Sunday 30 January 2011


I've spent a good deal of my life in libraries - including 15 years working as a reference librarian - and yet these days I seldom set foot in one. The internet provides me with virtually all I need - and that, I imagine, is true for ever increasing numbers of people. But it saddens me that public libraries are closing - or being threatened with closure - all over the country, and I hope very much that Cameron's 'Big Society' (if it means anything) might come into its own here, that people will take them over and manage to keep them open by their own co-operative efforts.
It was through public libraries that I found my way into reading - real reading - and as often as not it was a book picked off the shelf on little more than a whim that changed everything, opening up a new path that would enlarge my mind and soul and become part of my life. When I was still at school, I was mooching around in my small local public library, idly scanning the shelves, when I spotted a title I thought might be worth a look. I knew the author only as a playwright who had caused a bit of a stir in the Fifties, but this appeared to be a novel. It might be interesting, I thought, picking it up. It was bound, I remember, in a muddy blue 'library binding', unpleasing to the eye and the hand alike, and on its spine was stamped in ugly black letters 'Molloy. S. Beckett'. I opened it and read: 'I am in my mother's room. It's I who live there now. I don't know how I got there...'
I was hooked. I read Molloy with amazed delight and moved on to devour every Beckett I could get my hands on. And now, more than 40 years on, when most of my youthful literary enthusiasms have long since died the death, I am still reading (or rather rereading) Beckett. I have just finished rereading Malone Dies, and it seems to me every bit as wonderful - no doubt in different ways - as it was to me then, more than 40 years ago. And this lifelong, ever-deepening love affair I owe to a chance find on the Fiction shelves of a suburban branch library. Could such things happen in the librariless or library-lite future that seems to be on its way?

Thursday 27 January 2011

Falling Water

Yesterday I was in Sheffield, chiefly to meet up with my Derbyshire cousin, but also to see an exhibition at the Millennium Gallery - and yes, it was open. The exhibition was of British art between the wars and was pretty good, with plenty of Bawden and Ravilious, Piper and Sutherland and most of the names you'd expect (and the ghastly Bloomsberries and some pretty crass Socialist Realism and lame British attempts at Surrealism). It was interesting too to see Sheffield again. I'd lived there for a year in the early 70s and had only been back once, so I was expecting much change. The city centre was indeed much changed - but to a surprising extent (to a reactionary like me) for the better. In particular many spaces have been opened up and pedestrianised, making the centre a pleasant enough place to stroll around, and making the city's grander buildings easier to see and enjoy. But the best of it is the brilliant use of flowing water through much of the city centre. With its hilly site, Sheffield is perfect for these contained and trained urban rivers, with pools and fountains and waterfalls. The water - which is of course lit up at night to make the most of it - is beautiful in itself, and a restful presence in a city centre. And in Sheffield's case it links the modern city both to its landscape setting and to its industrial past, when all that flowing water powered its first mills. Regeneration is a weasel word, but the centre of Sheffield is, compared to what it was when I knew it, most definitely regenerated. And a lot of that has to do with the power and beauty of falling water.

