Tuesday 31 August 2010

The Perfect Gift

On a bookstall at a local event yesterday, a publication by the National Trust For Scotland caught my eye. It was The Culloden Birthday Book, no less, presumably intended as a souvenir to take home from the battlefield. What better way to commemorate the famous massacre than with a pretty little birthday book? And what better gift for all your Scottish chums? Oddly enough, I didn't buy it. Coming soon - the Ypres Birthday Book? The Somme Birthday Book...?

Monday 30 August 2010

Over at The Dabbler...

I'm struggling with the new technology. Failed to get a picture onto my latest - Summertime Blues - or indeed to file it in Dabbler Country where it belongs. You can take the boy out of Blogger...

Friday 27 August 2010

Fantasist Frank

On this day in 1931, the author, editor, memoirist, 'character', irresistible sexual athlete and (by his own estimation) all-round genius and world statesman Frank Harris died, broken down by age and sex (well, he was 75). Though he was certainly a gifted editor, Harris was too slapdash to achieve much else, except what has turned out to be his enduring monument - the four volumes of My Life And Loves, an extremely fanciful account of a life spent being a genius, hobnobbing with absolutely everybody who was anybody, guiding the course of world events and vigorously rogering every woman who crossed his path, or rather threw herself into his path. As Harris himself remarked, 'Memoirs are a well-known form of fiction' (Ford Madox Ford's Memories and Impressions are almost as unreliable, but without the sex). Taken in small doses, the Life and Loves - a work which in my younger days was sought out by every dirty-minded schoolboy - is something of a masterpiece of unconscious comedy. Alexander Trocchi realised this when Maurice Girodias of the Olympia Press commissioned him to write what would be presented to a grateful public as a newly discovered fifth volume of Harris's immortal memoirs. Trocchi apparently had some Harris material to work with, but the volume he produced was essentially an exuberant parody of Frank the Fantasist at his most extravagantly absurd. If you come across it, it's well worth a look.

Thursday 26 August 2010

Funny Old World

If I'm going to get a telephone call at work from my bank, I'd sooner it was a machine at the other end than one of those chummy humanoids who insist on giving me their first name and asking after my wellbeing. Yesterday I got a call from a machine with an automated female voice. She didn't tell me her first name but amusingly pronounced mine as 'Nidgle'. When I'd pressed various buttons to confirm that I was indeed this person, the automated voice read out a string of figures relating to blocked transactions attempted on my bank card somewhere in Panama. More button pressing led me eventually to a human, who turned out to be a sensible woman with no desire to share her first name or ask after my state of health, with whom I soon sorted things out. I've absolutely no idea how some version of my bank card (still reassuringly present in my wallet) should end up being abused in Panama, but that's the modern world for you. Endlessly mystifying.
Getting off the homeward train last night, I stepped straight into torrential, monsoon-style rain, coming down in sheets. As I strode away from the station, I found I'd been joined under my large umbrella by a cheery young lady of Chinese origin who happened to be going my way. She was visiting from Oxford, where she was studying for a PhD in mathematics. She already had a Masters, and her employers (in the City) were subsidising her PhD. Clearly a bright spark then - and she was a violinist, on her way to see a musician friend. The time passed agreeably enough under my umbrella (cue Hollies song). At the high street, our ways parted and she skipped off into the rain. By the time I got home I was soaked to the skin, the wake from a passing car having thoroughly finished the job. This morning there was a large garden snail asleep on the front door. On the inside.


Odd - I just tried to post on Nigeness, and it seems to have ended up on the Dabbler. Funny old world indeed...

Monday 23 August 2010


Country matters again over on The Dabbler...

