary novel has hit hard times.

Pigs Ahoy!

Well, that was a treat. Walking in Holland Park earlier, I noticed that a patch of the woodland area had been fenced off - and there, happily rooting and rummaging about, were four fine Wessex Saddleback pigs. That, surely, is just about the last thing you'd expect to see in West London - but there they were. My heart leapt - as whose would not? There are few more satisfying animals to watch - or to scratch, though in this case an electric fence rather ruled out that option. I shall be returning to gaze fondly at these fine beasts whenever I can.

Wednesday 19 May 2010

Lolita - What If?

Slow reader that I am, I've just finished my latest rereading of Lolita - and it's left me more impressed, moved and shaken than ever. I was pleased to note (poor memorist that I am) how much of it I remembered, though oddly my memory became more patchy towards the end. I think that on this reading I sensed more than ever before Humbert's growing awareness of his own monstrosity, as it becomes increasingly explicit in self-harrowing passages like this:
'Unless it can be proven to me - to me as I am now, today, with my heart and my beard, and my putrefaction - that in the infinite run it does not matter a jot that a North American girl-child named Dolores Haze had been deprived of her childhood by a maniac, unless this can be proven (and if it can, then life is a joke), I see nothing for the treatment of my misery but the melancholy and very local palliative of articulate art...'
'I was a pentapedal monster, but I loved you. I was despicable and brutal, and turpid, and everything, mais je t'aimais, je t'aimais! And there were times when I knew how you felt, and it was hell to know it, my little one. Lolita girl, brave Dolly Schiller.'
Self-harrowing, and no doubt self-serving - old Humbert is unreliable to the end, the unreliable narrator's unreliable narrator. But who could not be moved? What a voice, what a book!
I sometimes wonder what Nabokov's reputation would be now if Lolita had never been published (as it nearly wasn't - only the Olympia Press would touch it, and Nabokov had come close to burning an early version, or so he tells us). Without that 'international bestseller' and the scandal that surrounded it, most of Nabokov's Russian works would most likely have languished untranslated (no Defence, no Gift), and he would perhaps never have found the creative energy and freedom to write his more remarkable later works (no Pale Fire? No Transparent Things?). Nor would anyone have been much interested in his autobiography (no Speak Memory!) or his lectures and other writings. He would probably survive as a cult writer savoured by a few connoisseurs, select works occasionally reprinted... The loss of Lolita would have deprived us not only of one of the great novels of the 20th century but of so much else - though it has to be said that a scaling down of the Nabokov industry would be no bad thing; The Annotated Laundry Lists can't be far off...

Tuesday 18 May 2010


The great Yorkshire and England cricketer Hedley Verity was born on this day in 1905. An unusually pacey left-arm spinner (around Derek Underwood speed), he could be devastatingly effective, and his 10 for 10 against Notts in 1932 still stands as the cheapest 10-wicket haul in first-class cricket (and he wasn't helped towards it by the bowler at the other end, George Macaulay). In 1939, Verity bowled the last ball in county cricket before it was suspended entirely for the war - with it he took the last wicket of a 7 for 9 haul against Sussex (and finished top of the first-class bowling averages). During the war, Verity served with the Green Howards, and was a Captain by the time his regiment joined in the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943. He was mortally wounded during the advance on Calabria when his company came under heavy fire in a cornfield at night. Wounded in the chest, as he urged his men forward to the relative safety of a farmhouse, he was last seen lying in front of the blazing corn, his batman supporting his head. 'So,' to quote his Wisden obituary, 'in the last grim game, Verity showed, as he was so sure to do, that rare courage which both calculates and inspires.' He died soon afterwards in a military hospital. It is said that as he lay dying, he remarked, 'I think I have played my last innings for Yorkshire'. He was just 38 years old.

