Thursday 30 June 2011

Marbled White

These are good times for those of us who enjoy the urban/suburban 'edgelands'. Increasingly areas that used to be mown to within an inch of their lives - in parks, on commons, beside roads and railways, in gardens even - are being left to get on with it. The result - if there are a couple of rightly timed mows in the course of the year - is that decent approximations to flower meadows are growing up everywhere. And, as the battle to control it is gradually lost, that ubiquitous Chinese invader, Buddleia Davidii, is more rampant than ever - and gloriously in flower now. This is always good news for butterflies and those of us who love them - though, oddly, I've yet to see a butterfly taking a serious interest in a Buddleia bush so far this year. Lately I've been watching, from my train, a promising area of flowery railside edgeland - brambles and wild peas galore, hogweed, toadflax, thistles, hawkweed, willowherb - between Croydon and Selhurst. I've seen disappointingly little in the way of butterflies there this year - but today my patience was rewarded when I spotted, flying merrily among the grassheads, a Marbled White! Not my first this year (that was a rather wonderful sighting on a Father's Day walk with my son), but my first ever on that railside plot. Just the thing to cheer the heart of a weary commuter...


There's another blast from the Nigeness past on the Dabbler today.

Wednesday 29 June 2011

My Misunderstandings - Well, One of Them...

In his poem Taking A Walk With You, Kenneth Koch admits to his many and various (and wonderfully inventive) misunderstandings - ah, here it is (click 'more')... On the centenary of the birth of Bernard Herrmann, I might as well confess to one of my misunderstandings. For years I thought the great film music composer and the (identically named) conductor of the BBC Northern Dance Orchestra were one and the same. The poor fellow must have fallen on hard times, I thought - or alternatively, how kind of him to abandon Hollywood to come over here and perform jaunty dance orchestra settings of pop hits. At that time - the early Sixties - the NDO loomed large in the life of us young pop pickers. With even Radio 1 and the pirate stations still in the future, and BBC Radio reluctant to spend good money spinning platters by those upstart beat combos, we were obliged to listen to many a chart single performed live by the swinging hepcats of the NDO. We were not impressed, fine orchestra (of its kind) though it was, and fine bandleader though Bernard Herrmann was. But he was one Bernard Herrmann, and THE Bernard Herrmann was another. Still, it's consoling to know I wasn't the only one to confuse the two - the BBC often did, and so, at one time, did THE Bernard Herrmann's widow: check out the paragraph headed 'Before you met him, had you ever heard of him?' here.

Monday 27 June 2011

The Brown Revival

At last, a new black! And the good news is that it's brown. In my small way, I've been clearing the path for this paradigm shift for years, only wearing black shoes with seriously dark suits (which I seldom wear), otherwise favouring various shades of brown suede. Admittedly my fellow style pioneers include Ken Clarke, possibly England's worst-dressed man - and if the brown shoe revival can't find as an icon someone better turned out than Jude Law (what IS he wearing? Certainly not socks), then this movement could be doomed. But I fancy brown will prevail - it's just more natural, more earthy, softer, less of a statement than black.
The weighty matter of the brown revival found its way into the increasingly bonkers Today programme ('Setting the agenda for the nation') this morning, with Sarfraz Mansoor and no less a style guru than Top Gear's James May talking it over in a rather lacklustre manner. The conversation strayed to beige and thence to linen - and so to the brown linen suit, which both agreed was a pretty whizzy idea. As it happened, just as this conclusion was being reached, my valet was easing me into my brown linen (£20 well spent on eBay a couple of years ago). We exchanged a knowing smile. And now here I sit at my NigeCorp desk, the glass of fashion and the mould of form, brown of suit and shoe. It seems Frank Zappa was wrong after all.