Sunday 22 August 2010

W.D. Hudson

The charity shop where I happened on that indispensable volume, The Making Of A Moron, came up with the goods again yesterday, when my browsing eye was caught by the title Far Away and Long Ago by one W.D. Hudson. That was what it said on the spine, and sure enough it was repeated on the front board: W.D. Hudson. It was one of a series called Literature of Yesterday, published by J.M. Dent of Everyman's Library fame, and, sure enough, it turned out to be a straight reprint of the Everyman edition of W.H. Hudson's memories of his early years in South America, rebound in jazzy new boards in black and a rather sickly pale reddish orange in 1965. Naturally I bought it.
J.M. Dent himself was, it seems, unable to spell. Here's Hugh Kenner in A Sinking Island: 'Destiny beckoned J. M. Dent toward the kingdom of books, and without ever learning to spell he became an influential bookman. He was small, lame, tight-fisted, and apt to weep under pressure, a performance that could disconcert authors and employees. When his temper had risen like a flame he'd scream; the scream, one employee recalled, was what broke men's spirits. His paroxysms were famous; a Swedish specialist thought of prescribing a pail of cold water for Dent to plunge his head into.' Not a man you'd want to have for a boss, then, but he was driven by the best of motives: 'Dent's ungovernable passion was for bringing Books to the People. He remembered when he'd longed to buy books he couldn't afford. Yes, you could make the world better. He even thought cheap books might prevent wars.' Well, that didn't work out, but Everyman's Library was an astonishing achievement that must have brought millions of people of limited means into the world of books. They were handsomely produced volumes too (designed initially in Morris style, then freshened up by Eric Ravilious) - even if standards had slipped somewhat by the time of 1965's Literature of Yesterday.

Friday 20 August 2010

A-Levels - What the...?

Has the world gone mad? No, don't bother with that one - too easy. The question is rather one of when. When did the publication of the A-level results become the biggest story on the news agenda, filling page after page of the 'news'papers and taking up fully the first ten minutes of the BBC's ten o'clock 'news' on TV (at least on radio it was by then relegated to second story)? Back in my day, nobody took much interest - even those of us who had just slogged through the wretched exams (wretched except that they allowed you plenty of leeway for termtime dossing if you could pull it all together in time for the exam). Only the slightly weird or swotty made any attempt to find out their results before getting them in the post, and, as far as I recall, when they arrived they were greeted with little more than a raising of the eyebrow, unless something had gone seriously awry. There was never any mention of these matters in the news - it would have seemed absurd if there was. How times change... The increasing hysteria about A levels seems to have been whipped up by the insane drive to get half the population into 'university', despite the state school system having turned most of them out uneducated and ineducable (in any real sense of education). At least, with all those thousands of A-grade students 'deprived' of a university place (not to mention the ever growing numbers of graduates unemployed or flipping burgers), that's beginning to fall apart under the weight of its own absurdity. Hey ho - funny old world.

Thursday 19 August 2010

Gustave Caillebotte

The painter Gustave Caillebotte was born on this day in 1848. He was dead at 45, having already given up painting seriously in favour of building and racing yachts (he was very rich) and indulging a range of other hobbies, including stamp collecting - his collection is in the British Library. His art collection - of paintings by his impressionist friends - he left to the French government, who weren't happy with the terms of the will, so most of the work ended up in private hands. Caillebotte's own paintings - of interest chiefly for their unusual perspective and composition - were forgotten until a revival of interest began in the 1950s and 1960s. Forty of them now hang in the Musee d'Orsay, and those that come on the market sell for millions. And why not? Plenty of lesser artists sell for more.


I'm indebted to my daughter in New Zealand for alerting me to this wonderful cookery book, which seems to have something of a cult status in the blogosphere. No doubt there are many such cook volumes around in the Antipodes, the home of the Sausage Pineapple Surprise.

Monday 16 August 2010


Over in Dabbler Country, I've posted on Mabey matters.