Tuesday 25 January 2011

A Lesson in Art Criticism, among Other Things

Today I journeyed to Bedford in the sure and certain - and, as it turned out, entirely unfounded - conviction that the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery (home of a magnificent Edward Bawden collection and the sole reason anyone would journey to Bedford) had reopened after its refurbishment. Nothing could be further from the truth; the Cecil Higgins is not going to reopen until late in 2012. However, the part of the building that was open was staging a very good exhibition of Toulouse Lautrec prints, so I enjoyed that before making my way back to London and the certainties of Tate Britain (We Never Close!). My visit was much enlivened by a couple of young art lovers - girls aged, at a guess, about 3 and 5. They first crossed my path when I was standing in a darkened anteroom sampling a meretriciously effective work by Mark Wallinger, Threshold to the Kingdom, which consists of a slo-mo video of people coming through the International Arrivals doors of an airport, to the accompaniment of Allegri's Miserere. The girls were expressing their appreciation by chasing each other and rolling around on the mosaic floor, which certainly lifted the mood. Their whoops and giggles followed me, now near now far, through several more galleries, bringing more smiles to my face than is normally the case on a tour of the Tate - but they really came into their own when they spotted, at the far end of one gallery, a Henry Moore Woman (a big bronze of 1957/8), which had them in fits. As they ran towards it, they were increasingly gripped by helpless laughter and ended up falling about at the foot of the mighty bronze. Their refreshing approach to art criticism was a joy to see, and a lovely contrast to the often entirely unwarranted solemnity of the gallery atmosphere. There have been plenty of occasions when only adult decorum has prevented me from falling about laughing at items in galleries passed off in all seriousness as Art. There should be far more laughter in such places - and if it's children's laughter, so much the better.

Monday 24 January 2011

Blackbird singing in the dead of night...

Birdsong at night is a haunting sound, at once beautiful and cheering, and faintly disturbing, wrong. Round my way, the birds seem more and more to be singing in the dead of night. This last week or so it's been going on at all hours, from long after dark to long before dawn - has anyone else noticed a surge? By the sound of it, it's mostly robins, with the odd blackbird and the occasional wakeful sparrow. Why are they doing this? The latest thinking, based on some interesting research published in 2007, is that the birds (robins at least) are singing at night because it's too noisy during the day for them to make themselves heard. Anyone who's been near a robin in full belligerent song might find this hard to believe, but the research looks pretty solid, and noise seems a far more important factor than light pollution. Traffic noise in particular is no doubt on the increase in my area, as everywhere else - it's certainly enough on some local roads to make conversation at normal volume difficult - but lighting levels too seem to be rising all the time, and surely the spreading of a kind of artificial day into the the nighttime must be having some effect on the birds' metabolism and habits. Certainly it would be no bad thing - from every point of view - if there was less traffic on the roads and more lights were dimmed, or simply removed. There are odd reports of cash-strapped councils cutting back on street lighting, and this might help - but little prospect of any slowing in the relentless growth of motor traffic. Nocturnal birdsong - once so seldom heard that hearers would assume (nearly always wrongly) it was the nightingale - is likely to become an established feature of the urban soundscape. One can only hope all these sleepless night aren't turning the birds into groggy irritable wrecks and ruining their days.

Friday 21 January 2011

The Here and Now

Looking back over Looking Back... (below), I realise I left out perhaps the most important thing about the drugs. No, not that they're great - thanks, Worm! - but that they were a short cut to total immersion in the here and now, that here and now that becomes increasingly hard to focus on as the busyness of life crowds in around us, occupying so much of our minds with what is not here, not now. I recently read (on Bryan's recommendation) Tim Parks's Teach Us To Sit Still. This is a very readable, disarmingly honest and often funny book. It tells how the author's desperation in the face of what seemed to be symptoms of a potentially fatal prosrate condition led him, having explored all medical avenues to no avail, to seek solutions in therapeutic approaches he wouldn't normally have touched with a bargepole. In the end, he learnt that his problem was something deeper-seated than a medical condition, and that the only way to address it was to learn to sit still, to breathe correctly, and to lose himself in the here and now. None of which is easy. Clearly a driven and ultra-tense man, Parks also had to overcome the affliction common to all writers - that they instantly and instinctively translate the here and now into carefully composed words, thereby throwing up a barrier between themselves and the actual experience. His account of his efforts to overcome this - and so much else - makes remarkably gripping reading. Teach Us to Sit Still is a rare example of what happens when the kind of book you wouldn't normally touch with a bargepole is written by a writer who can actually write, and think, and laugh at himself. I'd recommend it to anyone - especially those who are driven and ultra-tense, if any such read this blog. Which seems unlikely.

Thursday 20 January 2011

Looking Back...