Sunday 16 May 2010

Back from the Glorious Consort

In the Peak District, spring was even farther behind than it is in the South, and proceeding at a still more leisurely pace. The result is a glorious consort of flowering, with bluebells, cowslips, violets, windflowers, forget-me-nots, campion, periwinkle, celandine, wild garlic, storksbill, sweet cicely and jack by the hedge all in abundant flower together, while the cherry trees are still hung with blossom and the horse chestnut candles are at their brightest. The lilac was only just opening yesterday when, with the utmost reluctance, I headed south from Derbyshire, back to London (where the lilac will soon be, as Geoffrey Hilll describes it, 'turned overnight a rough tobacco brown'). It was a wonderful, soul-restoring break - and along the way, I made two happy 'spots': beside a woodland path, a pale weird leafless spike of ragged flowers, a Broomrape of some kind, I think Toothwort, parasitic on hazel roots - and, on grassland at a disused quarry, the butterfly illustrated above, the Dingy Skipper. A single male was flying in the usual elusive manner of skippers, but paused to bask, wings open, long enough for my brother to photograph it in close-up (that's not his picture above, though). Dingy it may be, but it has its subtle moth-like beauty, and is becoming increasingly rare. Otherwise, most of the butterflies to be seen were jolly Orange Tips. They would have been enough.

Tuesday 11 May 2010

Cristen Koebke

I'm not gone yet - and yesterday I was able to drop into the National Gallery and have a look at an exhibition in the Sunley Room of some 40 works by the Danish painter (of the first Danish 'golden age' in the early 19th century, the age of Kierkegaard), Cristen Koebke (I've no idea how to do that crossed O on this keyboard). It's exactly my kind of exhibition - compact, illuminating about an artist I barely knew, and full of remarkable paintings. Take the one above, of the plaster cast collection at Charlottenborg. This early work gives an ostensibly grand classical subject the tone - and the tonalities - of a domestic interior by Chardin, the figure of the man with the duster a mute commentary on the alien grandeur of those eloquently arranged fragments of antiquity. (I remember once touring the sculpture hall of a grand Yorkshire mansion and overhearing the blunt housewife next to me remarking to her friend, 'I wouldn't have the dusting of this lot'). Koebke was never at home in the academy, and only discovered his genius when he started painting the scenes and the people around him - initially in the Copenhagen citadel, where his father was the master baker, then out of town at watery Sortedamssoen. I'd seen a few of his startlingly original landscapes before, but hadn't realised what a brilliantly effective and psychologically penetrating portraitist he was. The portrait of his young friend and fellow artist Frederik Soedring (it's reproduced in little in Koebke's Wikipedia entry) is wonderfully fresh and energetic, breathing youthful enthusiasm and the excitement of a 'new age'. Koebke's landscapes are bathed in Danish light, full of sky and clouds and water. Perhaps the most extraordinary is a huge canvas titled Roof Ridges of Frederiksborg Castle, three quarters of which is sky, with the dark line of the roof ridges running along the bottom, the only vertical notes supplied by a beautifully rendered brick chimneystack and one of the castle's delicate baroque turrets. It's a breathtakingly bold piece of work, and was, perhaps understandably, never displayed in Koebke's lifetime - he found it difficult enough getting even his more conventional work accepted by the academy. As with Samuel Palmer, a trip to Italy produced some very fine sketches, but the finished paintings that followed, painted against the grain of the artist's natural inclinations (and palette), were failures. Koebke's career had fizzled out by the time he died, of pneumonia, at the age of only 37. It was for future generations to realise what an extraordinary artist Denmark had lost in Cristen Koebke...
If you find yourself anywhere near the National Gallery with an hour to spare, go and see this exhibition - you won't be sorry. It's on until mid-June.

Monday 10 May 2010


I'm on holiday for a week! Which is excellent news for me, after 7 months without a break, but might not be so great for the Blog, especially as I'll soon be heading north for the Peak District. However, I hope not to fall entirely silent, so stay tuned...

