Monday 28 June 2010

Yesterday Afternoon

So there I was in my lucky white England shirt, flag of St George draped over my shoulders, face painted in red and white, in one hand a vuvuzela, in the other a pint of Wifebeater... Only joshing. In fact, when our brave boys were showing the quaking Hun who's boss (i.e. he is), I was out and about in the hot sun on Ashtead common, catching up with my butterfly friends. I was richly rewarded. Within minutes of walking into the woods, a White Admiral swooped past me and glided off into the trees - and it proved to be the first of many, in fact more than I have ever seen on any one occasion before (when I got into the 20s, I gave up counting). As I might have mentioned before, the White Admiral, with its simple restrained beauty and graceful flight, is just about my favourite butterfly, and last year I saw disappointingly few of them, whereas I encountered Silverwashed Fritillaries galore. This year - so far - the balance seems to be reversed and I was seeing at least two Admirals for every Frit. Yesterday both these beautiful species were flying - flying energetically and with purpose, seldom pausing for a drop of nectar. The Silverwashed has a very fast, no-nonsense flight, brash, aggressive, almost swaggering, whereas the White Admiral's flight, though almost as fast, is an elegant affair of few wingbeats and much gliding. The effect in strong woodland sunlight is extraordinary, as the black-and-white butterfly, passing between bright light and inky shade, seems to disappear and reappear and even to change shape, often appearing a much smaller and more insignificant insect than it is seen to be when it lands. It was a rare joy to see so many of these beautiful creatures in flight, and I fancy I shall remember that magical afternoon long after I've forgotten that there was a football match on too.

Sunday 27 June 2010

Bob Appleyard

As far as is known, the Yorkshire cricketing legend Bob Appleyard is not a kinsman of Bryan of that ilk, nor of myself, though my doubly maternal great grandfather was the gloriously named Hargreave Potter Appleyard, harbourmaster of Scarborough. Discovering by chance that it's Bob Appleyard's 86th birthday today, and remembering him only vaguely (his great days with Yorkshire were over before I was old enough to take an interest), I looked him up in Wikipedia... Read this and learn what greatness is. And, as England's pampered poltroons take to the field this afternoon, reflect on what kind of men sportsmen once were. (See also Verity.)

Friday 25 June 2010

Alan Plater

I was sorry to see that Alan Plater has died. His version of The Barchester Chronicles was one of the great TV adaptations. The casting was superb - Donald Pleasence as Septimus Harding, Nigel Hawthorne as Archdeacon Grantley, Geraldine McEwan as Mrs Proudie and Alan Rickman as Obadiah Slope were all unforgettable - and the script was sharp, warm and funny, catching the essence of the books perfectly. It was broadcast in 1982, but I still remember it fondly - and I can't say that of very many TV series.

Thursday 24 June 2010

'who found all creatures amusive...'

Two books I have on the go at the moment are Richard Mabey's biography of Gilbert White (as mentioned here) and a selection from Thoreau's Journals. This latter is the Dover Thrift edition, which somehow winnows the 14 mighty volumes of published diaries down to a meagre 55 pages (the jacket is still proudly labelled 'Unabridged' nonetheless). As regular readers of Patrick Kurp's incomparable blog will know, Thoreau's Journals are full of good things - indeed, they even exist in blog form themselves. Gilbert White's The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne is rather less readable than Thoreau. I read it years ago, and have experienced no urgent desire to reread it in its entirety. It's one of those books that is perhaps more revered than actually read, more important for what it stands for - or seems to stand for - than for what is between its covers. White's life and work have been mythologised almost from the time of publication, with White as the simple soul, the artless child of nature, his quiet life emblematic of a very English idyll of village life. Mabey, of course, dismisses the myth and sets about remaking White, literally, from the ground up - from the remarkably complex and diverse, and remarkably unchanged, terroir (only the French word will do) of Selborne. His biography is the work of a naturalist writing about a fellow naturalist, and is the better for it. Here is a poet writing about White and Thoreau together - Auden's relaxed, conversational Posthumous Letter to Gilbert White

It’s rather sad we can only meet people
whose dates overlap with ours, a real shame that
you and Thoreau (we know that he read you)
never shook hands. He was, we hear, a rabid

Anti-Clerical and quick-tempered, you the
quietest of curates, yet I think he might well have
found in you the Ideal Friend he wrote of
with such gusto, but never ran into.

