Friday 31 December 2010

Happy New Year!

As I totter, like dear old Dorando Pietri, towards the 2010 finishing line, I pause to wish all who read this a very happy New Year. This hasn't been the best of years for Nigeness; the world has been too much with me, draining my mental and physical energies, occupying too much of my time, and keeping me cooped up indoors on days when I should have been out and about among the butterflies and other delights of the world - though, in the end, it wasn't too bad a year on the butterfly front; I have good memories and, thanks to my lovely daughter-in-law, I now have Patrick Barkham's The Butterfly Isles to get me through the winter, just as The Aurelian Legacy got me through last year's butterflyless months.
Sadly I didn't get to many of the art exhibitions I wanted to visit, but among the few I did see, Cristen Koebke at the National Gallery was a revelation. My reading year was more satisfactory, as 2010 was the year I finally got to grips with Marianne Moore and Kay Ryan, discovered Barbara Comyns, rediscovered Alice Thomas Ellis (thanks, Tricia) and William Gerhardie, read Elizabeth Taylor's unforgettable Angel and John Williams's simply magnificent (and magnificently simple) Stoner, and continued to explore the wonders of Penelope Fitzgerald and William Maxwell, both of whom seem to get better and better the more I read. As I posted on all of those, I guess it wasn't such a bad year's blogging - and the best news, at year's end, is that my mother, having given every impression of being halfway over the threshold of death's door a few months ago, is now restored to health and very nearly indeed her old self. There is, as at the end of every year - of every day - much to be thankful for. Again, Happy New Year!

Wednesday 29 December 2010

The Thespian's Art

'Acting is the supreme test of physical and mental courage. It is like climbing Everest single-handed in the dark. It is like painting the Sistine Chapel with a shark on your back. It is like being asleep on a helter-skelter with no pyjamas and a hangover...'
Thus the 'absolutely bloody passionate' actor Nicholas Craig in his searingly honest account of the thespian's art, I, An Actor. If you haven't come across this brilliant spoof, concocted by performer Nigel Planer and writer Christopher Douglas (who went on to create that supremely seedy hack Ed Reardon), then seek it out. It's the funniest, most acute anatomy of luvvy absurdity I know of. Even the pictures are funny - and the reviews on the back: 'Disloyal, vindictive, bitter, scandalous and insulting' - Sheridan Morley, The Times. 'He could almost be doing a send-up of a theatrical biography' - Yorkshire Post. 'Ha bloody ha' - The Stage. Douglas/Planer nail the more tiresome mannerisms of a certain kind of actor with deadly accuracy - the faux modesty alternating with preposterously inflated claims for his art/craft, the faux blokiness alternating with fey and winsome 'jokes' (identifiable by the exclamation marks), the bonhomie and hissy-fit touchiness, the fawning ingratiation and vicious bitchiness, the obsessive elaboration of every detail of the career accompanied by shrugging protestations that none of it amounts to anything, the toe-curling anecdotes and slices of theatrical lore, all jostle together in an excruciatingly camp confection that out-Callows Callow and out-Shers Sher.
Planer developed 'Nicholas Craig' on TV in The Naked Actor and a series of masterclasses for aspiring young actors (including one for TV weather forecast presenters) - and he popped up again last year on BBC4, with another masterclass on How To Be Old. The essence of Craig, though, is in the book.

Tuesday 28 December 2010

A Good Christmas

So - how was it for you? Me, I was in an even deeper stupor than usual at this festive time of year, thanks to one of those low-level but very draining cough/cold bugs, on top of all the food and fatigue and jollity and overheated sitting around (yes, the boiler was finally fixed on Christmas Eve). But that's enough of the downside; what singled this Christmas out from all others and will make it live in my memory is that I was given an object of heart-stopping beauty (as well as undoubted utility)- a MacBook! Dear lord, are MacBooks really made by the hand of man? It was the last thing I expected, and even while it was in my hands and I was feeling its satisfying heft and turning it over to view its elegant beauty from all angles, I still couldn't believe that it was an actual MacBook - and mine! No more will I have to spend time wrestling with a clunky and failure-prone PC, where every operation seems to have been made as difficult and complicated as it can be - now I am sailing the smooth still waters of Macworld, where all is reduced to primal simplicity, everything flows, everything makes sense... Admittedly I'm not there yet, as I'm still exploring the MacBook's wonders, and getting used to working with a touchpad instead of a mouse, but that won't take long. And even when I'm not using it, I can simply sit and worship, admiring the sleek beauty of this amazing thing.
What's more, I was also given several very fine shirts, a bottle of superb champagne cognac, Patrick Barkham's The Butterfly Isles (a lovely book that I'd been on the point of buying for myself), a block of 100percent cocoa solids chocolate (Criollo beans, what's more) - and a quite magnificent vintage cravat by Tootal of New Zealand, which I have worn all Christmas and am wearing now. Bug or no bug, it doesn't get much better than this - sitting here in a splendid new shirt and glorious cravat, at my own stupendous MacBook. Yes, a good Christmas...