Sunday 15 August 2010

Mrs Sherwood: The Sequel

Soon after I first read The State of Mind of Mrs Sherwood, I came upon one of her books, for the first and only time in my life (it's surprising - or perhaps not - how little of her huge output has survived). I found it at a jumble sale, its leather boards detached and badly scuffed, the spine label barely legible, but a 'tight' (as they say in the book trade) copy, so perhaps less thoroughly and avidly read than its authoress envisaged. Invitingly titled 'Stories Explanatory of the Church Catechism', it was published by F. Houlston and Son of Wellington, Salop, in 1817, with a frontispiece engraving of The Captain's Bungalow at Cawnpore. 'The following Stories,' Mrs Sherwood explains in her brief Advertisement, 'were written for the use of the children of His Majesty's fifty-third regiment, at that time stationed at Cawnpore, in the East Indies [sic]' - which then, as Mrs S points out, had 'only been in the possession of the English a few years'. The Advertisement ends oddly: 'As these stories were intended for a particular class of children, there is, of course, a peculiarity in the style, which it would not be possible to alter without rendering the tales less natural, and producing a less accurate picture of the characters described in them.' Neither naturalism nor accurate characterisation, however, is conspicuous in the stories that follow, whose purpose is purely didactic, to inculcate the truths of the Catechism, as interpreted by Mrs S, then in the first flush of her evangelical fervour. This is a shame - some more earthbound account of life at Cawnpore at that time, by a writer of her abilites, would have been very valuable - but there you go, Mrs Sherwood's mind was on 'higher things'...
The volume belonged to one Mary Anne Portlock, whose name is inscribed first in a childish hand then in gradually increasing copperplate elegance - and, in her finest hand, she has covered several of the flyleaves with verse. Pope's The Dying Christian to His Soul ('Vital spark of heavenly flame!...) is copied out beautifully, though the 'where' is unfortunately omitted from the last line, 'O grave! Where is thy victory', and supplied in pencil. There is also a poem titled 'Written on a Blank Sheet of Paper' - 'Fair spotless leaf, thou emblem pure Of innocence - beware! Nor think thy Beauty lies secure, 'Tis dangerous to be fair...' This cheery item was printed in The Scots Magazine, though I've no idea who wrote it. A third poem, The Maiden's Wish, I've been unable to trace at all, and as it's signed off as 'written by Mary Anne Portlock', it might even be original. It begins 'Defend my heart, benignant power! From amorous looks and smiles, And shield me in my gayer hour From love's destructive wiles...' I bet she was a popular lass.