Sunday 26 June 2011

A Meeting with the Emperor

Today I saw my first Purple Emperor! I've had dubious glimpses of this second largest and most elusive of our butterflies in the past: high in the treetops, briefly outlined against the sky, something very large hurtling along, or once something I'm fairly sure was an Emperor flying up virtually from under my foot, but gone before I could be certain. This time, however - this time was different...
It was a perfect butterfly day - hot late-June sun, a clear blue sky, only the slightest breeze. I got off the train at Ashtead, walked onto the common and right at the edge was greeted by Meadow Browns and Ringlets (I'd seen a couple of those dark beauties yesterday - my first of the year) and a bright Tortoiseshell. Skippers, Large and Small (and perhaps Essex), were dashing about busily, picking fights with one another and anything else that got in the way. As I headed into the woods, I was soon greeted by what I was hoping for - White Admirals and Silver-Washed Fritillaries, gliding up and down the wooded edges of the paths, in and out of the broken light, so beautiful, so heart-lifting. In my wanderings I saw too many to count - all splendid fresh specimens (though one White Admiral already had tattered wing edges). Being fresh and full of energy (the Fritillaries seemed to be all males, cruising their territories), they were reluctant to settle, but one White Admiral perched, wings folded, on a nearly sunlit leaf, I focused my binoculars on it, and enjoyed a long close-up look at those beautifully patterned white-on-speckled-bronze underwings.
A while later, I turned from my path to admire one of the common's most impressive veteran oaks (these were once pollarded, suppyling wood and timber, and acorns for the pigs foraging on the common). Nearby a couple of grey-haired men in grey windcheaters were training binoculars on a pair of oaks a little farther off - were there Emperors in the treetops? I thought about going up to them and finding out what they'd seen, or were looking for, but decided against and retraced my steps to the path I'd been on. Pondering which way to go, I opted for a small pathway to my right, and as I turned on to it, down flew a White Admiral and settled a few yards ahead of me. Except it didn't exactly settle; it was walking around in a slightly agitated, quite unwhiteadmirallike manner - and wasn't it too big for a White Admiral? And too - it briefly spread its wings - too purple?!
I don't know if my heart missed a beat. I certainly gasped with astonishment and wonder. My first Emperor! And what a beauty he was (only the males have the purple sheen, and the females are seldom seen) - a splendid newly-minted Emperor in all his imperial purple glory! I stood stock still and watched as he quartered the narrow path, testing the ground with his proboscis as he went. The path, despite the sun, was slightly damp and muddy, and clearly there was something to the Emperor's taste in that half-hardened mud (they seem to need or enjoy minerals, no one knows quite which or why, and they can be attracted to the ground by the most revolting man-made lures, not to mention horse dung). The Emperor was so intent on his task that, over the minutes that ensued, I was able to edge closer and closer. At one point he flew up and towards me, and it seemed he might be about to perch on me. I held my breath, but he turned and resumed his investigations of the mud.
In the course of these enchanted minutes, I was treated to the glory of his full-spread wings, the purple flash of the Emperor briefly in flight, and, when he finally found the patch of mud that was most to his taste, those astonishingly beautiful underwings, with their patterned blur of mixed colours - greys, red-browns, even pink and silver, and the single bright eye-spot on the forewing... It was such a perfect encounter, it felt like a dream (I've had my share of Emperor dreams) - but no, there he was, real, a step or two away - my first Purple Emperor! Eventually, of course, he wearied of his mud and flew off, vouchsafing me one last flash of his imperial purple before, with an effortless turn of speed, he disappeared into the trees and was gone. Leaving me stunned, suffused with joy, and feeling as if a great blessing had been bestowed on me.

Thursday 23 June 2011

So... Okay...

So, why is it that people on the radio and TV have taken to prefacing their answers with the word 'So'? It's quite a recent phenomenon - I seem to remember Appleyard, in his blogging days, noting it - and at first it was, I'm pretty sure, confined to politicians. Now everyone's at it. I can see the attraction for politicians, as it gives the (entirely misleading) impression that the answer given follows logically and seamlessly from something before. Presumably 'experts' in other fields feel that the 'So' suggest some kind of unassailable authority... On this morning's In Our Time (Melv and his guests were talking Malthus), one of the assembled experts was firmly of the 'So' school, unable to answer a question without a preliminary 'So' - while another was equally firmly of the 'Okay' school. Using the 'Okay' preface, I suppose, suggests that you saw that question coming and have your answer ready and waiting. The blizzard of 'So's and 'Okay's was irritating and distracting. What's wrong with 'Well', an honest meaningless word that buys you a little time without suggesting some kind of phoney omniscience? So maybe that's precisely what's wrong with it.

Stone Me...

A South African palaeontologist wants to test Shakespeare's bones for evidence that he was a pothead. A quick glance at the concordance suggests that he is surely onto something: Shakespeare uses the word 'weed' 21 times, 'grass' 23 times, 'joint' 22 times and 'pot' 14 times. And he's no stranger to the dope famine either - 'The time is out of joint...' A compelling case, I'm sure you'll agree.