Thursday 23 December 2010

Happy Christmas

Fearing that tomorrow will be engulfed by domestic concerns - not least the last phase of the boiler replacement saga - I take this early opportunity to wish all who browse on this blog a merry Christmas and a happy New Year. Meanwhile, keep an eye on the Dabbler over the next couple of days for reflections on Christmas by me and many another...

Abbey Road

So, a zebra crossing on Abbey Road is to be given listed status by English Heritage. There are several odd features to this story. One is that this is not even the 'iconic' zebra crossing that the Beatles famously walked over in 1969 (McCartney barefoot, a detail that fed into a ludicrous conspiracy theory that he was dead and it had all been covered up). That crossing is one with Nineveh and Tyre, while this crossing is a different crossing, in a different place. This listing decision then, is less about what is being listed than about English Heritage courting a bit of publicity and the favour of the tourist industry. No harm done, though (unless it means other, more deserving landmarks being neglected).
The most startling detail, though, is that this strangely potent image that has lived on and on and been re-created by everyone from the Red Hot Chili Peppers to the Simpsons, was the product of a ten-minute photoshoot. Ten minutes! In my experience of photographers today, ten minutes is not a unit of time they would even recognise. Recently I had to have my photo taken - for reasons I shan't go into, but no it was not police mugshot. The process ate up a whole morning of my life, which divided into several phases. 1. Waiting while the 'team' (pohotographers never work alone) bantered and joshed and laid on the phoney affability, with coffee etc thrown in. 2. Make-up (I'd managed to fight off Wardrobe, being more than adequately dressed). 3. More waiting and affability. 4. An endless session in which two (yes two) photographers snapped what must have been well over 200 images of me, in black and white and colour, in every conceivable pose - standing, sitting, assuming various expressions, facing this way and that, doing everything short of lying on the floor kicking my legs in the air. When all this was finally over, I was worn out and my face had frozen in a permanent rictus... And the end result of this long long morning's activity (and huge expense - but it wasn't me paying) was a little black and white head and shoulders snap I could have taken myself.
And yet it took one photographer ten minutes to get that Abbey Road album cover.

Tuesday 21 December 2010

A Good Thing (or Two)

As snow and ice maintain their frosty grip on Bbrrritain, there's no doubt what this December's must-have, can't get accessory is - it's a pair of these babies. Every time one of the half dozen outdoor shops on Kensington High Street gets a consignment in, they sell out in a couple of hours. By pure chance, I managed to get a pair, but haven't been able to get any more since. I can report that they work a treat, though they're not the most elegant addtion to a chap's footwear (I might have to have my spats extended to conceal them). Whereas before I was liable to skid and fall all too easily, I now skip o'er ice and snow like the sure-footed chamoix, laughing at danger...
There's an upside to all this weather too - by putting a stop to so much unnecessary activity, expecially shopping, it's at least slowed down the usual consumer frenzy and in many ways simplified Christmas, reducing it to something nearer its essentials. Nature, with which there is no arguing, has at least opened up the possibility of relaxing and resigning yourself to a smaller, simpler Christmas - and that is surely a good thing.

Sunday 19 December 2010

Strictly Speaking

Now that the Grand Final is behind us - and the name of the winner (eerily) appeared in Wikipedia weeks ago, when her odds were 4-1, why didn't I put money on her? could have paid for that new boiler - never mind - As I say, now that the Grand Final is behind us, it's time to 'fess up: I am a Big Strictly Fan. Yes I love it and have been glued to the screen throughout this series. I think it's the best popular television show around - the best talent contest, the best 'reality' show, whatever - and I'm glad it's Christmas next Saturday so I won't notice it's not there any more (apart from the Christmas Special - hoorah!).
Strictly is good old-fashioned entertainment, and what chiefly distinguishes it (and marks it out as old-fashioned) is that the whole thing is conducted in such a spirit of positive good cheer and unforced affection, with no commercial imperative (except as a by-product), no vicious rivalry, no dirty tricks or fixes. Compare and contrast the ghastly X Factor, where minimally talented performers who all sound the same and sing the same dreary repertoire are hand-picked for maximum profit potential, while smug Simon Cowell becomes as rich as a small nation. The X Factor also mercilessly exloits the vulnerable and deluded and causes much human collateral damage on its triumphant progress. Of Strictly, one can truly say: No humans were harmed in the making of this programme. Indeed every contestant seems enhanced by competing - if only by gaining the rudiments of a useful social skill - and those who progress to the later stages become wholly immersed in the experience, changed, and, to all appearances, very much the better for it. They have spent a long time learning to master a very difficult combination of skills - a genuine achievement - and when they invariably reach for the word 'journey', who can blame them?
The competition is at all times good-natured, the judges (apart from the redundant Alesha) are brilliant, the costumes are amazing, the whole thing's as camp as Christmas - and it's fronted by dear old Brucie. What's not to like? (Plenty, it seems. The usual suspects were attacking it on Late Review, I gather, while candidly admitting that they hadn't actually seen it. I'd like to see that approach applied more widely: 'No, I haven't actually read it... didn't make it to the theatre, etc. But here's what I think...' Pah! A plague on 'em.)