Stationaries, both of you, but keen walkers,
chaste by nature and, it would seem, immune to
the beck of worldly power, kin spirits,
who found all creatures amusive, even

the tortoise in spite of its joyless stupors,
aspected the vagrant moods of the Weather,
from the modest conduct of fogs to
the coarse belch of thunder or the rainbow’s

federal arch, what fun you’d have had surveying
two rival landscapes and their migrants, noting
the pitches owls hoot on, comparing
the echo-response of dactyls and spondees.

Selfishly, I, too, would have plumbed to know you:
I could have learned so much. I’m apt to fancy
myself as a lover of Nature,
but have no right to, really. How many

birds and plants can I spot? At most two dozen.
You might, though, have found such an ignoramus
a pesky bore. Time spared you that: I
have, though, thank God, the right to re-read you.


My daughter sent me a link to this, which I pass on as something rather beautiful and strange - and packing a nostalgic punch for those of us old enough to remember some of these very posters. It seems we grew up in a golden age of poster design - at least on London Transport.

Wednesday 23 June 2010

Le Style 'English Gentleman'

I notice that whenever I'm in France these days, I tend to get taken for a Frenchman. This most definitely isn't down to my grasp of the language, as whoever hails me as a fellow frog-eater very soon discovers; I think it's actually because I look so 'English'. Paradoxical? Not really. My style of dress - along the lines, I suppose, of the style the French resourcefully describe as 'English gentleman' - is now far more commonly seen among Frenchmen than les rosbifs. (In Trouville, for the record, I was wearing a white cotton suit and, much of the time, a zinger of a linen shirt, the gift of Mrs Nige.) So, a style that was quintessentially English has become French, while today's Englishman abroad lets the side down by dressing very badly in ugly 'leisure wear' - shapeless tops, hideous colours, ill-fitting trousers cut off at any point from thigh to ankle. Admittedly the French seem to be heading in that general direction too, but at a far slower rate - and at least those old enough to know better do still dress, for the most part, with dignity and style. I even saw quite a few cravats.

Singing on the Street

This morning, on my way to work, I was walking up a quiet street, my mind pleasantly blank and summery. Coming towards me, I dimly noticed, was a woman of a certain age, dressed in hippyish style, with abundant greying hair and a somewhat ravaged face. As she drew near, she began to sing - as well as she could with a fag in her mouth - Bob Dylan's Sign on the Window. I gave her a smile of recognition, but she was off somewhere far away, with just the song.
Sign on the window says Lonely,
Sign on the door says no company allowed...

My day was suddenly brighter and more strange.

Tuesday 22 June 2010

A Fine Bookshop; and One Poet Salutes Another

If you ever find yourself in the small Derbyshire town of Wirksworth, be sure to visit the book shop (helpfully called The Book Shop) that overlooks the market place. The first time I looked in there, I was amazed by the quality - and the low prices - of the stock. Browsing the shelves, I found at least half a dozen books I could have snapped up with relish, and it's a pretty small shop. The man who runs it - approachable and human, unlike many in his trade - clearly knows and loves his books, and chooses them well. He also creates clever, ever-changing window displays. On my last visit, I once again saw half a dozen and more books that were hard to resist, but I restricted myself to two titles - George Thomas's biography of Edward Thomas for myself, and William Maxwell's Time Will Darken It for my Derbyshire cousin. She, bless her, returned the compliment by buying me two others that had caught my eye - Richard Mabey's Gilbert White, and R.S. Thomas's No Truce with the Furies. This collection - the last published in his lifetime - contains his heartfelt, insightful, long-matured Homage to Wallace Stevens, which I pass on...

I turn now
not to the Bible
but to Wallace Stevens.
Insured against
everything but the muse,
what has the word-wizard
to say? His adjectives
are the wand he waves
so language gets up
and dances under
a fastidious moon.
We walk a void world,
he implies, for which,
in the absence of the imagination,
there is no hope. Verbal bank-clerk,
acrobat walking a rhythmic tight-rope,
trapeze artist of the language,
his was a kind of double-entry
poetics. He kept two columns
of thought going, balancing meaning
against his finances. His poetry
was his church and in it
curious marriages were conducted.
He burned his metaphors like incense,
so his syntax was as high
as his religion.
Blessings, Stevens,
I stand with my back to grammar
at an altar you never aspired
to, celebrating the sacrament
of the imagination whose high-priest
notwithstanding you are.