Wednesday 22 June 2011

Richard Wilbur: So Damned Good

It comes as a bit of a shock to learn that the American poet Richard Wilbur is still alive (he turned 90 in March). It happens that I'm reading him, for the first time in any quantity, and only now discovering just how good he is. Almost, perhaps, too good: his effortless mastery of traditional forms, the classical precision and reticence of his work have certainly not made him a popular poet, especially as, at one time, many infinitely lesser poets once tended to write like him (and yet in reality totally unlike him) - and he was bound to fall out of favour with the vogue for shapeless confessional effusions.
Wilbur's focus is firmly and unashamedly fixed on the Four Big Themes: Love, Beauty, Nature and Art. Though he has won every prize and honour going, his work has somehow never entered America's poetic bloodstream - still less that of England, where I fancy he is little read (though the discerning Clive James is a big fan). Wilbur is just so damned good, his poems can seem to present a surface too smooth to get a grip on. Randall Jarrell witheringly declared that 'Wilbur never goes too far, but he never goes far enough'. And yet there is plenty of plain strong emotion and direct expression there, and a quiet wit (he's certainly not solemn). Nothing could be more direct and simple than this one, which packs a strong emotional punch - especially for those of us who have recently seen both son and daughter married...

Wedding Toast

St. John tells how, at Cana's wedding feast,
The water-pots poured wine in such amount
That by his sober count
There were a hundred gallons at the least.

It made no earthly sense, unless to show
How whatsoever love elects to bless
Brims to a sweet excess
That can without depletion overflow.

Which is to say that what love sees is true;
That this world's fullness is not made but found.
Life hungers to abound
And pour its plenty out for such as you.

Now, if your loves will lend an ear to mine,
I toast you both, good son and dear new daughter.
May you not lack for water,
And may that water smack of Cana's wine.

Beautiful... Or how about, by way of contrast, this tiny gem, which packs more into four eloquent lines than most poets would manage in fourteen?

Having Misidentified A Wild Flower

A thrush, because I'd been wrong,
Burst rightly into song
In a world not vague, not lonely,
Not governed by me only.

Surely a dangling participle was never put to better use... But these are both lesser Wilburs. If you want to browse some more, you could have a look here - though you won't find one of Wilbur's best (so good that even Randall Jarrell proclaimed its greatness), A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciara - here it is. Enjoy.

Tuesday 21 June 2011

Elizabeth Bowen and the Hairy Cornflake

I see there's another blast from Nigeness past on that happening blog, The Dabbler... Back on Nigeness present, my blogbrain seems to have gone into sleep mode. Perhaps it was the concussing impact of the news that the great Burmese should-be leader Aung San Suu Kyi was a big fan of Dave Lee Travis's Jolly Good Show on the World Service, and found solace and uplift in listening to the Hairy Cornflake (rather than, like the rest of us, a strong urge to slit our wrists and be done with it). You think you've got some kind of rough idea of how strange the world is, sensed at least where the outlines might lie - and then a piece of news like this comes along and you realise you know nothing, it's a whole lot stranger. But we should not think the less of Aung San Suu Kyi for this strange predilection. Perhaps it's another example of how, in all sorts of subtle ways, the East doesn't 'get' the West, any more than the West gets the East. Which is why so many men who appear to western eyes to be sad losers turn out to be babe magnets when it comes to oriental ladies - and I don't mean mail-order brides. Just so long as DLT doesn't get nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize...

Thursday 16 June 2011

Something New

Restless neophiliac that I am (hem hem), I've just been trying out one of these babies. It certainly has its attractions - smallness for a start (I love small books), and that thin paper, pleasingly reminiscent of India paper. It can be held open in the palm of one hand, and a whole stack of them would take up little space and weigh nothing much. However, there are drawbacks to that foredge-to-foredge layout. The text, though very clearly printed, looks crowded, with too little 'air' - largely because of the absence of the 'gutter' that separates facing pages in conventional format (and would break up the text in this format). And, although the Flipback sits flat most of the time, it doesn't really do so near the beginning or end of a volume (which makes the absence of gutter a problem) - and that thin paper makes it hard to turn over the pages. Still, I can see this format having its uses, if a wide enough range of titles is published - it would be handy for reading on the move and for packing when you're travelling light. Otherwise, no - it's not really a threat either to Kindle or to 'real books' - nor does it seriously claim to be. An attractive novelty though - and potentially a good gift idea (especially if you're posting).