Friday 17 December 2010

December: Difficulties

Let us, as Nabokov says at the beginning of Transparent Things, illustrate our difficulties...
I got up the other morning to discover that the boiler - the boiler that has hitherto drawn reluctant gasps of admiration from hardened heating engineers - was leaking water all over the kitchen. Later that day it was declared officially dead. Defunctus est. And so it remains while estimates (for new boiler and quite possibly a couple of rads) are prepared, breath is drawn in sharply, telephone calls are not made, Christmas draws ever nearer, and, inevitably, a bravura display of Global Warming sweeps remorselessly south from the Arctic (which, when last heard of on the BBC, was little more than a subtropical lagoon). Snow tomorrow. And unfortunately the house is so designed that, in the absence of central heating, only one downstairs room can be effectively heated up. So there we shall huddle for the duration, sipping gruel and cursing our fate.
What is it with December? It was much the same last year... All this, and the inevitable NigeCorp workstorm, and the pre-Christmas frenzy, and the weather - December is in serious danger of becoming my least favourite month.

Wednesday 15 December 2010


I'm sorry, but the sight of Mark Stephens, the egregious Julian Assange's lawyer, irresistibly puts me in mind of Jonathan Miller's description of Paul Johnson as looking 'like an explosion in a pubic hair factory'. Probably the only funny thing (of his own) Miller ever said...

Monday 13 December 2010

And did you once see Stevie plain...?

Over the weekend I caught an episode of Adventures in Poetry, a rather good Radio 4 series which studies individual poems in some depth (and rather more breadth). This one was devoted to Stevie Smith's Not Waving But Drowning - a poem that is almost too famous, its title having entered the language to the point where it's become a journalistic standby. It remains a remarkable poem, but it's not all there is to Stevie Smith. There is this wise and funny poem, for example...

Distractions and the Human Crowd

Ormerod was deeply troubled
When he read in philosophy and religion
Of man's lust after God,
And the knowledge of God,
And the experience of God
In the achievement of solitary communion and the loss of self.
For he said that he had known this knowledge,
And experienced this experience,
Before life and after death;
But that here in temporal life, and in temporal life only, was permitted
(As in a flaw of divine government, a voluntary recession)
A place where man might impinge upon man,
And be subject to a thousand and one idiotic distractions.
And thus it was that he found himself
Ever at issue with the schools,
For ever more and more he pursued the distractions,
Knowing them to be ephemeral, under time, peculiar,
And in eternity without place or puff.
Then, ah then, he said, following the tea-parties
(And the innumerable conferences for social rearrangement),
I knew, and shall know again, the name of God, closer than close;
But now I know a stranger thing,
That never can I study too closely, for never will it come again, -
Distractions and the human crowd.

I once saw Stevie Smith giving a reading - an unforgettable sight, with her hair cut in that angular bob, an acute amused smile on her face. An unforgettable sound too - that cut-glass voice articulating her words with such old-world precision. She seemed like a creature of another age - or no age. This can't have been long before her death... I also saw one of Marlene Dietrich's last performances, and that was pretty memorable. I have lived that long.

Saturday 11 December 2010

Penelope Fitzgerald: 'The courage of those who are born to be defeated...'