Patrick Kurp, spurred by my vinyl musings, wonders if all that drug-fuelled boring (I used the word advisedly) deep into what we were listening to in those far-off days might have flexed critical - and creative - muscles that could be put to better use later. I'm sure he's right. And I suspect the druggy period that features in many of our CVs had other beneficial effects too - not that I'm in any way advocating it as a course of action; looking back, I realise I more than once came close to doing myself serious damage, and I quickly lost all druggy urges as soon as my life and environment changed. Speaking for myself, I think there was an element of self-medication in my drug taking - at that time I actually needed it in some way to attain a kind of balance or repose in my inner life. And it certainly revealed to me how partial, fragile and easily overturned our 'normal' consciousness of reality is. I never regarded any drug as opening the Doors of Perception, but some of my experiences certainly suggested the whole thing was vastly bigger and more complex and mysterious than it might seem. And having experienced such extreme mental states has perhaps given me some degree of protection against psychic disturbance ever since - or at least taught me enough to know not to panic, I've been through worse, long ago and far away. None of this is any kind of justification for drug taking, but I think there's something in it - if only in my case. At the very least, if I wasn't taking those drugs, who knows what self-destructive feats of boozing I might have undertaken instead, and at what cost to my liver and mind? Yes, it was a misspent youth - but really is there any other kind, and would you want to live it?

Starbucks News

I'm sure that, like me, you've often wandered into a Starbucks and thought to yourself, When oh when will they start serving their coffee in decent-sized cups instead of these meagre piddling measures? Well it seems they're on the case, and soon cups like this will be coming our way. High time too. I note also that Starbucks baristas have been told to go slower - yet another irresistible selling point. Bad coffee, over-diluted, over-milked and sold in pails - and now longer queues. Could Starbucks be any better?

Tuesday 18 January 2011

Days of Vinyl and Poses

O dear o lor', this took me back - in fact I remember listening in just such an intent manner to just that Bowie album when it came out (I went off Bowie subsequently). In those days, listening in rapt silence to an entire vinyl album - often at punishing volume - was de rigueur. The 12" vinyl was an all but sacred object - its very scratches and hisses came, with repeated listenings, to be cherished. Furthermore the cover doubled as 'iconic' artwork and handy surface for joint-rolling (these listening sessions were routinely fuelled by dope and sometimes, more riskily, by acid or other hallucinogens - Captain Beefheart not recommended). Often we vinyl worshippers were giving mediocrity vastly more focused attention than it deserved, and always the dance element of the music was scrupulously ignored, the 'cool' thing being to sit totally still without so much as a tapping toe to acknowledge the presence of rhythm - head banging was considered thoroughly naff. And yet, drug-soused though we might have been, we were intently listening, experiencing the music (and the words) with an intenstiy that is much harder to achieve in these days when whatever music you might want is instantly available and the technology makes it so much easier to flit from track to track and artist to artist than to settle down with one big piece of work and really get to know it. I am most definitely not tempted to join them, but these vinyl devotees - retroprogressive heroes - are doing a good job, showing that there is another, more immersive and focused way to engage with the music. And of course they're so young they're only just finding this out for themselves - they weren't there, enduring the soul-sapping experience of being stuck in a room full of silent dopeheads with Dark Side of the Moon droning on and on and on. Ah those dear dead days...

Meanwhile on The Dabbler...

I've posted another Round Blogworld Quiz.