Wednesday 15 June 2011

Roll On 2013

As I've remarked before, when it comes to the Olympics - or rather London 2012TM, all rights reserved - you truly couldn't make it up. Now it seems they're determined to stop anyone else attaching the date to another event, even if it's wholly unrelated and, as in this case, the date's rather essential to the project (distinguishing it from, say, the Great Exhibition 1851). Perhaps this corporate bruiser approach explains why the recent BBC4 comedy drama was called Twenty Twelve, not 2012 - I did wonder. The crazed brand manager in Twenty Twelve, so memorably played by Jessica Hynes, was clearly pretty close to the mark. Roll on 2013. And meanwhile I guess we'll just have to call 2012 something else - any suggestions?

Tuesday 14 June 2011

Rylance Walks through Wall

The British actor Mark Rylance left the audience thoroughly mystified at the Tony Awards ceremony the other night. Instead of the traditional gushing acceptance speech, he recited part of a poem by a Minnesotan 'prose poet' called Louis Jenkins. It's called Walking Through Walls, and in full it goes like this:

'Unlike flying or astral projection, walking through walls is a totally earth-related craft, but a lot more interesting than pot making or driftwood lamps. I got started at a picnic up in Bowstring in the northern part of the state. A fellow walked through a brick wall right there in the park. I said, "Say, I want to try that." Stone walls are best, then brick and wood. Wooden walls with fiberglass insulation and steel doors aren't so good. They won't hurt you. If your wall walking is done properly, both you and the wall are left intact. It is just that they aren't pleasant somehow. The worst things are wire fences, maybe it's the molecular structure of the alloy or just the amount of give in a fence, I don't know, but I've torn my jacket and lost my hat in a lot of fences. The best approach to a wall is, first, two hands placed flat against the surface; it's a matter of concentration and just the right pressure. You will feel the dry, cool inner wall with your fingers, then there is a moment of total darkness before you step through on the other side.'

Hmm... Well, it may not be much of a poem, but it's one heck of an acceptance speech. I hope the trend catches on - it would liven up the Oscars.
Rylance, by the way, is a repeat offender. At the 2008 Tonys he treated the audience to another dose of Louis Jenkins, one called Back Country:

'When you are in town, wearing some kind of uniform is helpful, policeman, priest, etc. Driving a tank is very impressive, or a car with official lettering on the side. If that isn't to your taste you could join the revolution, wear an armband, carry a homemade flag tied to a broom handle, or a placard bearing an incendiary slogan. At the very least you should wear a suit and carry a briefcase and a cell phone, or wear a team jacket and a baseball cap and carry a cell phone. If you go into the woods, the back country, someplace past all human habitation, it is a good idea to wear orange and carry a gun, or, depending on the season, carry a fishing pole, or a camera with a big lens. Otherwise it might appear that you have no idea what you are doing, that you are merely wandering the earth, no particular reason for being here, no particular place to go.'

What does he see in him, I wonder?

Death, etc.

'This wallpaper will be the death of me,' Oscar Wilde purportedly said on his deathbed. 'One of us will have to go.' This witticism (probably apocryphal) crossed my mind as I watched last night's Terry Pratchett documentary, Choosing To Die. Finding yourself in a box-like building on the edge of an industrial estate outside Zurich, surrounded by weird people and deeply hideous decor, which of us would not opt to give up the ghost? This much-hyped, much-controversialised film made for gripping, sometimes harrowing viewing. If it was, as its opponents were making out (long before they'd seen it), propaganda for assisted dying, it was notably ineffective. It left me exactly where I was before - i.e. strongly in favour of assisted dying and strongly against it. It seems to me that the arguments on both sides are so persuasive that they cancel each other out. Legislation would be all but impossible to draft, and would most likely make matters worse rather than better. Meanwhile, I think the best hope lies in greatly improved palliative care and a more liberal hand with the morphine.
The Pratchett film was much touted as breaking taboos by showing a man's dying moments. Well, that's actually been done (and faked) before in TV documentaries, and anyway Pratchett's film showed only a heavily edited and sanitised version of the death. What was left in, oddly, was the most disturbing moment in the film - when the dying man had some kind of coughing fit, asked urgently for water and was refused. It looked rather as if the poor man was experiencing the very choking that he feared if he allowed his Motor Neurone Disease to progress. As for taboo-breaking, I'll believe TV is in that business when I see a documentary that shows the abortion of a viable baby and seriously addresses the ethical issues involved. Our moral blind spot in that area will, I suspect, amaze and appall future generations.