Well, the NigeCorp workstorm raged all week (and is not blown out yet), engulfing my life and draining me of mental as much as physical energy. But I managed to carry on reading, having decided to resume my backward journey, from last to first, through the novels of Penelope Fitzgerald with The Bookshop, a pleasingly slim volume. Slim but by no means slight - any impression that this might be a gentle provincial comedy about a woman opening a bookshop in a small town is instantly dispelled in the first paragraph, when Florence Green, the would-be bookshop owner, recalls something she had once seen: 'a heron flying across the estuary and trying, while it was on the wing, to swallow an eel which it had caught. The eel, in turn, was struggling to escape from the gullet of the heron and appeared a quarter, a half, or occasionally three quarters of the way out. The indecision expressed by both creatures was pitiable. They had taken on too much.' And Florence, clearly, has taken on too much in planning to open the only bookshop in the aptly named East Anglian estuary town of Hardborough. We sense from the start that her project is doomed - the question is not whether it will fail, but how (and the answer, when it finally comes, makes the outcome shocking, even brutal, for all its inevitability).
Hardborough and its inhabitants are portrayed with Fitzgerald's usual sharp eye and ear, the setting beautifully drawn, the characters springing into all too vivid life. She misses nothing, and everything, however small, she leaves in her meticulously pared-down narrative is significant, even if its significance is not apparent at the time. There is ample material for tragedy here, but what she has made of it is undoubtedly a comedy, a quietly devastating - yet often very funny - comedy. The Bookshop perfectly embodies what Fitzgerald once said about her novels in general:
"I have remained true to my deepest convictions, I mean to the courage of those who are born to be defeated, the weakness of the strong, and the tragedy of misunderstandings and missed opportunities, which I have done my best to treat as comedy, for otherwise how can we manage to bear it?"
How indeed?

Tuesday 7 December 2010

Born on This day...

Me! And Tom Waits, same day, same year - 61 today (cue for a song, Tom?). We're having a quiet one this year, Tom and me, though we're sorely tempted to look in on Edmundo Ros's 100th birthday bash. Now there's a guy who knows how to throw a party...

Monday 6 December 2010

Nouns into Verbs

While the listening nation reeled from Jim Naughtie's unfortunate spoonerism on Today this morning, the programme moved on to a discussion of a supposedly deplorable, supposedly recent trend in our language towards 'verbing' - turning nouns into verbs. A doughty lexicographer was on hand to defend these noun-verbs, pointing out their utility, and the obvious fact that many of the objectionable ones are ugly jargon terms (often springing from the ugly world of 'management') that are unlikely to outlast their immediate use (lexicographers sometimes call them 'nonce words'). I would defend the ready shift from nouns to verbs more vigorously as one of the deeply embedded features of our language that give it its richness, expressive force and suppleness - in marked contrast to French, a language seriously deficient in active verbs. If you doubt the utility of noun-verbs, try doing some DIY without nailing, drilling, screwing, sawing, hammering, need I go on?

One I Made Earlier...

Over at the super soaraway Dabbler, I ponder a painting by Lorenzo Lotto.

Sunday 5 December 2010


Here is something rather wonderful - and seasonal - forwarded to me by my cousin in Derbyshire. They are so heart-lifting (or rather soul-lifting), these glorious eruptions - and hard to watch dry-eyed.


On this day in 1901, the physicist Werner Heisenberg was born. Probably.
Yes, I know - you loyal followers and friends of Nigeness deserve better than a lame joke, but early December finds me once again caught up in a workstorm so fierce that it's even engulfing this Day of Rest (hollow laugh) and diverting altogether too much of my mental activity from more pleasurable channels. Normal service will, I hope, resume before long...

Wednesday 1 December 2010

Read This Book

I've just finished reading what I am pretty certain is a great novel. The surprising thing about is that it was published as recently as 1965, and that nobody on this side of the pond seems to have so much as heard of it. I only learned of its existence from references on American literary blogs (especially Patrick Kurp's) but didn't get round to buying and reading it until now. John Williams's Stoner is an old-fashioned novel which tells the life story of one man from childhood to death in a straightforward linear narrative. What holds the attention - and it is quite riveting, impossible to skip or speed-read - is the delicate skill with which Williams builds his character, traces the events (internal and external) of his life and paints in the people important to him.
William Stoner is born into a dirt-poor farming family in Missouri, gets sent to the state university to study agriculture, but changes tack when he falls in love with literature and learning, and embraces the academic life. He suffers a succession of disappointments: a misguided marriage estranges him from his family, then in turn from his wife and daughter; his career is stymied when he makes an implacable enemy at the university; and his belated discovery of new, true love is doomed to a premature end. And yet, despite all this, Stoner is, in the end, in his stoic way, a triumphant figure. By the time of his death, the reader - this reader anyway - feels that he not only knows but loves him, and is unlikely to be left dry-eyed.
It's hard to pin down quite how Williams brings Stoner so completely and compellingly to life. I guess it is just the old-fashioned virtues of close imaginative attention and accurate (at the deepest level) prose - unshowy but perfectly modulated - along with a delicate, tender honesty. Williams is clear-sighted, lucid and - when it comes to Stoner - loving. Though he is technically in the position of omniscient narrator, he keeps himself entirely out of the picture - as I said, this is old-fashioned, no-nonsense storytelling. But it works miracles. All I can say is: Read This Book.