Monday 17 January 2011

Clamour in the Air

Walking in woods in winter, it can seem that nothing is stirring. There's little birdsong, apart from the indefatigable robins and raucous crows and jays, but if you stop and listen, you'll often become aware of a faint clamour in the air - a chorus, or rather conversation, of short soft 'pit' sounds, with the odd mildly scolding triple call and an undertone of soft churrings. Follow this mingled music to its source, look around you and up into the branches of the nearby trees, and you'll find you are in the midst of a foraging party of tits (or as the Victorians rather sweetly called them, titmice). Walking in the woods on Ashtead common yesterday, I had this enchanting experience several times. Each time I found myself surrounded by a profusion of long-tailed tits, flitting busily about and calling conversationally to each other as they worked their way from twig to twig, branch to branch and tree to tree. Also of the party were blue tits, coal tits (my favourites) and tiny goldcrests - but all were quite outnumbered by the longtails, which just kept on coming. They are a joy to watch, these bids, not only for their innate undeniable 'cuteness' - that beady-eyed ball of feathers look - but for their fearlessness. As they go about their business they seem unaware of, or at least indifferent to, human company - almost as if you weren't there - and will sometimes come within hand's reach with no sign of anxiety. But they are always on the move, always seeking out the next morsel, always making those soft interrogative calls to stay in touch with their fellow foragers. I must have been standing for 20 minutes or so watching one particular flock make its busy passage - I wasn't counting but there must have been 100 long-tailed tits in that party. Clearly, even after the fierce cold of December, these tiny birds are thriving. I wonder how they make it through such weather. I like to think of them seeing it out huddled up companionably together by the dozen, forming one soft warm feathery mass, their long tails turned up over their heads... But yesterday was mild, the lengthening of the day is just becoming noticeable, and in the garden the first snowdrops are showing the tips of white flowers between their sharp leaves.

Friday 14 January 2011


For some reason lost in the mists of time, I'm on Laura Ashley's electronic mailing list. Their latest communication alerted me to their new line in... Pacamacs. Pacamacs! There's a name to send any child of the Fifties/Sixties spinning back into the past. These Laura Ashley so-called Pacamacs were of course funky, rather chic affairs. The Pacamacs of my formative years were anything but. Quite possibly the ugliest garment ever designed by man (at least until the coming of the shell suit), the Pacamac was a shapeless approximation to a macintosh, made of a peculiarly unpleasant kind of rubber, strangely textured and vaguely slimy to the touch - available in every colour so long as it was grey. With nasty cartilaginous buttons, also of rubber, welded on to the 'coat', buttoning up was a grim experience (it probably sparked koumpounophobia in many a sensitive soul, not to mention various forms of fetishism). Intended principally as a protective against summer showers, the Pacamac was indeed waterproof (leaving aside what got down your neck) but made up for it by generating quantities of sweat if worn for any length of time. It folded up into a heavy rubber roll that, if you followed the foldlines accurately, could just about be fitted into a large pocket until required again, at which point it had to be laboriously shaken out. This distinctive action inspired a line of poetry that has stuck in my mind for years, though I have no idea who wrote it and have never come across it again: 'The heron unfolds his pacamac of wings.' This seems to me a perfect description of a heron's laborious take off, shaking out that improbable quantity of folded wing. Does anyone recognise the line?

Thursday 13 January 2011

What Are the Chances?

This morning my wristwatch fell into my tea.
My morning mug of tea (Ceylon, since you ask) was on the floor and I was carelessly putting on my watch when it slipped off my wrist and plunged - plop! - straight into the tea. I fished it out straight away, dried it off, hoped for the best - and I can report that it is no worse for the experience and is still keeping excellent time. This is probably because it is such a basic watch - a Sekonda quartz, slim, simple, with a plain dial and roman numerals. I can't remember what I paid for it, but I remember noting, when it first needed a new strap (it's been through a good half dozen over the years), that the strap was costing more than the watch did. I've never understood some men's passion for big chunky expensive watches with lots of dials and gizmos. Surely all anyone requires from a watch is that it sits easily and discreetly on the wrist, has a dial that's easy to read, and tells the time accurately. And if it still does that after being dunked in tea, so much the better.

Wednesday 12 January 2011

Any Excuse for a Venetian Picture

And today's excuse is that John Singer Sargent was born on this day in 1856. So here's one one of his Venetian watercolours, painted from a gondola on the Grand Canal - a watercolour of water and light on water and water light on stone. As Evan Charteris, a Sargent biographer, wrote: 'To live with Sargent's water-colours is to live with sunshine captured and held, with the lustre of a bright and legible world, "the refluent shade" and "the ambient ardours of the noon".'