Monday 13 June 2011

BBC Fiasco

Well, I don't know about you, but I'm still seething. I tuned in last night, like millions of others, to BBC1 in the hope and expectation of that balm to the nation, Antiques Roadshow - and what did we get? A lot of dreary petrolheads standing around in the rain shouting about some motor-car race that hadn't happened. And so it went on and on and on, until it had entirely eclipsed Antiques Roadshow's scheduled slot. The 'action' then switched to BBC2 where it wiped out the slot allotted to another reliably restful and informative programme, Coast.
There was talk over the weekend that the impending 'cuts' threatening the BBC might cause it to give up on covering some sporting events. Bring it on, I say - then we'll have no more fiascos like last night, when a minority-interest (to put it mildly) 'sport' is allowed to cut a destructive swathe through the schedules, ruining it all for the rest of us (i.e. the vast majority who haven't the slightest interest in motor racing). Test cricket was the only TV sport worth hanging on to, and they let that go, so why not the endlessly tedious Formula One next? It would be a gift to the viewing nation.

Sunday 12 June 2011

Jacques and Fred

Jacques Austerlitz, the subject of W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz, which I am reading now, only discovers his true name when the headmaster of his Welsh boarding school takes him aside and tells him (he had been brought up under a Welsh name). He is mystified and intrigued, and struck by the rarity of his newly discovered surname - one he shares, as he notes, with Fred Astaire, the great dancer, who was born Frederick Austerlitz.
Fred Astaire - especially when dancing with Ginger Rogers - is (and I admit to a sizeable blind spot in the area marked Dance) almost the only dancer I can watch with that rush of aesthetic pleasure, the tingle at the nape of the neck, the amazed gasp that signify the presence of great art. Why him? I think it's the sheer effortless elegance; he is the least muscular of dancers. He doesn't throw himself into a dance - he stroll into it. This, I think, is because he is always dancing - whether he's 'dancing' or just moving around, walking, running, lighting a cigarette, lifting a glass, patting his hair, anything. Every part of his body is engaged in a kind of continual dance - every part except that extraordinary, outsize, lantern-jawed head that hangs above the action, quite detached - embodying (as I see it) the detachment of the true artist, the cool still centre.
Similarly, I think Astaire was a very great singer - not a very good one in a technical sense (he has little 'voice'), but he slips into song as easily and beautifully as he slips into dance. Again his style is entirely unforced and unshowy, he does enough and no more, his phrasing is perfect, and as a result he is devastatingly effective at putting a song across - which is why he was so popular with songwriters. Watch him in action with Ginger Rogers here, and marvel. This sequence never fails to take my breath away - and what an ending! The look on Ginger's face... Something much more than a dance has happened here.

Friday 10 June 2011

What Car Is Ed?

Today the political world has been shaken to its foundations by the shocking revelation that our old friend Gordon Brown and his followers were plotting to replace Tony Blair as leader with GB. Except they weren't, of course - we have Ed Balls's word for it that there was no plot, so that's settled... One of the odd features of this non-project to non-oust TB was the non-attempt to non-rebrand Broon as a Volvo. That, his delusional pollsters had persuaded themselves, was the car with which voters identified their man - a Volvo, byword for, er, boring reliability, I suppose (or perhaps for looking much the same from front and back). For myself, I'd always identified him as a Soviet-era Zil limousine with blacked-out windows. What about Ed Milliband, though - what car on earth could one associate him with?


There's a blast from the Nigeness past over on the super soaraway Dabbler...