Saturday 14 August 2010

The State of Mind of Mrs Sherwood

Among the many books passed on to me by my old schoolteacher, friend and mentor was one called The State of Mind of Mrs Sherwood by Naomi Royde Smith (who is otherwise known as the author of the couplet, 'I know two things about the horse, And one of them is rather coarse'). Published in 1946, The State of Mind... is a study of this forgotten author. I read the book about 20 years ago, remember almost nothing of it except that it was rather well written and amusing, and recently decided to reread it (one of the joys of growing older is that the distinction between reading and rereading becomes ever more blurred). I'm glad I did, for it is indeed notably well written and increasingly amusing as it goes on. It traces the strange path through life of a woman who had the potential to be a good novelist in the manner of Fanny Burney or Jane Austen, but was led astray by the cacoethes scribendi - i.e. she simply couldn't stop writing, churning out novels, tales and improving tracts by the cartload - and, still more damagingly, she caught Ideas - Religious Ideas - and, being entirely lacking in intellectual discernment, critical or ratiocinative ability and self-doubt, Ideas were fatal to her talent. As NRS puts it, 'Once she begins to argue, her style degenerates, her plots thicken and her books become unreadable, except to those who enjoy the struggles of a victim in nets of its own weaving.' Well, greater writers than Mrs Sherwood have been undone by Ideas - think of Tolstoy... As Mrs S wrote on, unstoppably, 'her pen raced over her paper dipped in an increasingly bitter gall, and her lively mind, turning on itself, refurbished old stories with new morals and a lavish disregard of accuracy and logic.'
The comic highlight of The State of Mind... is NRS's long account of Mrs Sherwood's Sabbaths on the Continent, a work of semi-fiction, based on her travels abroad, in which the author's 'mania for disapproval' finds ample scope among the Papists and other heathens of the Continent. Inquiring after a suitably Protestant (by her own increasingly narrow definition) place of worship in Paris one Sunday, Mrs S and a her long-suffering children are directed, by 'a most courteous gentleman of the superior classes' to a particular door in a particular backstreet building, where they would 'find every accommodation they could wish'. Alas, it was a practical joke - they found themselves in the middle of a lively meeting of Communists... In Geneva, Mrs S naturally enough expected 'to be edified by some exhibition of pure doctrine from the pulpit in which Calvin in ages past had so successfully brought the artillery of truth to bear against the errors of Popery'. Imagine her outrage, then, when the sermon was 'not only delivered in a foreign language, but in a foreign manner - for the preacher used much action in a style which we should accont theatrical, and giving a strong nasal sound to many of their words.' That's foreigners for you - foreign. Naturally, 'not so much as a single reference from first to last was made by the preacher to any doctrinal truth' (i.e. any 'truth' regarded as such by Mrs S).
And so it goes on, as Mrs Sherwood and her pitiable brood trail around the benighted Continent in search of fresh cause for doctrinal offence. At one point, 'Mrs Sherwood might have been altogether deprived of an opportunity for disapproval for five or six consecutive days, had they not put up at an inn on the outskirts of Cannes...' - where, sure enough, Error soon crosses her path. As she grew older, Mrs Sherwood reached the point where she could no longer regard anyone but herself as free from Error. She was unable to worship in any establishment (to the no small relief of all vicars and ministers in her vicinity). In the end, the world of Mrs Sherwood melds into that of that great comic masterpiece of self-righteousness Augustus Carp Esq by Himself.
Naomi Royde Smith dedicates her book to her parents, 'who in the year 1884 when a bachelor uncle gave their children a copy of The Fairchild Family [Mrs Sherwood's best-known book for children] confiscated this book on the ground that it was unsuitable reading for the young'.

Thursday 12 August 2010


A week-long Force 8 workstorm is keeping me from more congenial activities, such as blogging, living, etc. I'm hoping to resume normal service soon.

Monday 9 August 2010

Mobile Death Leap

It's a well known fact that mobile phones have a death wish, especially when in the vicinity of water. Over the weekend, my cherished Siemens A62 (a design classic in my book, if in no one else's) managed an impressive leap from an inside pocket of my jacket into the bowl of what is known in smart circles as the toilet. I'd scooped it out in an instant (the water, I should add at this point, was entirely clean), but it was too late: the poor old thing was, to all appearances, 100 percent defunct. After much vigorous drying, I established that the Sim card had survived its ducking, and, removed to Mrs Nige's phone (a Siemens A55!), continued to function. I hastily ordered a Siemens A60 off eBay - £3.99 Buy It Now price! - and there I left matters until yesterday evening when, on a whim, I though I'd try reassembling the old A62 to see what happened. To my amazement, the whole thing came back to life and I am now back where I began, though the dear old thing is a little slower on the button than it was. Despite their death wish, these old mobiles are surprisingly sturdy. Getting the old A62 back in my hands in working order was strangely moving - odd how attached one becomes to these things.

Dabbling again

Over on the super soaraway Dabbler, I write about the sorrows of August...

