Monday 29 November 2010

Underrated Great: Osbert Lancaster

Thanks to my old pal Bob Crowe and his merry band of Tube strikers, I enjoyed a brisk walk this morning from Victoria to Kensington. As I was going up Pont Street, with its rows of tall, elaborately gabled mansions in red brick and terracotta, the phrase 'Pont Street Dutch' came into my head. It was coined, along with other similarly useful descriptive phrases (Stockbroker Tudor, Bypass Moderne, etc), by the great and much underrated Osbert Lancaster. This cartoonist and illustrator, author, art critic, stage designer and light-touch historian of English architecture and taste was not only versatile but extremely productive, and he made it all seem quite effortless. Everything he did was done with delicate wit and irony; he took nothing - least of all himself - very seriously, and his work was never less than entertaining. All of these qualities are, of course, precisely those that lead posterity to underrate you, and so it has been with Lancaster. His many books offer (among other things) a thoroughly enjoyable, satirically tinged introduction to English building design, the development of towns, the ways of the aristocracy and the vagaries of English taste, Lancaster's elegant prose matched by equally elegant and fabulously accomplished draughtsmanship. There is really no one like Lancaster for reducing a building to its essentials - his line is amazingly assured - and at the same time expressing its character (see, for example, Pillar to Post and Home Sweet Homes). And he is just as effective in townscapes (Drayneflete Revealed, Progress at Pelvis Bay, etc) and in his pastiche portraiture (The Littlehampton Bequest). His books are simply delightful things to leaf through - and most of them can be picked up amazingly cheap in charity shops, secondhand bookshops, or online. Surely they will one day become collectible - but for now I'd advise snapping up any that you see.
In his later years, Lancaster and his old friend John Betjeman would sit in on GLC meetings at which the fate of London historic buildings was discussed. By this time, Lancaster was (or pretended to be) very deaf, and if he was bored by anyone's 'expert' testimony he would turn to Betjeman and bellow 'What's the damn fool talking about now, John?' That's the spirit.

Quiz Alert!

My latest Round Blogworld Quiz brain teaser is on The Dabbler now. Hurry, hurry, before someone gets the answers...

Wednesday 24 November 2010

'Take a step or two forward, lads...'

It was on this day in 1922 that (Robert) Erskine Childers, having converted from loyal British Imperialist to fanatical Irish Nationalist and fallen foul of the Irish Free State authorities in the course of the Civil War, was executed by firing squad at the Beggar's Bush Barracks in Dublin. Sportingly, he shook hands with each member of the firing squad and suggested they 'take a step or two forward, lads. It will be easier that way.' He also left instructions to his son to seek out and shake the hand of every man who had signed his death warrant. No hard feelings then.
Childers' claim to literary fame - and it's an enduring one, as the book has never been out of print - is The Riddle Of The Sands, one of the first spy novels and a very influential invasion scare novel. It is still a jolly good read, if a little heavy on the yachting side of things...


Here is a masterclass in nuanced screen acting, showing how much can be achieved with the merest hint or fleeting shadow of an expression. On the big screen, less is indeed more.

Tuesday 23 November 2010

The Alice Thomas Ellis Revival Starts Here

Over on the Dabbler, I write about The Inn At The End Of The World and urge everyone to get reading Alice Thomas Ellis...

By the way...

Don't miss the chance to win a Christmas Fox. Lovely little books they are...

A Call to Arms

Enough frivolity - it's time to get serious and get behind the gay griffons of Munster (in a non-sexual way of course). These blameless birds, exercising their basic griffon right to express their sexual identity with a bit of hearty man love and nest-building, are to be forcibly separated by the heterosexist authorities. Naturally the gay community, in solidarity with its feathered brethren, is up in arms about this monstrous infringement of griffon rights. And no wonder - when it comes to gay birds, Germany has form - remember the gay penguins of Bremen, brutally torn asunder in the name of heterosex. First they came for the penguins and we did nothing. Then they came for the griffons...
I'm thinking of starting an e-petition... Or, on reflection, perhaps not.