Thursday 9 June 2011

Full of Holes

It's good to see that the organisers of 'London 2012' are keeping up the fine old Nazi tradition of a torch relay - and rather wonderful that, with a five-year lead-in time, they've managed to fail to 'deliver a low-carbon Olympic torch'. As for the design, well... I guess it looks pretty good, as Olympic torches go (which doesn't set the bar very high). I rather like the perforated look - but, like everything else about this flipping torch, the very perforations have a symbolic meaning, each hole representing one of those 'inspirational people' who will carry the torch in the course of the relay. Hmm... As I scrolled down through this story, with mounting incredulity, I discovered that we're not actually talking Olympic Torch here - we're talking 8,000 Olympic torches, each of them to be used once, then sold to the 'inspirational person' who was fool enough to carry it. When it comes to the Olympics, truly you could not make it up.

Doubly Dactylic Dashes

While still pondering the vexed question of dashes, I stumbled on these lines, by Wendy Cope:

Emily Dickinson
Liked to use dashes
Instead of full stops.

Nowadays, faced with such
Critics and editors
Send for the cops.

This is an example of the Double Dactyl, a curious verse from that makes heavy use of the dum-di-de dactyl. The metrical structure speaks for itself, but there are further rules to complicate matters: the first line must be meaningless, the second line the subject's name, and at least one line of the second stanza must consist of a single double-dactylic word. The most surprising thing about the Double Dactyl is that it was co-invented (with Paul Pascal) by that otherwise eminently serious (and very fine) American poet Anthony Hecht. In 2008, Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post honoured Hecht and his invention with - what else? - a Double Dactyl:

Higgledy Piggledy
Anthony Hecht, who could
Write about death in words
Epic yet warm,
Went to his own with some
Logic; his legacy's
This stupid form.

I was thinking of setting a Double Dactyl Competition - but really that would be too silly (and too hard), wouldn't it? If anyone wants to have a go, though - feel free...

Wednesday 8 June 2011

Mellow Orange

I've just had this text message from my mobile phone network:
'Hi from Orange [they always say that - I wish they wouldn't].
We've updated out terms to reflect we're now part of Everything Everywhere.
There's no change to your service/pricing.'
Eh? Everything Everywhere? Puts me in in mind of an old Donovan song. All together now...
'Happiness runs in a circular motion.
Thought is like a little boat upon the seas.
Everybody is a part of everything anyway...'
Takes you back.

Los Pepinos Inocentes

Cucumbers. They're everywhere. Every time I make the mistake of turning on the television news, there's ever more extravagant footage of alleged Spanish farmers dumping ever more prodigious quantities of cucumbers. This is by way of illustrating the story of how the Germans spectacularly fouled up over their e-Coli outbreak, unfairly pointing the finger - or the cucumber - at the Spanish. At first the news showed us what looked suspiciously like stock footage of a single peasant chucking misshapen cucumbers into a large skip - these cucumbers were probably already doomed under those laudable EU guidelines that protect a grateful citizenry from misshapen vegetables (which are actually better for you and tend to taste nicer too). Now, though, the cucumber disposal is on a truly heroic scale, with small armies of sturdy peasants pitching in, hurling tonnes (as they say in the EU) of blameless cucumbers into ever more gigantic receptacles. What fate awaits these hapless vegetables? I hope they will be put to good use. Perhaps they could be sent to Laputa, where the Projectors could extract sunbeams from them - a project which, according to this fascinating analysis, might actually have some slight basis in science...

Monday 6 June 2011

At Flores in the Azores...

Richard Grenville, the Elizabethan adventurer, explorer and naval hero, was born on this day in 1542. A fearless fighter, who famously took on 53 Spanish warships with his sole galleon the Revenge, Grenville was also an enthusiastic carouser, whose party piece was to chew up his glass after a few drinks, with much blood but apparently no lasting harm done - and he once, as a law student, ran a fellow through on the Strand and left him to die (he was acquitted). Grenville was, in fact, just the kind of mad bastard you want on your side in a scrap. The Revenge incident was the subject of Tennyson's most stirring narrative poem...
This was one of the poems my father delighted in reciting, often while shaving in the morning (how I envy him his powers of recall; mine are long gone). I enjoyed it as a boy, but naturally, when I grew into a young smartarse, I despised such risible stuff. Reading it now, though, it strikes me as a quite wonderful example of its kind, full of fine sonorous lines (that Tennysonian music never fails), setting the scene, building the tension and describing the climactic action and its aftermath with masterful skill. The sturdy anti-Spanish patriotism might be laid on a little heavily, but Tennyson, the great lyric poet, could also, when the occasion demanded, tell a tale to stir the blood.