Calling All Bloggers...

Ever wondered what the language of your blog says about you? What kind of personality is coming across as you bash out your observations - and even what parts of the brain might be engaged in your mighty lucubrations? Me neither, but here's an amusing little game you can play... And here's Nigeness personified (just type into the space). How did they know about my taste for getting drunk in transvestite bars? It's uncanny...

Monday 10 January 2011

Looking Up

This is the time of year that always finds me oppressed by the winter gloom and longing for spring - or at least some sign that there's still a sun up there. So my heart lifted when I awoke yesterday to cloudless enamel blue skies - and the countrybound trains running to time. I was soon at Box Hill, toiling merrily up the dip slope - quite steep enough thanks, especially as the shadier tracks were still covered in ice that had frozen into a crackling layer of quartz-like crystals on top of the chalk and mud. There were quite a few people around, at least on the main walks and on the broad mound of downland that is the easiest, most popular way up and down the hill (and was the scene of that memorable picnic in Emma). The views were glorious in the crisp clear light - almost as sharp as early spring - under that dome of sky. I saw nothing especially notable - just being there was quite enough - until, on the way down, I paused to look back uphill, and there, walking quite insouciantly across the open down from one side to the other, towards the wooded margin, was a large and handsome deer, looking almost surreally out of place. I've seen deer in the woods often enough, but never before on the downland on a 'busy' day. Nobody seemed to notice this fine beast as it went on its way - as I too soon did; sadly this had to be a short walk. But it had been enough to lift the winter gloom.
Today was greyer, but just warm enough (i.e. not prohibitively cold) for a brisk lunchtime walk along to Holland Park - and my first 'picnic' since before the December cold snap. It was good to be back, sitting in an alcove watching the birds on the feeders (including those bullying gluttons, the ring-necked parakeets). Things are looking up. Spring is on its way.

Still Life

Over on the super soaraway Dabbler, I ponder a still life...

Friday 7 January 2011

Brother of the More Famous Larry

If he were alive, the author, naturalist and zoo keeper extraordinaire Gerald Durrell would be celebrating his 85th birthday today (he made it to just shy of 70, despite a heroic alcohol intake). I've always had a soft spot for him since his books were among the first to get me into the habit of reading, and he was one of the first authors whose works I actually sought out and collected. As a child, I was a sporadic and haphazard reader, once in a while finding something that really fired me up, then lapsing into long periods of reading nothing. I had two relatives - one a cousin of my father's, the other a great uncle - who would from time to time send well chosen books as gifts, and it was the cousin who, when I was nine or ten, sent Gerald Durrell's Encounters With Animals. I remember the book fondly - a Rupert Hart-Davis hardback, with excellent illustrations by Ralph Thompson. As a budding young naturalist, I leapt on it, relished every page, and set about finding other Durrell books. Over the next few years, I must have read a dozen or so, including of course My Family And Other Animals, which I reread several times. I wouldn't care to revisit those books now (except perhaps My Family...) as I fear they would seem terribly glib and facetious. But Durrell - brother of the more famous author Lawrence - never claimed to be much of a writer: 'To me it's simply a way to make money which enables me to do my animal work, nothing more.' As Samuel Johnson remarked, 'No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.' And at least Durrell helped to make a reader of me - perhaps of many another nature-mad boy - and for that I'll always be grateful.

Meanwhile in Dogger...