Sunday 9 May 2010

A Full and Complete Explanation of Everything

Yesterday afternoon, for reasons that would be tedious to explain here, I found myself sharing an uncomfortable sofa with a sturdily built one-eyed man of County Galway origin. Having filled me in on the topography of that county of lakes and mountains, he deftly steered the conversation to matters theological. A keen daily reader of 'scripture', he had an especial interest in (you're there before me, aren't you) the Revelation of St John. We are, he assured me with heart-sinking inevitability, living in the end times, and the Devil, that cunning two-faced beast, is stalking the land. At this point, he fixed me with his one good eye and unleashed his zinger - the Freemasons. They (I shall not stoop to 'dey' but take it as read) are everywhere - and by everywhere, he certainly meant everywhere; his conviction in this matter was nothing if not thoroughgoing. The Pope, the whole of the Vatican, the bishops of all churches and many of the clergy are Freemasons, doing the devil's work, and so are all the world's leaders. As a result, all they have to do is pick up the phone to each other, ask for a few nuclear weapons or a little war or invasion, and the deal's done - anything to oblige a fellow Mason. He knew all this because, by way of supplementing his scriptural researches, he had read many books on the subject and watched many DVDs. As for the police - the well informed Galwayman had much to impart on that subject, not least about the Soham murderer (a Mason of course)... But alas at this point a twinge in my back forced me to rise from the uncomfortable sofa and leave him to await his next pupil.
I wonder if all this explains where Brown went wrong - he wasn't a Mason. Blair, so the Galwayman informed me, was. Which explains everything. Which is, of course, the beauty of conspiracy theories.
And now I must get my application to join the Masons in the post. It might be fun to run the world for a bit.

Friday 7 May 2010

A Haikette in Celebration of Whatever It Was that Happened Last Night

The New Dawn broke
On talk and suits and deals.
A bird coughed.

Wednesday 5 May 2010

'Massive, unflagging, moral...'

I'm rereading Lolita, probably for the fifth or sixth time - it never palls, only grows richer and more wonderful with each reading, the sure sign of a great, rather than merely good, book. The copy I'm reading is my battered old Penguin, dating from 1980 (in fact the belated first Penguin edition) and full of misprints. Its pages are brown and it's falling apart at the dried-out spine. The back cover, unsurprisingly, is plastered with a fine array of raves, including one from Lionel Trilling ('No lover has thought of his beloved with so much tenderness, no woman has been so charmingly evoked, in such grace and delicacy, as Lolita') and three words from Dorothy Parker: 'A great book'. It is Bernard Levin who throws down the most magnificent handful of adjectives - 'Massive, unflagging, moral, exquisitely shaped, enormously vital, enormously funny'. All of this is of course true, or a well-intentioned stab at the truth, but what struck me as I idly scanned these blurbs was how much inflation has hit the business of reviewers' adjectives in the intervening years. It's now all but impossible to find a novel with any kind of literary pretensions that isn't garlanded in similar praise from swooning reviewers or open-mouthed fellow authors. The most run-of-the-mill, so-what plod of a 'literary' novel - or indeed the most laughably bad - will be hailed on its back (and often front) cover as 'masterly', 'compelling', 'dazzling', 'intensely moving', 'thrillingly original', 'richly comic', 'essential', etc. These are all, as employed nowadays, pretty much meaningless, and nobody with any sense would take any notice of them, unless, by any chance, they are the words of an honest critic rather than a hack reviewer. It seems nobody bothers to read them for sense either. Consider this, from a Susan Sontag rave on the back cover of W.G. Sebald's The Emigrants: 'I know of few books written in our time but this one which attains the sublime'. This is surely not what La Sontag meant to say (for 'which attains', substitute 'that attain'). Not that it matters...

Monday 3 May 2010

Lilac Time

Yesterday was wet, with a piercingly cold north wind driving the cherry blossom and magnolia petals off the trees and down to the pavements in sludgy, slippery deposits - a nasty reminder of the grim weather that preceded those glorious sunny weeks of April. But the day before - May Day - there was sun, and suddenly the lilacs were in full flower everywhere, and in astonishing profusion, the bushes heavy with great swags of bloom. The delicate scent of lilac is surely one of the most beautiful in nature (or humanly enhanced nature), and the more beautiful for its short life - lilac time is brief. The white flowers - more fragrant still - generally follow the more conventionally coloured, and then, after a week or so, it's over. For me, lilac is associated not with the cruellest month or the dead earth, but with a cherished memory from decades ago - of holding my daughter, then a toddler, up to smell a spray of lilac blossom overhanging a fence, seeing the lacy shadow of the flowers on her face, and knowing something very like perfect happiness.