Thursday 18 November 2010

Afterlife Again

Reading John Williams's novel Stoner (of which more later), I came across this passage, describing his hero William Stoner's reading as a student:
'He spent much of the summer rereading the classical and medieval Latin poets, and especially their poems upon death. He wondered again at the easy, graceful manner in which the Roman lyricists accepted the fact of death, as if the nothingness they faced were a tribute to the richness of the years they had enjoyed; and he marvelled at the bitterness, the terror, the barely concealed hatred he found in some of the later Christian poets of the Latin tradition when they looked to that death which promised, however vaguely, a rich and ecstatic eternity of life, as if that death and promise were a mockery that soured the days of their living.'
Doesn't this perfectly express what's right about the 'pagan' attitude to death and what's wrong about the Christian attitude - the one that leads all the way to Dylan's 'poor immigrant' who 'passionately hates his life and likewise fears his death'? The pagan's relaxed equanimity in the face of personal extinction seems attractive and humane. In fact, the more I learn about evolved late classical paganism, the more attractive it seems, and the more mystifying the takeover of Christianity becomes. The religion of late classical times seems to have been such an easygoing matter, to do with asserting cultural identity rather than searching one's conscience, observing the cult rituals rather than wrestling with the knotty business of belief. With due observance made, a person was free to go about the business of enjoying life, untroubled by thoughts of death and judgment. The supernatural world seemed very present but largely non-threatening and taken for granted, the gods very much like ourselves, apart from their special powers. The afterlife, in as much as there was one, seems to have been a hazy affair that was most unlikely to involve an ordinary person in eternal torments - there was nothing to be feared. Compare this with the ever-present horrors of Christian eschatology and the demands imposed by the Christian belief system on the individual conscience. How did such a joyless and painful world view make headway against the pleasures of pagansim? Perhaps it didn't - perhaps the reason for the phenomenal success of early Christianity was simply the power and beauty of Jesus's actual teachings, before they were distorted into the ugly forms of Christendom as The Church arose. Also, of course, Christendom was very clever at adopting and adapting the externals of paganism (and no doubt brutal in its suppression). I don't know - I'm no historian - but that the comfortable, civilised late pagan world embraced Christianity so quickly and completely (apart from Julian the Apostate's attempted fightback) has long seemed to me a great mystery. It surely can't all be explained by the conversion of Constantine - can it?

Wednesday 17 November 2010


Watching a pied wagtail busily trotting about on a platform at Clapham Junction this morning got me thinking about how dramatically the bird life of town and suburbia has changed in my lifetime. When I was a boy, you would only ever see pied wagtails in the country, always by rivers - ditto herons, which were also very much scarcer than the wagtails. Jays and magpies were country birds, only rarely seen in town - as were long-tailed tits - and crows never appeared in the vast numbers that are common now. Cormorants had been absent from London's river for centuries, and kingfishers were a rare sight anywhere near town. The only bird of prey you might (if you were lucky) see was a kestrel, egrets were unheard of, and the collared dove an exotic vagrant. No one would have dreamed that squadrons of screeching ring-necked parakeets would one day be overflying London's parks... How things change - and it's good that not all the incoming birds are of the broad-shouldered, bullying, scavenging kind. The dainty pied wagtail, with its 'rather sprightly' manner (as the RSPB describes it), is always a joy to see. I first realised just how urban it had become when, one winter dusk, I came across a loudly twittering town centre tree. Taking a closer look, I saw that it was full of roosting pied wagtails - maybe a couple of hundred - settling down for the night, in the full glare of the streetlamps, untroubled by the loud bustle of human life around them. These urban roosts are quite normal now. Wagtails have also been known to roost at sewage treatment centres, riding around through the night on the rotating arms of the sedimentation tanks. That I would like to see...

Monday 15 November 2010

Birthday Girls

On this strangely productive day in 1887 were born the artist Georgia O'Keefe (hence the picture) and the poet and unlikely celebrity Marianne Moore. I keep finding out new and strange things about Miss Moore - the latest being that she wrote the liner notes for Muhammad Ali's spoken-word album I Am The Greatest! She was also invited, in 1955, to come up with 'inspirational names' for Ford's big project, the E-Car. Among her suggestions were Resilient Bullet, Mongoose Civique, Varsity Stroke, Pastelogram and, in a flash of true inspiration, Utopian Turtletop. And what did Ford do? They ignored all her suggestions and called it the Edsel. No wonder it flopped - if they'd only gone with Utopian Turtletop, they'd surely have had a hit on their hands... Anyway, to mark the day here's the inimitable Marianne in full flow:

The Paper Nautilus

For authorities whose hopes
are shaped by mercenaries?
Writers entrapped by
teatime fame and by
commuters' comforts? Not for these
the paper nautilus
constructs her thin glass shell.