It is a wonderful thing that England's cricketers have won the Ashes - and won them convincingly, trouncing a clearly inferior Australian team. Almost as wondrous is the fact that each of the three Test victories was, for those listening to Test Match Special on Radio 4 longwave, lost to the Shipping Forecast, as the network switched (as it is obliged to do) to its mesmeric recitation of sea areas for the benefit of mariners. Thus one cherished radio institution trumped another, transporting longwave stalwarts out to sea then, having missed the clinching of victory, back to the tumult and the shouting as England (and the increasingly tiresome Barmy Army) celebrated victory.
Seamus Heaney, in a famous sonnet, caught the poetry - and the utility - of the dear old Shipping Forecast...

Dogger, Rockall, Malin, Irish Sea:
Green, swift upsurges, North Atlantic flux
Conjured by that strong gale-warming voice,
Collapse into a sibilant penumbra.
Midnight and closedown. Sirens of the tundra,
Of eel-road, seal-road, keel-road, whale-road, raise
Their wind-compounded keen behind the baize
And drive the trawlers to the lee of Wicklow.
L'Etoile, Le Guillemot, La Belle Hélène
Nursed their bright names this morning in the bay
That toiled like mortar. It was marvellous
And actual, I said out loud, 'A haven,'
The word deepening, clearing, like the sky
Elsewhere on Minches, Cromarty, The Faroes.

Thursday 6 January 2011

Butterfly Thoughts

A typically luminous post on Patrick Kurp's Anecdotal Evidence has got me thinking about butterflies (it doesn't take much these grim winter days). The wonderful Janet Lewis poem that Kurp quotes is called The Insect (and it is indeed the right title). It could have been worse; until well into the 19th century - in the time of Grimaldi's collecting, for example - butterflies were generally known just as 'flies', a name not only unappealing but downright confusing. The word 'butterfly' has been around for a millennium and more ('buterflie' in Middle English, 'butorfleoge' in Old English), yet it seems to have taken a long while to become the definitive term for our fluttering friends. Why butterfly? As I've noted before (though I can't for the life of me find the post to link to), there's no easy answer to that one... It's certainly true that English is the only language that gives lepidoptera a name that has anything to do with butter. The ancient Greeks got it right first time by naming the butterfly 'psyche' - the breath or soul (in modern Greek, it's the almost as beautiful 'petaloudia', relating to words for petal, leaf and opening out). The Latin 'papilio' has been the most fruitful butterfly word, giving us the French papillon among others, and spreading its wings to become 'pavilion'. But for once it is the Germans who have the most beautiful word - 'schmetterling', which perfectly evokes a buttterfly's dipping flight and the faint swish of passing wings.

Tuesday 4 January 2011

An Ambridge Scandal

[NOTE: The following will make no sense at all to many readers of this blog, but sometimes a man has to speak out...]
For most of my sentient life, I've been listening to - or at least aware of - The Archers, Radio 4's strangely addictive 'everyday story of country folk' (it's no such thing of course) and, like most who fall under its spell, I intensely dislike a great deal about it. It's always a love-hate thing, and the hate is always at its strongest immediately after a 'special' episode, i.e. one of those in which they decide to arbitrarily kill off a character. The elaborately overhyped 'special' that marked The Archers' 60th anniversary has, sure enough, left me seething. In it, having quite skilfully constructed a cheering tale of birth and reconciliation, the writers then threw it away with the ludicrous story of the fatal trip to the roof of Lower Loxley, culminating in the most blood-curdling scream heard since the heyday of Hammer horror - this was Nigel Pargetter falling to his death from the roof of his ancestral home, and I am frankly furious about it. Not only was this part of the episode very badly written, with characterisation thrown to the wind (and it was a windy night up there on the roof, also frosty) and what was going to happen laboriously telegraphed at every step - it also deprived us listeners of one of the more attractive male residents of Ambridge, where most heterosexual men are drudges, boobies or crooks (or, increasingly, asexual). Even after years of marriage to the ghastly emasculating Lizzie, Nigel, a basically decent chap, was still full of spirit and fun - and now the harpies who run The Archers have killed him off, for no reason at all. As when they did the same to John Archer, I now intend to boycott the programme - though I know it won't last, I'll be drawn back in. I always am.