Osborne: A Whiter Shade of Pale

Never mind the Budget - the question on my mind is this: How does Osborne, even in the height of summer, maintain that unearthly pallor? There is nothing like it in our national life - it's the pallor of an ancien regime fop, a tint unseen since powder and patch fell out of vogue. Is Osborne, whenever he ventures outdoors, accompanied by a flunky with a protective parasol? I think someone would have noticed. Does he spend his down time lurking in dank cellars where daylight never penetrates? Does he (heaven forbid) resort to some form of Panstick? In among tomorrow's endless Budget analysis, I expect to see Osborne: My Top Tips for Staying Pale when the Going Gets Hot.

Sunday 20 June 2010

Trouville: The Benedictine Enigma and the Suze Discovery

'An admirably retroprogressive holiday destination,' said Gaw when I told him I was spending the week just past in the Norman seaside resort of Trouville. He's right of course - it's a splendidly, unashamedly old-fashioned bourgeois resort, the kind of place where you wouldn't be surprised to bump into Monsieur Hulot strolling along the front. We were staying at the Hotel Flaubert, a splendidly, unashamedly old-f'd b hotel, whose sign (by one Paul Savignac, who seems to have a monopoly on graphic art in Trouville) portrays the great man slumbering soundly in the wings of a giant seagull - one that, like most French portrayals of les mouettes, bears little resemblance to a seagull. Flaubert's connection with Trouville dates back to a seaside holiday when he was 15 (and developed a hopeless crush on a beautiful married woman) and a return visit some 17 years later. Nevertheless the inscription under his heroic white statue on the quai assures the reader that 'ses emotions sentimentales et esthetiques les plus vives furent trouvillaises'. Of course they were... The Hotel Flaubert also boasts a Bar Bovary, decorated in a cushiony boudoirish style that might well have pleased Emma - but with the curious addition of a large-screen TV, set permanently to On (and Inane). Here, as elsewhere in town, it proved impossible to buy Benedictine (and it wasn't even on the shelves of Monoprix). The great Norman liqueur may be available in the unlikeliest places around the world (I once found a handsome special-edition bottle in the scruffy minimart attached to a god-forsaken holiday apartment village somewhere in Menorca), but in its native land a request for a Benedictine is greeted either with a firm, affronted 'Non!' or a look of bewilderment, as if the name rang a faint bell, followed by an offer to inquire behind the scenes, followed by an equally conclusive 'Non'. Never mind - on this trip I finally sampled an aperitif I've been vaguely meaning to try for years: Suze. It's bitter stuff, tasting rather like the bits between the seeds in a pomegranate but in fact flavoured with the root of the yellow gentian. I love it! Happy days!

Sunday 13 June 2010

How to Dress for the Country

Strolling on Blakeney marshes, I couldn't help but notice that everyone I passed was kitted out for Walking, as it is conceived in these car-bound times - not walking as in the most basic natural activity known to creatures afflicted with bipedalism, but Walking as a specialist activity requiring specialist kit. This usually consists of unbecoming forms of anorak or windcheater in garish colours, with boots made of various fusions of synthetics, and ugly trousering - sometimes even (God help us) shorts - with pockets in unlikely places. Worse, more and more people now seem to feel they're not Walking unless they're powering themselves along with a couple of metal poles. Dear o dear... The effect one aims for when out walking is ideally that of a flaneur taking a stroll down Piccadilly before dropping in at the club. Only minimal concessions need be made to the rural circumstances (spats perhaps if the going's soft). A raincoat or tweed overcoat of conventional cut is adequate to most weather conditions - or, if preferred, the Norfolk jacket, as pictured here, with a fetching trilby, worsted gabardine trousers and a decent pair of Oxfords. That, gentlemen, is how to dress for the country.

Norfolk: Birds, etc.

Just back from Norfolk, whither Mrs N and I had been invited to attend A Wedding (of which you might or might not be reading more on Another Blog). We were staying in the notorious twitchers' paradise of Blakeney, so naturally I was off onto the bird-haunted marshes as soon as I had the oportunity. It proved a sharp reminder of how rusty my bird identification skills (never terribly strong on either warblers or waders, two Blakeney specialities) have become. To make matters worse, I had neither binoculars nor bird book with me. Now, having checked my notes against my books at home, I can conclude with a fair degree of certainty that I saw at least these species, none of which I had seen before (or in anything like recent times): Marsh Harrier (see picture) and, I think, an overflying Montagu's Harrier, Avocets and Oystercatchers. The warblers, very numerous and some of them really throwing themselves into their bravura freeform displays of loud singing, whistling and chirring, definitely included Reed and Sedge, possibly Savi's and Grasshopper, que sais-je? (Not a lot when it comes to warblers.) Much though I enjoyed and was excited by all these sights, after a while it did come to seem too easy, as if the astonishing range of species had been laid on, in the style of one of those Butterfly World places. Of course it hadn't been laid on, except by nature and careful habitat conservation - but the excitement of Blakeney was different from (more twitcherish than?) that special thrill of spotting something entirely unexpected in an unlikely and unpromising setting (like the Willow Warbler here). Talking of butterflies - although there was a more than stiff breeze off the sea yesterday, on a grassy leeward bank I saw... my first Painted Lady of the season!
As for the wedding, it was very fine indeed. All it lacked was an opportunity to line dance in a plastic cowboy hat. And the string quartet professed themselves unequal to the formidable technical challenges of Land Of A Thousand Dances. Other than that - perfect. Or, as they say in Norfolk, perfect.