Giving her perishable
souvenir of hope, a dull
white outside and smooth-
edged inner surface
glossy as the sea, the watchful
maker of it guards it
day and night; she scarcely

eats until the eggs are hatched.
Buried eight-fold in her eight
arms, for she is in
a sense a devil-
fish, her glass ram'shorn-cradled freight
is hid but is not crushed;
as Hercules, bitten

by a crab loyal to the hydra,
was hindered to succeed,
the intensively
watched eggs coming from
the shell free it when they are freed,--
leaving its wasp-nest flaws
of white on white, and close-

laid Ionic chiton-folds
like the lines in the mane of
a Parthenon horse,
round which the arms had
wound themselves as if they knew love
is the only fortress
strong enough to trust to.


Sorry blogging has been thin lately - an unfortunate combination of a NigeCorp workstorm (liable to blow steadily for a few weeks yet) and technological breakdown at home. I did manage to contribute to The Dabbler's Remembrance anthology, and hope to be posting again during the week. By the way, the Wilkinson Protector 3 is still shaving well, with no change of blades...

Tuesday 9 November 2010

Cecil, Cowper and Crown Constables

I've been reading The Stricken Deer, David Cecil's life of Cowper, reissued in 1933 as one of the Crown Constables series, handsome volumes aimed at 'enlightened folk whose taste for literature is as discriminating as their shelf-room. Crown Constables will occupy and enchant the finest minds, but will not overcrowd the smallest flat.' Golly!
The Stricken Deer is a typical Cecil biography - elegant, fluent, stylish and not overlong - a refreshing change from the clunky doorstop biographies of our day. Cecil's learning is lightly worn; he doesn't 'show his workings', rubbing the reader's nose in the depth and breadth of his research. He never loses sight of the fact that a biography is, above all else, a story, not a compendium of laundry lists. As a result, he is never less than readable.
Cecil - full name Lord Edward Christian David Gascoyne-Cecil is an interesting figure. He was an authentic aristocrat, the younger son of the 4th Marquess of Salisbury, and in the course of his career he evolved from gentleman scholar and man of letters to professional academic and, improbably, TV presenter and minor media celebrity - this despite a pronounced lisp and his caricature toff appearance (his son is the actor Jonathan Cecil, who specialises in posh silly ass roles). His books are easy to find - they often turn up in charity shops (as did The Stricken Deer) - and they are all worth reading. I'd especially recommend his two volumes on Lord Melbourne, his biography of Max Beerbohm, and his double-headers, Two Quiet Lives (Dorothy Osborne and Thomas Gray) and Visionary and Dreamer (Samuel Palmer and Edward Burne-Jones).
I see from the back pages of The Stricken Deer that among the already published Crown Constables are The Tale of Two Lovers, translated from the original Latin of Aeneas Silvio Piccolomini by Flora Grierson, and Philine, unpublished fragments from Amiel's Journal. How times change...

Over in Dabbler Country...

I report on the epic struggle between crows and squirrels. Go, crows!

Saturday 6 November 2010

The Perfect Razor?