Thursday 5 August 2010

The Library Game

What Are Libraries For? asks Brit in Another Place. One of the things they are (or, more likely, were) for is offering employment and a safe haven to otherwise unemployable freaks, casualties and oddballs like the young Nige. I spent 15 often happy years as a reference librarian in the public libraries of a London borough (interjection by Fast Show character: 'Libraries? I was in the library game meself, 15 years, man an' boy. 'Ardest game in the world, the library game...'). In fact it was remarkably easy work, especially when I found a niche in a reference department so well hidden away that many library users never suspected its existence. I was little troubled by the public - though enough to form a settled resolution never to work too closely with them again - but there was often entertainment of a kind to be had from the drifting population of vagrants, loonies and eccentrics who came and went, some spending their library time sleeping and staying warm, others working their way through the past century's Port of London tide tables or old volumes of Egyptian hieroglyphics, taking copious notes in tiny congested handwriting, or reading every single word of one newspaper (surprisingly common, that, and it takes a quite remarkably long time). Occasionally one of them would trouble me with a request for information - I remember one insisting on finding detailed instructions on how to make an atomic bomb - but most of the time I was free to get on with my other occupations, chiefly writing. Quite often I would be entirely alone, in silence disturbed only by the clatter of the typewriter as I bashed out whatever I was bashing out at the time (it would have nothing to do with librarianship, that's for sure). By the time My Life as a Librarian drew to a close, my Other Activities had quite overtaken my ostensible occupation, and, what with becoming a family man and mortgage-payer, I had more or less joined the human race. I was ready to move on. The library game had served me well.

Wednesday 4 August 2010

Dabbler Alert

Today on The Dabbler - the blog the whole world's talking about - I unveil the startling truth about Louis Vuitton.

Tuesday 3 August 2010

'Rather Good' Rev

Ah this is splendid! It's that lovely word 'rather' again. In my estimation, Rev was rather more than rather good - how refreshing, how wholly unexpected to come across a comedy (or, come to that, any genre) that took religious faith, and its shadow, religious doubt, seriously. Is this a sign of change in the air, or was it a one-off, an aberration? It seems no second series of Rev has been commissioned, despite its success. That's rather a shame.

Sunday 1 August 2010

The One I'd Have Stolen

Last week I dropped in on the Sargent and the Sea exhibition at the Royal Academy. It's no surprise that it's doing good business - the dash and verve of Sargent's paintings are instantly attractive, and much of his art, on closer examination, delivers more than surface attraction. With Sargent, one senses that there's always more to uncover - and this exhibition uncovers something unfamiliar: Sargent as a painter of the sea. Here are mid-Atlantic seascapes, including the bravura Atlantic Storm of 1876 (the poster image for the exhibition); an accomplished Normandy showpiece, En Route pour la Peche, in various versions and preparatory sketches, and an uncharacteristically Boudinesque beach scene; sunshot paintings of naked boys on Capri which are sometimes uncomfortably close to a more openly pornographic school of painting (and photography); and a wide range of brilliantly drawn sketches reflecting Sargent's knowledgable fascination with sails, decks and rigging, all the paraphernalia of shipboard and quayside life. These drawings are a joy to examine, and some of them have been digitised, blown up and illuminated on a light box - a brilliant (supplementary) way of displaying drawings. It was the last room of the exhibition - devoted to Ports and Harbours - that gave me most pleasure, and made the whole thing worthwhile (indeed, without it I'd have felt a little short-changed). Here were a selection of Sargent's wonderfully luminous watercolours, painted with extraordinary freedom and dash, wet on wet - one of them, Venice, Sailing Boat (above), was definitely the picture I'd have stolen (were I, that is, an art thief, which, I hasten to add, I am not). Also in this room was a big oil painting of Whitby Fishing Boats (in grey weather) done in thin delicate washes in the manner of Whistler's seascapes. It would be good to have an exhibition on Whistler and the Sea (or Whistler and Water anyway), but I doubt it will ever happen - there wasn't even a full-scale exhibition to mark his centenary in 2003. Somehow he'll never be the crowd puller Sargent apparently is.

Tiny Desk Concert

It's Sunday, so - in keeping with the Lazy Sunday spirit of The Dabbler - I'll post this link just for the joy of it, and because I couldn't resist something titled Tiny Desk Concert...

A Note on The Dabbler

Great things are under way that will surely transform the civilised blogscape. I refer of course - as I realise I have not done before - to the evolving co-operative enterprise that will soon be The Dabbler. I shall be a contributor, along with the likes (if there are any) of Brit, Gaw, Bryan A and Worm, and others from further afield. A one-stop shop, you might say, where you can find the kind of thing you might like if you're a reader of this blog - which, of course, will continue independently as well as feeding into the mighty entity that will be The Dabbler.