Sunday 6 June 2010

A Whirl

The next couple of weeks in the Life of Nige can fairly be described as a whirl. I'm on holiday (yes, again - I know) and will be gadding about madly from one part of the country to another, and next week over the sea (under it rather) to Normandy. In fact as I write I am just back from a wedding in rural Berkshire, which at one point threatened to turn into a Richard Curtis movie, as, having boarded a train from Reading travelling in the precisely opposite direction from that announced (my strongly worded letter to the Chairman of British Railways will soon be in the post), I found myself in a taxi racing against time to reach the appointed rendezvous - I could feel myself growing more Hugh Grantish by the minute (I made it, by the way, with seconds to spare). At the reception, in a large and notably well converted barn, I tragically let slip another opportunity to learn to line dance - really I'm my own worst enemy. One day, one day... In the course of the festivities I realised once again just how supremely wonderful a song is Wilson Pickett's Land of a Thousand Dances - even for those of us who have no idea how do the pony like Bony Moronie, let alone tackle the mashed potato, the alligator or the watutsi. One day... Or perhaps not. Be that as it may, I hope to be posting from time to time when I have the opportunity.

Thursday 3 June 2010

News Cinemas

Does anyone remember news cinemas? They were small-scale affairs dotted about city centres, showing a continuous programme, on roughly an hourly loop, of newsreels, comedy shorts and travelogues - and, in contrast to the regular cinemas, you could just walk in off the street at any point and stay as long as you liked (theoretically - in practice, ruthless torch pointers ensured no serious overstays). It was always a high point of boyhood trips to London with my mother to drop in on a news cinema and enjoy whatever came up. The newsreels were splendidly gung-ho twilight of empire affairs, with rousing music, much lauding of British pluck and enterprise and a somewhat jocular attitude to johnny foreigner and his kind. Oddly I do remember seeing Laurel and Hardy in a newsreel report - presumably of a visit to Britain - but am not sure if I ever saw any of their shorts in a news cinema. Certainly I saw plenty of the Three Stooges and Abbott and Costello, and even at a tender age was not hugely impressed. The best of it for me were the cartoons - particularly as the news cinemas seemed to favour Chuck Jones over Disney (quite right too), so it was in the darkness of a news cinema that I first encountered Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Road Runner and co... In London there were still a few such establishments at least to the very end of the Sixties, for I remember ducking into one once with a girlfriend to, er, get in out of the rain. Alas, we caught the attention of the torch pointer and were booted out. As for the news cinemas, those that didn't close converted - for a while at least - to soft-porn cinemas for the dirty raincoat brigade. The march of history, as one of those newsreels might have put it...

Wednesday 2 June 2010

A Dialogue of the Deaf

Periodically I have a lively and entirely futile discussion with someone (she knows who she is) who is fascinated and impressed by such research fields as neuroscience and evolutionary psychology and what they have to tell us about 'human nature'. Our latest 'heated debate' was sparked by this review of Marilynne Robinson's new book (which, needless to say, I look forward to reading). The familiar dialogue of the deaf ensued, the details of which I shan't rehearse here, but it ended in the usual frustrated impasse. The trouble is that not only do I not believe many of the lofty claims made for both these sciences, I fundamentally don't care - whereas She manifestly does. For me, the stories told by science may well be strong and persuasive, but they strike me as stories that tell me nothing I especially need or want to hear, and their reductionist tendency is simply depressing. This means that these recurrent discussions are really the equivalent of any conversation between an enthusiast who can't see how anyone could fail to be fascinated by his/her enthusiasm, and a non-enthusiast who is equally incapable of seeing how anyone could be. Stalemate.