Regular readers will know that I am a man forever in quest of the Perfect Razor. I have succumbed to the siren call of the space-age Azor, and returned, a sadder and a wiser man, to the five-bladed certitudes of the trusty Gillette
Fusion, but still, as I mowed away with the Fusion or from time to time switched to the lightweight Mach 3 (original version), I sensed that my life was lacking something, that I had still not found the object of my quest. Then, one day recently, happening to be in immediate need of a razor, I scanned the limited choice in a small branch of Boots and, with little thought (this was but a stopgap razor), selected a Wilkinson Sword Protector 3 (that's not me in the picture, by the way). I was immediately impressed by the weight and hand-friendly curvaceousness of the body - this was a razor with a bit of heft, something to get the hand round, and that's good to find. The blades - a mere three, but that really is enough - are nicely mounted on a floating head that rides the face's contours smoothly, and deliver a good close shave. What more could a man ask? And the beauty of it is that you can buy blades for the Protector 3 without having to take out a second mortgage - in fact, by the inflated standards of razor prices, they're cheap as chips.
Regulars will also know that I am an enemy of stubble. A man may grow a beard, if he feels he really must, or he may shave - no stubble, thank you, and no inbetween phantom beards a la Mark Thompson or Charles Clarke. However, it happened that this morning I unavoidably found myself with a two-day growth of stubble marring my features. Would the Protector 3 be up to the challenge? Gentlemen, it was - it made short work of it, without a nick or cut, and my face was soon restored to its customary smoothness. I was impressed. I do believe I have at last found it, the razor of my dreams.

Wednesday 3 November 2010

On The Dabbler today...

it's Birdwatching Wednesday - Hurry! Hurry! Hurry! While Wednesday lasts. Posts include my uncharitable thoughts on twitchers.

Treasures from Budapest: A Skippers' Guide

The Royal Academy's Treasures from Budapest exhibition is a bit of a slog - 12 large rooms, a fatiguing prospect (is anything more tiring than gallery-going?). It amounts to a potted history of art from the 15th to the 20th centuries, combined with a potted history of Hungary. The paintings are, for the most part, second-rank works by first-rank artists, and first-rank works by second-rank artists, and there are altogether too many of them. However, by skimming the fillers and homing in on the gems, there are many pleasures to be extracted from this exhibition. The Esterhazy Madonna is a sweet and beautiful early Raphael (still quite Peruginesque, but with Leonardo rising), none the worse for being unfinished. This Madonna is the poster girl for the exhibition, along with Egon Schiele's Two Women Embracing, which, I was astounded to learn, 'explores the theme of lesbian love'. Lovers of Venetian art (yes please!) are soon rewarded by a sumptuous Jacopo Bassano, The Way to Calvary, all writhing bodies and saturated colours, the paint positively glistening - and a glorious Tintoretto, The Supper at Emaus, which is worth long, detailed attention. Further on, there's another Tintoretto - a bizarre 'comic' painting of Hercules Expelling Faunus from Omphale's Bed - and, still further on, some fine Tiepolo drawings and a brilliant small painting, The Virgin Mary with Six Saints. Also worth noting, a small, busy Canaletto, in his darker register, The Lock at Dolo - and a splendid Bellotto, of the Arno in Florence.
Hung, oddly, among still lives and genre scenes, is a typically luminous Saenredam church interior. Among the portraits, there's a beauty by Hals - such dash! - a charming Half Length of a Girl (looking upwards) by Jan Lievens, and a quite magnificent painting of a Sleeping Girl, painted by artist unknown (but clearly very gifted) in Rome about 1610-20. An extraordinary El Greco, all blue and silver, of St Mary Magdalen, bathed in moonlight, the penitent teasingly exposing a nipple as usual, is complemented by a much more sobre head of St James the Less. Goya is represented by a glittering full-length portrait of a lady, and two fine genre paintings, of a knife-grinder and a water-carrier. Towards the end of the exhibition, look out for a superb Bonyngton watercolour View of the South Coast, and a lovely little Corot, Nest Robbers. There's a good Toulouse-Lautrec of Women in the Dining Room, and, at the end of the trail, the Schiele is flanked by an early Chagall gouache and a lovely, tender Picasso Mother and Child, in watercolour.
But what, Nige, I hear you ask, is The One You Would Have Stolen? It is the Rembrandt drawing illustrated, of Saskia sitting at a window. There are rather too many drawings in this exhibition - but this one is breathtaking. A few lines sketched in, a bit of wash, and there she is, as fresh and vividly real as if she were sitting there, in that cool Dutch light, today. That is drawing.

Tuesday 2 November 2010

For All Souls' Day...

Schubert's short, achingly beautiful Litany...
This rather silences all the discussion here, doesn't it? Such a beautiful vision, that touches us so deeply, must surely have some kind of truth in it. As Keats said (or hoped), famously, 'Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty'.