Friday 3 June 2011

Dash It All

All over the London Underground at the moment there's a poster advertising Kindle by teasing us with the first page of Ordinary Thunderstorms, a thriller by William Boyd. No doubt it's intended to make us all think, 'I say - what a perfectly spiffing new way to read a book! I must buy one right now'... On me, however, it has rather the opposite effect, confirming my prejudice against e-books. It's not so much the content of this sample page - though the chances of my reading a William Boyd thriller about a climatologist called Adam Kindred are slim indeed - but rather the look of it, to be precise the punctuation. Here's how the first sentence begins:
'Let us start with the river-all things begin there...'
Yes, where a fine airy dash should be, there's a meagre hyphen linking two words as if they were indeed hyphenated. The first time I saw it, I actually had to read the sentence twice to make sense of it; with dashes it would have been crystal clear. The use of unspaced hyphens for dashes fuddles the meaning as well as producing ugly airless text. Is this strange mispunctuation universal on Kindle I wonder? If so, I can't imagine what it would be like to read, say, Keats's letters, or Laurence Sterne's novels. Perhaps a Kindle reader could enlighten me...

Thursday 2 June 2011

The Price of Everything

'Monetising the environment' - putting a money value on all those things around us that we tend to think of as thrown in free with the Life on Earth package - is all the rage just now. Presumably its proponents are working on the principle that money is the only language those who run the show understand, so they will only value the environment if they see £££ signs in front of their eyes. Living (and, come to that, working) where I do, with so many green open spaces close at hand, I reckon I must be coining it... But is this monetisation just a gimmick, a silly exercise, or something worse? What worries me is that as soon as you've put a monetary value on anything you've potentially put a tax value on it too. How long before we'll be paying extra taxes for the 'privilege' of living near a patch of green?

Wednesday 1 June 2011

Penelope Fitzgerald at the Booker Dinner

In 1979, Penelope Fitzgerald won the Booker Prize for Offshore. She wrote about it thus to Francis King:
'In the stories I used to read when I was a little girl cab-horses used to win the National and everyone seemed to cheer, but you can't expect that in real life, and I know I was an outsider - however Asa Briggs explained to me that they'd ruled out novels evidently written with one eye on the film rights as they'd been looking for le roman pur, and I (naturally) agreed with him. - When I got to the Book Programme, soaking wet because I'd had to be photographed on a bale of rope on the Embankment, R. Robinson [Robert Robinson, the urbane/irascible TV and radio presenter] was in a very bad temper and complained to his programme executive, 'who are these people, you promised me they were going to be the losers'. - I couldn't help enjoying the dinner, though the Evening Standard man told me frankly that they'd all written their pieces about Naipaul and felt they were free to get drunk, wh: he certainly was; I did notice the Spectator Man, but thought he was perhaps dead [Peter Ackroyd possibly?]. Even so I had a lot of happy moments, and the best was when the editor of the Financial Times, who was at my table, looked at the cheque and said to the Booker McC Chairman 'Hmph, I see you've changed your chief cashier.' Both their faces were alight with interest. - I'm afraid Booker McC rather wish they'd decided to patronise show-jumping, or snooker - the novelists are so difficult and odd, not appreciating their surprise announcements and little treats.'
Fitzgerald's previous novel, The Bookshop, had been shortlisted for the Booker, but her then publisher Colin Haycraft not only ducked out of attending the dinner (claiming, bizarrely, that he didn't have a dinner suit) but also foolishly 'let her go' as he reckoned he had enough slim elegant novels by slim elegant lady novelists on his hands. At the time that Offshore won, she was embroiled in attempting to write a biography of L.P. Hartley, though much hampered by Lord David Cecil and increasingly appalled by what she was discovering about LPH. In the end, she had become so fond of Hartley's sister that she felt unable to publish. For a great writer, Fitzgerald, as is clear from her letters, was a quite extraordinarily fine person - good-humoured, self-deprecating, thoroughly nice, even loveable. Of how many writers can one say that?

One Painted Lady

The first day of June - and my first Painted Lady! It was a brilliant sunny morning as I made my way to the station, and there she was - a bright sleek specimen, basking in all her tawny-black-and-white glory on a clipped suburban lawn. Will it be another Painted Lady Summer like 2009? It seems not - if it was, they'd be everywhere by now. One Painted Lady doesn't make a summer - but it does make a difference.